By Sian Cox for HBTSR.
(Note: People seeking asylum are involved in a complex and sensitive legal process. For this reason, names have been altered to preserve confidentiality. In the interests of consistency, this has been applied to every young person featured in the story, irrespective of status, apart from those performing a recognised public role.)
An is from Congo. He doesn’t speak much English, and is shy, but he smiles a lot, and takes things in his stride, and he sees the funny side. He emerges from the lake at Llwyn Filly, after being tipped into the water fully clothed from the raft he just built and rowed round it with his team he just met two days ago; emerges drenched, dripping, smiling, and half shoeless, one trainer sucked off by the silt in the lake bed. Some young people form a search party, splashing back to the section of the lake – ‘the stinky part’ – that claimed it. He stands on the jetty, smiling; his face gently expressive of: ‘it’s history, guys, let it go.’ One of his new British friends concurs. ‘An, I love you’ she cries: ‘but I’m not going back in that stinky bit for your shoe!’
Llwyn Filly is the lakeside arm of the Tregoyd base of PGL, the UK-wide team-building activities provider for children and young people. Project Get Together [PGT] is a coming together throughout Wales of the City of Sanctuary network with PGL, its aim to bring young British people and young people who are refugees and asylum-seekers together, over a residential weekend of outdoor activities, to spend quality time doing, learning, leading, collaborating, laughing, connecting and being young together. Almost two years in the making, PGT is the result of an award from The Guardian to City of Sanctuary UK in 2016, an idea – to bring young people from diverse communities together for a PGL residential weekend – and the creative and dynamic collaboration of a Welsh network of refugee-supporting groups who came together and made it happen. At their first meeting, recalls PGL’s Steve, ‘we were presented with a plethora of obstacles we would have to overcome if PGT was ever to get off the ground.’ After six months of their working together, thinking outside the box together, thrashing things out together, ‘the hard work and commitment from so many people who believed in PGT, trusting in the concept that bringing people together could be a once in a lifetime experience and a force for good’ brings us here. Friday afternoon. Lift-off.
A succession of minibuses and cars empties 80 young people and 10 adults into the sweeping courtyard of Tregoyd House, a fine old country mansion nestling in extensive, tree-shaded grounds in the lee of the Black Mountains, home to PGL and, for the next three days, to young people from Britain – Cardiff, Newport, Swansea and Powys; from Africa – Somalia, Nigeria, Congo, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea; from the Middle East – Syria, Iran, Iraq, the Kurdish regions of each, Afghanistan, Kuwait; from Pakistan; from Latvia and Slovakia; from China, Vietnam and Malaysia; to the people who’ve come with them – teachers, support workers and volunteers; and to the local volunteers who’ve joined them.
They are all going to spend the weekend doing a sequence of structured outdoor team-building activities, some here, some on the lake, some on the ground, some in the air. Everyone has to have a shot at every activity. Everyone has to be safe. Everyone has to feel safe. Communication has to happen, for everyone. Cultural mores have to be respected. Everyone has to eat. Everyone has to bed down comfortably at night. Everyone has to be alive and well at the end of it. And everyone has to have a lovely time.
The lap that that mammoth organisational feat finally landed in was Steve’s. With PGL for 27 years, he is also a seasoned volunteer with HBTSR. 80 young people, 63 boys and young men, 17 girls and young women, from a total of twelve Welsh cities, towns and villages, and 17 different countries, and ranging in age from 9 years to 18 years, and speaking at least 12 languages (there are several kinds of Arabic alone), were divided into eight different activity groups, designed so that each member knew one or two other members already, but was meeting the others for the first time. The point of the thing was the forging of new friendships and peer networks; and being thrust into a team with strangers activates communication and connection that shyness might otherwise prevent. Each group was given an adult leader, to oversee the group’s cohesion, and its members’ wellbeing, all weekend. Boys and young men were dormed in rooms on one floor of this huge old house, girls and young women on another, and adults with them according to gender.
What they did on Friday: arrive; be introduced to hosts and dorm-fellows; eat together, explore the grounds together; start an impromptu football match; listen to lots of strange new adults telling them a bunch of strange new things, in English, with Arabic but no other translation; gather together in the shade of the trees on the old front lawn and be welcomed by Margaret from HBTSR and local Assembly Member Kirsty Williams; play football; wander the grounds and the dorms; get used to each other; play football; be herded indoors for lock down at 10.30; get a bit more used to each other; stay up talking and laughing as new friendships start to form; shuffle in and out of each others’ rooms; shuffle up and down stairs to different gender-segregated areas until firmly told not to; introduce each other to music played from mobiles through portable speakers; rig up the PGL sound system that they discovered in the main hall and play music, and dance, until 10pm (mostly boys); hang out chatting in the peace of the emptied table tennis room (girls); be hustled into the reception room at 10pm for a game of charades, orchestrated by leader Rebecca; connect; be young; be together.
