The summer before I came to university I read an article in the New Statesman (23-29 August 2013) by Chitra Nagarajan, a human rights activist. The article analysed a recent report’s publishing of the most frequently used words to describe refugees in Britain’s main national daily and Sunday newspapers between 2010 and 2012; unsurprisingly, ‘flood’, ‘influx’, ‘wave’ and the inevitable ‘illegal’ all made the list. However, as far as the facts go, refugees with legal status far surpass those without.
Why is this kind of language problematic? Because it propagates false beliefs about refugees. The lazy language commonly used to describe refugees means that ‘illegal’ and ‘refugee’ have become synonymous. This clearly has large ramifications for the way in which they are viewed and treated in our society. To have such inaccurate common associations of language is to dehumanise and criminalise. If asked to define both ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’, would you find it difficult?
Although the prevailing media coverage of refugees is negative, recent positive progress has surfaced in the case of the UK government, which has ensured to act “with the greatest urgency” in providing aid to the most vulnerable Syrian refugees. Welcoming though this may be, the bulk of positive coverage on refugees – be it debate, discussion or governmental contribution – is focused on the benefits that refugees brings to British society. What’s missing here is the voice of the refugee population. This is where organisations such as STAR (Student Action for Refugees) drop-in centres come into act. Cardiff STAR is the biggest and most successful society of the national network of STARs across the UK.
I first found out about STAR through a conversation with the previous president, Hannah Gretton. Now volunteering and learning Arabic in Jordan whilst working with Bridges For Communities, an organisation which aims to spearhead social change at a grass-roots level by creating spaces for positive interactions between local communities; her commitment and passion was not difficult to see. What first struck me in my initial weeks at STAR was that this level of dedication and enthusiasm did not stand alone. Every one of the students on the committee express their unwavering resolve in running the meetings, from organising teaching sessions and worksheets to setting up communal areas and food tables.
Held weekly just off of Newport Road, STAR aims to provide conversational English lessons (predominantly one-on-one) for the refugee population in Cardiff. Operating on two levels, Cardiff STAR is unique in creating a social space where refugees are able to integrate and socialise with students and community members both in and outside of the society.
Over my short time at STAR so far, the wealth of wisdom and experience spanning nations and generations is apparent in talking to the individual refugees, each with their own personal stories and backgrounds.
One of the aims of the STAR network is to provide an environment where informal english teaching is readily available and free, whilst clarifying and educating the wider community on the truths of asylum in the UK. It is clear to me that teaching and learning is a two way process. This exchange of stories and insight is not restricted to the four walls and high ceilings of the STAR meeting place. Past events such as ‘Listen to Our Story’, a theatre production written and performed by refugees, and ‘Open Expressions’, a spoken-word poetry evening featuring Sierra Leonean born rapper/poet/storyteller Alim Kamara, provide yet another platform for the refugee voice.
On Thursday 20th February, Cardiff STAR will be holding its legendary ‘Refugee Rhythms’ night – a charitable event to celebrate the richness of culture within the Cardiff community. The walls, tables and chairs of the CF10 cafe will be adorned with saris, African prints and bunting. Students and refugees will be cooking food from all around the world and we invite you to join us in experiencing musical delights from Captain Accident, Junior Bill and the Scallies, Stew Hume and The Skunk-Boy Project. All proceeds will go towards the running of the Cardiff STAR drop-in centre and its many organised activities and events for the local refugees. We believe that the refugee community of Cardiff is something that should be celebrated. Their stories deserve to be heard.
Nancy Carney-Holland and Tasha Chilambo