“Birkbeck was fantastic…I have been looking for opportunities to give something back”

In September, a 2017 recipient of the Compass Project Sanctuary Scholarship, Michael led a wellbeing workshop for mentors of the Compass Project. These mentors are academics at Birkbeck who volunteer to mentor a Compass scholar during their course.

Drawing on his past experiences as a mentee, Counselling student and person seeking asylum, here is what Michael had to say about the session.

Michael

Michael Darko

Why did you want to offer a wellbeing training workshop to Compass mentors?

My experience of being at Birkbeck was fantastic, I always felt valued there and since completing my course, I have been looking for opportunities to give something back. Drawing on my expertise as a student and in a caring role for many years, I chose to offer this workshop to mentors. Having had a superb mentor-mentee relationship, I wanted to offer this in support and appreciation of mentors’ commitment and sacrifice and importantly, share a mentee’s perspective through the workshop.

What did the workshop involve?

As the focus of the workshop was on wellbeing and self-care, I encouraged the use of a self-care ‘toolbox’ for academic mentors to support not only their mentees but themselves too. I started by giving a presentation on the complexities and challenges often faced by forced migrant students. This included the potential changes to their precarious statuses and how this might affect their university performance and health.

The second part of the workshop consisted of raising awareness of possible secondary stress responses that can affect mentors. I reflected on methods of self-care already in use by the mentors, offered practical breathing and stretching exercises and emphasised the importance of signposting to external support when necessary.

What did it feel like to be presenting to Birkbeck academics?

I felt proud presenting to Birkbeck academics. I expected to be nervous, and although I had not slept the previous night, I was surprisingly relaxed and confident about the workshop. I had a lot of support from the lovely Isabelle (Compass co-ordinator), who is always available, supportive and encouraging which helped a great deal with my confidence.

Leading the workshop was a personal goal that I accomplished. It reaffirmed that I am proud of who I am becoming and showed me that I should never be afraid of making mistakes and getting things done. Just do it and learn from the mistakes.

What are you up to now?

I am currently in my second year at Goldsmiths, University of London where I am studying BA Psychosocial Studies. Despite the volume of reading materials and the frequency of assignments, I am thoroughly enjoying the course and gaining some unimagined practical skills from my Research Methods module, a delightful surprise for someone who has a dislike for maths! Being aware of my individual learning style, which I identified during my time at Birkbeck, means that my engagement with the course contents is managed in a way that supports my development.

What is your favourite memory from your time at Birkbeck?

I genuinely had many pleasant moments, but my best memory is the help I received when I hit rock bottom. I became homeless in the winter and came close to leaving my course. I felt like everything was stacking up against me, then I made a phone call to Naureen, the Compass Project Officer at the time, who worked her magic to help me find a place to stay. Because of that help, I completed my course, without which I would not be where I am today.

Another favourite memory is of the support and safe space provided by my mentor, Ben. When Bail 201 came into effect, I was threatened with losing my freedom to study. I remember going to visit Ben, who calmly created a safe space where I could start taking apart the problem at hand and focusing on what I could do. I remember this moment fondly because I received so much support from him, my lecturer Anne and the Compass team. I tackled the Home Office in court about their ‘no study’ decision with no legal representation and won. This was an astounding moment and because of the level of support I had from Birkbeck, I was able to face the Home Office, not feeling alone or scared.

 

 

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“Without the Compass Project, I would never have seen myself as a university student”

The Compass Project has been successfully supporting students from forced migrant backgrounds into higher education since 2016; read what two Compass scholars have to say about the impact it has had on their lives.

Hana* joined Birkbeck in 2020 to start an LLB Law degree:
“My passion for human rights and immigration law has grown and I know I want to be a human rights lawyer in the future. For me, the Compass Project hasn’t just been an opportunity to study, it’s been an opportunity to change my life.

People coming from forced migrant backgrounds know what it means to have nothing and know how challenging life can get. Now we have the opportunity to work hard and achieve our potential. I don’t have all the words to say thank you. My advice for future Compass students is to make sure you are clear about your passions and what you want to achieve. Find the courage within yourself as you will only have regrets if you don’t. It doesn’t matter about where you come from, just about where you go. I am now at Birkbeck, studying a great course and meeting amazing people.”