I arrive on Friday evening. The first person I encounter is Ha, who came from Syria two years ago. He directs me, in great English, to the main field where people are resting under the shade trees, and football is being played in the pitch adjacent. (This pitch doesn’t yet know how continuously utilised it will be in the coming days.) I remember Ha; we met two years ago, when he told me, far less fluently, in the English he had just started to learn from scratch, that he hoped to resume his studies in business administration, interrupted by his flight from home. Now, Ha is the acting English-to-Arabic translator this weekend, has just completed the first year of his business administration degree and volunteers for Bloom, a Swansea church group supporting young asylum seekers.
I meet Ci, a pupil from local Gwernyfed High, who takes a break from playing football to bring me up to speed with what I’ve missed. Stuart wasted no time getting the Getting Together bit going; he organised the boys and young men who had graduated, instinctively, towards the football pitch, into World Cup teams and launched them into a football tournament. Teams, like groups, mixed friends, strangers and nationalities up. Ci and two of his friends were in team England, and already call their team-mates friends. Football as a universal language is spoken continuously all of this weekend. If you’re male, you’re probably playing it; if you’re not playing it, you’re probably watching it. La from Swansea and Ak from Latvia don’t like football, they like music; and if you don’t speak football, music, the other universal language, is spoken continuously all of this weekend, too.
What they did on Saturday: be roused from bed on schedule to start activities at 9.30; breakfast together; play their first football; activities all day – abseiling, raft-building and -rowing; zipwire; aeroball (trampoline basketball); Jacob’s Ladder (a wobbly, high, collaborative climbing challenge); Chum’s Challenge (a physical assault/obstacle course); problem solving (a physical and intellectual assault/obstacle course); desert island survival skills; archery – play football; lunch and dinner together; play football; listen to an inspirational speaker, in American English, with Arabic but no other translation; ask the motivational speaker a lot of questions; get their photo taken with him; gather round the campfire to hear a local musician sing and play; play more football; delight to discover that PGL have sanctioned the ongoing use of their sound system, all evening; party, dance and learn new dance moves on the terrace; be hustled indoors for lockdown again at 10.30; party and dance indoors til 11.30; connect; be young; be together.
I arrive on Saturday morning and find out what I missed: a sleepless night. By many accounts, the fizzing energy continued in many into the early hours and combined with excitement, heat and close proximity to the snoring of others to keep quite a few other sleepy people awake.
PGL are ruthless. Activities are unaffected by late nights, sleepiness, the universal teenage desire to sleep all morning. Al, from Syria, Im, from Iran, and Ma, from Eritrea, are waiting for their turn at the zipwire. We chat about where they’re from, what they like. I pause to point out a kite wheeling overhead and we watch it, joined in appreciation of its majesty. Im tells me how to say ‘kite’ in Farsi; Ma how to say it in Eritrean. We return our gaze to the zipwire. They enjoyed their first go, they tell me, but they hope to go faster next time. They aim to go fast enough to touch the opposite tree. We wonder about the best way to achieve this. A good push? Al laughs and mimes a good hefty boot. One of his group-mates has halted, afraid of the height, at the top foothold in the tree, below the platform. The boys watch sympathetically. ‘You need to do it, so you can stop being scared’, says Im quietly.
‘You should do it’, says Al to me: ‘so you can write your story.’ He’s right. The scariest bit is
where the girl faltered, at the top of the footholds. The trick is not to look down until you’re zipping. Exhilaration takes over; you want it to be faster, and longer, and once you’re down, you want to get straight back up. But there are nine other people in your team, and a long wait between goes for you. Young people spend the waiting time doing what they’re here for – getting to know each other, making connections, and showing remarkable reserves of patience.
