Fighting feelings of paralysis one cup of tea at a time. A response to Louise Casey’s review

Speaking of her visits to the Calais Jungle, Sharon Kanolik from The Old Vic/The Young Vic said, “I felt more welcomed than I have anywhere else. People invited me into their tents and offered me food. There were lots of moments of hope and humour, meeting bright resilient people.”

This isn’t the public’s stereotypical view of what it’s like in a refugee camp – despite all the challenges and difficult living conditions that the refugees and migrants were facing, their capacity to offer hospitality to others still mattered.

Kanolik made these comments at ‘When Words Fail: an action reflection event on arts, refugees and migration’ at Goldsmiths University. Stella Barnes, Director of Participation at Oval House, also reminded us how hospitality is viewed differently in other cultures: the stranger is an honoured guest, welcomed into the home. There is always a huge pot of food that can stretch to feed whoever may join you at your table. In British culture, however, we simply do not have the same level of openness to outsiders.

Welcome matters. Dr Jim Sikorski, Joint GP Mental Health Lead of Lewisham Clinical Commissioning Group, highlighted that the conditions refugees face in host countries are as key to mental health as the trauma they’ve been through. Welcome and hospitality, then, are crucial as people adjust to life in the UK. While the event highlighted the importance of arts-based solutions, religious and spiritual support are also known to play a key role. Places of worship are often a first port of call for those new to the UK. People of faith are, therefore, ideally situated to provide welcome and to respond to Barnes’ challenge to rethink our projects as acts of hospitality. This is more relevant than ever in light of the Casey Review and the need to rethink our nation’s approach to facilitating integration.

In Creative English, as with many community-based projects, I have the privilege of working with volunteers. Volunteers have the amazing capacity to embody hospitality because their motivation is often that they care. Some volunteers seek to develop career-related experience or fulfil their own need for affirmation through this role, but frequently people volunteer because they want to make a difference in the local community in which they live. Volunteers in a faith setting are particularly likely to live in close proximity to beneficiaries. Being members of the community in which they serve creates a different dynamic to the guest professional who visits to provide a service: volunteers meet beneficiaries in the street between sessions, at the school gate when they pick up their own kids – they build relationships that can’t be neatly boxed away as their act of charitable service for the week. They tend to demonstrate a long-term commitment to a vision of community change.

Hafiza and Vera met at one such church-based community centre. Hafiza is a refugee from Afghanistan. Vera is an Essex-born retired teacher and volunteer at the centre. They found that they are neighbours. As a consequence, they see one another regularly: they pop to one another’s homes with food they’ve cooked; Hafiza’s family go to Vera’s house to play; Vera has supported Hafiza in meetings at the school about her children, when Hafiza lacks confidence in speaking English. Hafiza has described Vera as being like her mum. Vera describes her contact with this young family as having given her a fresh lease of life. They are friends, and that friendship is of mutual benefit. Hospitality beyond the formal project in which they met has provided an opportunity for genuine long-term relationship that is not confined to working hours.

Hospitality within projects is important too. Shared meals and refreshments not only welcome new arrivals but allow them to quickly become the host and welcomer of others – part of the family – because the ability to do this is not dependent on English language skills. Food can be a wonderful opportunity for cross-cultural exchange as people prepare and share dishes from their own culture. It provides a communal activity with a focus that makes it easier to connect with strangers. It can be an opportunity to gently subvert feelings of powerlessness, which can be a first step towards wider community involvement.

As we foster a sense of hope and belonging, it releases capacity for people to support one another informally, without reliance on services. For example, the new arrival who helped another register with a GP, as they had done it themselves the week before, or the women who encouraged one another to be brave enough to join a sewing course with a view to building skills for future work. Half the formally-recognised volunteers at Vera’s community centre are current or former beneficiaries of the support services it offers.

At ‘When Words Fail’, Senior Peacebuilding Advisor Raj Bhari used Allport’s Scale of Prejudice to inspire us not to be complacent in this unprecedented season of crises upon crises where migrants form an easy scapegoat. The risk is that, when our fears become reality, we all become passive and allow the unthinkable to become acceptable. There is a sense of paralysis when events seem on such a grand scale, and there is a need for a comprehensive response.

I left ‘When Words Fail’, however, with a sense of hope. The importance of hospitality echoed across a number of the presentations and that’s achievable by all of us regardless of our role. Small actions humanise, communicate worth and release potential in others. We can learn from Kanolik’s experiences in the Calais Jungle. Whatever the magnitude of problems surrounding it, hospitality towards the stranger shouldn’t be compromised. As the mass ‘migration crisis’ becomes personalised through dialogue with a stranger, each encounter has an impact on individuals and those ripples build momentum. Maybe the very British offer of a cup of tea is a start?

About Anne Smith

Anne Smith

Dr Anne Smith is the Lead Trainer on the Creative English. In this role, she writes Creative English session plans and materials, trains Creative English facilitators and supports those delivering the course. She also runs her own Creative English group in Redbridge. Anne, the brains behind Creative English, created the programme after seven years of research with refugees and migrants, exploring how approaches to drama-based learning could build community and increase participants’ sense of belonging. This resulted in her being awarded a PhD from Queen Mary, University of London in 2013. She has more than twenty years of experience in the formal and informal education sector, as a teacher and workshop facilitator in schools, universities and community settings.