Kindness is in our power: let’s use it.

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Editor’s preface: We are very proud to publish this powerful article from Jo Molyneux. It is not an easy read containing, as it does, some distressing and harrowing detail of man’s inhumanity to man. However, we feel that the subject is too important to pull any punches; but please be aware. It is the first in a series of longer ‘think pieces’ which we intend to publish over the coming months.

I have to be honest: I wasn’t really that interested in politics until very recently. I expect some of you probably feel the same? I had been living in France for 11 years when we had the opportunity to vote in the referendum which would decide whether or not we stayed in Europe. I voted by proxy.

As I expect you’ve guessed, I voted ‘remain’ and I still think that was the right decision. However I would fight with everything I have to defend the rights of anyone to vote differently. Maybe, though, I now look at England with different eyes, especially having been away for so long. It still feels the same in many ways but I have noticed a few things that have surprised and dismayed me.

The most obvious thing is that the country seems to be completely divided in half under the labels of ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’. Not only that, but it seems to be an aggressive divide, with little discussion between the two sides about why they feel as they do, and what facts are behind it. For many of us I think the way we voted came from more of a gut feeling than a personal, researched decision. Along with my own views, being able to live in a lovelier house than I can possibly afford in England, and having a much less stressful job, certainly dictated to my gut. That and the wonderful patisserie in the village! But is that enough? I had to dig deeper.

For me, it was a very rich experience, learning about another culture, speaking another language and being introduced to ideas that were different from my own. As a general rule, people were really friendly and always had a smile. If I were to do something stupid while I was driving, for example, a French person would usually laugh and wave me on, rather than stick two fingers up at me, swear and try to start a road war. How refreshing that was. The sense of humour there is droll. Twinkling eyes would look at me whilst someone gently took the mick, and everyone would fall about laughing.  

My understanding of the French language was based mainly on ancient school lessons. English schools in those days seemed quite concerned about the whereabouts of my aunt’s pen. “Ou est la plume de ma tante?” This, I discovered, was useless information, not least because a “plume” is a very old-fashioned word for a fountain pen. Nobody uses that word these days and they would chuckle if I did.

When I wanted to put a new coat of oil on my garden bench, and asked for preservative, it became the joke of the whole DIY shop, which is about the size of a B&Q.  A “preservatif” in France is a condom, and the assistant suggested I should go to the chemist if that’s what I wanted. My faux pas spread around the shop and I ended up having a good conversation, with my poor French, their better English and something more akin to charades than ever before. When beckoned over, everyone stopped to share the joke and have a chat. It is so wonderful in rural France that people, good conversation and lunch come before anything else. It was also wonderful that I was given a discount ever after.

Luckily for me, the French government very generously provided a six-month course for newcomers who wished to work. The course also included some useful information about culture and day-to-day things that would make integrating into my community much easier. Not only that, but we were paid to attend, which meant that newcomers did not have to apply for benefits or struggle on their savings. We were paid according to the salary we had last earned in our home country. I received the maximum payment which was €750 a month (about £670).

I was incredibly grateful and really enjoyed the course. I met people from all around the world who were in the same position and we helped each other as much as we could. We all had to find three different places to accept us for one or two weeks’ work experience during the course, and this was a really valuable, confidence-building tool. I can quite honestly say that the course transformed the experience I had when I first moved to a new country. Up until that point, doing the simplest things had proved to be an absolute nightmare. The thing I hated most was trying to make a telephone call, and I became extremely adept at the phrase “I’m sorry, I’m English, but if you speak slowly I hope I will be able to understand”. Winging it had been much easier face-to-face, when I could read people’s facial expressions.

I still think of France as “home” in many ways, and miss my friends and neighbours, as well as the way they would gently poke fun at me and at each other. We were always laughing and I was quite content. I suppose it was this experience which made me really think about refugees. That, and the fact that I had a conversation with someone who has interviewed people who have been imprisoned, tortured or gang-raped.  

I used to teach at an international school, and we had people from 27 different countries who came to learn English. When I first started I thought I was there to teach the students, but I soon came to realise that I learned just as much from having them in my class. I very clearly remember one woman I really liked. She already spoke good English but wanted to learn how to teach it to her students in Syria, using our method. She showed me photographs of the beautiful town where she lived. Syria was – then – a forward-thinking, moderate country, especially for that part of the world. She wore western-style clothing and used to enjoy coming to the pub with the other teachers after work. She was on Facebook but has now disappeared and we don’t know what happened to her.