Most of them show patience, anyway. The first time I see Am, from Ethiopia, he is sauntering towards the zipwire, bedecked in full PGL harness. It all looks legit, until you notice the PGL staffer leading the activity Am is supposed to be at right now, which isn’t zipwire, pursuing him. You see that she’s laughing. ‘Take the harness OFF, Am; you’re not going on til tomorrow!’ I learn later that he doesn’t give up. At the end of the morning’s last zipwire session, the PGL staffer on the zipwire platform, high in the tree, watches his zipwire colleague on the ground lower the last young person in the current group from wire to firm ground; and turns to begin his own descent. He is met face to grin by Am, standing quietly behind him, in full harness, attached to no safety rope, patient, waiting, having silently scaled the tree on his own, behind the staffer’s back. The staffer quickly calculates that the safest option is to hook Am up promptly to the safety ropes and send him down the quick way, by zip.
The last part of the human brain to develop is the pre-frontal cortex, the region of the brain that calculates risk, assesses danger, considers consequences. It matures between age 18 and age 21. Enjoyment of risk and heedlessness of danger have to do with other things too, like genes, but in teenagers are often simply occasioned by the age of the brain. Its evolutionary purpose was to enable the members of the tribe in peak physical fitness, agility and vitality – young men and women – to face and conquer danger and outsmart predators. In most western teenagers, who don’t need it, it results in daredevil mischief-making that stands their parents’ hair on end. Many of the young refugee people zipping down wires and climbing rope ladders this weekend have faced and conquered dangers and outsmarted predators that for most of us exist only on the big screen. Some of them have been smuggled through remote mountainous regions, trekking by night, hiding by day, led by smugglers mindful only of the need to avoid capture, and not mindful of the basic human needs of young people, children, forced to leave their families behind, sent ahead by parents desolate at the loss of them, torn apart by the impossible choice of keeping their children close, in danger, or sending them on a perilous journey to far-away, hoped-for safety that might kill them before they reach it; journeying hidden, in the backs of unventilated freight trucks, across baking landscapes, for weeks; or jammed with hundreds of others into dilapidated, unseaworthy boats, at risk of drowning every instant of the long, wet, cold weeks it takes to cross the Mediterranean from Africa to the southernmost shores of Europe. Some of them have shivered for months in flimsy donated tents in the freezing mud puddles of Calais; have launched themselves onto speeding trucks, fallen off, launched themselves again, fallen off again, night after night, until managing to cling on brings them to England the only way possible from Europe if you’re an asylum seeker without the means to pay a smuggler to secure you false documents good enough to pass immigration control at a different border. I once overheard a conversation on a train between two Glaswegian women discussing, with a German student, the issue of immigration and asylum. They seemed like nice women, but they were ill-informed. ‘If they were genuine asylum seekers’ one said; ‘they’d come here legally. It’s the illegal ones we need to send back, because they’re not genuine.’ I approached and told them what they didn’t know: there exist no legal means of coming to Europe to claim asylum; there is no such thing as a visa for asylum; student and work visas are rarely granted to applicants from refugee-producing nations; there is no facility in any consulate for claiming asylum. The only way to claim asylum in the UK is to get to the UK, somehow, and claim it when you get here. The only way to get to the UK to do that is illegally – by false documents, by smuggling, by the desperate determination that will induce you to hurl yourself at a speeding truck and cling to its underside for three cold, filthy hours (as one young person here today did); or to clamber aboard a rammed, dilapidated, unseaworthy boat and hope that it lands, long weeks from now, on a European shore, with you, still alive, in it. A risk-blind teenage brain will get you far, but there is risk, and then there is real, terrifying danger. Courage, ingenuity and grit beyond my capacity to express have got these young people here today; to lie in the sun, watching their new friend Am use just a pinch of the qualities that got him here, too, to achieve his illegal victory zip. I hope, zipping to ground victorious, on a wave of goodwill from his watching, laughing audience of peers, Am felt the tingle thrill of mundane, run-of-the-mill, everyday teenage mischief.
