Tuesday, December 06, 2011

STAR National Conference 2011: 100 Student Activists Raise their Voices for Refugee Rights!

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On the weekend of the 19 and 20th of November 100 student activists from over 30 universities joined up with experts and advocates from the refugee movement to learn more about the challenges facing asylum seekers and refugees in the UK and raise their voices for refugee rights. Participants showed their creativity by coming together to perform an attention-grabbing Simple Act in support of the End Child Detention Now campaign on International Children’s Day.

Christina from Manchester STAR tells all…

“From the beginning of the National Student Conference I was immediately immersed. The brief introduction set the scene for what would be the most interesting and educational 11 hours I have had in a long time. This coming from a 3rd year student is no mean feat! Of course most of the details are so deeply locked in my subconscious by now that I have no access to them…But a lingering awareness of all the issues affecting refugees and asylum seekers in this country are with me always so that any unsuspecting unbeliever would be faced with a strategic onslaught of arguments as listed by Jonathan Ellis, Director of Advocacy at the Refugee Council, in his step by step guide to changing minds.

In my opinion, the most special aspect of the conference was the attendance over the 2 days of an eclectic mix of experts, who were happy to offer their knowledge. It was awesome to be in the presence of UNHCR, Refugee Action and Still Human Still Here representatives as well as refugees and asylum seekers willing to share their stories so openly. I do try to keep up to date with news and reports from many of the organisations that were present but to have someone from their office come and talk was a precious experience.

Of the many parts of the conference, I most enjoyed the workshops as in small groups everyone seemed more comfortable and open to asking questions and discussing topics of interest, if only to express shock and horror at the atrocities taking place. I learnt of the vulnerability of women in the asylum process and finally got a good grasp of the elusive Section 4! Its content may not be as elusive anymore but its criteria are just as incomprehensible.

Next, I came to grips with detention in the UK. Although I had heard all about it, the information I acquired was invaluable. This was the beauty of the conference for many of us students: it gave us a more concrete and complete understanding of all the issues such as detention, destitution and the asylum process so that we now feel empowered to take action. I was surprised at the heated debate that emerged naturally in some of the sessions. In the workshop on detention we had one student defend detention centres as economically viable in preventing those considering absconding. Immediately, passionate retorts clarified how unnecessary detention is and I was particularly touched when a refugee spoke of his personal experience of detention. Suddenly the room was quiet again. It seems most often real life testimonies are the greatest tool in convincing people that what seems horrific IS horrific. Too often we justify cruelty so as not to face it…

Although exhausted by the first day, STAR staff still managed to give us a fun party in an unexpected setting…Returning to a primary school was a blast from the past but I for one enjoyed the mini toilets and impossibly low sinks making me feel like a giant! As we all sat in the main hall, we enjoyed some of the conference’s consistently amazing food, including a delicious curry! The most exquisite sandwiches and perfect weather were our fuel for the long days of learning…

Saturday night was a great opportunity to get to know other students and find out what they are up to in their respective STAR groups. It also gave us an excuse to talk openly of all issues relating to refugees, I was quickly engrossed in a conversation about Burmese refugees and then tumbling onto the general work of the UN…Relief from the mental overload came with a creative quiz and a new and improved X factor competition. My team painstakingly learnt ‘We all live in a yellow submarine’ in Lithuanian and embarrassed ourselves with our attempt at submarine-like dance moves…The Kurdish dancing that followed was the perfect amount of exercise and excitement to ease us into a deep sleep on the cold floor of a primary classroom. As crash pad volunteer I took on the maternal role of turning the lights out so all the children could sleep soundly…

Sunday: After a cup of tea I was ready to go again and what better start than a Masterclass! This title may have been daunting for Jonathan Ellis but he did not disappoint. I came away inspired to try his technique on my parents who occasionally try and quiz me on the reasons I care for what happens to refugees and asylum seekers. Sunday was a particularly inspirational day with Marjorie from Women for Refugee Women humbling us with her story. This was followed with some practical brainstorming on campaigning and fundraising to equip us STARs with all the tools for creating change in our society.

Ultimately however nothing prepared us for the moving speech by Keith Best, Chief Executive of Freedom From Torture. He told of us the great feeling of responsibility that goes hand in hand with helping guide people through a difficult and for many an uncertain time in their lives. Many of us struggled to hold back tears when he shared the story of one individual on the brink of suicide before someone reminded him that he was loved. Although difficult to hear I think all of us were so intrinsically moved that we made internal oaths to do something. That weekend that something started with a simple act…banners up, lollipop ladies at the ready…End Child Detention Now!”

By Christina Lumsden, Manchester STAR


Some of your fab pics!

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Join STAR on Facebook to check out more fab pics from the conference!



Posted by STAR team on 06/12/2011 at 02:47 PM