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On the kindness of people, and the violence of the state

If I had known how hard a 10 week trial on terror-related charges for a peaceful protest would be, I don’t know how I could have faced it. It was the support people offered from the most surprising places that got us through it.

I’m one of the Stansted 15 convicted, controversially, for a terror-related offence following a peaceful blockade of a Home Office deportation charter flight, for which we narrowly escaped prison sentences last Wednesday. We thought it might be an endurance test in the courtroom which would last as long as four weeks – but it turned out to be a gruelling 10-week ordeal that showed me just how scary it is to face the threat of state intervention into your life. But throughout that whole time, it was the kindness of the court staff and the community of Chelmsford that transformed a traumatic experience into one which strengthened the movement for migrant rights.

On the day I testified before the jury, we had sat silently through five weeks of prosecution evidence which felt to us like it completely misrepresented what had taken place on the night. I was in tears when I finally stepped down from the stand after being cross-examined for three intense hours of non-stop interrogation. For the 18 months since our charge had changed from one which carries a three-month jail term to one which carries life in prison, we had all had to carry the weight of considering what we stood to lose – homes, jobs, relationships – and begun to fear how our co-defendant’s baby, due just weeks after verdict, might start his young life, possibly without his mother.

This high pressure, high stakes scenario would have been enough to topple the most resilient among us. But we had something on our side that the Crown Prosecution Service didn’t expect. We were surrounded by the kindness of people who were once strangers, and are now our friends.

The community of Chelmsford churches from Anglican to Quakers, and a few socialists mixed in, stepped forward with open arms – sometimes with nervous caution that soon melted as we got to know how alike we all were. The Bishop of Chelmsford petitioned the Crown Court on our behalf, and the Cathedral hosted us and our legal counsel frequently as a retreat from the loud, airless, verbose environment of the courtroom.

The night before I gave my closing speech I had messages of prayers from Muslim friends in London, the Anglican and Quaker network in Chelmsford and even from one of the people who, because of our peaceful blockade, was able to be with his partner for the birth of their daughter and conclude his successful application for leave to remain. A multitude of people said they were with us in spirit, and we knew they meant it.

But possibly the most heartening kindness was our daily reception in the courthouse by the court staff. Between them, the head of security, who here I’ll call Terry, and the chief court clerk, who here I’ll call Stella, were able to enact the simple idea of humanity that says everyone deserves to be treated like a whole person in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. Terry always met us at the security check with a smile and a joke. Stella watched over us in the dock with the utmost care and attention. We knew this was their way: they would have offered this to anyone, we weren’t special. People do their jobs in different ways, but the compassion and humour Stella and Terry showed us were enough to prick a decent hole in the veneer of state power embodied by the courtroom and the threat of incarceration it houses.

Ultimately that’s what we’d been trying to do with our peaceful protest back in March 2017, when we stopped a deportation charter flight taking 60 people to a place where they feared their lives would be in danger. To offer a small kindness to people who may have felt they had reached their darkest hour, having been ripped from their families and communities – many people who are taken into detention or deported have lived in the UK for well over a few years – and taken to an airport in the middle of the night to be forced onto a plane for which they were given a deportation order as little as five days previous. From the flight we stopped, 11 people are still here because it’s clear they were to be wrongfully deported that night, two have the right to remain now, and two women have now been recognised by the Home Office victims of trafficking. This is the obvious risk of the Home Office’s mass deportation charter flights; that the government bundles people off without looking properly at their cases. At the most recent deportation charter flight, the first to Jamaica since the Windrush scandal, also last Wednesday, 15 of the 50 people due to be deported were given a last minute reprieve, suggesting just how many more might have been able to secure an injunction given only a few more days.

Our action was one small kindness among many that people across the UK, nationals and non-nationals alike, are organising to welcome and support people seeking refuge and people currently being denied basic rights by the government. Hundreds of migrant support groups across the country are assisting migrants and asylum-seekers to find their way in a strange country, having escaped a worse fate elsewhere. Hundreds of people visit the 3000 people currently held indefinitely in immigration detention centres in a loophole of habeas corpus that those suffering inside describe as ‘worse than prison’, while thousands more campaign to close them, to let people continue to live with their families and in their communities while their applications are heard by the asylum and immigration courts. A national network of groups campaign for the rights of migrants and asylum seekers to basic survival needs like medical attention, a bank account and the chance to work.

