December 18th is International Migrants Day – an annual event hosted by the UN raise awareness of the difficulties and challenges of those facing migration all over the world. In response, two experts – Emily Bowerman from Refugee Support Network and Ben Bano of Migrant Support – explain how we can best educate young people and their adult leaders alike to be conscious of migrants this Christmas.
“We must show children that the Christmas celebration can be linked to the lived experiences of refugee families”
At a time when many of us are busy organising Carol Services and Nativity plays, it is worth reflecting on the first Christmas as it actually occurred. The flight to Egypt, well documented in Matthew’s Gospel, came about as a result of a dream in which Joseph was told that he needed to flee the despotic rule of Herod, and so the Holy Family were forced to flee. In some ways, to celebrate Christmas is to stand united with migrants and refugee families in our world today.
The threats to a stable family life in many parts of the world are multiple - including the effects of civil war, persecution, genocide and increasingly, climate change. In circumstances when the only thing to ensure survival is to flee, it is often the children and young people who are most at risk. Desperate families are taking increasing risks.
The graphic picture of the young boy found on the beach of a Greek island in 2015 provoked a worldwide outcry - but little has changed in four years. And as we mark the United Nations Day for Migrants, whether in a refugee camp on a Greek island or in the oppressive conditions of a Libyan refugee camp, it is the children and young people who still bear the brunt of the suffering. The UN declaration on the rights of the child is given scant attention in the precarious circumstances in which many families find themselves. The mental and physical scars from these experiences affect them for years afterwards.
The young people with whom we work are often the first to come into contact with these children, perhaps in the playground, classroom, or perhaps the local recreation ground. For these reasons, in our work with children and young people in this festive season it’s important both to respect cultural diversity and equally not to romanticise the Christmas story. O Little Town of Bethlehem is a favourite carol but does little to portray the harsh reality in which Jesus and his family found themselves. Our Christmas celebrations and Nativity plays can be linked to the lived experiences of so many refugee families as they seek sanctuary.
Fundraising during the festive season can be directed to the many charities which work at the front line with refugee families both in the UK and in Northern France. By helping our children and young people to be aware of the realities of the dangers facing families worldwide, we can spread a message of goodwill, tolerance and understanding of the UN Migration Day not just to our children but equally a message which they can take home to their families at a time when misunderstanding and prejudice to people who are not ‘one of us’.
Ben Bano is Co-Director of Seeking Sanctuary, which provides assistance and raises awareness of the plight of migrants and migrant families in Northern France.
“Standing in solidarity with refugees often seems to get harder as we get older”
My friend’s daughter Alice sobbed as we watched the Paddington film for the first time – watching as the small bear huddled wet and cold in a small boat in Peru, desperately missing Aunt Lucy, before arriving in an unfamiliar place all alone. While I’d previously found it hard to describe my job to her, suddenly it was easy. I explained that many children, like Paddington, had to leave their home and their family and undertake on a scary journey – and that I was here to help them. She completely understood.
Today is International Migrants Day and I’ve been thinking about how we can stand in solidarity with refugees and educate our children to be mindful of people who have migrated. But, having watched Paddington with Alice and witnessed her empathetic reaction, I’m not sure how big of an ask the latter actually is. Children seem to understand the need to welcome those from elsewhere and, even more fundamentally, to take people at face value as individuals with skills, hopes and dreams. I wonder if it’s because children are more familiar with unfamiliar environments and how scared they make them feel, like on their first day at school or their first swimming lesson; more so than us adults who can generally get away with staying within the borders of our comfort zones.
Indeed, standing in solidarity with refugees often seems to get harder as we get older. Every minute in 2018, 25 people were forced to flee their homes because of war, persecution and human rights violations. That’s the whole of Alice’s class in just 60 seconds, or an entire youth group and possibly more. As the scale gets bigger, the issues seem more complex. We start thinking of people in the abstract and the debate becomes quite toxic; even within churches, we quickly forget that Jesus himself was a child refugee. One Paddington bear was doable for the Brown family, but what would Windsor Gardens have done if a whole family of bears had shown up?
So then, at a time when the scale of forced displacement is bigger than ever and language describing refugees is becoming increasingly negative, how can we as adults stand in solidarity with those who have been forced to leave all that they know and love and ended up seeking safety in our communities?
Perhaps going back to school is a good place to start. About half of the world’s refugees are children, and they are routinely denied their fundamental right to education. While 3.7 million refugee children are out of school – when those children are able to access education, they can start rebuilding their disrupted lives and their hope for the future is rekindled. As one young person I know said: “For me, education is freedom. It opens doors and clears your way. It’s like walking from darkness into light.”
At Refugee Support Network, we’ve seen first-hand how schools can make by ensuring that they are welcoming, kind and supportive places. And this can stretch beyond the school gates into our youth groups. So today, in this season of light and on International Migrants Day specifically, here’s one thing we - adults and children alike - can do to join them in creating positive change.
Watch this video. It’s less than three minutes and it’ll give you a glimpse into what schools in the UK are doing to play their part in welcoming refugees and the difference that simple things have made to Mohammed and his family.
And, if that inspires you and you’d like to do more, why not pass this video on to your local schools or use it in your youth group? Could you ask local authorities to sign the Schools of Sanctuary pledge and ask them to commit to ensuring that young refugees in the UK are able to learn and thrive in safe, welcoming and supportive environments? Safe and welcoming spaces for children, eventually and hopefully, to safe and welcoming societies.
For all the challenges encountered along the way, the Brown family soon learnt that Paddington’s presence was a blessing and their lives were richer for knowing him. As we commit to making refugees welcome in our communities, I think we’ll discover the same truth for ourselves.
Emily Bowerman is head of programmes at the Refugee Support Network, a charity that welcomes in refugee and asylum-seeking children and young people to build hopeful futures through education.