I spent three months working with my new friend. I am very worried about her. Her home town has been flattened, the tree-lined plaza, where she used to sit and drink strong, black coffee, razed to the ground. Houses are in ruins and shops just dusty rubble. Any remaining walls are bullet-riddled.

This next paragraph is extremely disturbing and I am sorry if it upsets you. It really upsets me. Some years ago, when tensions had been growing in Syria, a group of young teenagers were tortured for writing graffiti.  Perhaps you remember? 

The young boys were imprisoned and tortured. They had their fingers broken, they were beaten to bloody pulp and sexually assaulted by groups of men. A 13-year-old boy was murdered. One of those evil men responsible, cut off the child’s penis and stuffed it into the boy’s mouth. Whether this was before or after he died is unsure. His body was sent home to his father, like that. This was the act that sparked an already angry people into action. In the subsequent years, Syria has been destroyed and its people displaced by cold-blooded murderers, child killers and rapists. Young children – boys and girls – are very often the target of rape. Can you imagine how you would feel if this happened to your child? 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Death_of_Hamza_Ali_Al-Khateeb

The UN reports on child abuses in Syria:

https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/01/1055412

The upshot is that whenever I see a picture of a little dinghy with a few desperate people on board, with only the clothes they are wearing, I wonder if my friend the English teacher is there? She could come and stay at my house. We would be happy to offer her a home. Is that the difference? The fact that I know her, and like her? Is that why I want to run to the beach with towels and warming drinks, hot food and blankets? Is that why I want to take these people home? Is that all it is? Do we have to know a person, to realise they are probably a decent, kind and loving human being just like us? Is it that not knowing them makes it easy to dehumanise them?

These people – the large majority of these people – have escaped the most terrible conditions. There have been explosions, guns, bombs, a lack of food and water, gut-melting terror, weeping and the loss of loved ones.  Sometimes there are unaccompanied children on board the dinghies. Children whose parents have died or been killed in front of them. Children who are severely traumatised and are suffering from post-traumatic stress. Children who have no family, who may not speak our language and who are desperate for help and a safe place to be. Children – boys and girls – who have been raped, and then raped again and again. There are fathers, trying to rescue their wives and children. Mothers looking for their families. These people are doctors, teachers, scientists, musicians, shopkeepers, and they are just like us. We cannot turn our backs on them.

We could so easily help, by finding somewhere for them to live, where we could treat them for the mental damage they are suffering. They could be offered a course similar to the one I did in France. These people  would become the most loyal to Great Britain. They want to work in Britain and many of them are highly skilled. We should remember our humanity and help, by enabling them to begin to heal. If I were in their position, I hope that someone would help me and my family. In fact, I would expect someone to help. I respond so much better to love and kindness than I do to hatred – I think every human being does.

For those who believe there are terrorists in the dinghies, I would point out that these people are often trying to escape from the same terrorists that we fear.

I was a backpacker when I was younger, and I was always struck by the generosity of the poorest people when I was travelling. I remember being invited to dinner by a family in southern India. I was told by the people I was staying with that if I took something like soap with me, it would be very much appreciated. When I went into the house, it had bare earth floors, a big cooking pot and some bowls, sleeping rolls and a chest. It was scrupulously clean. I had a lovely meal, though I was painfully aware that this was ill-afforded generosity. After we had eaten, my hosts showed me what they had in the chest. It was a collection of the most beautiful embroidered linens and clothes, that they had saved ever since their now-teenage daughter had been born, for her dowry. It had taken years to gather together and they were really proud of the collection. That they had shared their food with me was humbling, and it is only one example of the generosity I met along my way.

Arriving back in England, I went to the supermarket and felt strangely ashamed looking at the shelves and shelves of food and other stuff. I wondered why we needed 40 different types of shampoo while other people had practically nothing? I also knew that I had enjoyed amazing hospitality in many places such as India, Laos, Kalamantan and Indonesia. When people there said they would love to visit London, I used to think “Please don’t”: I knew that the reception they would get from people in England would be baffling. It would not be anything like as generous as that I had received almost everywhere I went, and I felt deeply saddened. I knew that nobody in the UK would be likely to invite a foreign stranger into their house to share their food. I had to ask myself whether that included me?