All of these efforts are a testament to the power of human kindness against the shocking daily violence of the state. If the government continue to insist on scapegoating immigrants as an excuse for the failures of austerity and Brexit, it is this very real connection between the rest of us that can stand to sustain a country that is not built on fear and hatred, but instead on kindness and the knowledge that someone who was once a stranger may soon become a dear friend.

Follow Mel Evans on Twitter, and learn more about what she’s fighting for on the End Deportations website.

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culture

Neville Southall tackles… Britain’s immigration system

Imagine looking out of your window and seeing bombs falling all around you. You have a wife and three children, and the war has been raging for months. There is hardly any food or water, and if you stay it is only a matter of time before one of you might be killed. What should you do: stay and risk death or move on away from the war torn areas? I think most people, including you or I, would opt to move on. But where do you move to? The next town? The next city? The next country?

War, famine, disaster, prejudice has devastated your home country – your house will be ransacked and occupied by others, you will be attacked, hungry or lose everything. The only sure move is to the next country, but it too is struggling, so you decide that you need to get to Great Britain where you feel all your family could have a good future and be safe.

The problem with this option is that you need to cross four or five countries to get to the port of Calais, so the long and dangerous journey begins. Each country you enter does not want you there and move you on quickly. If you are wealthy you buy your passage with money, if you are not the journey is a massive struggle. There are plenty of people waiting to take anything they can from you, to exploit you and your situation.

How is it possible to protect your loved ones who travel with you? Do you stick together, join up with others for protection in numbers, or inform the authorities and ask for help? Some of these may work for you.

As desperation sinks in you might will pay your last penny to move on quickly and keep your family safe, exorbitant fees are demanded. Even then you still end up in France, living in a hostile environment, in a country that does not want you there either. Applying for legal entry into Britain can take months, even years, and all this time living conditions are horrendous, criminal gangs infiltrate and prey on all the camps. Even then, you might get rejected.

Some members of your family may well have been children when you started this journey, but as time creeps on they have turned eighteen and are now classed as adults in their own right. This means they have to apply separately to enter Britain. For some this means leaving children behind and splitting the family up, half of you make it to Britain and some are left in the camps.

Time passes and frustrations grow, the son you have left behind decides to take matters into his own hands and tries to smuggle himself into the country “illegally” on any type of transport he can find, they he’ll try night after night after night and some will eventually succeed. Others will be hurt or worse, and never make it.

The family is back together again now, buw with a son who is deemed an “illegal immigrant”. That same day a French IT consultant has landed their dream job in London, and so moves nine family members over with with no problems at all. The family fleeing their war torn country are stuck, regardless of their skills, experiences or history. Is this the type of immigration system we want??

What would I do if I was a dad in a war torn country: stay and risk the lives of my family or move on? The answer is I would move on, I would do anything to keep my family safe. You would do the same.

So, should we stop the current immigration system now entirely? For me the answer is ‘YES’ – which might surprise you – and this is why.

I would like there to be an amnesty for anyone who is currently thought of to be in this country “illegally”, aside from people who have committed horrible crimes and are hiding or haven’t been brought to justice. I would give everyone twelve months to come forward and start the legal process of becoming a British citizen. Everyone who came forward would be supported in making it happen. Then these people could become members of communities, contribute to society, and build their lives.

In conjunction with this, instead of spending £12 million on a fence to contain immigrants in Calais, that money should be used to provide support for people still stuck on the border: food, water and schooling is vitally needed for those still living (more like surviving) in Calais. This would help those people already there, but also any new arrivals.

There would be an amnesty, nobody would be called “illegal”, and then we could finally start again. We could have a fairer system, one that ensures people are treated fairly. Let’s start with a clean sheet back at the beginning. We need to get the public to realise the benefits of immigration. Our NHS would survive without it, for instance. Immigration can bring new ideas, new skills, new cultures, new understanding and renewed tolerance.

Why are politicians scared to talk about immigration? Are they scared of losing votes rather than doing what is right for the country as a whole? Would our Premier League be the same without  foreign players? I doubt it. There needs to be a grown up debate between politicians and the public about immigration. One that is honest and open, where we think of people as people and not as statistics or problems.

