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The very public death of Aylan Kurdi must have a long reach

Seven years ago in July, and before social media was quite at the heights we “enjoy” today, several broadsheets in the UK ran the story of two teenage Roma girls washed up drowned on an Italian beach. The story wasn’t so much that once again people from a disadvantaged and persecuted race had been left to rot like so much rubbish; but that the bodies lay decomposing and lightly covered in full view of Italian families enjoying a family day out.

The picture (opposite) wasn’t widelyromareproduced, whether out of a sense of decency or a collective editorial view  that the “victims” didn’t merit it, wasn’t clear; but the story had some coverage, but very little reaction outside of Italy. And nothing like the global outrage to the mass reproduction of the images of Aylan Kurdi. The girls it appears had been selling trinkets on the beach when they decided to enter the water, though it was unsure if either knew how to swim.

Seven years on and the public reaction to human tragedy of the loss of a young life in appalling circumstances on a beach in Turkey, that most of us couldn’t contemplate, has quite rightly caused horror and outrage; and appears to be having an impact on our political leaders in the UK, though by how much and with what strings attached, is way too early to say. The image of a child lying dead face down in the surf on a beach that many other 3 year olds were playing on, only weeks before, is imbued with such tragic irony that few could remain unmoved. For those of us with children, no matter how grown, it sears into us the primal fear of having a child die before us. And for people everywhere it’s the image that is the antithesis of hope, a life ended too young.

But Aylan isn’t the only child to die too young this week. In fact he wasn’t the only child to die on that beach. Aylan’s brother Galip perished too along with his mother and nine others including other kids. The thousands of children who have died this week across the globe, through hunger, poverty, disease, war and crime; won’t be the last. We know this and we know we know this, but in our busy lives it’s as if we need to know this, at a distance, removed from view, and not over the cornflakes thank you very much. With every capsized boat during this summer’s sailing season, with every group of a hundred or so refugees dying on our beaches, still the politicians turned a blind eye, still the right wing press perpetrated the myths, still most people turned away uncomfortable, uneasy maybe, but still unsure about “these” people.

Then came the picture. I said to someone yesterday that I thought the image was exploitative. The look of distaste on the face of this person who has, to be frank, come late to the party of humanity and concern was almost comic. How could I, of all people, say that? Didn’t I understand what was happening? Look at the impact it has had. And it is precisely because of the impact it has had that I stand by my claim. Exploitative in a general sense as no family member back home, I believe was consulted or asked about a having this image splashed across the world and exploitative because it was published with only one aim in mind, precisely to get the reaction it did. But saying that it is exploitative is not to condemn its use or to criticise the decision firstly to take it or publish it. Far from it. Though I would prefer that reason and argument and evidence of the needs of refugees and migrants were what shaped policy, I’ll take what I can get. The fact that our and other European governments, are immune to reason, argument and evidence is shocking and ultimately very worrying. So if it takes the image of a dead child to galvanise public opinion and make a difference then the use of it is justified but it doesn’t change the fact that it was a calculated decision. For those of us who believe that generally the end justifies the means, remember that that’s fine just so long as the ends are the ones we want. And remember of something is exploitative someone else is being exploited.

The fact that the media shapes public opinion rather than reflect it is something I have written and spoken about many many times. The fact that it is often in cahoots with government is something responsible citizens not only have to wake up to but to challenge at every turn. Yet on the issues of refugees and migrants fleeing impossible conditions for the last 15-20 years, both the media and many responsible citizens have not only been silent on, but deliberately misleading. The case of the Roma girls 7 years ago (not markedly different) proves that.

So let’s be thankful for the light that has been shone on the misery of our fellow human beings but let’s be wary too. The people in the boats, behind the razor wire in Hungary, in the camps in Calais and those yet to flee Syria or where ever will still be there when the papers carrying the pictures have  been thrown out, and when the social media chatter has slipped down our page feeds. One they are settled in communities they will continue to need support. They might become your neighbours, your workmates, use your health services, attend your schools, hell they might even get a job you apply for. And when that happens or when people think that will happen or the media tell us it will happen, how supportive will you be then?