I won’t be having a go at aeroball. Not in this heat, not ever. It is a series of challenges involving getting a basketball into a net while jumping on, and preventing your opponent’s ball from landing in your part of, a trampoline. Four competitors play at one time, and I sit in the shade with the rest of the group. Bi and Sa are the daughters of Iraqi Kurds, who lived in Cyprus before coming to the UK last September. Sa, age 14, tells me, in fast-spoken, excellent English, that she wants to be a dentist or an optician. Our conversation punctuated by the grunts, screams and cries of ‘Oh My Goodness!’ coming from the trampoline, we discuss the relative merits of career options and of the Cypriot and British educational approaches to language teaching (I know nothing: she is telling me). Her family fled to Cyprus when she and her sister were little (‘so we learned Greek’) and then came to Britain (‘so we learn English’). She’s pushing her teachers to let her focus more on English, and wants the same for Bi. I observe how good Bi’s English seems to me. ‘Her written English isn’t good enough’ says big sister, decisively. These young people are consistently keen to learn. Ha, the weekend’s translator, obtained the language level credits required to start university study in a fifth of the time some applicants take. Al, from Syria, missed five years of school before reaching Wales at 14, with no English; last year, he attained 9 GCSEs. Ib, from Sudan, arrived 6 months ago, with his little sisters, too old himself for school, at 18. He describes his sisters’ leaping progress proudly – ‘they have lovely English’- and with poignant longing; his evening English classes at the Red Cross don’t have the power of routine practice bestowed by daily school. Yu, from Kuwait, is an example of the power. 14 now, he arrived two years ago, and is fluent enough to talk politics and history with me in some depth. And to teach me Arabic pronunciation. ‘The “ch” sound is like Welsh’, he says, ‘but you keep your throat open.’ He demonstrates: ‘Ahmed’; and I practice, copying him. ‘That’s right’ he approves; ‘throat open, like a sigh.’
The aeroball group is divided into four teams. Sa named her team ‘Keep it Halal’ (they won). I catch up with Sa and Bi for lunch next day and they tell me this means ‘do the right thing’, ‘keep yourself straight’, and give me examples of how they live their own lives by it. One example is being careful of the kind of contact they have with boys. They talk to boys their own age, as friends; they maintain self-contained reserve; they don’t seek one to one contact; they don’t make contact with older boys. I pause: they are spending this weekend in close proximity with 63 boys. The floor above their bedroom is rammed with boys. Is it difficult? She hesitates, glances away, indecision playing in her fine features. She doesn’t want to seem to complain. ‘A little bit’ she says, smiling. A relief, then, that she and her friends have no shortage of private corners to hang out in, away from the noise and testosterone fizz of the boys. The tree-filled grounds are broad and wide, pockets of shade revealing clumps of chattering girls at every turn. The impromptu party and dancing last night drew the boys and young men like honey; leaving the table tennis room quiet and peaceful for the girls to hang out in. ‘The charades were fun, too’, laughs Bi.
I watch another group do Survivor, the survival skills course. Ha, Ma and Er are Syrian Kurds who already knew each other before today (‘our Dads are mates’). They chatter and giggle away to each other in their own language after I approach them, and dissolve into tummy-clutching hysterics after something particularly choice Ma has said. They might be cracking jokes about me, for all I know; but I work with young people in my day job and am as a rock. Ma relents and starts chatting to me, and we have a long conversation about the general infamy of energy drinks. I heard from one leader that lots of young people stayed downstairs into the early hours this morning because going upstairs meant getting your head down and these heads were still up. Some of them were attached to bodies doing press-ups in the corridors at midnight. I wonder if energy drinks played any part in that? Ma says no. ‘Just excited’, he says.
The last challenge of this course is lighting a fire with flint, made from bamboo and (I think) nails, and making charcoal from burning cotton wool. The all-boy group sets to and pretty soon finds the game too tame for its teenage brains. Straw and twigs are raked in, and fires get bigger. The PGL staffer demonstrates the same flexibility that saw the PGL team run with the young people’s making use of the PGL sound system for their impromptu dance last night; he observes, gives safety directions quietly, softly, tells them how to encourage the fire then, when it’s time to move on, shows them how (and tells them why) to put a fire out properly.
This willingness to adapt and accommodate is displayed routinely by the 20-strong PGL staff team all weekend. Many of these young people have travelled across the world alone; many now live independently, in hostels and shared flats. Now here they are taking part in a weekend of structured, controlled activities, with safety gear, rules, precautions, oversight and herding. The tension between the need to keep their charges safe and the recognition of young people’s need for freedom and space gives leaders and PGL staffers a balancing act to manage. I’m talking to Eb and Ad from Sudan, on the terrace, after lunch. I met Eb earlier in the day, and he introduces me to Ad, telling him about me in Arabic. ‘Oh!’ says Ad; ‘you work with young people who have problems’. I’m touched that what I do in my day job has been remembered and I’m telling Ad that I’m here to write the story of the weekend, when Mark, their group leader, approaches, relieved to have found the boys I’m holding up from the activity their group has started without them, and beckons them away. The two pulls on their courtesy – wanting to respond to Mark without being rude to me – play out on the young men’s faces. I take full responsibility – ‘I’m sorry, my fault, go! go!’ – and away they trot with Mark, notes of explanation – ‘we were talking …’ – trailing them.