Two people reading a book together to represent Compass students

Grace* joined Birkbeck in 2018 and recently completed a CertHE in Psychodynamic Counselling and Skills in a Psychosocial Framework:

“Psychodynamic Counselling was of particular interest to me because I have always wanted to help others and the theory and practical skills I gained in class also helped me with my own personal trauma. I am glad that I have now been able to turn the helping aspect of my personality into a qualification. Without the Compass Project, I would never have seen myself as a university student. Even with everything I have been through, one of the biggest barriers I faced prior to studying was my own self-doubt. However, the support I received from those on the Compass Project team and other Birkbeck staff took that self-doubt away.”

* Names have been changed

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Birkbeck teams up with Refugees at Home

Naureen Abubacker, coordinator of the Compass Project at Birkbeck, writes about the College’s partnership with charity Refugees at Home, which matches people with spare rooms with refugees and asylum seekers in need of a place to stay.

The Compass Project at Birkbeck launched in the autumn of 2017, providing 20 fully funded places on a university level qualification for 20 asylum seekers. This offers an opportunity to students to study for and gain a UK qualification, who would otherwise face a unique barrier to accessing higher education.

With few opportunities like this elsewhere in the UK for mature asylum seekers, The Compass Project has welcomed students living outside of London, including Wales, York and Birmingham – which would mean several hours of travelling in and out of London in order to attend class. As classes at Birkbeck take place in the evening, it has been important to find ways to support these students, ensuring that they have a secure place to stay and they aren’t travelling home late into the night. For others, their precarious status has meant that overnight they have found themselves homeless.

Through the wonderful work of Refugees at Home, a charity that brings together those with a spare room with asylum seekers or refugees who need a place to stay, it has been possible to support our students who live outside London, through temporary accommodation with local host families in and around London. The accommodation provided by Refugees at Home is invaluable and offers them a safe and welcoming home environment whilst they focus their attention on their studies.

Michael, a Compass Project student who is studying for the Certificate of Higher Education in Counselling and Counselling Skills, has been living with Refugees at Home hosts Hannah and Charlie since the Spring term Michael said:

“I had the pleasure of being hosted by Charlie and Hannah and it’s been such an awesome experience. Being here allowed me to enter the year 2018 in a loving home full of love and warmth; I am not exactly sure where I would be now if Charlie and Hannah had not come to my rescue. I have been able to continue with my course.

I first heard about Refugees at Home through Naureen, the Compass Project coordinator at Birkbeck, who made several enquiries and a request on my behalf to find secure accommodation, following a challenging time. That very same night when I thought everything was against me, Refugees at Home came to my rescue and sent me to a host’s house in London whilst they sorted out a more long-term place for me with Charlie and Hannah.

The help I have received has really been overwhelming. I have been supported, shown love and affection not just by Charlie and Hannah, but their respective families, Spergen, the dog, and friends. I am treated like a member of the family by those within this lovely community.

I am by far probably the worst guest in a long time as my mood has been going up and down like a yo-yo but through it all these guys have been amazing giving me space when I needed it and always being there to talk to and help me with any difficulty I might be facing.

For those being hosted by the wonderful people through Refugees at Home, here is my tip on being a good guest: learn as much as you can from your host and for you to share any knowledge or tips about anything with your host as this allows you to better understand and be understood. Above all open mind and love in your heart, you will never go wrong.”

Hannah talks about her experience of how she became involved with Refugees at Home and what it’s been like having Michael as a guest through the scheme:

“My husband and I have spare rooms in our house and had been wanting to host for some time. I came across Refugees at Home on Facebook and got in touch. A few forms, references and a house visit later and we were contacted about a couple from Eritrea who spoke no English and had been the country a very short while. Fortunately for them, they found more permanent accommodation before they came to us. Then we were contacted about Michael. It is fair to say Michael is not the type of person we were expecting to host as a refugee – which just goes to show all stereotypes should be blown out of the water when it comes to those seeking asylum. Michael has been in the UK for over 20 years and through a series of unfortunate events and system failures has slipped through the net and is still awaiting leave to remain.

Having Michael with us has been more like having a friend to stay. He’s easy going, full of interesting facts and stories and a fantastic cook. He has been a huge support and help to another refugee we host who does not know English or the UK system well- Michael has been able to work with us to guide him through.

We’ve found hosting to be a real joy and have learnt the support of our community through it- we’ve been given bikes for everyone to get around, invites for our two guests to meals, birthday parties and cups of tea. A group from our church even wanted to give our guests Christmas presents and made up Christmas hampers for them.

