Graduation stories: a family affair

Samiya Lerew graduated with a BA in Global Politics and International Relations at Birkbeck’s Autumn Graduation Week 2017, at the same ceremony as her son Edwin. Here she talks about how she came to Birkbeck and how much it has meant to study as a family.

I can’t thank Birkbeck enough for granting me such a great opportunity to study. For the longest time I’ve been politically active, but never pursued politics academically. Growing up in Mogadishu, I had seen the effects of what dysfunctional nationalism combined with dictatorship can do on the place I call home. So naturally, I wanted to study the nature of politics (which Dr Jason Edwards has described as “the very best things we can achieve in a society, and the very worst things we can do to each other”) in order to help me reach the right conclusions and certify myself as an ‘intellect’!

I came to London as a student in the early 1980s. At that time I was studying English, general office work, Pitman short hand and touch typing (my short hand is non-existent, however, my touch-typing skills stays with me to this day). But I was unable to take my studies further because as soon as I completed my course, my stepfather died. As he was the bread-winner of the family, I had no choice but to find work in order to help my widowed mother.

From that point, I was unable to pursue a full undergraduate degree because I was working full-time for Haringey Council as a rate rebate officer, and was then married with three children (two daughters and a son) with a mortgage on a home in Barnet, north London. However, I did manage to help form coalitions with a number of charities dedicated to problem-solving in the Horn of Africa. I set up the Help Somalia Foundation and in 2004, I attended a UN Human Rights conference; my input has helped to resettle Somali minorities in western countries, I have worked with Minority Right Groups and I briefly chaired AFR (Agenda For Reconciliation). But I have always found it difficult to cut red tape unless I had “BA (Hons)” next to my name.

So, encouraged by academic colleagues in these charities, and realising that it never really is too late, I applied to study Global Politics & International Relations at Birkbeck not long after my 56th birthday. Birkbeck couldn’t have been more welcoming after I submitted my application and took an active interest in my exploits. Studying part-time also allowed me to continue my charity work and activism for the affairs of my country of birth.

I admit that it has been particularly difficult at times to juggle the demanding academic studies, work, activism and house-keeping but I have been lucky to be studying with my son Edwin; he applied to do Government & Politics the same year as me and he became my study pal. Mind you, in four years he managed to dodge all of my classes!

We read Adam Smith, Machiavelli, Karl Marx and Foucault. We regularly exchanged ideas and had conversations about politics and how some of the concepts we studied at the Uni could be used as tools for contemporary world politics. It was great to have him study at the same time – he is also a great friend and a carer.  And we actually graduate at the same time. He’s now doing his MA at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and has his theory class at Birkbeck, telling me that all the political philosophers are turning up again!

“You might try and escape politics, but politics will never escape you”, I say to him.

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Knowledge without borders

Baroness Bakewell, President of Birkbeck, addresses the College’s newest graduates as she congratulates them on their achievements during Graduation Week.

In her speech, she emphasises that the upheavals of a changing world and the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union should not be allowed to stand in the way of knowledge-sharing and education, and how our new graduates can help to break down borders.

It is always a great pleasure to be with you here and offer my congratulations to you on your success. This is a day you will always remember; a watershed in your lives, your careers, that will have a lasting influence on how you live your future life – where you go, what you do and. most importantly, what satisfaction it brings you.

When I look out across a sea of faces and listen to your names, I am impressed by the range and diversity of our graduates. As for your names – you may notice that I try to catch the first name of each of you as I meet you as you cross the platform. That’s because each of you matters individually to Birkbeck. It’s not always easy; I can’t always get it right. There are some names that are not familiar to my own background in the north of England. But even as I hesitate in my wish to get it right, I take pleasure in knowing what a global reach Birkbeck has. I am always delighted to speak with those of you from places across the world. Birkbeck embraces you within its academic fold. And that goes too for my fellow Europeans.

Indeed, I want to say something more about this sense of belonging and the barriers that inhibit it. These are troubled times, when matters of identity – who you are and where you came from – are increasingly used to define and, indeed, restrict what you can do, where you can work and where you can make your home. The whole of Europe – and indeed the larger world – has a long history of men who drew lines on maps and made laws giving power to those lines. We are the inheritors of those maps, and we both thrive and suffer because of them. Not just in Europe but across the Middle East, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, the Americas  – tribes of mankind have settled and developed, have lived within those lines and traded across them. They are the nation states we have today.

