Category Archives: Refugees & asylum

Immigration: what is it like for a child?

An image from the new book Billu Leaves India! (Artist: Iain MacLeod-Brudenell)
An image from Gersh Subhra’s book Billu Leaves India! illustrated by Iain MacLeod-Brudenell

How does a young child cope when he is suddenly uprooted from the people and places he loves and confronted with a new home in a distant, completely alien land? What was it like for a child to be among the first immigrants moving to Britain from the Indian subcontinent in the 1960s?

I like the idea behind a new children’s book, Billu Leaves India!, because it presents the rarely told story – from the perspective of a child – of the impact of immigration on younger members of the family. Launched yesterday at the University of Derby’s multi-faith centre , it aims to help children of immigrant families “make sense of the feelings of dislocation and strangeness, which are part of the immigrant’s journey”.

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Although fictional, the storybook for children aged seven upwards is loosely based on the childhood experiences of its author, University of Derby associate lecturer Gersh Subhra, who left his small Indian village in 1964 aged four; the family settled in Coventry. Profits from the book go to Oxfam and Derby Open Centre, which promotes better understanding between cultures in the city. The author volunteers with both organisations.

drawing copy

The book tells the tale of six-year-old Billu, who leaves his beloved village in India to emigrate to England in the 60s with his family. The book focuses on the boy’s relationship with his beloved uncle Tyaa. Tyaa makes his nephew a copper bowl as a leaving gift, symbolising the pair’s long-distance relationship.

openingdoor(E) copy

Subhra, a former youth and community worker and ex-head of the university’s Centre for Community Regeneration, explains: “ “As a boy, I grew up with stories about India and the journey that many in our community made from there to England. These anecdotes were filled with all of the emotions one can imagine; the doubts, as well as the hopes and aspirations involved in moving to a new life.

“Because it was a long time before I went back to the village of my birth in India, I’ve added into my story a fictional perspective on what it might have been like. I even had an uncle who was a bit like Billu’s who, unfortunately, I never saw again after I left for England.”

boyandlady(E) copy

Billu Leaves India! is illustrated by artist Iain MacLeod-Brudenell – also a former University of Derby lecturer – and is published through Matador, part of Troubador Publishing. Copies can be bought via the publisher’s website or on Amazon.

Photo project promotes Roma and new migrant culture

An image from the Roma and new migrants photo project

The intriguing photographs here are from those in a new exhibition created by children from Roma, Slovak and Polish communities in east London,

The works, created using pinhole photography, have been produced by 12 young people aged eight to 14 from Roma or new migrant backgrounds. The show is part of a Children’s Society project, the Roundabout Arts Project, and the images reflect the children’s views of their heritage and the summer of Olympic sport. The young people from Newham created 20 pinhole photographs and an animated film (below).

An Olympic-related image from the Roundabout Project exhibition

The project, a partnership between the Children’s Society New Londoners Roma/New Migrants Project, art group Click Academy, aims to promote a greater understanding of European migrants and Roma culture, showing the communities’ contribution to London life.

Artist Marta Kotlarska’s Click Academy uses pinhole photography to encourage social change (with the aim of showing it is possible to “make something out of nothing” and at little cost). As Kotlarska has blogged on the Children’s Society website: “Our hopes for the children to learn the realities of the creative process and have the opportunity to express their creativity were realised. Roma children often don’t have access to the arts because of discrimination and social exclusion and we wanted to change this.”

* The Roundabout Arts Project exhibition is open for three weeks at The Hub, 123 Star Lane, London, E16 4PZ, 9am-8pm from Friday 19 October to Thursday 8 November.

This is a pants story

Whose pants do you pop on? Whose name’s in your knickers? Who’s behind your briefs? Who styled your smalls? And just where is this intro going?

Enough already. While retail guru Mary Portas last night kicked off her pledge to reignite the UK clothing industry with a range of 100% British knickers, one campaigning social entrepreneur in the south of England has slowly, steadily and rather stylishly been making ethical underwear since 2009.

Becky John in the Who Made Your Pants factory, Southampton

Who Made Your Pants is based in Southampton and run by Becky John. Each pair of pants is sent out with a tag which allows you to find out who made them. There’s something of an interactive knicker-namechecker where you punch in the date on the tag and check who made your pants.

The organisation’s quirky name belies its strong, pro-woman campaigning zeal and while it’s less bra-burning and more pants-producing, the ethos is simply “amazing pants, and amazing women”.

