“No one wants to leave their life” – interview with Refugee Words

We spotted the #wearehumanjustlikeyou video on Twitter the other day, and wanted to find out more about the story and people behind it. We interviewed Kate Whiting of Refugee Words, a new project designed to encourage more people to see refugees as human, just like us. 

Right now, there are 21 Syrian refugees living in Cardiff, relocated under the UK Government’s Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS). Another 1,372 people in the city (of many nationalities, not just Syrian) are living in limbo, awaiting the outcomes of their asylum applications, which could take years. They usually can’t work during this time, and they can’t claim mainstream benefits, instead living off the £36.95 a week given to them by the Home Office.

These are the people lucky enough to make it to the UK. The ones who couldn’t make it across the channel are living in camps such as Dunkirk – they include unaccompanied children, families, older and vulnerable people, and they are just like us. 

We chatted to Kate of the Refugee Words team to find out more about their time in the camp.

What’s your story? 

There are two of us that make up the Refugee Words Team. I’m Kate, I’m from Norfolk. I met my Welsh boyfriend (from just outside Cardiff) while living in London. I guess you could say that I moved to Cardiff for love! I’d spent a fair bit of time in Wales before though, and have now got stuck right in. Dwi’n dysgu Cymraeg!

Our other member, Jess, is actually from Cardiff originally, but we met in Brighton, where we were both studying to become actors. We are hoping to continue the Refugee Words project in order that we can make a theatre piece using the words collected.

How did you end up in the camp?

A friend of mine suggested it after a discussion we’d had about wanting to do something about the general state of the world. Seeing as the refugee crisis is the biggest of our life times, we started there. We had also thought of doing some theatre workshops at the women’s centre, but when we arrived we quickly realised that it was last thing they would have wanted.

There were lots of people coming in and out wanting to do things with the women, to greater and lesser success, but all they really wanted was for us to lend a hand in a practical sense and speak with them. We distracted the kids by playing games with them.

We did hair, make-up, got our eyebrows (and upper lip – shhhhh) tweezed, and most importantly took a shopping list from the women so that we could go to the local supermarket and spend the generous donations family and friends had given us on EXACTLY what they wanted. No one had thought to buy wax, as it’s not ‘essential’, but these women just wanted to feel human again. They are collecting knickers as hand-outs, they just want a bit of dignity and choice back.

What motivated you to make the film?

We decided to collect the ‘stories’ of the people in the Dunkirk camp on our second visit. When we talked about our time volunteering in Dunkirk, it quickly became apparent that people just aren’t aware of it. Everyone knows about Calais, but Dunkirk has gone practically unnoticed. So much so that the unaccompanied minors in Dunkirk were not even included in the measly number eventually brought over under the Dubs amendment.

At the time we didn’t know what we would do with the words/stories, we just knew that we wanted the British public to hear them and that it had to be something immediate. In the end it was Jess’s idea to make a film, we originally had in mind that we would do it with famous faces to increase the exposure, but it’s not so easy convincing known faces to do a film for a couple of unknown women in Cardiff!

How did you make the film? Did you conduct the interviews with refugees? How did you get people to participate in the film? What were the challenges?

I sent a sort of introduction to what we were doing, to be translated. It was translated in to Sorani Kurdish, which is what most of the camp’s residents, at that time, spoke. I also translated it into Arabic on google translate. I didn’t bargain for the fact that in copying it over onto word the font would change and become unrecognisable!! Most speak Arabic as well as their first language, so I knew that we’d reach more of the residents and not just the Kurdish ones, but sadly when we showed them the paper cut outs with the Arabic translation, there were lots of very confused faces!!

Luckily the Kurdish one did the trick, it basically said that we are theatre makers and interested in getting the story of their lives across to the British public, especially those who are unaware of their situation. We said that we hoped to put pressure on the government. For those that agreed, we gave them a dictaphone and invited them to tell their story into it in their native language. We stood away from them to give them the space they needed. There were many tears. We then got these translated back into English when we got home.

In terms of actually getting people involved in the film when we got home, that’s a whole other story! I’ll try to keep it brief! We made a flyer inviting people to film themselves (on their smart phones) saying the words we had collected as if they were their own. We put the flyer up on social media and sent emails, and 70+ people responded. Including Guardian journalists Owen Jones, Gary Younge, and Nisreen Malik. We feel so lucky to have so many people involved. We then edited all the films together for maximum impact. Sadly we couldn’t include everyone’s videos in the final edit, but we hope to continue the project and release a longer version of the video in the near future. 

What do you hope is the effect of the film?

We hope that the effect is to humanise the camp’s residents. To make British people, particularly those who wouldn’t usually think about the refugee crisis, realise that this could be them. These people are just like us. In the words of the residents “we are all human”, “all humans deserve a life”, “we are human, just like you”. 

Our biggest hope is that if we can get this film seen by lots of people, they will join us by putting pressure on the UK Government to rethink their current position on allowing refugees to enter the UK. 

Please like and share across social media sites with our hashtag #wearehumanjustlikeyou

And visit our website for further information refugeewords.org

Get involved, get informed

To volunteer your time or skills to refugees and asylum seekers in Cardiff, get in touch with the Oasis Centre, Asylum Justice, the Trinity Centre, Oxfam Cymru or Welsh Refugee Council.

More information about volunteering your time or donating money, goods or food is available on the HelpRefugees website.

The National Assembly for Wales’s cross-party equality committee is currently undertaking an inquiry into the support for refugees and asylum seekers in Wales. It will be publishing its findings and recommendations next month. You can see all the written and oral evidence here.

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