The balancing act first surfaced in planning when the question of internet access and mobile phone use arose. PGL tradition is to prohibit mobile use, partly in the interests of maximising the rewards of fresh air, exercise and interpersonal connection, and partly because of the limits of Tregoyd House’s WiFi capacity. But everyone recognised this particular group of young people’s particular needs. For many people seeking sanctuary, the internet is their umbilical cord to the life-blood of family; for many of these young people, Facetime and social media their only live contact with parents and siblings. ‘The regular young person attachment to their mobile is even stronger in these communities’, said Nation of Sanctuary’s Rebecca to me this morning, watching a young man stroll across the green, eyes to screen: ‘Mobiles are lifelines; videos and photos of their families are their only contact.’ Ultimately, the reality of the house WiFi’s limited capacity swung the decision against WiFi access, and for mobile phone use. It doesn’t go down well. (Imagine your own teenagers’ reaction!) Young people tell me, all weekend, that the lack of WiFi is the only bum note. I talk about it with Sa, from Pakistan, and Sa and Bi, the sisters from Iraq and Cyprus. ‘It’s like a drug’ I say. ‘More than a drug’ says Sa. ‘When you lose WiFi it’s like you lose your life’, says Bi. The mobile-phone-as-third-limb is in evidence here everywhere. Any casual glance, from any position, at any time of any day, can alight on a young person, somewhere, looking at a screen or holding a handset to their ear. Er, from Syria, took a break from survival skills fire-lighting to answer a call from his phone. Su, from Nigeria, will watch a soap on his mobile as we wait tonight for the inspirational talk to begin. Music floats from pockets, wires trail from ears. And all that stands between them and the internet, here, is the concealed WiFi password. How long, I wonder, would a determined young person take to crack that…?
Health and safety and WiFi constraints aside, leaders and PGL staffers evidence deep respect for the rights and autonomy of their young charges, and give and take is the order of the day. Nobody tries to stop young people wandering aside to take calls and check notifications. ‘You’ve got 11-20 year olds; you can’t contain them in little groups and tell them they can’t walk off on their own’ one PGL staffer tells me. ‘And they’re so cool; they’re polite and sound and they look after each other, and you.’ As the weekend plays out, more and more young people opt for lolling together in the shade; the random football game is ubiquitous; boys and young men watch World Cup games on the PGL big screen. The need for music and for moving bodies to it is accommodated night and day. If you don’t like football, there’s walking, and the fields, hedgerows, footpaths, leafy lanes, rolling countryside views and the mountain skyline backdrop of Tregoyd made for lovely walking expeditions spontaneously taken in the cool of both evenings.
I approach Pe, Mo and Ar, Iraqi Kurds from Cardiff, perched side by side on the back of a bench, singing three-part harmony, resplendent in white ‘I love PGL’ t-shirts. Justin, the local musician who is there to play at the campfire tonight, brings his guitar over and tries to find the right key. After a few false starts, Pe says: ‘just play, and we’ll join you’. Justin does, and they do. A little later, at the campfire, Justin offers his guitar to anyone who wants to play. La, from Swansea and his friend Ak, from Latvia, play some things they know and are helped by Justin to play some things they don’t. Justin has a gig in Presteigne tonight which I know his accommodation of the boys’ enthusiasm is going to make him late for.
‘Do you want a boombox tonight, Ha?’ Steve asks Ha, our translator. Excellent English notwithstanding, Ha’s face is expressive. ‘Big speaker’ clarifies Steve. The face lights up, expressive of great joy, and the body beneath it begins to dance in anticipation. PGL staffer Ed sets the speaker up outside, on the terrace steps which have become the preferred hang-out for many of the young people, and the air rings with the music of many cultures. The openness, flexibility and trust evidenced in the way Justin and so many of the PGL staffers respond to young people this weekend is a crucial ingredient in the mix.
