UNHCR joins a week-long UK celebration of refugee contributions
In the UK, a day is not enough to celebrate the contribution of refugees. It requires a whole week.
From 18-24 June, thousands in the UK feted the creativity, achievements and resilience of refugees with an eclectic mix of events from rap concerts and theatre performances to street feasts and football tournaments.
“The call for empathy and compassion is as relevant now, as it was then when this speech was written.”
Refugee Week, a nationwide festival, brings together numerous partners across the country and is coordinated by Counterpoints Arts. This year, to mark twenty years since the event was founded, supporters were invited to do one in 20 simple acts. From writing a poem to getting together with friends and family, each simple act showed that even the smallest gesture of solidarity can make a real difference to refugees.
To mark World Refugee Day, on June 20, UNHCR hosted an event in the majestic State Rooms of the Speaker’s House at the Palace of Westminster, attended by politicians and refugees. The evening included an incredible line up of performances – with contributions from National Theatre actors, as well as Colin Firth, Lord Alf Dubs, slam poet JJ Bola and UNHCR’s Goodwill Ambassadors David Morrissey and Cate Blanchett.
Blanchett gave a moving rendition of the monologue from Act 2, Scene 4 of Shakespeare’s ‘Book of Sir Thomas More’, written in 1593. Blanchett read the extraordinary speech given by Henry VIII’s chancellor, Sir Thomas More, as he sought to quell race riots in London on May Day, 1517.
“It’s a call for compassion and empathy towards the plight of immigrants and refugees,” Blanchett said. “The call for empathy and compassion is as relevant now, as it was then when this speech was written.”
JJ Bola, who fled war-torn Congo with his family at 6, and is now an author and poet living in the UK, read his slam poem ‘Refuge’. Angus McNeil, an SNP MP who is sponsoring a Bill to reform family reunion rules in the UK, was so moved by Bola’s performance that he recited the poem in full the following day to his fellow MPs in the House of Commons.
“imagine how it feels to be chased out of home. to have your grip ripped. loosened from your fingertips something you so dearly held on to. like a lover’s hand that slips when pulled away you are always reaching.” - From Refuge, by JJ Bola
The displays of support and solidarity for refugees from politicians and the public around the UK comes at a crucial juncture. At the beginning of Refugee Week, UNHCR released its annual Global Trends report, which showed that an unprecedented 68.5 million people were displaced globally in 2017, of whom 25.4 million were refugees, an increase of 2.9 million from 2016.
The day after World Refugee Day, UNHCR teamed up with the shared community space provider WeWork for two events related to refugees. In the morning, representatives from the private sector and organisations working with refugees came together to learn more about the Global Compact on Refugees, exploring important themes such as the employment of refugees. Having recently committed to hiring 1500 refugees across the globe, WeWork has taken a leading role in helping refugees to integrate in their new countries.
During the evening, another event was held at WeWork’s modern London offices in Holborn, where a packed room of guests were introduced to the talents and cultural contributions of refugees. Guests enjoyed beautiful oud playing from Rihab Azar from the London Syrian Ensemble, while trying a tempting selection of tasty refugee-made food.
One of the chefs was Ahmad, a Syrian refugee who now runs his own catering business Aleppo Supper Club. He made light bites from his home in Syria: stuffed vine leaves, samosas, and a large platter of hummus with the word ‘Aleppo’ decorated with the deep purple of sumac. Alongside Ahmad were Parastoo and her mother Elahe. Both were cooking for Migrateful, an initiative which empowers refugees and asylum-seekers to teach their cuisines and share their stories with the public.
A panel discussion on the theme of ‘Different Pasts, Shared Future’ organised by the Centre for Trauma and Refugees at the University of Essex was another highlight on Thursday. UNHCR staff joined a discussion with experts from the British Refugee Council, the Tavistock Centre and the Centre for Trauma and Refugees, followed by a performance of ‘asylum monologues’ by actors from the Human Rights Network iceandfire.
On Friday evening, UNHCR showcased a virtual reality film, ‘Clouds over Sidra,’ which follows Sidra, a young Syrian girl living in Zaatari Refugee Camp. UNHCR took the film to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Friday Lates, and then joined the Eid London festival on Saturday in Trafalgar Square, organised by the Mayor of London. Members of the public were able to follow Sidra’s life in Zaatari, and gain an understanding of the day-to-day life of a girl forced to flee her home and live in limbo.
Refugee Week ended on Sunday with a ‘Families Together’ Festival hosted by Amnesty International. Themed as a ‘celebration of the undeniable wonder of family life’, the festival included food, live music and a screening of the England vs Panama World Cup match. UNHCR works with Amnesty and leading British NGOs in a campaign to reform the UK government’s rules on refugee family reunion.
The final event on Sunday evening was a concert at London’s KOKO venue, to mark Refugee Week’s 20th birthday, featuring performances by refugee and migrant musicians, and headlined by the hip hop artist Lowkey, a consistent voice of support for refugee rights.