Thursday, November 27, 2008

Review: STAR Conference 2008

Inspiring speakers, a challenging Question Time, informative workshops and each other! The 11th STAR national conference – the only UK conference for students on refugee issues – was undoubtedly a great success.

What is conference all about?

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The conference is an important space where STAR members can inform themselves about refugee issues, develop their skills, and share ideas through meeting each other. This year it was held at the Amnesty Human Rights Action Centre in London on 15th and 16th November and brought together representatives from groups across the country.

Speakers

Our keynote speakers were particularly impressive. Helen Bamber, founder of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture and the Helen Bamber Foundation, expressed the privilege she felt at being able to speak to students who have “open minds, looking to persuade governments to make changes”. She moved us all with her story: a severely tortured survivor at a concentration camp dug her fingers into Helen’s arms and rasped out, “Tell, tell, tell.” Helen impressed on us our duty to tell the stories of refugees, to bear witness to their plight, to give people a voice.

Helen_Bamber talk notes

Almamy Taal, an exiled journalist, spoke on the subject of his recent book, Made destitute by law. Almamy experienced destitution first-hand, having fled to England after being tortured and imprisoned in his own country. He encouraged us to think about why people become destitute and how this is actually a violation of human rights: “The decision is yours; challenge everything and everybody,” he told us. Our role is to be open-minded, to challenge decisions, to find out why this is happening and to figure out how we go from here to change the situation.

Almamy Taal talk notes

Yeukai Taruvinga shared her experiences as an asylum seeker, giving us background on the ‘Let Them Work’ campaign. Because of her activism at university in Zimbabwe she had to flee, seeking asylum here in 2001. She has been imprisoned in four different detention centres, describing the ordeal as “humiliating” and “the most dehumanising thing that had ever happened to me”. After being released from detention in Scotland she was made destitute: she had to sleep rough and rely on friends. She is still not allowed to work. She believes that the opportunity to work is crucial to empower asylum seekers to do things for themselves rather than be forced to depend on others.

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Emma Williams, STAR’s Chief Executive, then outlined STAR’s role in the ‘Let Them Work’ campaign, emphasising the importance of getting the message out that about people being denied the right to work and support themselves. She explained that Yeukai is on the ‘Let Them Work’ speakers network and can come and speak at universities, and that Brighter Futures have produced a DVD on the issue. Remember: “We can campaign in this country, so we must.”

Question Time

A highlight of conference, Question Time was an opportunity to put some questions to our experienced panel. You can download a summary of the questions and following discussion:

Question Time notes

Get informed – workshops

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Information workshops on Saturday enabled delegates to get to grips with a wide range of issues, with the “ABC of Asylum” serving as a good basis for informed campaigning and action. The Refugee Council workshop on “Refugees and higher education” involved exploring cases of people at various stages in the asylum process and the particular difficulties they face in accessing higher education. The Medical Foundation workshop on “Children and young people” provided delegates with stories of young refugees and helped us explore how to work with young people while being sensitive to the impact of their experiences on both themselves and on those who work to support them. A presentation by the British Red Cross on “Destitution” and its impact on people refused asylum kicked off an interesting discussion on what students can do to combat the effects and seek political change. The International Rescue Committee’s “Iraqi Refugees” workshop enabled students to better understand the challenges facing Iraqis as they seek safety and security.

PARTY!

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After a long day for many weary travellers, STAR members headed to the pub for a well-earned (if slightly late!) meal. Though while waiting we had a special conference quiz to tackle! Competitive spirits emerged, particularly among certain Trustees (unfortunately the self-titled ‘Winners’ were the eventual losers). Great joy was experience for a mixture of STAR members from Hull, SOAS and Sussex (bound by a common past at Atlantic College STAR!) who came out on top (see corresponding smiley faces). If you wish to relive the glories, or those that might have been, the original version of the quiz, created by Patrick Scott-Graham, is available to download.

STAR Conference Quiz 2008

Take action – workshops

Sunday was the time to think about taking action. Members of Brighter Futures helped students consider “Awareness raising at university”; sharing ideas and methods, and discussing how to improve them. “Working with children” provided us with key examples of excellent existing projects. It was important for those who are considering setting up a project with refugee children, and for those who already run one. Lastly, the “Let Them Work: Action Day 09” workshop stimulated a lot of discussion about what STAR could do to promote the cause and win the argument about the right to work for asylum seekers.

Brighter Futures workshop notes
Working with refugee children workshop notes
Let Them Work workshop notes

The Annual General Meeting

The Annual General Meeting (AGM) was a great time to meet the trustees and find out more about how STAR actually runs. For more details, you can return to this page in a couple of weeks to download the minutes.

Most importantly at the AGM were the STAR Awards… Find out who won

All in all the weekend achieved what it had set out to do: it was a great time of meeting each other, learning and being inspired to action. Shame we have to wait another whole year (it’s a bit like Christmas)!

Posted by Stephen Rowling on 27/11/2008 at 03:35 PM