The 20th-26th June marked Refugee Week. Many events took place over the course of the week to celebrate refugees in Birmingham, such as the Celebrating Sanctuary Festival that hosted performances, film screenings, and exhibitions. During Refugee Week came the EU Referendum, where 52% of the UK voted to leave the EU. Following this result, the UK has witnessed a horrifying amount of racist abuse.
Like many people we were devastated by the images and stories of the refugee crisis of 2015 and, through opportunities at the University of Birmingham, Beatrice Updegraff directed the UK premiere of No Such Cold Thing by Naomi Wallace, turning it into an immersive piece of political theatre set on a washed up Turkish beach. The audience sat in dinghies, the actors performed in sand and the entire space was surrounded with Syrian and Afghan propaganda. Whilst directing, Updegraff discovered more about refugee camps around Europe. Updegraff and I attended the Platforma conference in Leicester last November - a biannual event to celebrate refugee arts, and decided to raise money for charities based in the Calais Jungle.
Over Christmas, Updegraff got in touch with Good Chance Calais, a theatre company working with refugees in the jungle, and Calais Action, a grassroots organisation providing people with basic aid. We discovered that the majority of people in the camps eat once in twenty-four hours, cannot wash and are freezing cold in their summer clothes. It was rapidly approaching winter so Updegraff set up a fundraising page to collect money to take to Calais in order to buy and distribute basic aid. The page got shared around the university and my initial target of £500 was smashed through everyone's generosity; the page ended up raising over £1,600. The money was sent direct to Calais Action and provided people with shelter, food, clothes and basic hygiene.
I volunteer for a Birmingham-based charity called Restore UK. Restore offer a service called Befriending where, following training, volunteers are matched with a refugee or asylum and they can meet them one-to-one to listen to any concerns they may have, chat, and support them. Restore also organize group trips for refugees to places like museums, parks, and concert halls. Additionally, the charity provides help with job applications to support refugees as they apply for work.
Following our work with refugees, in February we attended the Refugee Week conference at which we met an incredible host of refugee artists from around the globe. Updegraff and I were inspired by a project in London where two individuals took images of themselves with a banner saying 'Refugees Welcome' at some of the city's famous landmarks. With a customized doormat reading 'Refugees Welcome', we photographed ourselves outside fifty-two landmarks in Birmingham throughout Refugee Week. We chose to do fifty-two images as the previous week 52% of the country voted to leave Europe. That is not to say that that 52% would not all welcome refugees themselves, but there is a small minority in the Brexit campaign who are against bringing people to the safety of the UK. We were shocked that Birmingham decided to leave the EU so wanted to illustrate that despite this decision, it is still a place of welcome and sanctuary for those who need it.