Scary Guy is an inspirational speaker tattooed from mohican hairline to booted toes who changed his name by deed poll after an epiphanous realisation, at age 43, that he had spent his life so far ‘calling myself a good guy, running at the mouth, name-calling, picking on people, putting people down.’ Since then, his life’s work has been to spread a message of acceptance and peaceful, non-judgemental non-negativity. ‘You, here, coming from another land and now living in England …’ (‘WALES!!’ shouts Ma, from Syria) ‘…you will be called names. And the minute you react to someone who calls you a name with something else negative, you become just like them.’ Scary speaks in a slow, measured drawl, but each sentence is long, clause-filled, and he doesn’t pull his idioms. Ha sits at his side, his face a moving picture of what his brain is going through, translating silently, and trying to make it all lodge in his memory until the mic comes his way and lets him speak. ‘Who here has had another person say negative things about them?’ asks Scary. A hundred hands rise. ‘Can you imagine, looking like me, walking down any path in the world – how much hate I get? I know that any negative thing I hear from another human being is about them.’ Eighty young people gaze, rapt. They whisper to each other occasionally, checking their understanding: Ha is translating valiantly but in one language, not ten, and many must make do with English. Hi from Sudan, next to me, whispers: ‘he is from America, yes?’ The questions they call out to him at the end show they’ve listened: ‘have you ever been made fun of because of your tattoos?’; ‘when someone says something negative and you want to respond, what do you do?’; ‘can you dab on the haters?’ Scary, me and other ancients like us don’t know what dabbing is. Young people jump up to demonstrate and explain: it’s a hand gesture that says ‘back at you; whatever; I’m cool!’ The last question is Sa’s: ‘can we have a photo, with you?’.
What they did on Sunday: be roused from bed promptly for activities, irrespective of how much sleep they managed; breakfast together; get a quick bit of football in; same activities, whichever four they didn’t do yesterday; play more random football; lunch together; collect together beneath the shade trees again for a goodbye address from the Archbishop of Wales, in English (Arabic translation offered but declined, mainly because the translator looked like he needed a nice rest); troop en masse to the terrace for a group photo; scramble to collect their packed things, catch up with all their new friends as they do the same, to say last goodbyes; swing by the main foyer to collect their packed tea for the journey home; find their teacher, support worker or parent in order to haul their thoroughly worked-out bodies into or onto the appropriate homebound vehicle; and head home.
For many, not their actual home, of course; but their home-for-now. For some, maybe not their home for long; who knows what awaits them at the end of their asylum applications? But home-for-now.
The day opened, I’m told, with more than one young voice calling: ‘No more activities!’ Today, hot and baking, laissez-faire allows more and more young people to flake out in the shade while their more heat-proof groupmates, and the all-weather-proof PGL staffers, crack on. I am alerted to yet another of my unconsciously-held stereotype beliefs by the number of young people from hotter countries than Wales has ever yet been who wilt in this summer’s heat. Sa tells me that it is hotter in her native country, Pakistan, but the heat there is different from the heat here; that it affects her adversely, where the heat at home doesn’t. I met Sa two years ago, not long after her arrival in Wales. Yesterday, she was supporting the women’s group she coordinates back in Swansea by telephone, as well as leading her allocated group here. She is held in high esteem by young people newly finding their feet in Swansea. Ak, a Kurdish 18 year old from Iraq, doesn’t yet have much English; but enough to tell me: ‘S is my best friend. She has helped me so much.’ Our Swansea volunteers Ha and Sa are examples of what can happen when vulnerable people are reached out to with respect, welcome and mutual regard; of what talent and flair can flower when committed people join forces to level the playing field.
At the lake at Llwyn Filly (PGL staffers call it ‘The Puddle’), two teams prepare to build two water-worthy rafts from barrels and poles. The building-ground is unshaded, but helmeted and lifebelt-clad young people labour together in the sun, laughing and chattering. Others relax in the shade. I join three young Africans – Sudanese Ne, Ethiopian Me, Eritrean Ak – to ponder such diverse subjects as how locals like me cope, living in a place like this, with ‘no shops!’; the relative merits of Newport compared to London; and what happens during brain surgery (don’t ask!). The rafts go into the water and I share in the collective delight as they float. The teams’ task is to race each other around the lake’s little island. Young people wobble and teeter aboard, screaming and howling, and the rafts pull away from shore, their human loads looking precarious, some faces looking unsure, oars manipulated inexpertly. The picture is faintly evocative of other pictures featuring unsure-looking people perching precariously in doubtful-looking vessels. I think about the number of young Africans here this weekend and wonder whether the last time one or more of them was on water it was as a smuggler’s dinghy brought them miraculously ashore. Steve tells me later that this, and the fear of triggering painful memory, or even causing more trauma, was one of the plethora of potential obstacles explored and worked out by the planning group in the six months that have brought us here. It’s a slow race, with much falling in, and much being hauled aboard by your lifejacket straps, including of Bi. My heart is in my mouth as I see her fall in and I scan her face and S’s, looking for signs of fear; but these girls are brave and strong and this is just another thing to excel at. ‘It’s fine!’ they assure me. ‘It was fun!’ So is the hunt-for-An’s-shoe game. Stinky notwithstanding, several young people are still splashing and diving, looking for it. ‘Is this it?’ calls So, from Malaysia, holding aloft a revolting plastic thing trailing primordial black slime. Half-shoeless An shakes his head, smiling. ‘Is this it?’ calls another young person, holding aloft something equally unappetising. Another smile, no. The search is abandoned. ‘That was the best activity we’ve ever done!’ cries El, from Eritrea, to Malaysian So, as they slop past me, dripping, gasping, exhilarated.
