Eight months ago a friend and I were sat in my kitchen having a conversation. She was asking me about Help Refugees, the humanitarian organisation I'd co-founded a few months earlier, and why I'd ended up going down this rather unexpected path (until then I'd been a radio DJ, having quite an easy time earning my crust playing music to the masses).
So I started to tell her the story of my grandmother, Luba, who was just 11 years old when her mother and father sat her down to tell her she that she had to leave her home in Russia - her school, her friends, her entire life as she knew it. She packed up a few belongings into a small suitcase, and headed in the middle of the night to a boat where her, her mother and father and her two older brothers sailed away from everything they'd ever known in the hope of reaching sanctuary. It took them a whole year to reach safety and start their new lives. My grandmother went on to build a good life for herself, teaching piano, starting various charitable foundations, fostering a young refugee child in turn and passing away aged 103 years old, surrounded by people who loved her.
My grandmother was a young Jew, fleeing from Russian pogroms, violence and persecution. She was a refugee nearly 100 years ago - different time, different place, but her story is all too familiar today (save perhaps, the happy ending).
As I finished my story and looked to my friend she simply said "Oh, so you've got refugenes". Refu-genes. A refugee heritage in your genes. And from there an idea was born.
I started to wonder how many of my other friends, colleagues and acquaintances had these "refugenes" - turned out quite a few did. More often than not people I never would have dreamt had refugee family histories came forward to share their stories. Then I (and the Help Refugees team) started to look a little further afield - at respected British singers, actors, designers, architects, politicians, sportsmen, models, writers and thinkers - how many of them had "refugenes" as well? Again - the results were astounding. So many of the familiar faces we are used to seeing in the papers, on our TV screens, on stage had themselves had come refugee heritage. How many refugees from years gone by did we have to thank for some of Britain's greatest cultural, political or sporting achievements?
Jamie Cullum, Rita Ora, Ben Elton, Neil Gaiman, Shinghai Shoniwa (from Noisettes), Richard Rogers, Bella Freud, Shappi Khorsandi, Elisa Sednaoui-Dellal, Harry Jacobi and Naomi Shimada all agreed to appear on film - to publicly declare their "refugenes", to share their personal family stories of terrible persecution, perilous escapes, heroic journeys and incredible achievements and success once they had reached safety.
So often refugees are painted as a burden on societies, but these rich family histories show that refugees are just as capable as we are of achieving greatness and contributing to society, if given half a chance - and who knows what wonderful things their children and grandchildren may end up accomplishing.
The very fabric of British society has been enriched by Britain's proud tradition of welcoming refugees in the past. Don't believe me? You just need to watch an episode of Black Adder (written by Ben Elton, son of a refugee), or turn on the radio to hear yet another hit by Britain pop darling Rita Ora (herself a refugee from Kosova), or take a a look at the Millennium Dome (designed by Richard Rogers, himself a refugee), or put on a must-have jumper designed by Bella Freud (whose father Lucian Freud and great grandfather Sigmund were both refugees).
Britain as we know it would not be what it is today without refugees. They are weaved into our culture and have done much to improve it.
No one expects Britain to welcome more than its fair share of refugees, but we do hope #refugenes is the beginning in a shift in the attitudes towards refugees. We need to stop seeing people seeking sanctuary as a threat, as some kind of "other" and start seeing them as unique individuals. Each one of the thousands of refugee children that Help Refugees tries to feed, clothe and care for every single day has the potential to be a leading light in the future of our societies.
I'm proud to say that I've got #refugenes - have you?!
Join the conversation using #refugenes, share your story and see the full story of Lliana Bird, Rita Ora, Jamie Cullum, Ben Elton and many more at www.helprefugees.org.uk/refugenes
Help Refugees provide basic aid, shelter, food and education to thousands of refugee children women and men refugees across Europe.
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