Celebrating Sanctuary in Southmead

I had the privilege to get involved with a great event Celebrating Sanctuary in North Bristol at the Greenway Centre. It was part of the city-wide Bristol Refugee Festival in June and a wonderful gathering of locals, visitors, refugees and asylum seekers alike.

There were people from different walks of life and cultures sharing national dishes, trading and displaying crafts native to them, along with music and dance. Conversations were shared about religion and cultural cohesion. Tales of struggle, determination and triumphs of the human spirit were told by people from Malaysia, Hong Kong, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Sudan and Tibet.

I spent the most part of the afternoon with some lovely Sudanese lads who had endured the crossing from France to the UK in one of those dinghys we see so often on the news.

With only a fistful of common words between us, and many hand signals and makeshift sign language, I chatted with these guys in length about their journey. I learned of the harrowing roller-coaster of joys and spills, told by them and echoed by so many. One of them left Sudan aged 15 and turned 20 the week he reached our shores, a five year slog through borders, chaos, detention centres, refugee camps and long roads. These were heart-breaking and tense anecdotes of situations you or I will never have to experience, yet there was not one grumble nor gripe from any of these lads. It was enlightening to actually sit and chat with them about these journeys.

Their first hand stories have washed away what I thought I knew about the whole channel crossing scenario and have given me a genuine sense of empathy, coupled with admiration for the courage of these desperate and determined young men.

They also showed me their Tik Tok videos, typically emblazoned with stickers and emojis – but not of the latest dance craze or pets doing tricks – these had a much deeper and serious perspective. I saw videos of the desperate and hostile situation in Calais, of anxious faces on a dinghy packed like 50kg of luggage in a 40kg bag, faces of worry and panic as they hit turbulent waters midway across the

channel, and of jubilation when they spotted Stena Line ferries, and then the UK coastline. Then faces of absolute relief and a sense of final sanctuary. This moved me deeply – what an eye-opener – I had only been seeing half the picture on the news.

I have never before sensed such genuine gratitude than from these young men who have had obstacles in front of them that few of us could ever relate to nor even fathom. They are humble, grateful, relieved, and clearly happy to be welcomed the way Bristol welcomes anybody and everybody. Shy and reserved at the beginning of the afternoon, it wasn’t long before they were doing art and crafts with local children, children with similar stories and journeys to theirs. I even managed to convince one of the lads to join me in the break dancing workshop, much to the obvious amusement of his fellow Sudanese journey-mates. What a fantastic day!

One thing I learned was just how hugely significant the smallest gestures of acceptance and understanding can be, just to listen and not judge. I think you’d have to have a heart of stone to not want to offer sanctuary to anybody who’s been through what these lads have.

The afternoon resonated with me deeply, and I will continue in my commitment to giving hope a chance for those who only have hope left.

This item was also published in the July - August 2022 printed edition of The Mead