Founded in 1998, Refugee Week is a week-long UK-wide festival in June (20th-26th June this year) that celebrates the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees and people seeking asylum in the UK. For as long as I have been involved in social action and campaigning, I’ve always loved Refugee Week. While it provides the space for those who have come to the UK as refugees to share their stories and acts as a catalyst for us to take action in support of those who seek asylum here, it is also much more than that. It is a celebration of art, culture, heritage, food – and a reminder of the many ways our society, communities and lives have been improved by the contribution of refugees and those who seek asylum in the UK.
I can’t remember a year where there wasn’t something special happening that I could be a part of. A celebration and sharing of food from other cultures while I was studying for my undergrad, fashion shows organised by the refugees in my hometown who wanted to show off their cultural fabrics, poetry readings bringing together literature from refugees across the world hosted by my local library – all were rich experiences that I’m grateful for. At each event there were people who shared their personal testimonies of what it was like to leave their homes and resettle in the UK. Each individual’s story being incredibly powerful and moving, leaving me marvelling at how brave those who seek asylum are, not to mention how much richer our everyday lives are for having people make their second homes here. I loved these events because they were a celebration of refugees and those seeking sanctuary that brought the local community together. They were also some of the best examples of social cohesion I have been a part of and they allowed me to truly reflect on the type of society I want to belong to.
While Refugee Week has always been an important week in my calendar, it feels even more important this year. Following the passing of the Nationality and Borders Bill, the development of the UK-Rwanda Asylum Partnership System and the subsequent legal battles to stop those seeking asylum in the UK being removed to Rwanda for processing, standing in solidarity with and celebrating refugees in the UK has never felt quite so important. Nor has it felt so vital that we stop and reflect on the type of society we wish to be.
The type of society I want to live in is one that embraces the ethos of Refugee Week, not just for a short period of time in June, but every day of the year. The aim of Refugee Week is to enable ‘people from different backgrounds to connect beyond labels, as well as encouraging understanding of why people are displaced, and the challenges they face when seeking safety. 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’[i]. Moreover, the vision of Refugee Week is to support ‘refugees and asylum seekers to be able to live safely within inclusive and resilient communities, where they can continue to make a valuable contribution’[ii]. In a time when it feels that refugee rights are increasingly under threat from hostile immigration policies, working together to achieve this vision feels more essential than ever.
I don’t think there is a better time to stand in solidarity and celebrate just how much richer we are as a nation because of the contribution made by refugees and people who have sought sanctuary here. Yet, while we celebrate the rich culture refugees bring to the UK this week, it is important to remember that their welcome and belonging does not and should not hinge upon this. While we celebrate the art, culture, heritage, and food of the different and diverse communities refugees have helped to shape, remember that this has been dependent upon the creation of communities in which everyone feels like they belong.
Refugee Week is just as much a reminder to ourselves to ensure we are building inclusive communities in which everyone is welcomed and valued for who they are, not what they can contribute. As such I encourage you all to find out about the Refugee Week celebrations happening where you are, to engage and embrace them, and to stand up for a better, fairer and more inclusive society.
You can find out more about Refugee Week and a list of the events happening where you are via the Refugee Week website.