Most of us have suffered during the pandemic in one way or another: we’ve been in lockdown, perhaps lost some income and have been prevented, temporarily, from seeing friends, and family. But what if that was a permanent change? What if we had lost everything we ever owned, had travelled thousands of miles to find a safe place for ourselves and our children, and had left behind all our family and everything we knew, with little or no prospect of ever seeing them again? Understanding this dilemma is going some way to understanding the challenges faced by the tens of thousands of people who become refugees each year through no fault of their own.
It would be easy to think that the life of these refugees is one of misery and suffering, and there is no doubt that many people suffer as a result of being a refugee. But refugees often have incredible strength, resilience, and fortitude and can use their experiences to help others through telling their stories, finding their voices, and expressing their creativity.
Refugee Awareness Week is a week-long, UK-wide festival, coordinated by Counterpoint Arts, which seeks to go beyond the stereotype and celebrate the “contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees and people seeking sanctuary.” It was founded in 1998 and is held every year around the 20th June, which is World Refugee Day. This year in the UK, the week runs from the 14th – 20th June with the theme “We cannot walk alone”. This is a reference to a line from Martin Luther King’s iconic “I have a dream” speech, which describes the interconnectedness and interdependence of all humans. During the pandemic, we have heard the line “no one is safe until we are all safe”, which also underlines a fundamental fact of human life – that we must all ultimately, rely on each other to thrive; for by making the world a better place for our fellow humans, we also make it a better place for us.
The organisers understand that we are also not all the same; that there are still differences in experience and access to power and resources that exist, but that these different experiences are part of a ‘bigger us’ which we can use to our advantage. Refugee Awareness Week is, therefore, as much about celebrating the stories of refugees through the arts, culture, sporting, and education events, as it is about raising awareness of their plight, fighting negative stereotypes, and educating people about the reasons why people become refugees in the first place. As the website states:
“Refugee Week is a platform for people who have sought safety in the UK to share their experiences, perspectives, and creative work on their own terms.”
It is a partnership project coordinated and managed by Counterpoint Arts, working with many national organisations such as the British Red Cross, the NEU teaching union, UNHCR, Refugee Action, various national refugee organisations, and Amnesty International, to name but a few.
How to get involved in your setting
There are many ways to get involved in Refugee Week, and you do not have to have refugees in your setting in order to take part. The idea is that you are making people aware of the refugee issue and celebrating their contribution; this could be locally, nationally, or internationally. As lockdown eases, it is becoming easier to hold events again so you might want to organise something or plan to visit another event. You can find out what’s on in your locality by looking on the website at the events calendar or you can upload your own event as well. There are also lots of promotional posters, postcards and downloadable resources you can use on the official website which can be downloaded here.
One of the things that the organisers want people to promote are some ‘simple acts’ that everyone can do, such as starting a conversation or reading a story. These are things that could easily be adapted for an early years setting by simply doing the things you normally do, but focusing on refugee stories or the theme of “We cannot walk alone”. We’ve listed these acts below and adapted some of them for pre-school children.
The simple acts are:
- Sing a song - learn and share a song related to togetherness such as “The More We Get Together” which you can find on YouTube here or a song about saying “Hello” in different languages, which you can find here
- Watch a film – you can hold a film event for adults and watch some of the films recommended on the website or find some younger age-appropriate animations that introduce children to the plight of refugees
- Have a chat - start a positive conversation about some of the things that refugees can bring to a new country – think of things like food, art, clothes and culture and stress the benefits for everyone of cross-cultural collaboration
- Read a book – use your storytime to read some related stories such as “Lily and the Polar Bears” by Jion Sheibani or “My Name is Not Refugee” by Kate Milner
- Say it loud – create a message board with messages of support and welcome – it could be a physical board in your setting for people you know, or it could be an online version that can reach everyone
- Play a game/learn something new – play some games which encourage everyone to join in or are ice-breakers – it could be a circle game (see here for a list), or you could learn a new dance from another country
- Walk together – on 20th June, one of the events is the ‘Great Walk Together’ where you can join others celebrating inclusion and togetherness either as a setting or as different families
- Join the movement – extend the week to last all year by planning other events at different times and make sure that you are promoting tolerance, understanding and inclusion throughout the whole year
Remember, ‘refugees’ is a collective term but each person is different and their experiences are unique, and as such, each will have a unique insight and different gifts to offer, so celebrate those. And whatever you decide to do, remember to tell us your news and send us your stories and pictures to firstname.lastname@example.org.