Neville.

This is an original poem.

Immigrant, by Anne Marie Silbiger

My breath seems foreign.
Swallowed by the thick air of this urban sprawl.
My desire to survive feels plunderous.
Suspicion at every bend.
Words struggle from my lips.
My mother tongue fights to betray me.
The longing for acceptance fires me forward.
To thrive is a battle I’ll win.

Follow Neville Southall on Twitter

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Intimate Portraits Show Tender Moments in the Lives of Refugees

It is 1,942 miles from Mali to the Marcellina neighborhood of Rome. Those miles traverse two entire countries and the Mediterranean Sea. For many, they are the quantifiable distinction between danger and safety, between ethnic or religious persecution and poverty, and between the home they left behind and SPRAR, a refugee rehabilitation center in Marcellina that houses asylum seekers and aids them with integration into modern Roman society.

Photographer Serena Vittorini met two Malian men, Sidibbe, 28, and Sarabba, 20, at the center. They escaped their country separately but developed a close friendship there. Her series Foo dëkk documents their lives in Marcellina, portraying their inherent struggles yet gravitating towards the joys of acclimation to a different and better life. “My intent was to create a report that would be less descriptive and more symbolic of the human condition of the boys,” she tells Creators. “[To] bring out their aspirations and not their social status, emphasize that their needs are often similar to ours.”

“Sarabba and Sidibbe talking to each other outside the center” 

Foo dëkk means “where do you live” in Wolof, the language spoken by Sidibbe and Sarabba. Vittorini chose this title as a means of highlighting a sense of belonging “not tied to geographic boundaries,” she says, “but to the human relationship with the global environment.” She also sought to emphasize that the boys live in a place that is not their home, but that within the global context of belonging you can, and sometimes must, make a life anywhere, and that acceptance should be universal.

Temporary homes for asylum seekers, such as SPRAR, are common in the US as well. Their goal of integration into the workforce and local economy is similarly challenging, but often surmountable thanks to the centers’ connections in government and the community. Acceptance into a societal fabric, however, takes time and many refugees spend their first few years in isolation. At SPRAR, Sidibbe and Sarabba take language and vocational classes that train them in both agriculture and body guard certification, skills that aid them in self-sufficiency. The men of the center are often featured in a local online news outlet, PiuCulture, that tells the stories of Rome’s immigrants—according to Vittorini, 10% of its population—in the hopes of decreasing alienation and encouraging empathy within the community. This is how Vittorini first learned of Sidibbe and Sarabba. “Thanks to the friendships that are created in these places,” she says, “the boys manage to recreate their social fabric and to be strong in times of trouble.”

“Rooms in the center”

When she first approached the men about her project, they agreed but remained suspicious of her. She cites this as her biggest challenge: “[To] earn their trust, make them aware that I was not a threat, but I was really interested in telling their story without depriving them of the dignity that too often they see threatened.” Eventually, after time passed, they began to let her photograph them during intimate moments, like Sidibbe in the shower or Sarabba’s scar where his umbilical cord was removed at birth. To Vittorini, this image is central to the symbolism of her series. It conveys the fragility of youth and the harsh realities often faced by those so young.

Throughout her series, Vittorini chose to prioritize the boys’ passions over their struggles. For Sarabba that was soccer, whereas Sidibbe preferred nature. Both were outlets for the boys after their courses finished each day. In this way, she invites the viewer to glimpse into the daily life of two refugees, to consider the similarities rather than the differences. She stresses that we all must live in reality rather than allowing ourselves to be influenced by constructed and unnecessary prejudices. “Because,” she says, “very close to each of us there is a story that deserves to be heard and a person who has a great desire to give.”

“Sidibbe washes himself in public bathroom of the center”

“Sidibbe sitting in his room”

“Scar on the Sarabba’s navel due to the cord cutting procedure performed in Africa at birth”

“Sarabba’s football shoes”

“The entrance of the SPRAR center ‘AMAHORO,’ near Rome”

“Clothes hanging in the back of the property”

“Sarabba lying on one of the large lawns around the center”

Check out more of Serena Vittorini’s work on her website

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