Encounters (1)

The Stories of Hope and Home project is made up of two distinct but interrelated aspects.

One is about building a supportive community of people who have current or recent lived experience of the asylum process. That process is already well underway. Good conversations are happening. Lots of cups of tea have been shared.

The other aspect is to enable those people to share their stories, their humanity, with others. In theory the intention was to start this later but in reality many of those now participating in the project were involved in last year's pilot. As such they have already started developed some of the skills and more importantly the confidence and the desire to share something of their lives with others. We have already felt able to begin saying yes to opportunities to start sharing our stories.

Whilst the project is flexible, and open to responding to different invitations or suggestions, we hope to primarily engage with those in educational settings: young people themselves, but also the school staff who have such a key part to play as role models and change-makers in their communities.

At the beginning of September, when the project was just stuttering into existence, six participants took part in workshops during a training day with almost 200 staff from a group of schools. I suspect almost everyone who entered that space of sharing, both the school staff with heads filled with thoughts of the year ahead, and those who had come to share about their experiences, did so with an element of wariness, uncertain as to what the day would bring. We began, then, as hesitant strangers, but the great thing about working with school staff is they generally know how to move conversations beyond superficial platitudes, and the discussions soon flowed freely. Conversations about the weather, or about favourite foods, or about education and work lead into meaningful exchanges about our lives and experiences. And while these were partly conversations about what it means to be a refugee, they were also conversations about what it means to be human. People whose lives are on the surface perhaps completely different, suddenly discovered they had more in common than they might have thought possible.

Since then, in recent weeks, we have had the chance to meet with two groups of school students from a Birmingham High School. Teenagers often get a fair amount of bad press. If those we met were a fair sample, it is entirely unjustified. They were perceptive, attentive and respectful. They engaged thoughtfully with both the issues and with the individuals. They allowed themselves to not just respond intellectually, but to be touched emotionally by what they heard: that is no small thing for a young person to do among their peers, and we appreciate their openness to stepping outside their comfort zones. They sensed and responded to the hope and the joy, the anguish and the frustration of stories which hold all of those emotions, and more, in tension with each other.

In both cases, this is not an end in itself. These brief shared moments are intended to be merely the beginning of, or a staging post on, a journey. It may be a journey on which we meet again; or it may not. Either way, we genuinely believe that these human encounters have the power to be deeply transformative. We are excited for the possibilities that lie ahead, as both the anger and the inspiration generated through those encounters become a stimulus for action. None of us has the power to do everything, but each of us has the possibility to do something to create the kind of society we want to live in. We really believe that in some tiny, perhaps almost imperceptible ways, the world will be a slightly more compassionate, welcoming place because of the time we spent together.

Over time, the intention of the project is to build confidence and resilience with a growing number of workshop participants, enabling them to share their stories creatively with others. If the idea of working with us in that way interests you, please do get in touch to discuss how we might work together.

*The encounters were facilitated by the Columbans and we have very much appreciated the opportunities to work together with them.