I, the people on this platform and all of you enjoy crossing those lines.  As a young student long ago I remember being woken in the night on the train south by a man in uniform demanding my passport and shouting:  “We are now crossing into Switzerland.” I was thrilled. At the first station I got out to buy fresh Swiss coffee and cakes. It was all so new. I had grown up in a country at war so, of course, only the servicemen of our armed forces got to travel abroad. France, Belgium, Holland and beyond were all occupied by the Germans. I got my first taste of crossing a frontier when I went to France at the age of 16.

I offer these personal reminiscences to show just how much times have changed. And then something important happened: the foundations of what we today call the European Union were created. And something happened in our family, too. Something I had never seen before: my father wept. He wept with joy that never, never again would there be war on the continent of Europe such as he had seen twice in his lifetime: the First World War with its death toll of 17 million. And the Second World War, including the war in the Pacific, with over 50 million dead.

He cried for himself and for his children: they would inherit a safer, more coherent Europe. And so it came about.

But wars did happen, and barriers took on a new significance. In the Middle East, and across Africa, people fled their homelands, crossed legal lines between countries to seek refuge from conflict or to seek a better life for themselves. They crossed frontiers in their millions and, in so doing, changed not only their own lives but the lives of those from whom they sought asylum. One of the outcomes of these shifts has created the world we have today: a world at odds with itself, finding it hard to formulate new rules by which to live – and, incidentally, defying the precepts of many of the world’s great religions which is always to “welcome the stranger”; make him welcome within your gates. People have increasingly become dogmatic, hostile, uneasy about their lives and their homelands.

But there is another – and, I believe, more powerful – impulse at work in the world: and we here today can be part of it. Knowledge is universal. The discoveries of science, medicine, social welfare, anthropology, literature, cultural studies are shared by scholars and institutes of learning around the world. It is crossing lines. It knows no boundaries.   The wisdom of study, the richness of shared understanding, the value of scholarship is something we are taking part in, simply by being here today.

Your remit extends around the world and your future careers will reach into many countries and communities. What we have in common is stronger than what divides us; stronger than the lines on the map; and we are here today to celebrate that shared outlook. Congratulations again to you all.

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Orientation 2017: Welcome to Birkbeck

New and returning students joined this year’s Orientation events.

A new year at Birkbeck kicked off with Orientation, a range of events to enable students to familiarise themselves with the campus, get to know fellow students and refresh academic skills to boost their confidence.

It was an action-packed and busy day with nearly 2000 new and returning students signed up to browse the Fresher’s Fayre in the marquee outside the main campus, in order to find out about college sports and societies, ask current students questions about life at Birkbeck, and pick up some freebies.

There were also a range of talks throughout the afternoon on key topics to help students get their years’ off to a great start, on topics from looking after mental health, time management, to preparing for dissertation writing, and campus tours throughout the day.

Thank you to all who attended.

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Is caring in crisis? No, but NGOs aren’t helping.

This article was written by Naveed Chaudhri, Head of Campaigns at Results UK. It was originally published on the Results UK blog.

Last week I attended a book launch – not something I’ve ever done before, but this one seemed worth going to. “Caring in Crisis? Humanitarianism, the Public and NGOs”, a new book by Irene Bruna Seu, Reader in the Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck, and Shani Orgad, Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Communications, LSE, was a title bound to get my attention.

Speaking directly to my day job – helping grassroots supporters of international development share their passion with the public in order to make positive changes in the world – this was an event I had to go to. But with so much data already out there, and with so many reports on public engagement produced over the last few years, I wondered just what yet another set of speakers, another discussion, and another book could usefully add.

A top-drawer panel – Kirsty McNeill from Save the Children, Nicola Peckett from the Disasters Emergencies Committee (DEC), Glen Tarman from Care International, and Paul Vanags from Oxfam, plus the book’s authors – strongly endorsed the view that the British public remains tremendously generous when disasters strike, and that human suffering touches us as deeply as ever. But beneath the surface, there’s a lot for NGOs to think about.

Here are my  top six takeaways from the discussions about how NGOs engage with the public in humanitarian crises and beyond.

1. Caring definitely isn’t in crisis, but…

Despite what some people think, “compassion fatigue” isn’t reducing public support for humanitarian responses, which remains very strong. Some recent DEC appeals have exceeded expectations. Responding to complex, politically driven and, for most people, obscure crises, the East Africa and Yemen appeals gained widespread public support. Faced with stories of human misery and an immediate chance to help, “the heart wins, and people give”. Media attacks on international aid, especially prevalent this year, don’t seem to have damped charitable giving, but there is a “looming crisis of trust” which could hurt public support in the longer-term. NGOs must help the public engage positively to help those in need, and to feel good about their role and act together to counter negative narratives of wasted aid and insularity.