I’m pleased and relived that hundreds of thousands of people are discussing the issues that every day as Director of the Bridges Programmes me and my team deal with. Let’s hope it makes our job of promoting economic and social inclusion and integration of asylum seekers and refugees in Scotland easier. Let’s hope more doors are open, less hostility is evident. Send your dry goods, warm clothes, toys, but also send you hope, compassion and humanity. But can I also ask you when the pastas been cooked the clothes distributed that you keep your hope, compassion and humanity flowing. That’s the only way to make sure politicians listen, to make sure that things will change. That is the proper legacy for the Kurdi brothers.

 

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The Greatest Legacy of All

Bridges held its annual stakeholder ad events programme on 27 October. Another wonderful evening celebrating  the achievement sf our clients and our employers and partners working towards meaningful integration for our clients  But it  is worth remembering while we celebrate just what brings people to us. 80% of our clients are forced migrants, people who have fled their homeland through no choice as they face persecution. It is also worth remembering that this is not their fault. They may have opposed a regime; they may have spoken out, they may be articulate and Intelligent and that alone has marked them out or they may just have been in the wrong place at the wrong time a victim of circumstance a victim of someone else’s actions. Compare that to us here, where we still have  the luxury of free speech. I can mouth off about anything I want ( and I do regularly) without fear of persecution. Free speech is something we take for granted, but my god how you would miss it when it’s gone. It is also worthy considering that the actions of sometimes a very few can have ramifications of millions. A decision made, a treaty written. On this the 100 anniversary of the birth of Dylan Thomas he puts that serendipitous meeting  of fate and action very well in his poem The Hand That signed The Paper

 
“The hand that signed the paper felled a city;
Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,
Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;
These five kings did a king to death.

The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever,
And famine grew, and locusts came;
Great is the hand that holds dominion over
Man by a scribbled name.”
But on a slightly more cheerful note, what a  wonderful evening we had, a fitting end to a quite extraordinary year. We began the evening with facts and figures but of course that is only ever half the story and what makes Bridges so special are the people who are involved.
If People make Glasgow then they most certainly make Bridges, all of our people. Our inspirational clients, my exceptionally talented and hard working staff, my ever patient trustees, our  volunteers and interns, our partners and supporters  and our simply wonderful employers,  a fraction of whom we paid tribute to on the night. Without our employers Bridges would just be another agency tinkering around the edges of refugee and asylum integration, you are what make the crucial difference, the relationship between Bridges and employers is what is unique in this sector.
I have spent quite a lot of time this year in various parts of Europe trying to convince agencies that actually working with employers is not so very difficult, if the approach is right, and if the people you are supporting are suitably prepared for the labour market. I’m not saying it’s easy but it is, as we prove everyday,  do-able. We are lucky in Scotland that there is a broad understanding that if we are going to reach our potential  as a country that we need to be a country that celebrates and promotes all of our talents. And talent is something Bridges clients have in abundance, along with a desire to work and provide for their families and to make a difference and a contribution to their new country. Our employers who provide such a wide range of support and who design much of our course content with us, are contributing to that aim of a country of all the talents.
We are fortunate too that our government’s in Scotland have understood the importance of integration from day one, and that those waiting on a determination of their  asylum cases are not excluded from support, and it is more than rhetoric, it translates too into funding for asylum support, in a  way which makes colleagues in other parts of the British Isles somewhat envious. Long may that attitude to integration continue. 
We are grateful in Scotland that we do not send out the message to asylum seekers and refugees that a new poster  campaign in Australia is running which states NO WAY WILL YOU MAKE YOUR HOME HERE
But closer to home we utterly reject the assertion by Michael Fallon Defence Secretary in Westminster that we are being SWAMPED by people from overseas. Such rhetoric was common in the Thatcher era and truly belongs in the history books and to the xenophobic ramblings of the Daily Mail in the 1930’s and has no place in 2014.
To Mr Fallon and all critics of what  Bridges and others do, I say this:
We are not swamped, we are not awash with migrants  we are not overrun with foreign hordes. They are no, repeat no, barbarians  at our gates.
Instead in Scotland in 2014, in this city on this day, and in that room that evening, we were proud that we and others are encouraged and funded to support remarkable women and men with so much to offer, proud that we are part of  building something positive and determined to counteract the scaremongering and the “fear of the other” which experience tells us we will see grow as we approach the UK general election in 2015. For everyone of you that has  contributed and is contributing to that support and that positive view of our new citizens, you too should be proud and deserve a pat on the pack,  for those of you who are are dipping your toe into the Bridges pond…..I have one message…..come on in the water is lovely.
While immigration remains…..for now….the reserve of Westminster, the drivers of integration are mostly already in the hands of the Scottish Government, and we hope for further devolution of powers to make that integration journey complete. Bridges’ submission to the Smith Commission has been wide ranging but in terms of direct benefits to clients we have highlighted   on the complete transfer of welfare and equality legislation. Watch this space.
The theme of this years annual report is LEGACY and I hope that everything Bridges does, every client we help, every partner and employer we work with is contributing to that legacy of good practice and humanitarian support. Which is why we were so pleased to be a warded the LEGACY Award from Glasgow City Council earlier this year.
May next year, 2015 marks the start of our Tenth year as a stand alone charity. On May 1st 2005 we opened the doors to our new offices in Bridgeton (although Bridges had existed as a project within another organisation since 2002). We intend to mark that tenth year with  a range of events, and new projects to extend our legacy, and to catch up with some of our alumni to find out what they are up to now!.
But before we get ahead of ourselves we must recognise that we are in the process of securing funding for the next 3 years, and as ever in a crowded market place of support for people with multiple barriers the pots of money get smaller and the competition harder. But we press on because the work we do is too valuable to be laid aside; the expertise we  have too precious to be absorbed into mainstream agencies; the people we support have too much promise and potential to be overlooked; for the people we support we are a real beacon of hope to the next stage in their journey; the innovations we have introduced and want to develop are too important to  be forgotten or mothballed; our reputation is a mark of quality; we make a difference and we are needed.
Our clients often talk about how much we give them but  they give us much much more back in return, their  good humour, their humility, their determination, their motivation, their successes, their recommendations, and all  the chocolates.
They are what make me and my team feel  it is worth getting out of bed in the morning for.
They are the best legacy we can give to this small country
 