The first challenge in the problem-solving field is how to get the entire team from one side of an upright, 2 metre square, pole-framed asymetric rope web, without touching the rope, and without going round the frame. The only way is through, and the rule is that each web hole can only be gone through once. There are only a few big holes. Some of them are very small. The strategy is for three bigger, stronger people to crawl through the larger, low-lying holes, then receive the smaller, skinnier people being posted through the smaller holes by two medium-sized, stronger people left on the other side, who then shuffle through, snake-like, on the ground. If anyone touches a rope en route, everyone goes back to the beginning. Je, from Congo, doesn’t speak much English; but when a team-mate instructs him, before they post him, tall and rail-thin, through a high hole; ‘Like Superman, Je!’, he knows ‘Superman’ and obliges – head down, arms reaching, body elongated; a human missile, led by a huge grin. In this group I meet Michael, age 15, from Llanishen High, which is one of Wales’ Schools of Sanctuary. Michael and his fellow pupils Caitlyn and Lucy, who are both here this weekend too, are Llanishen’s School of Sanctuary Ambassadors, visiting primary schools to raise pupil awareness about refugee issues.
One of the issues they have been brought closer to this weekend is that of bereavement and loss. Many of these young people had lost much – family, friends, homes, the familiar streets of home, homeland – before they reached this country. Others have lost more, since. Young people, workers and volunteers from Newport Sanctuary are grieving the death of their friend, Mustafa, who died, aged 23, on 30th June. The circumstances of his untimely death are as yet unclear, but it is believed that he fell from a high roof during an Immigration Department investigation of the carwash where he was working. Mark from Newport Sanctuary called him ‘Mustafa White Trousers’, referencing the first and last time Mustafa chose to wear white trousers for gardening. As a young person who has stopped to check something with her as she stands talking to me walks away from us, Sarah tells me, sadly: ‘he was close to Mustafa’. Claire has to pause to master her tears as she tells me that Mustafa used to call Newport Sanctuary his second family and his second home. Others who knew him miss him too. Ailsa from HBTSR describes a ‘smiley, articulate man whom the other young people looked up to’. He was scheduled to be a group leader here this weekend. At 7 on Friday evening, about the time he would have been getting into his stride leading and inspiring, the entire gathering joined the friends who felt his absence keenly in honouring him with a minute’s silence.
Another theme that Michael, Lucy and Caitlyn might touch on is the importance of connection. The weekend here has been abundant in examples of it in operation. They might have met Pa, now living in a small Welsh town where one person besides him speaks his language, Kurdish, who has exulted in three days of talking and sharing with Kurds his own age who are finding their way, like he is, in new homes. They might have met Ma and Sh, the two girls from Llanishen who came for the day on Saturday, and ended it in a huddle with Sa, Bi and Sa, from Swansea, absorbed in animated discussion, laughing, relaxed, like teenage girls everywhere.
They might have noticed Baby M, foster child of Mark and Claire from Newport Sanctuary, who every time I look at him is happy, gurgling and smiling beatifically, perching, like a little Buddha, on the hip or in the lap of some young man or woman or other, from some far-flung country or other, held, paid attention to, highly socialised from his daily life in Newport Sanctuary, and very, very content: a picture of what results from consistent, loving human connection. They might have heard the story of how Newport Sanctuary started, when two Eritrean women met Claire at Bethel Church, started going for coffee with her, brought more women from asylum-seeking communities, and grew organically into a group which launched formally as Newport Sanctuary three years later, and now employs two full-time workers one of them, Sarah Croft, working with, at the last count, forty refugee teenagers, at least twenty of them unaccompanied minors. Newport Sanctuary, which Mustafa called his second family and his second home. All from three people having a coffee together one day in mutual acceptance, equality and respect.