It takes a while to settle into hosting if you’ve not done it before. Learning each other’s daily routines, figuring out how to do the shop (we have a list app), finding the balance between wanting guests to be at home and be autonomous in how they live, while being able to live your own life as well. But our every growing, slightly unconventional family has enjoyed working out these ways of living with others.

We have learnt the importance of time, patience and listening and have had our eyes opened to a whole world of navigating systems and of backstories of other people’s lives that we might have touched the surface of previously but never fully understood.

If you have a spare room in your accommodation I would highly recommend you consider hosting, even if for a short time!”

The success of the students on the Compass Project who have found accommodation through Refugees at Home would not have been possible without the support of this incredible organisation. To find out more about Refugees at Home and to become a host, please visit: www.refugeesathome.org

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Who remembers Aylan Kurdi now?

This post was contributed by Dr Nadine El-Enany lecturer in Birkbeck’s School of Law. This first appeared on Media Diversified on 4 January 2016

Moments of Mourn held in memory of Aylan Kurdi and other refugees

Moments of Mourn held in memory of Aylan Kurdi and other refugees

Who remembers Aylan Kurdi now? The photograph of the Syrian toddler that so galvanised Europe’s public over the question of refugees seems a distant memory now. Is it that a genuine concern for the wellbeing of refugees has merely been displaced by other political priorities in the minds of Europeans? Or is it that the basis for the mass outpouring of grief and the acts of generosity and solidarity that followed the publication of the photo was always fickle, contingent upon white Europeans’ limited capacity to humanise the other?

What was it about the photo of Aylan Kurdi that so stirred Europe’s public over the question of refugees? Aylan Kurdi was by no means the first child to drown en route to Europe and since his death, more than 70 children have lost their lives off the Greek coast. Since 1993, more than 22, 394 people are known to have died attempting to enter Europe. The actual figure is likely to be much higher. The blood on the hands of Europe’s fortress-makers had long dried before Kurdi’s body washed up on a Turkish beach in September. How did it come about that white Europeans were able, all of a sudden, to humanise the body of a refugee, least of all, the body of a Muslim?

What did white Europeans see when they looked at the photo of Aylan Kurdi? They saw their own sons and nephews in the photo, aptly illustrated by the #CouldBeMyChild hashtag which was trending on Twitter following the discovery of Kurdi’s body. The image was of course particularly potent in depicting the tragic end of a life so young. But was there something else about this particular child that enabled his humanisation by white people, when so many others had died before?

Perhaps it was the innocence evoked by the body of a light-skinned child that enabled the temporary, fleeting awakening among white Europeans to a refugee movement that long-preceded the media spotlight on that photo. The news has moved on, but the situation persists and grows more desperate daily. According to the International Organisation for Migration, an estimated 700,000 people arrived at Europe’s borders between January and October 2015, compared with 280,000 for the entirety of 2014. Refugees fleeing persecution and war in Syria have been trying to reach Europe since 2012. The majority remain in neighbouring countries in the region, with only 10% of those fleeing Syria seeking protection in Europe. Many have perished along the way together with refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Those white Europeans with a new penchant for carrying #RefugeesWelcome tote bags are unlikely to be amenable to the argument that this is the result of an awakening of their conscience made possible by the coincidentally fair hue of Aylan Kurdi’s skin. Yet, research has shown that the extent to which white people feel empathy and humanise others correlates with implicit racial biases, with negative stereotyping of those with darker skin coresponding to a lower level of empathy shown for them. Feelings of empathy are known to encourage cooperation and assistance between human-beings, while an absence of identification with the suffering of others can lead to violence and abuse, both characteristics of Europe’s militarised border regime.

What of the refugees who do not evoke in the mind of the white European an image of their own offspring? The images of black African bodies washed up on the shores of Europe’s mediterranean beaches last Spring did not prompt an equivalent outpouring of compassion and charitable action. What of the bearded male refugee? What of the woman in the hijab or burka? What of their dark-skinned children? These coded images of Muslims inhibit their humanisation. The Islamophobia that thrives in European societies today means that rather than compassion, they elicit feelings of apprehension and fear.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, the British newspaper, the Daily Mail, published a cartoon depicting racialised images of Muslims crossing Europe’s borders along with rats. Poland reneged on its refugee quota agreement following the attacks and more than half of all US state governors have refused to accept Syrian refugees. Meanwhile, Australia declared its policy was to focus its protection efforts on Christian Syrians.Each of these decisions is reproductive of Islamophobia in buying into the idea that Muslims are associated with terror by virtue of being Muslim.