Apart from the time that I lived in France, the West Country has been home to me for 45 years. I love this part of the world and can’t think of anywhere else in England where I would rather be. I had lived in Devon, but my daughter has a flat in Bristol and I moved in with her whilst I was house-hunting. She lives in a hip corner of the city and at first I was rather horrified at her surroundings. There is graffiti everywhere, a large problem with homelessness and drug addiction, and very dirty streets. I often had to pick needles up in the morning, and clear away the rubbish outside her flat entrance. Junkies would pee on the steps and sometimes worse! 

It didn’t take me long to realise that there were also great shops, bars and cafés. There were people who thought a little bit out of the box about the problems in the world, and really did something to try and change things for the better. It amused me greatly to find that a china shop offered an ‘activism course’ for children in the school holidays: it teaches them how to make posters, who to write to if they don’t like things that are happening in their neighbourhood, and how to approach those in authority in order to promote change. I think that is marvellous. We can all be assertive and try to make our communities work for everybody in them. I think getting to know Bristol was good for me and has encouraged me to try and do something about the problems, instead of just talking about them. Perhaps being an activist just means doing something to solve unsatisfactory situations, so we can all become one.

We live in a beautiful part of the world and welcome visitors to come and share it. I really hate it when, in return, some visitors just strew the place with rubbish. It is such a selfish thing to do and, quite frankly, if someone can go to the trouble of carrying it down to the beach or into the countryside, they can carry it home with them. Like many others, I pick up rubbish when I’m out but I’ve decided to tackle people if I see them actually littering. Wish me luck!             

I now live in North Somerset and and was commuting to Bristol where I worked on the Gloucester Road. I have been running a charity shop, which has been great fun. It specialised in retro clothing, ephemera and bric-a-brac, and was always full to the brim with students. We had music playing all day and the atmosphere was great fun, sociable and friendly. I absolutely loved it. Sadly, the pandemic closed most of the retail side down, and a large number of us were doomed to redundancy.

The plus side of this is that I have got to know many people in the Mendip village where I moved last November. I love being in a village again, and I have had plenty of time to start creating a garden and to decorate the house. Although we are all practising social distancing, I have had so many great conversations over hedges, and lots of laughs with my new neighbours. Everyone has been so welcoming and kind, and I am beginning to feel settled in. Once again, I am learning to adapt to new social “rules” and the ways of the people who live here. There are many people who are born and bred in this village and I am grateful to be included, and not treated as an outsider.

I hope I don’t sound preachy when I suggest that this neighbourly treatment could so easily be extended to the desperate people on those dinghies. I am certainly no saint, and anyone who knows me would laugh at the idea. The thing is, I know I have not done enough to help these particular folk, or to make my voice heard when I feel there is a miscarriage of justice: I am cross with myself. Love and acceptance is a two-way thing and there really is no need to hate anybody who has done nothing to hurt us. The refugees who actually make it here are at their lowest ebb, but they have shown incredible resilience and fortitude. I think, given the time to recover, they would make excellent British citizens.

When I see Nigel Farage on the news, marching up and down the beach, all tight-buttocked, I feel sorry for him. He has no idea WHY he hates the refugees. He can’t have, because he hasn’t bothered trying to get to know any of them. I know that if my family had suffered as much as them, I would also use every penny I had, and risk the most dangerous of journeys, to try and find somewhere safe for the people I love. I think all of us would.

If we don’t do something very quickly about the current climate change crisis, many, many of us will become refugees. Hundreds of thousands more people will be displaced, not only from foreign countries but in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. We are already seeing floods and fires, drought and disease, and we need to help each other. If we do this, we have the chance of a good future. If we continue to fight and bicker and refuse kindness to strangers in trouble, then I think we have no chance.

We are now slap-bang in the middle of a pandemic which is a global catastrophe. I think now is the time for us to put out the hand of friendship and help people who are escaping the horrors of brutal, disgusting wars. The term “illegal immigrant” is actually incorrect in these cases. The people in these dinghies, fleeing for their lives, are NOT illegal immigrants, and the term is deliberately inflammatory. They are refugees and, as such, we have a legal duty to help. People are arriving from different war zones and, after eight years of battle, Syria is just one of the many countries that is destroyed.

I love living in Somerset and would like to thank the people in my village for welcoming me into the community. I am grateful, once more, to have somewhere to call home, where I can swap plums for potatoes through the gap in the hedge.

I am also thankful that I have only a pandemic, a recession, redundancy, no pension and an incompetent government to deal with!

I appreciate that not everybody thinks the same way as I do but I hope that reading this may have made you think of refugees in a slightly different way. If you have  a different point of view, or want to comment, please do write to the Editor : editor_@westcountrybylines.co.uk