A cold coming we had of it to Wapping. Day-long journeys across the country; rail replacement buses in the early morning light; wayward tickets; engineering works; a poignant text crying ‘I’m lost’. Nearly 50 travellers arrived at last at the Jesuit Refugee Services Centre to wide smiles, open arms and a warm welcome. And what a day we had!
The Refugee Tales reunion on Saturday 23rd January rehearsed all the qualities of last year’s walk. We met again as friends who had missed each other’s company and appreciated each other’s tales. Nic Eadie told us some of the stories behind his reasons for working with GDWG, drawing on his personal experience as a traveller, and his response to the people he meets in detention.
Christina Fitzsimons whetted our appetite for Refugee Tales 2016 with details of the walk from Canterbury to London, and David Herd thrilled us in the anticipation of the Forum and Tale Telling that would begin and sustain our walk. In a more sombre tone, Theresa MacIntyre spoke of the psychological effects of detention, whilst some of us took the opportunity to walk to the Thames to see the path we would be taking in July and muse on the layers of the histories of migration around us.
Did we follow instructions to engage in activities during our shared lunch? No, of course not. There were far too many conversations and reunions to be had and we had to bang a tray in the hubbub to get us all together again.
‘What does welcome look like?’, we asked. Anna Pincus spoke of how Citizens UK are supporting people in Crawley to ‘do something’ to welcome resettled refugees in their town. Half a dozen people were expected at their first meeting. The room over-flowed. Cristina Pecheanu told us how working with refugees in south London was a privilege and a gift to her. The universal language of kindness can be expressed with a limited vocabulary that can find a way to say ‘I love you’. Rosalinda Maog, herself a migrant religious sister working with detainees and refugees, shared her experience of learning to be more humane through the mutual welcome in the sacred encounter with people. In each of their accounts of working for welcome, they spoke from their hearts to ours.
The most powerful and precious part of the day was when we discussed what welcome felt like in the context of our shared experiences and desires for an end to unlimited immigration detention. Many people who had been detained spoke out very movingly, and Guiyang Li captured the passion of feeling that detention is unhealthy for all of us in our society. Pious Keku sent us on our way with his gentle words of insight, wisdom and thanks holding us together as a group.
Yet we didn’t go on our way. A recurring feature of Refugee Tales meetings is that no-one wants to go home quite just yet. We chattered on, looked at Ruben’s artworks and were finally shepherded out of the JRS centre by our kindly host. The reunion reinforced the affection, solidarity and declaration of the Refugee Tales folk. We look forward to welcoming new walkers, new tellers of Tales, and new listeners in July 2016.