We have hit target number one. We can safely say that we have an income of £1000 per month. It turns out that that figure needs multiplying by another factor of 10, if we are to deal with the current level of need in Brighton. Still, you can all be justly proud to be part of something that makes such a concrete difference to the lives of some of the most marginalised members of our community.
I had two of the residents round for dinner on Tuesday night, they were both pleased to inform me that they had put on weight. It’s true, they have. As they told me, having a stable home means a massive reduction in stress. Their physical and mental health is much improved. Having their own home for six months has absolutely revolutionised their lives (and improved their figures). With the basics in place, they are able to continue navigating the labyrinthine process of sorting out their status, but, in my view, even more importantly, they have been able to take their place in the life of our town. For most of us, before you can be part of the public realm, you need a private space; somewhere you can call your own. That is what you have provided. It is a wonderfully concrete realisation of the slogan, “build bridges, not walls”. Thank you.
There is more good news. We think that we have been able to negotiate a contract on a new house in central Brighton. It is going to provide accommodation for two of the current residents. We have a contingency plan in place to make sure that the third person is not made homeless, but, in an ideal situation, we would like to be able to rent them their own room somewhere. To do that, we going to need more money. Here is the usual plea, please tweet, talk, write, share, email, shout and sing about the project. The £1000 a month shows that it is possible to house people out of our small change. The project is a simple proof that refugees are truly welcome here.
There is also some bad news. There are some Syrian families, who have refugee status and are working, but who cannot find housing because they don’t have rent guarantors. It is obviously a big ask to guarantee somebody’s rent, but, if you are lucky enough to own a home and have a reasonable income, please do consider it. If you get in touch, we can give you some more details. It would make all the difference to people who have been displaced by unimaginable violence and who are now having to start all over again in a new country.
Instead of my usual philosophical ramblings, I want to end on a personal note. I went to meet with the Sussex Syrian community at their new drop-in. The drop-in is held in a cold and draughty community hall borrowed from a sympathetic group. There were a handful of people, two who had been in the country a fair while and spoke good English, tea and biscuits, laughter, and chatter in Arabic. I explained, in English, what we did and talked about the sorts of help we can provide. It was translated and was received with many smiles and nods, and much expression of thanks. A trickle of people came in were given help with the arcane and confusing bureaucratic processes of starting a life in the UK. It was an uncanny experience for me. My own family is Jewish. A good half of the family came to this country, having been pushed here by czarist Russia, at the turn of the last century. The language was different and everybody had a smartphone, but it was as if I was in the stories told to me at cheder (Jewish Sunday school) and at family gatherings of immigration and yiddish mutual aid societies. Of course, I was playing the role of the bourgeois, Christian Englishman eager to be of service to my brethren of the mosaic persuasion. The uncanniness is unsurprising. The details change, but the forms of the problems which face displaced people remain the same. As a consequence, the strategies and solutions also have the same shape. The echoes of the past reverberate through our present reality.
As well as facing similar problems to contemporary refugees, Jewish immigrants at the turn of the last century elicited similar reactions from the settled community. These ranged from sympathy and solidarity with people facing destitution and persecution, through an anxious worry at worsening conditions for the indigenous population, to a downright hostility to a non-European other. (If you’re interested, this article, http://migrationmuseum.org/tag/aliens-act-1905/, gives a nice overview of the situation). From the luxury of a 120 years, we can smile benevolently at the idea that Jewish immigration was the cause of overcrowding and worsening labour conditions in late Victorian England. The “worry” that the Jews were an alien species, without loyalty to Britain, who constituted some sort of existential threat to British life stands exposed as vicious, ugly racism. Yet the same tropes return each time destitution and persecution start a new group of people on the same journey my ancestors made.
Although it is depressing that we deaden ears to the voices from the past, it also gives me hope. Two summers ago it was a big birthday for my father. My parents are lucky enough to live in a large house in South Cambridgeshire with a spacious and beautiful garden (a big shout out to my parents and http://www.refugeesathome.org/, because their house has recently become a home to someone seeking sanctuary in this country). We called a gathering of the clan and put up a marquee in the garden. Four generations of the family gathered for tea and cake and scones and strawberries. It was a 1920s’ antisemite’s worst nightmare. A very English house and garden had been taken over by loud, uncouth Jews. The sacred ritual of afternoon tea lacked in any sort of decorum. In my family, the two chief pleasures are talking and eating. No one is going to forgo one to indulge the other. If you don’t want to go hungry and stay silent, you better learn to talk, eat and listen all at the same time. But, of course, anyone who wasn’t an antisemite from the 1920s would have had a wonderful time (assuming they could get a word in edgeways). It was a warm, wonderful occasion. Had the fifth generation been there, the first generation in this country, they would have been astounded. The family has spread across the country and across the globe. It encompasses a broad political and social spectrum. (I’m not sure any farmers were present, but there is a relative who had the last urban dairy farm in the country, so even that’s been covered). In other words, after a century or so, we are as British or as un-British as the next family. It is now our place to reject our anxieties and our hatred by showing solidarity to the new arrivals and assisting them to find a home. If, like previous generations, we can resist the siren call of racism, then, in a hundred years, another set of new-old stories will have been added to our folklore. Our children’s children will have been enriched by their past, not least because in their mouths, “we” will encompass all those whom I have been calling “they”. We just have to keep on working for it. Thank You.