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Advice to the President of the Commission

Dear Mr Barroso
 
One of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given for application in both professional and personal spheres is “always apply the So What? question”. If you are proposing a course of action, writing a funding bid, designing a project, introducing change to your life, look at the expected outcomes and if you can’t answer So What? positively and with vigour the chances are, what you are proposing is a waste of everyone’s time, including your own.

Update from Maggie Lennon

To the outsider and the tourist, Brussels/Bruxelles appears as a city of two halves and I’m not, for once, talking about the language “issue”. In any event this self-governing city state in Flanders is 80% French speaking though surrounded by fiercely patriotic Dutch speaking suburbs and communities, desperate to keep the wealthy French speaking Eurocrats from moving in, and even more  determined to keep the poor migrant workers out.

Common Basic Principles

In 2004, the European Commission in consultation with all the usual Euro-suspects published a major contribution to the debate on the importance of migration and migrants for a successful progressive and equitable Europe. These Common Basic Principles have gone on in many ways to shape (where they exist) national strategies for integration and have provided a loose framework for the evaluation of how we are doing in this area. Last week in Brussels a group of some of the same suspects and few interlopers, such as myself, attended a day-long conference to decide if, 10 years on, these Common Basic Principles (CBPs as we Europhiles like to call them) were still fit for purpose.

Some thoughts after the death of Nelson Mandela

I was born the year before the Rivonia Trial and by the time I was taking my first steps and being toilet trained, Mandela had started his twenty six year stretch as a political prisoner on Robben Island. I had no idea who he was while I was growing up. The first time I heard about him, I was already a teenager. It was 1976 Soweto was burning and I had my first decent history teacher who one day pointed out of the window to where a white man was sitting eating his sandwiches and drinking tea out of a flask, his big red  face shielded from the sun by an umbrella. Around him were three black men, stripped to the waist, sweating and digging a hole deep enough that they could easily have stood up in it. That, my history teacher said, is a snapshot of South Africa. That, she said, fixing us with her serious stare, is what is wrong with this country.
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