Wednesday, March 12, 2008

125+ sleep on the streets of Oxford for Action Day 2008.

Jenny Allsop from Oxford STAR details her experiences of a memorable Action Day 2008.

As part of STAR and Amnesty’s National Action Day, hundreds of Oxford students joined forces with representatives from local charities, faith groups and many concerned citizens to collaborate on an evening of activities as part of the Still Human Still Here campaign.140 people slept out in the churchyard of Mary Magdalen Church, right in the heart of Oxford city centre to campaign for the end of the destitution of refused asylum seekers.

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The sleep-out concluded an evening of campaigning events which began on Cornmarket Street at 5pm with dance, poetry and music performances from local artists. We heard speakers from STAR and local charities Refugee Resource and Asylum Welcome and refugees spoke about their own personal experiences of destitution. At 7pm, a cardboard stage was set out in the street and people gathered round to see a student performance of The Bogus Woman, a powerful play which traces the story of a woman seeking asylum in the UK.

At 8.30, the people participating in the sleep-out were invited into the church for a buffet supper made up of donations from local shops and cafes. The response from local businesses was amazing; we had everything from soup and salad to donuts, bagels and baguettes. It was a chance for people from different background to get to know each other and discuss their involvement in the campaign and the warm food was just what people needed before bedding down for a long, cold night.

After supper, Amanda from Refugee Resource led a People’s Commission on behalf of the Independent Asylum Commission inside, giving people the opportunity to discuss issues related to the campaign, whilst the churchyard was a stage for debate, music and badge making. Some people put pen to patch to add their message to a campaign quilt whilst others wrote their campaign aims on cards which were tied to a colourful ‘wish tree’ by the church entrance.

At twelve o’clock, a candle lit vigil and 2 minutes silence were held to remember refugees around the world. This time for reflection followed the projection of the Still Human Still Here DVD on a cardboard screen held up against the church wall .An eerie silence descended upon the crowd as stories of destitute asylum seekers mingled with background noise of traffic and drunken laughter and echoed from the churchyard across the city centre.

Whilst some stood at the gates collecting petition signatures and engaging in debate with passers by, others tried to get comfortable on the cardboard and snuggle down for the night. Laying there shaking with my sleeping bag pulled tightly over my head I could hear nothing but muffled shouts and raucous singing from people returning home after a night out on the town. Unable to make sense of all the noise I felt scared and confused. I wondered how on earth it must it feel for a destitute asylum seeker sleeping rough on our streets. Unable to understand the meaning of the cries, a stranger to the late-night pub and club culture of our country, how would all this sound?

At 6.30am, when the BBC Oxford radio van pulled up to interview campaigners, people were just waking. The journalist described the scene as overwhelming; dozens of heads popping up from behind gravestones in the morning mist with banners blowing in the trees.

The first sight I encountered as I raised my own head was a banner swinging in the trees reading: ‘The right to shelter, food, employment, life…for destitute asylum seekers’. I thought about the breakfast I was about to eat and the lecture I would resentfully attend that morning and the true importance of this campaign hit me, sharp and painful like the cold morning wind upon my face.

Jenny Allsop,

Oxford STAR

Posted by Russell Brooks on 12/03/2008 at 03:47 PM