2. It’s all about the money…oh no it’s not!

The challenge of finding meaningful ways to help others who are suffering in distant lands is a perennial one. On the one hand, NGOs would like the public to understand more about the causes of insecurity and suffering, and go beyond giving one-off donations; yet it’s perfectly reasonable for people to want to respond to an emotional appeal and then move on to deal with their own daily concerns, trusting NGOs to spend the money well. On the other hand, giving can be “an act of love” involving a lot of emotion, every bit as engaged as political activism, and sometimes more so (as clicktivism shows). Either way, there’s a need for NGOs to help people find appropriate ways (the metaphor of “journeys” crops up again and again) to engage a second and a third time, and learn more about the issues if they want to. Is giving money the only outlet for people’s empathy? No, but it mustn’t be looked down on. And of course there’s the critical issue of how ‘beneficiaries’ are depicted: there’s now solid evidence that showing distressing scenes of human misery can reduce people’s sense of agency and make them disconnect. The tactic may not even raise more money in the short term anyway.

3. Communities are galvanising – but NGOs aren’t

Back in 2005, the Make Poverty History campaign showed that you can build a big public movement and get real change if the politics are right. Collectively, we helped get $50 billion of debt written off, which fed into real gains for access to health and education in developing countries, and the lives of millions of people improved as a result. But it’s unlikely we’d want to replicate such a big brand-led movement today, as the world has moved on. Recent mobilisations channelling public concern have been far more organic; not leaderless or disorganised, but working perfectly well without a top-down structure. Successful movements allow people to do their own thing, based on a central idea or goal that fires their imagination, but doesn’t tell them what to do. Look at the way people came together around the Manchester terrorist attack, the Women’s Marches, Black Lives Matter, or the Refugees Welcome movement. Only in the latter have NGOs played any kind of a role, and it seems that we haven’t yet properly woken up to the reality of how people organise around causes today.

4. Humans connect – but digital doesn’t (so far, at least)

While digital communications play a strong part in helping people connect with causes (especially social media, where there are no barriers to entry), traditional community organising is once more coming to the fore. The things people actually want to do – marching, demonstrating, celebrating, or whatever – happen in their local communities, in the company of like-minded people. The idea that you can get people to act online seems more and more like a marketing idea that doesn’t meet people’s emotional need to connect and act. Is the digital marketing chapter coming to a close? You’ve got to wonder.

5. Find ways to engage people emotionally

Humans care about each other – in their own lives, and also when exposed to distant communities in crisis. Emotionally and in reality, we see people reacting in similar ways in both cases. International NGOs are uniquely placed to connect people to the issues we work on, but we don’t tend to communicate in ways which aim primarily to connect people emotionally. We are still far too fond of demonstrating truths through statistics, rather than telling inspiring stories of hope and change. And forget ‘myth busting’ – it’s not helpful to show people they are wrong and then tell them what to think. We should instead tell people stories of their successes, holding up a mirror up to the public to show them where they have been powerful agents of progress.

6. So, what’s the plan?

There’s a feeling that NGOs are faced with “a crisis of objectives, not of caring”. What should we be asking charity fundraisers and communicators to do? ‘Just’ raise money, or raise money and build long-public awareness and concern? This is a top level strategic question which needs answering very soon, at the most senior levels. The book’s authors spoke of “cognitive blocks to action”. NGOs have for years been giving out unreal and simplistic expectations of what overseas aid is and achieves – with the best of intentions – and have inadvertently reinforced notions of victimhood and dependency. How long can this carry on? Such fundraising practices may not yet be an immediate problem in terms of how much people give to charity, but in terms of movement building, we should definitely be concerned. Income is easy to measure, but the desire to engage isn’t. NGOs must find ways to do this.

NGOs can be amazing connectors, inspiring people to be the best they can be, expressing our common humanity and making the world a better place. We are needed as much as ever, and few other actors in society can do this – but we do need to change ourselves. The next few years could be a very exciting era for the international development sector, and if a ‘Global Britain’ is going to mean anything substantial, NGOs have a big role to play.

Check out this postcast about Caring in Crisis? with author Dr Bruna Seu, and Glen Tarman, Head of Global Advocacy at CARE International, who discuss some of the issues raised by the book (26min 8s).

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