So that's February 20th over with. My feet hurt and my body aches, but it was worth it. It seems a long way since last October when a message appeared in my Facebook stream right after the Tory Party Conference, asking if anyone wanted to do something about the current toxic climate. I didn't need persuading. I was aware that racism and xenophobia have been a problem in the UK for a while, most of it based on disinformation, manipulation and outright lies. But this time I felt that something new was going on. This time the politicians who were supposed to condemn it and lead the country seemed to have decided to actively pander to it.
Suddenly it was okay to admit to being racist. It was okay to lie to people to pick up more votes or sell a newspaper. People were being attacked in the streets for speaking another language. Even British people who looked a bit "foreign" were now being told to go home. Things that weren't acceptable a year ago seemed to have suddenly become acceptable and even mainstream.
As a migrant myself, I found all this alarming and depressing. After all, the UK is - and has been for centuries - a country shaped and enriched by migration. Fish and chips were brought to you by a Belgian who decided that the population of Dundee should eat more potatoes, and a Jewish migrant was convinced you should definitely have fish with that. The famous portrait of Henry VIII was painted by a German. Saatchi & Saatchi, Marks and Spencer, EasyJet, Tesco and Selfridges were founded by refugees and migrants. The Ritz is Swiss, Thunderbirds was produced by an Ukrainian migrant. The list goes on and on, but you rarely see these contributions acknowledged in the public debate about immigration. .
That was why One Day Without Us appealed to me. Too often migrants are criticised and blamed for problems they didn't cause. Too many politicians and newspapers talk about migrants and don't give them the chance to speak for themselves. This was an opportunity to empower and celebrate migrants and give them a platform to make their voices heard.
That is what I have spent the last four months working on, and that was what last Monday was all about. By the end of the day well over 140 events had taken place. Nearly all of them were organised by migrants in their local communities, many of whom had never done this before. In London alone we had about 25 activities and events going on, including a mass lobby at Westminster calling on our politicians to guarantee the rights of residence of EU citizens. We had a flag mob outside Westminster in which hundreds of people brought their national flags to show the diversity of nationalities living in the UK. The Tate Britain and the Tate Modern organised two tours showing works created by migrant artists.
In Cardiff, more than 200 people formed a human chain and celebrated the city's migrant communities with a music festival. In Edinburgh there was a candle-lit vigil. In Leeds there was a march with lots of dancing and partying. In Bath people wrote messages of support for migrants while Aberystwyth had a picnic. All across the country people took part in celebrations and demonstrations of unity and solidarity. The highpoint of the day took place at 1pm, when people all over the country linked arms and went online to let the world know the central message of One Day Without Us; that migrants are part of our past, our present and our future.
In addition to these events, there were less visible activities. Hundreds of people took the day off work. Others invited migrants from across the world into their homes for a meal. Employers gave their migrant staff the day off or organised a party for them. New friendships were formed. Men and women who had previously felt marginalised and threatened felt confident once again that they belong to the country where many of them have lived most of their lives.
It has taken a lot of hard work to bring this about and all of it has been done by volunteers like me, working on the campaign whenever we could. We had few resources and virtually no budget, and many of us had no experience. For my part, I'm proud to have been part of such a campaign. I'm proud of all the people across the country who decided to get involved in something like this, from the British nationals, migrants and refugees who organised events and activities across the country to the people who came out to support them.
I'm proud of the businesses who showed that they care more about the security and wellbeing of their employees than they did about making money, and of the people who invited strangers into their homes and took part in a political adventure that was not like anything this country had seen before. I'm grateful to the many organisations and individuals who worked with us to make this happen and gave us their support in many different ways.
All this has made the hard work of the last four months worthwhile, and we don't think it's over yet. Our mailbox and social media are overflowing with messages from people from all over the country thanking us for organising a day like this, and many of them want the networks they've created to continue.
We want that too. We see February 20 not as an ending, but as a turning point and the beginning of a new conversation about migrants and migration.
Will One Day Without Us be part of that conversation? Very likely, but it's too early to say for sure. And right now I'm too busy trying to draw up the full picture of a day that will live in the memory of all those who participated in it.Suggest a correction