Read the original article on Media Diversified

Read the original article on Media Diversified

Rather than acknowledge the racism endemic in European societies, many white Europeans prefer to see the dehumanisation of refugees as merely an expression of anti-migrant sentiment, or different values, or viewpoints in what is presented as a fair debate on migration. In what amounts to a dangerous apologia for racism, Slavoj Zizek has categorised the claims of anti-immigrant populists as being about the “protection of our way of life” and argued that the claim Europeans lack empathy for the suffering of others is “merely the obverse of…anti-immigrant brutality”. In a move demonstrative of his attachment of negative stereotypes to refugees, Zizek insists that it be “made clear” to them that they are to “respect the laws and social norms of European states” which entails “No tolerance of religious, sexist or ethnic violence”, as though sexist, racist and religious violence were not fundamental aspects of European life.

While Aylan Kurdi’s light skin colour may have allowed white Europeans to humanise him and partake in large-scale charity-giving, petition-signing and demonstrations, their children could not of course have met Aylan Kurdi’s end. It was, after all, the ancestors of the white Europeans tweeting selfies taken with their babies as they headed for their nearest #RefugeesWelcome march who colonised the lands from which these desperate people come. And it is white Europeans occupying positions of power and privilege today who continue to give orders for bombs to be dropped on their homes.

Absent from the #CouldBeMyChild hashtag was an understanding of the specificity of colonial histories and present imperial wars and the way in which these structurally determine positions of power and privilege as between white people and people of colour. Refugees are here, their bodies washing up on European beaches, because white Europeans were, and continue to be, there.

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Refugee Crisis on the Tiny Island of Leros

This post was contributed by Dr Julie Peakman, honorary fellow at Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. Dr Peakman is currently in Leros, Greece, on a research trip for her next book, but is also volunteering at the port police, offering help for refugees.

Leros is currently experiencing a huge influx of refugees – mainly Syrian and Afghan – arriving on its shores. Here, Dr Peakman writes for Birkbeck Blogs about her volunteering activity and the situation on Leros.

Refugees gather in Leros, Greece (picture courtesy of Anne Tee)

Refugees gather in Leros, Greece (picture courtesy of Anne Tee)

Yesterday morning when we arrived at the port police, there were three-hundred refugees waiting in the hot sun in Lakki police station without food or water.

They had been given no food last night and the only thing they had eaten was the croissants and biscuits volunteers had given them the morning before. It is a tinderbox waiting to be lit.

The police say they have no money to pay the restaurants so the restaurants will no longer supply food as they have not been paid (only five euros per refugee, but it was something). There are only a handful of port police struggling to cope with the situation. The government has no money to send the police.  Even the simple basic of water is not being supplied by the authorities.

The water tank for the refugees has not been filled for days and we wonder why this has not yet happened. The police had to take the water which volunteers had bought down to Lakki port over to more refugees in Xerocampus, at the other side of the island. These poor people are lying in the streets with nowhere to sleep while a building stands empty waiting for plumbing to be connected. This would take a couple of hours.

There is one young woman from the United Nations who says she only gives verbal advice to the refugees to tell them their rights. When I asked her why the United Nations Refugee Council are not doing anything to send food, water, shelter or clothes, she said the United Nations has not declared the situation a humanitarian crisis and she said that is the policy made in Geneva.

Refugees gather in Leros, Greece (picture courtesy of Anne Tee)

Refugees gather in Leros, Greece (picture courtesy of Anne Tee)

Meanwhile, my wonderful friends, Chris Angiel, Stella H Perlman and Patrick Muldowney made 200 sandwiches to give out to those who had no money and could not leave the station as they had not been ‘processed’.

Donations of juice, milk, nappies, soap, clothes and new flip flops were given out to as many people as we could. A wonderful Dutch couple have collected clothes from all their fellow yachties to give out to refugees. After four hours working with Patrick and a stalwart of the action Anne Tee in cramped and hot conditions, most of the refugees had at least been fed and watered. Anne goes down every morning and evening.

