Reading the news at the moment is a pretty bleak experience. Fear and political instability dominate the headlines, and it’s hard not feel despondent. But Bristol is a city filled with people seeking to create positive changes that resonate both locally and globally. With this in mind, I headed down to the Malcolm X Centre last week, to meet with members of Bristol Refugee Rights, a longstanding community group dedicated to supporting asylum seekers and refugees in the city.
The project started out in a St Paul’s church hall, and has grown from a small team to its current composition of 10 paid staff and over 100 volunteers. Up to 150 refugees and asylum seekers (just under two thirds of whom come from five countries — Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran, Sudan and Syria) attend the weekly welcome centre on a Thursday, for the chance to have a hot meal, access advocacy and support around their asylum applications, and socialise with others.
This kind of community space was sorely missing when the organisation first started in 2006. The project was a response to the level of alienation and destitution experienced by asylum seekers (those in the process of waiting for the government to approve their applications), who aren’t able to access paid employment and have to survive on £36.95 a week. This, together with the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the asylum process, makes them “exceptionally excluded, I would say by design rather than by accident”, according to Tom Daly, who has worked for the project since the outset.
This experience of hardship is also relayed by Ali El Mubarak, a member of the project who is happy to share his experiences and is committed to changing the public perception of refugees. Originally from the Darfur region of Sudan, Ali was a documentary film-maker who was forced to flee his country after a documentary he produced criticized the Sudanese government’s human rights record. This brought him to the attention of the authorities in Khartoum, who seized his assets and threatened him with a 20-year jail sentence. “At that point, I couldn’t stay. I have a family, I have kids, and I can’t stay in jail for a documentary for 20 years”, he told me.
Ali first came to Bristol in 2010, and now has refugee status, but spent a difficult few years in the Greater Manchester area, where he encountered frequent racist abuse and hostility. He was homeless when he first arrived, and had no idea where to go. When he made contact with Bristol Refugee Rights, they helped him to find a home and a solicitor to assist him in bringing his family over from Sudan. As well as putting him in contact with other Sudanese people in Bristol, he says that “they helped me to find English and IT courses. Step by step, I became part of the community”.
While both Ali and Tom agree that Bristol in general is a welcoming city to refugees, Tom states that the organisation has been receiving anecdotal information that in some areas “people are reporting quite a lot of racial and religious harassment on the street, which is reported to have got worse since the Brexit vote in particular.”
Both Ali and Tom are involved in the VOICE Project, whose work has become all the more important in the current political climate, with much of the media stoking resentment against refugees. As Tom explains:
The VOICE Project does two things: we train people to be community interpreters, so that they can use their language skills as volunteers to support others, and to help other people to communicate, to understand their legal situation and to claim their rights. The second part is that we aim to create connection with the community by training people in public speaking, so that they can go out into the community and help people to get a better understanding of who asylum seekers and refugees are.
Both feel that changes are needed, particularly on a policy level and in the media. Ali is keen to change public attitudes by emphasising that refugees are human beings: “they are doctors, engineers, they just left their countries because they can’t stay there.” But he also feels that in order for negative perceptions of refugees to change, people first of all “have to change themselves”, be prepared to examine their own views, and not judge people whose experiences they don’t share.