Thursday, September 06, 2012

Global City: Refugee Stories from London

Last week STAR took a trip to a fantastic exhibition, ‘Global City’ at the Jewish Museum. Here’s what we found out about the changing fate of London’s refugees.

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“Things have changed for asylum seekers today,” writes Myriam Bell, who fled to the UK from Chile in 1974, at the age of 16, “Now it doesn’t seem as if people fleeing from persecution have a right to seek protection.”

Myriam is one of the nine refugees currently living in London who tell their stories in the exhibition World City, currently on display at London’s Jewish Museum. The exhibition also features stories from refugees from Austria, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon.

Each story is displayed alongside a photograph of the person in their London home and a picture of an object which holds special significance to them. The photographs and accompanying stories are beautiful and inspiring. Yet they also tell an often sorry tale about the changing fate of London’s refugees.

Seeking asylum in the UK

The exhibition – organised chronologically from the 1930s to the present day – shows that Myriam’s comment that “things have changed for asylum seekers today” rings true. In fact, the stories of those who fled to the UK in the last twenty years differ greatly from their predecessors.

Myriam recalls that back in the 70s she and her fellow asylum seekers “were treated like human beings and given an opportunity to work and study.” Today, almost all asylum seekers are denied the right to work and do not have equal access to university in Britain.

Changes have also impacted the process of seeking asylum. Kumar Kumarendran recalls how, in 1985, he explained to the Home Office that it would be too dangerous for him to return to Sri Lanka, after having been granted a student visa: “these days it would be impossible to secure asylum in that way.” Today’s asylum process can be torturously complicated, and many asylum seekers are finding it increasingly difficult to navigate without access to legal aid.

Life for those who are granted leave to remain in the UK can also be riddled with challenges and discrimination. For example, Alain, a well-educated professional who fled Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2002, explains that he cannot find work in the UK and lives in extreme poverty. He was recently blinded in one eye by a shard of glass during a racist attack.

Hope for the future

Yet the message is not entirely one of gloom. As well as highlighting the difficult conditions that refugees face in the UK, the exhibition celebrates their individuality, their courage, and the huge positive contribution that refugees have made to British society over the past six decades.

In spite of the many challenges they face, the people who tell their stories in the exhibition have managed to create successful and vibrant lives in the UK. Three “student ambassadors” from Kingston University – all of whom are now studying, having come to the UK as refugees when they were children – welcome visitors to the exhibition with an inspiring message of hope for the future.

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The exhibition also features a STAR display, which highlights the positive role played by STAR in supporting refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. Through the wonderful and inspiring actions of our student volunteers across the country, STAR also brings hope for individuals at a time where many may find their current situation challenging.

Visit the exhibition

The Global City exhibition will be running until 16th September at the Jewish Museum. Get some friends together and check it out yourself!

Posted by STAR team on 06/09/2012 at 01:51 PM