Here’s the thing, Priti Patel. You bang on about the activist lawyers and the do-gooders all you like, but you’re forgetting something. Most people are actually decent. Most people prefer being kind to being cruel. Most people do not want to live on a diet of hatred and fear. And most people, when faced with human suffering and a chance to make a difference, however small, will do what they can.
“My mother is 93 and has voted Conservative since forever” human rights lawyer and founder of Reprieve Clive Stafford-Smith tells me, via Zoom. “But when she saw the footage of refugees making their way over here, desperate for sanctuary, she said ‘I’ve got a big house. I could give them a home!’
We’re ‘zooming’ because of an extraordinary exhibition (near Clive’s home) at The Sou’-Sou’-West Gallery, run by Lyme Bay Arts on the Symondsbury Estate outside Bridport. I had visited the show and been moved by the work of Lyme Regis artist Pam Allsop. She had been inspired by the trauma endured by refugees and the fate of British woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, imprisoned in an Iranian jail. Figures are shown in colourful silhouettes which are full of emotion, despite there being no facial expressions to convey mood and message to the viewer. Instead, the tilt of a head, the angle of shoulders, the hint of an embrace, the connections between bodies act as simple visual signs, conveying exactly what they need to convey – sadness, despair, hope, sympathy, joy, understanding, love.
While Allsop was putting the show together, she heard about Bridport Refugee Support Campaign, a recently-formed group of local people aiming to work with a government scheme to resettle a refugee family In the town. The group is in the process of becoming a charity and looking to raise at least £15,000, as well as finding a suitable home and securing local authority consent. Allsop immediately offered to donate one of her paintings to help with the fundraising.
“During the pandemic I found myself exploring the journey we are travelling together, with ideas about compassion and love as the ways through. It was obvious that what I was trying to illustrate was being vividly championed by the Campaign, so the least I could do was make a donation.”
She invited Clive and campaign members Lucy Campbell and Mark Gage to attend the show to choose the painting. They picked out Seeking Refuge, shown above. (The picture remains part of the show, with bids welcome and sale proceeds going to the campaign.)
I had recently written a piece on Priti Patel’s appalling dog whistle comments on activist lawyers. These comments have now been outdone in offensiveness by her extraordinarily nasty description of those who defend asylum seekers’ human rights as “do-gooders and leftie lawyers.”
In these circumstances, an intro to a world-renowned do-gooder was irresistible, but I want to cover my interview with him and his fascinating observations on politics, human rights and the judiciary in a separate article. I’d like to concentrate instead on the good news story that demonstrates just how off beam Patel is when she assumes a majority share her poisonous and poisoned perspective.
“The problem with Patel and the far right is that they have learned that it is far easier to inspire hatred than it is to inspire decency and so that is the route they have taken to power.”
“The overwhelming majority of people have never met a refugee and there’s almost zero chance that they ever will.”
And that, as Clive knows, is a big part of the problem. The faceless, nameless, unknown asylum seeker has become the ultimate ‘other’ onto whom the right wing politicians and media could project fear and hate – here ‘illegally’ and therefore, by definition, a criminal, coming to the UK to steal our jobs, exploit our benefits’ system, etc, etc. In short, the bogeyman.
But Clive and the founders of BRSC and all the other groups up and down the country who have taken up the Home Office Community Sponsorship Scheme also know (while Patel seemingly does not) that most people in this country are kind and decent and want to help.
“Is there a sign outside town saying Bridport – Hostile Environment ? No! It says Welcome to Bridport. ” Clive exclaims, laughing. “Of course it does! The government has peddled hatred and decent people have a moral duty to respond to by fighting back, showing compassion and empathy. My parents taught me to observe who is hating whom and to get between them. That’s what we must all do.”
Lucy Campbell had feared some pushback when she and colleagues first mooted the idea, but they have been heartened by the support and enthusiasm the project has attracted.
“It’s clear that residents in Bridport really want to do something and for that something to be more than ‘just’ raising money to donate to a refugee charity. BRSC is about actually housing a family, transforming the life chances of people who’ve been waiting in camps for months, even years. And it’s like adoption, with all the background work that entails. We’ll get matched to a family who’ll thrive in a semi rural community. For their first year with us, it’ll be our job to ensure they are able to integrate, learn English, get jobs, see their kids settled in school and after that year they should be self-sustaining – part of and contributing to local life.”
Campbell points out that one of the attractions of the scheme for her was that ‘their family’ will be in addition to the numbers the government has committed to take as part of its refugee resettlement scheme. She also stresses that the family will be housed in privately-rented accommodation and will not take up council or housing association capacity.
Covid-19 has, inevitably, slowed an already lengthy processs, but Campbell hopes to have the charity set up within the next two months. Once that’s done, they can fund raise more effectively and then get everything in place ready to welcome a family in eighteen months’ time.
Campbell and I muse on the weird situation that the sponsorship scheme was actually initiated by Theresa May’s Home Office at the very same time that she was sending round those hideous ‘Go home’ vans. I can’t help wondering what Patel thinks of it, but Campbell is clear that the fact that it is an authorised, official scheme backed by a Conservative administration has been very helpful in getting it off the ground.
She also thanks neighbouring Uplyme Community Sponsorship Scheme for their help and guidance.
“They’re a lot further down the track than us. They’ve raised the money, found a house and are due to welcome a family very soon, pandemic permitting. W’ve also had lots of advice from Taunton-based Charis Refugees and if other communities want to set up their own sponsorship scheme, I really recommend drawing on this organisation for support and advice.”
One of the added beauties of this scheme, apart from the life-transfroming outcome for a family fleeing danger and currently stuck in a camp, is the opportunity for local people to contribute their skills.
“We may find a house that needs work. We might need builders, plumbers, people who can make curtains or sort out the garden, people with TESOL qualifications who can help with the family’s English. Or you can just donate stuff – furniture, kitchen equipment, toys. There are so many ways to help make this a real success.”
Thank goodness for do-gooders, eh? That’ll wipe the smirk off a certain face!
Please look out for the interview with Clive Stafford-Smith in the next few days.