They might tell stories of how diverse cultures and languages came together and strove to communicate; like the teacher whose favourite moments were ‘watching an activity group choose which language to use to solve a problem’; like the exchange I watched between Ha, Al and Ar from Syria, when Ak from Eritrea joined them: the animated high-speed Arabic stops and halting English starts, slower, then slower still, peppered with ‘Eh?s’ and repetitions, and driven by determination and goodwill. ‘You speak Arabic?’ asks Ha. ‘A little’, says Ak. They carry on, in fits and starts much as before, gleaning meaning and connection, laughing, and moving their bodies unconsciously to the music coming from the portable speaker in Ak’s pocket. Halting English, halting Arabic, fluent Music, fluent Dance.
Activity is really good for us. It involves cardio-vascular exercise, good for our hearts and fitness, good for our physical and mental health. It releases endorphins, brain neurotransmitters associated with feelings of wellbeing. It causes deep breathing and oxygenation of our blood, which is associated with feelings of calm. It provides distraction from the worries and fears and difficult memories swirling around in our thoughts. But activities like these are temporary, just for the duration of this weekend, mostly too expensive to be undertaken independently, certainly not possible to include in your daily routine. Not useful as ongoing distraction from the slow grind of the asylum procedure, or as succour to help you bear the torture of separation from your loved ones, or the ongoing assault of fear, for the people and homeland you left behind, and loss, for the people no longer alive and the beautiful places, resonant with memory and history, bombed out of existence. But they do give you a remedy that is useful for all of those things: human connection. For the young people who graced these grounds and this old house with their laughter, enthusiasm, willingness, openness and energy this weekend, it was about the in-the-moment joy of jumping off trees and tipping off rafts; and the lasting source of strength born when new friendships are forged. This weekend was a stone thrown with precision into a still pond, and the ripples that will spread long after it is over.
We don’t yet know where those ripples will go, and for how long. But we know they’ve started. Am celebrated his 18th birthday on Tuesday, with his Newport Sanctuary friends, and with new friends from Swansea and Cardiff who joined them there. One of the boys from Swansea has been talking about his new friends from Powys and how he plans to stay in touch. These internet-savvy young people don’t have any problem sustaining friendships; developing and maintaining social networks remotely, at a distance, is second nature to them. The ripples don’t stop with our young people, either. Llanishen Cub Scout Group was the other party hosted by PGL at Tregoyd this weekend. Every passing contact between its Cubs and the Project Get Together young people was one of warmth, openness, good humour and, on one occasion, helpfulness. ‘It’s been good for our Cubs to see refugees up close, being themselves, instead of just pictures on the news’ one of the Scout leaders told me: ‘to see that they’re real people.’
The comments from young people, asked what they liked best about this weekend, are rich with the joy of connection: ‘Meeting new people’; ‘Meet new faces’; ‘Evening time together, making friends’; ‘Thank you for the beautiful moments spent here’; ‘Amazing memories, great times, with incredible people, changing the world!’
‘They should definitely do this again’ said Michael to me. You don’t get ripples without chucking the stone in. They should definitely do it again.
City of Sanctuary for the grant that made this weekend possible and to Ailsa, Lawrence, Steve and Margaret of HBTSR whose tireless work made it a success.
All PGL staffers for being so accommodating, down-to-earth, warm and fun, and especially to Steve Buzza for his amazing organisation, planning and oversight
Llanishen High School, Cardiff; especially Sian Owen
Newport Sanctuary, especially Mark and Claire Seymour, and Sarah Croft
Swansea City of Sanctuary, especially Kathryn Williams (who didn’t come but worked tirelessly to recruit young people to the event)
Rebecca Scott, Wales Coordinator of Nation of Sanctuary, here this weekend as a volunteer
Wayne Yare, Swansea Asylum Seekers Support, here this weekend as a volunteer.
Bloom Swansea https://lindenchurch.com/bloom/ especially Rachel, who didn’t come but sent us the group she apparently calls the teenangels
Hassan Ryhawi, tireless volunteer translator
Tros Gynnal Plant, especially Lee Evans and Shona Ure
Stuart Campbell for his help.
Eryl Jones, Director of Communications and Community Engagement for the Diocese of Swansea and Brecon, for the photos and press release.
All teachers, support workers and volunteers who were group leaders
Christoper, Rachel, Gareth, Jack, Teresa, Thom and Nevanka from Llanishen for their mentoring of and moral support for the activity groups
Margaret Blake for her welcome address
Kirsty Williams, A.M. for Brecon and Radnorshire and Cabinet Secretary for Education, Welsh Government
Scary Guy, Motivational speaker for his talk
Archbishop John Davies for spending time meeting participants and for his good wishes and prayers.
Rebecca Scott for her closing address