Sitting in London, so far from the city where I went to school, the bombing in Manchester seems both horrific and surreal. It comes just a few days after my charity, Wonder Foundation, lost a dear volunteer and advisor, Dr Raheal Gabrasadig, who arrived in the UK from Sudan as a refugee and spent her life in service to others. Amid the grief and pain, it's essential for us all to channel both Raheal's kindness to strangers and the Mancunian spirit of unity, in order to face inevitable debates around immigration and integration with humanity and realism.
After attacks like these, it can be easy to look at immigrants in the UK and condemn them for not trying hard enough to integrate, to understand and value our British way of life. It's one reason why some are trying to 'make people integrate' through compulsory English language learning. This is a bit chicken and egg. Does learning a language make us integrate, or does integration encourage us to find ways of communicating and building relationships with others? How do we understand a culture without spending time with the people who live it?
The research the Wonder Foundation has done into barriers to English language learning for women in London highlighted this conundrum. "I have no-one to practice English with. I only speak with non-natives. It's really hard to meet natives. We only have contact with migrants" shared one of the women we interviewed. Our report found that women who had taken those vital first steps and managed to start English lessons found themselves unable to practice with native speakers. They had started to gain the skills they needed for everyday life, but as they rarely came across native Brits at the school gates or in their English-language classes, and since few could afford to join sports clubs or hobby groups, the places where Brits go to meet people, they struggled to build the friendships that they desired.
This is why integration is not just a question for refugees and immigrants. Repeatedly, governments have defined integration in ways that place the burden of responsibility solely upon refugees and other migrants, people often with few resources. But the more time I spend looking at the way that we welcome refugees and other vulnerable migrants, the more I recognise how so many of us are part of the problem - an uncomfortable realisation.
This first means both individuals and communities (settled and migrant) have to be willing to build relationships with each other, despite their differences. This simply will not work, even when action is one- or two-way, if we see migrants as a problem to solve, rather than our equals.
But beyond that, these integration questions force us to examine social divides in our own 'native' British population. The current political climate around Brexit, and the will to welcome refugees versus the fear of immigration, shows that integration is not simply about a person's country of birth. It's also about class, religion (or lack thereof), politics and many other things. It is wonderful, and yet also heart-breaking, that we only noticed Manchester's rough-sleeper Chris Parker after he helped those in need. How many of us walk past homeless people every day, surely some of the country's least integrated people, with little thought for them?
If those of us who campaign for better ways to welcome refugees and other migrants - who like to think of ourselves as thoughtful, open-minded people - are not regularly engaging socially with people who are different from us, we ourselves are not integrating. We are never going to convince people who see refugees and migrants as a threat to change their minds unless we spend time with them, and engage others who think differently from us. We have to integrate ourselves if we expect communities around the country to go on a journey of building relationships with those they see as outsiders.
Raheal was a former refugee who lived in exactly this way. On her final day in hospital she was visited by friends who had attended the UK's finest educational institutions, and those who knew real poverty. There were friends in hijabs, in turbans, people praying the Rosary around her bed, friends without faith and, literally, from the five continents. Just while I was there, people from Lithuania, Kenya, Venezuela, Spain, Nigeria, England, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, India, Cote d'Ivoire came together to pray and to mourn. Integration is about building relationships, not only with people from other countries, but also with people who do not stand with us yet. Raheal made friends with everyone not by grand statements, but through small acts of kindness that made others feel welcome, and changed opinions as a consequence.
So yes, let's continue pushing for greater government funding for integration initiatives such as English classes, especially for the most vulnerable women. But we must recognise that this alone is not enough. No government can wave a magic wand and solve our problems. The mantra we've heard is right: we stand united. We are not broken. We are strong. Not just in Manchester, not just while there is still media interest in the bombing, not just when the cameras are rolling, not just when we grieve for a friend. Unity is a constant, worthwhile struggle. Let's try every day to create connections as Raheal did, break through barriers, and have the strength to question, reflect and demand more of ourselves.Suggest a correction