By Izzy Ardron
Like many people, my impression of the refugee crisis was overwhelmingly formed from the pictures of overcrowded boats and camps on Greek beaches, which seemed remote, contained in newspaper print and online.
This media-inspired “pessimistic stance” of “it’s so far away, we can’t do anything” is one of the many attitudes Durham for Refugees are hoping to change.
Despite issues surrounding diversity at Durham, its students have welcomed refugees particularly well
Co-presidents Alannah Travers and Amy Hawkin tell me that they have been supporting refugees in the local area, including communities in Gilesgate, Chester-Le-Street and Crook, amongst others, for 2 years.
Although this is their first year as an official society, the pair tell me that “it’s really taken off”, an evaluation of their progress which I learn that, if anything, is an understatement.
They describe the number of people “keen to help out” as “way beyond our expectation”.
The pair stress that, despite the current issues surrounding diversity at Durham, welcoming refugees is something “Durham students have done particularly well”.
With this help, as well as that of Durham locals, DfR organises events to help refugees meet and socialise with the Durham community, in addition to organising practical aid such as sorting donations.
Amy and Alannah show me images from their recent Taste of Syria festival – with food cooked by local refugees – which has proved so successful that it has been established as an annual event.
As well as organising these one-off events, DfR also provides regular cookery classes and volunteers at conversation classes run by Durham City Sanctuary.
When I ask about the importance of English lessons Amy and Alannah are emphatic.
They tell me that although “the government provide a small amount of teaching at the [local sixth form] colleges” of around two hours per week, “it’s nowhere near enough to fully integrate into society”.
They illustrate the difference that English classes can make by telling me about Rabiaa, one of the refugees who recently found a job with the local council, with her pre-existing English skills “potentially the distinguishing factor” in her success.
The two hours per week of English lessons provided by the government are nowhere near enough to fully integrate into society
The society also runs summer aid trips to the refugee camps in Calais and Greece.
These trips mostly consist of “a lot of organising” in warehouses of clothes and food, with the priority simply, and tragically, to “keep people alive and healthy”.
Rather than taking a (well-earned!) break between exams and the summer aid trips, DfR have taken on the ambitious-sounding task of running a summer Festival, taking place at Chad’s on 9th June.
The Festival will feature music from a number of local bands, including The Wayfarers, and The Crossings, made up of refugees from Newcastle.
In addition, the Festival will offer talks in the chapel including presentations from Emad Raad, a Syrian refugee and upcoming TED speaker, and Robert Cohen, discussing Palestinian solidarity from a Jewish perspective.
I ask Alannah and Amy what the Festival hopes to achieve -“fun!” is one response – but they emphasise that the main aim is “community and bringing people together”.
As well as DfR’s evident commitment to their work, what strikes me most in discussing the Festival is the support they have received from around Durham.
Chad’s have given them a venue, Hatfield are lending them a stage, and the event itself has drawn support from both the student and local community.
Alannah and Amy tell me that this support has typical of their experiences in and around Durham, with the society going far beyond their initial expectations of “a niche thing that all the lefties and hippies get involved in”.
With the anti-refugee demonstration in Durham of last November in mind, I ask if the refugees they work with have felt welcomed to the community. Their answer is overwhelmingly positive.
They tell me that “the integration is just so easy” with the local community “so keen to integrate”.
They describe as “wonderful” the support from counter-protesters at the November demonstration, with the “love for refugees” from the community standing out against the protest.
According to a Guardian article from March 2017, Gateshead is one of 5 local authorities nationally to have pledged to take over 500 Syrian refugees, whilst County Durham is home to the 3rd largest refugee population in the North-East, according to figures taken from the BBC.
The refugee crisis is happening here and now, and it is possible to make a difference.
Despite the North East’s “amazing” role in taking refugees, Amy and Alannah still feel that there is more that could be done.
Alannah describes as “ridiculous” that more refugees are not being accepted into the country and that “we could have done more to prevent” the situation in Syria.
Despite the evident difficulties in resolving the refugee crisis, the pair reject the temptation to think “it’s such a big issue, there’s nothing anyone can do about it”.
Instead, their attitude is one of emphasising that “actually, we can be going out and helping these people”.
Their impressively broad approach – from aid trips abroad to local cookery classes, and a proposed kids’ club for next year – demonstrates the impact of such a driven mentality.
Above all, my talk with Alannah and Amy has brought home that the refugee crisis is happening here and now, and that it is possible to make a difference.
The pair tell me that their next project, the Festival, will be “amazing”, and given their frankly inspirational work so far, it’s impossible to doubt them.
Durham for Refugees will be holding their Festival at St Chad’s College, 9 June, 13.30-22.00.
Tickets will be available shortly; for more information, visit their page here.
(Photographs: Durham for Refugees)