I am afraid I welled up when one of the people who spoke English came over and said on behalf of everyone there they would like to thank me and the other volunteers for our help. I felt very humble. The miracle worker behind all this organisation is Martina Katsiveli who is struggling to get a building opened for the refugees so they can have showers and toilet facilities. At the moment, they have one toilet.

View the Guardian’s report of the migrant crisis in Leros

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Pictures courtesy of Anne Tee

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Language, identity and a political hot potato

Penelope Gardner-ChlorosThis post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

Blogs do not usually start with quotations from the Bible, but this one epitomizes the link between language, identity and danger that I want to discuss:

Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, ‘Let me cross,’ the men of Gilead would ask, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’ they then said, ‘Very well, say “Shibboleth” (שבלת).’ If anyone said, “Sibboleth” (סבלת), because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed on this occasion.

—Judges 12:5–6, NJB

Applied Linguistics, as distinct from more theoretical branches of the discipline, addresses real-life problems in which language plays an important role. As a linguist, I can attest that no day goes by without such an issue coming up in the press. I have several box files full of cuttings of articles which I use in my teaching, on topics ranging from the apparently inoffensive – e.g. the revival of ‘dead’ languages such as Manx or Cornish, to the highly political, such as the relationship between the use of minority languages, such as Catalan, and political separatism.

All of us are identified – and often judged – on the basis of our language, dialect or accent. The gruesome ‘beheading’ videos recently released by members of Isis were doubly chilling for Londoners, because the executioners in black hoods had unmistakable London accents, and sounded like the young people you hear on the bus on the way to work.

I want to talk about another recent example which has been in the news, and which shows how language interacts with some very practical issues with serious human consequences.

No-one in the UK needs to be told that the issue of immigration has been in the news on a daily basis for the last few weeks or months. Oddly, this is not because of any drastic change in the situation, but principally because the issue has become a populist rallying cry for politicians who, though they might not put it that way, wish to convince British people that they are going to ringfence the country’s wealth for those same British people – and prevent undefined side-effects like ‘overcrowding’ in the process. This ‘promise’ has proved so popular that politicians from all the main parties have jumped on the bandwagon. Despite clear evidence that immigrants in fact contribute positively to the economy, nothing wins votes like telling people they will get a bigger slice of the cake.

The detailed arguments, and the distinctions between different categories of immigrants, become obscured in this rhetorical assault. This is not the place to rehearse them, but there is one category of (potential) immigrants who deserve some special attention: asylum seekers, i.e. people who come to this country because they claim to be in direct danger, or subject to persecution, in their country of origin. Basic humanity dictates that such cases are dealt with quickly and fairly, and that such people are distinguished from, say, economic migrants, who come for a better life but who are not actually in fear of their life.

But how do we decide whether the asylum seeker is to be believed or not? An important aspect of the decision involves finding out where they actually come from. Do they come from South Somalia, for example, in which case it is beyond question that they should be granted protection, or North Somalia, in which case protection is not automatic? Since such people rarely have any documentation when they arrive, linguistic agencies  are employed by the Government to judge their region of origin on the basis of an analysis of their speech. So far, you may think, all well and good – this could be an effective method.

Unfortunately it has now emerged that these agencies employ people who are not qualified to take these specialized decisions, and who in some cases are totally bogus. Amongst other problems, they ignore Lesson 1 in Sociolinguistics, which is that national and regional frontiers rarely coincide neatly with languages; Lesson 2, that in circumstances where they are being judged, people will speak the way they think they are expected to speak, not the way they speak naturally – so in this case, they may try to use a standard or a national language instead of their own dialect; and Lesson 3, which is that each individual has more than one way of speaking, in fact a ‘repertoire’ which may include different registers, different dialects, and different forms of mixed or intermediate varieties. In such a delicate matter, with life or death consequences hanging on the decision, a very high degree of linguistic expertise is required to do this job properly, and several other factors need to be taken into account apart from the linguistic analysis. Imagine the outcry if we employed food inspectors with bogus or insufficient qualifications to vet the food which we import.

If you would like to read more about these issues, the links below may be of interest. And next time you yourself are in some way judged by the way you speak, think of those who are being sent back to war zones, or to face FGM or worse, because a bogus or under-qualified linguistic ‘expert’ decided they did not come from the region they claimed.

Other blog posts by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros:

Other blog posts about linguistics:

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