THE BLOG

Dear The Daily Mail: Here In Devon, We Welcome Refugees

01/11/2016 14:49

The last week has been very tough for me, and I have a roof over my head. As the Calais migrant camp is destroyed for good, first-hand volunteer reports reveal yet more failure by the French and British authorities. Meanwhile, small groups of traumatised young people of my age have been arriving in Britain from the camp, hoping for a better life, only to be greeted by an outrageous media circus bullying them. What have they done to deserve this?

One can only begin to empathise with these young people. Certainly from my perspective, being of the same age, the lives they and I have lived are completely unparalleled and that fills me with great sadness. Everything that young people like myself take for granted here in the UK - clean water, clothing, warm and comfortable homes, an education, free access to healthcare, access to the internet - have become luxuries for these children.

You may have heard that up to 70 child refugees have been temporarily settled in Devon. Indeed, refugees between 16 and 18 years old from Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan, Pakistan and Eritrea are currently in the community in which I live, North Devon, near a town called Great Torrington.

We couldn't be more delighted to welcome these young refugees to our area, and the solidarity with which our community has acted to make them welcome is truly heart-warming, and only right. Indeed, Devon Country Council says it has been "inundated" with compassion since their arrival, with retired and current health professionals offering medical assistance, and others offering language skills and translation, as well as sports and other activities.

Local facility The Plough Arts Centre has offered free film screenings to the organisation responsible for the refugees, and is currently acting as drop-in centre for locals to provide aid. Indeed, The Plough has had to stop taking donations for the youngsters as it has ran out of space.

Dave Clinch, local resident and volunteer at the centre told me there has "easily" been four car and van loads of new - not second hand - clothing, footwear and other essentials delivered by local people in the past few days. "It has been very moving, people have arrived in tears bringing things in," he added.

The community spirit couldn't be brighter, so what a shame it is that most reading this from outside North Devon wouldn't know.

No, because far too much of the national media coverage has been atrocious, amplifying the minority as if they're a majority. One headline by The Daily Express read 'Fury after Home Office 'fails to tell Devon town they will host up to 70 Calais migrants'. Aside from a gross sensationalisation, this is utterly unrepresentative of the reality. Why should we be given prior notice? Did President Assad tell these children that his and Russia's ruthless bombing of Syrian neighbourhoods would tear their lives apart, drive them to the other side of the world, only to be greeted with headlines like this? No, of course he didn't.

Take another one, The Sun: '70 play at the manor' was their headline in Tuesday's paper, complaining how the children "played basketball" at their new temporary home. And why shouldn't they? The last time most of these refugees were able to play basketball was most likely in neighbourhoods that are now either rubble or still intact but far too dangerous to return to for the foreseeable future. Does The Sun really believe these refugees are not allowed a childhood?

Perhaps most despicable was The Daily Mail. Their report reads: "the first group of children who have no family ties in Britain are being taken to North Devon", complaining of refugees "who all say they are under 18" and about the "extraordinary security measures taken to hide the arrivals from view" of their highly invasive and rude photographers. These children have just arrived in a country they hope to be compassionate, and its second most popular newspaper is complaining because they can't photograph and victimise them? It's outrageous, and perhaps Paul Dacre and co should, for once, creep out of their London bubble and experience the reality of fantastic community spirit for amazing children.

Ultimately, The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express and also The Daily Telegraph have all highlighted how out of touch they are with the communities they report on. Here's the reality: a very small minority have expressed vitriolic racism, namely 'Devon Resistance' and 'Refugees Not Welcome in Devon'. Both movements have received instant and unreserved condemnation by a community that really does care for the wellbeing of these young people.

A few examples: the 'North Devon Refugee Solidarity Group', which has amassed 1,439 members on Facebook, the 'Refugee Support Devon' organization which is growing from strength to strength, and the Refugee Awareness Evening The Plough is hosting in January. Last week, more than 70 people turned out in Great Torrington at a meeting chaired by this group alongside 'Catch22', the organisation working with the Home Office to care for these children. Catch22 said that some of the children have been drawing, expressing their emotions through art that they have finally reached safety, and said they have received numerous welcome cards from the community and beyond.

Mayor of Torrington Margaret Brown has also been instrumental in uniting North Devon on this issue. She said: "Great Torrington has always been a strong and welcoming community. There have been lots of offers of support from local people who want to support any young people arriving from Calais."

It baffles me how we have so many compassionate communities in this country, like Devon, their arms wide open to host these refugees, yet certain quarters of the press feels it apt to launch witch-hunt. Here in Devon, we have demonstrated that, as much as they would like to, The Sun and The Daily Mail cannot dictate our political opinions and actions. They are anti-refugee; we are not.

Speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live, Director of The Plough Richard Wolfenden-Brown said: "People need to find it in their hearts to be more friendly; this movement of people is of historical proportions and we need to acknowledge that. People have got to find it within their hearts to be friendly to people and offer a hand of friendship. We're very keen to offer a hand of friendship, and people of all ages have been coming in from all areas to the centre with essentials. The arts encourages empathy and understanding and helps dispel the fear and mistrust some people feel towards refugees and asylum seekers."

I sincerely hope that the refugees that have arrived here in North Devon are unaware of the words that are being written in some quarters in the British press. What is certain is that we could not have done more to welcome these children, and I feel proud to have played my part by speaking out, ensuring their new lives here in the UK are the best they can possibly be.

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