There are some conversations that you do not want to overhear. The bile was already rising in my throat as the train commuter opposite verbally dissected a female friend for his mates’ enjoyment. As he crescendoed into pitiful excuses over why our tiny island has “no room for immigrants”, I was ready to walk out of the carriage.
During Refugee Week, volunteering at “Migration Matters Festival” was a powerful way for me to respond to this rampant xenophobia. Celebrating how immigrants and asylum seekers enrich our society, Theatre Delicatessen came alive with stories, sounds and smells: humans from all over the world clustered together freed from labels and stereotypes and prejudice. Our common humanity united us.
Valerie Monti Holland’s “Mapping Migration” workshop was outrageous. As a sociological role play, we had to represent various players within a refugee crisis. Audience members embodied Syrian children, Daily Mail Journalists, Donald Trump, and Vladimir Putin. We spoke to each other; reversed roles and discussed from our various perspectives how to make the world a better place. I never expected to play Asaad, and “justify” my use of chemical weapons to a Syrian mother. Yet finding these words; personifying the complexity of the crisis, we could view it from a multi-faceted perspective, rather than through the biased lenses of our media. Only when we grapple with the complex threads of conflicts rather than apathetically shunning them and changing the television channel, can we find long-lasting solutions. Change is possible, but we need to be quick to listen and slow to speak.
Inua Ellam’s “An Evening with an Immigrant” was stunning. Very few poets have the talent to uncork emotions that you did not realise that you had, and let them flow into his torrent of through-provoking, soul-crushing, spirit-lifting poetic genius. I have never wept and laughed so openly with a stranger. As you live his story: your imagination bound in his web of words, your common humanity fuses, and it becomes impossible to view immigrants as “the other”. The “Post Code Lottery” becomes the only thing that divides you. The places that you were both born into, and the lives that you subsequently lived. Ellams did not choose to be born in Nigeria and rejected by his town. I did not choose to be born into a stable, British family.
The only way that I can respond to my xenophobic train commuter is to ask him where the asylum seekers should go if our island is too small, and many Western nations are closing their borders. I would ask him whether he knows any asylum seekers personally. I would also suggest, that treating humans as pollution results in poisoning the very people who turn them away. Long term-political solutions must be found, and will be found. Until then, we must do what we can with what we have, and remember that no human is ever illegal.