The business is a women’s co-operative which employs seven women, mostly refugees. From the fabric that goes to make the underwear (recycled from end of season lingerie stock sold by big companies that would otherwise go to waste) to the working conditions in the small factory, the company is ethically-run.

The women are from Afghanistan, Somalia, the Sudan and potential workers come via refugee support agencies (although the firm now has a waiting list for employees). There is training and support as well as a computer suite for the women to use email and the internet, so the factory is something of a social and community space as well as a workplace.

While ethical clothing ranges are nothing new (and neither, for that matter, are undies with a social conscience), the Southampton women’s co-op commands attention as a small but perfectly formed community-based drive to make a difference.

Pants. With attitude.

Stephen Greenhalgh: localism hero or demolition man?

Stephen Greenhalgh is hated and feted. To Labour, he is a tyrant for keeping council tax low at the expense of frontline services in the west London borough he has led since 2006. To the Conservatives, he is a town hall trailblazer, praised by the communities and local government secretary, Eric Pickles, who describes Hammersmith & Fulham council as “the apple of my eye”.

Greenhalgh has perhaps baffled both parties by announcing he is to quit the leadership for the council backbenches in order to help steer a pilot community budget in White City, a deprived area of the borough. Rumour had him in line for a peerage. Read the rest of my interview with Stephen Greenhalgh in the Guardian’s Society pages.

How the housing safety net is shrinking further

As councils tighten eligibility criteria for housing at the same time as benefit cuts hit, charities warn of an increase in homelessness. With the trend growing for councils to overhaul their allocation policies, there are fresh concerns about people being forced into the unaffordable private rented sector or pushed out into cheaper suburbs. Read my Guardian piece here.

No voice for the vulnerable

Can you imagine being so desperate for affordable legal advice that you go on an eight-hour, 300-mile bus trip just to get help? I came across such a case seven years ago; a Welsh man facing eviction from his council-owned cottage when the area was being redeveloped found that the only housing legal aid lawyer willing to take on his case was in West London. So desperate was the man to stay in the cottage he had been born in and so great was his fear of homelessness, he made the trip.

Although this tale is from 2004, it highlights the vital safety net legal aid (when the state pays all or part of the legal costs for those who cannot afford them) provides to society’s most vulnerable. The number of solicitors who carry out legal aid work have been falling in recent years (hence the Welsh man’s 300-mile journey) thanks to uncompetitive pay rates, hours of unpaid work and red tape. But now, under government plans to cut the legal aid budget by £350m, the situation could get worse for those wanting to access affordable legal help. It is estimated that around 500,000 people could lose out on legal advice amid the planned cuts as the government wants to remove clinical negligence, family law, education, non-asylum immigration and housing cases from legal aid’s scope.

Today is Justice for All day, with marches and petitions planned by a coalition of 3,000 charities campaigning against the cuts and you can also oppose the cuts at social action campaign site 38 Degrees.

The Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, has also launched Sound Off For Justice, a campaign for alternative reforms that it says will save more than the government’s own proposals and protect legal aid funding. The campaign encourages the public to demand the government reconsider its plans and look at the alternative measures which it says would save £384m in the next 12 months. You can record a voicemail for Justice Secretary Ken Clarke against the cuts here. The campaign is supported by, amongst others, housing charity Shelter, the Refugee Council, lone parent charity Gingerbread and housing association Eaves.

Here’s the campaign’s latest video:

There’s something rotten going on when an endless glut of super-injunctions protect the privacy, reputations and careers of the super-rich but a lone parent, for example, is denied basic access to his children because he simply can’t get the afford the advice.

Illegal immigrants:not as simple as sending them all home

Peter Solomon, 46, is a former trade union representative who spent 17 years in the transport sector. He is a hardworking taxpayer and father-of-three who, until recently, worked as a security guard in Manchester where he rented a flat. He is also an illegal immigrant.

Some illegal immigrants should be returned home, according to an IPPR report seized on by the government to support its hardline stance. But it’s not that simple, as I explain in this piece in Society Guardian today.

Reunion for refugee families

When Almaz Berhanu Yesbasa fled Ethiopia for political reasons, leaving behind her husband and four daughters, two years passed before she saw her family again. She was granted refugee status in the UK but did not know where her daughters were until the British Red Cross traced them, supported Almaz with Home Office visa applications and brought about the family’s reunion in 2006. Read more about a new charity, the Refugee Welcome Trust, which helps to reunite refugees separated from loved ones, in my Society Guardian article.