The Refugee Miner with ‘Nine Lives’: in honour of Joe Lisak (1926-1999)

Volunteer Jacquie Lisak tells the story of how her father-in-law came from Poland to Wales and cheated death more than once along the way…

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Joe and Lorna’s Wedding Day in Lllanbradach on 7th August 1950

 

In 1939, Poland faced the twin horrors of invasion from the west by Nazi Germany, and invasion from the east by the Soviet Union, culminating in one of the darkest, bloodiest and most devastating periods of the 2nd World War. Hitler ordered his commanders to kill, ‘without pity or mercy, all men, women and children of Polish descent or language’ [1] while Heinrich Himmler expressed this, perhaps, more chillingly, in 1940, when he stated ‘all poles will disappear from this world,’ describing the ‘elimination’ of the Polish people as Germany’s ‘chief task’ [2]. Subsequently, the Poles witnessed the horrors of the concentration camp and forced labour camps. Overall, almost 18 per cent of the Polish population or 6 million, half of whom were non-Jewish, were killed in a reign of terror that saw forced evictions, enslavement and mass executions. The Soviet terror unleashed in the east brought yet more horror and cruelty, for both the Nazis and the Soviets were equally intent on destroying Poland’s culture and subjugating its people. A ‘Reign of Terror’ was unleashed under Soviet Union rule in which mass executions, imprisonments and deportations thrived. Anyone, deemed guilty, of ‘crimes against the revolution’ or ‘counter revolutionary activity’, defined as, any pre-war service to the Polish State, could face arrest. Indeed, for the Poles, the end of the war brought no return to justice or prosperity. Instead, new forms of oppression, trauma and injustice flourished under continued Soviet rule [3].

It was against this background that Ignacy ‘Joe’ Lisak from Krzeczow, East Poland fled his homeland and found refuge in the UK. His links with the Polish resistance and his close alliance with activist, Wladyslaw Galka, led to a warning by the local Chief of Police that he faced joining Galka in prison with the inevitable threats of execution, which that might entail. Galka was imprisoned twice, facing execution on two occasions and spent many years in solitary confinement. It seems fairly certain that a similar fate would have awaited Joe, had he not fled. Yet, this was not the first occasion where Joe escaped possible death.

As a young boy Joe was among a group of children playing by the river. They found a box containing a number of small objects, which to their delight, when thrown in to the water, erupted, creating spectacular watery displays. They played happily with these objects, seemingly unaware of the dangers posed by the lethal explosives they had found. Joe left his companions early that day, as by some stroke of good fortune, he had promised to run an errand for his mother. Sadly, his playmates were never to return home and were reported deceased the following day.

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 Joe pictured as a teenager, back right, with family

 

Joe’s escape from Poland was a dangerous and difficult one. Like many refugees, much of his journey was made on foot and under cover of great forests. Joe mentioned one detail about his journey, which was quite funny, saying, that after crossing the border in to Czechoslovakia, by foot, he took a wrong turn and ended up back in Poland! On another occasion, he and a companion were confronted by soldiers who questioned their whereabouts. It was important to think quickly and to stifle any outer expressions of fear, to avoid suspicion, so they explained that they had lost their way after attending a house party and asked for directions. Luckily, they were left to continue their journey, without raising further doubt. Joe was never one to discuss this period of his past, often, with his family, whether this was because there were many memories that he would prefer to avoid, or whether he did not wish to burden his family with such memories is unclear. One particular story from his past emerged a number of times when relaxing on weekends, with a glass of beer or his favourite, vodka, he, sometimes, alluded to an incident in the forest where he and his companion faced capture by two Soviet Soldiers. He would mime, with his hand, the pulling of a trigger and speak of burying one of the soldiers, saying that the other soldier escaped. Joe and his companion continued to travel onward, but remained ever fearful of discovery.

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Joe’s Certificate of Registration issued to refugees under the Aliens Order 1920

Joe’s Certificate of Registration issued under the Aliens Order 1920 confirms that he arrived in the U.K on the 5th of March 1948 and gained employment on the 7th of May with the National Coal Board in South Wales, where after the second world War, demand for coal was high and there was an urgent need for coal miners. The vast influx of refugees from Europe provided an ideal source of recruitment. However, refugees were not always welcomed, facing opposition from locals, ‘partly from ignorance and partly from fear of unemployment’ [4]. Indeed, the National Union of Miners (NUM) stated that they opposed, ‘the employment of Poles and displaced persons in British mines’ [5]. However, Joe and his Polish friends encountered little hostility in their local communities and settled in well. In fact, the only person who was ever heard to tell Joe to, ‘get back to Poland, you bloody foreigner’, was his wife Lorna, during the occasional argument, something which his children would laugh about, as it was clear that she loved him very much and didn’t really mean it. On arriving in Wales, Joe obtained lodgings at various addresses locally, including at the Miners Hostel in Ystrad Mynach which housed a large number of European Refugees, many of whom would forge strong bonds, becoming life-long friends. Later when they had settled or married, they would often gather at each others’ homes to eat, drink – vodka being a popular choice, play cards, talk and laugh. It was while lodged at Ystrad Mynach Hostel that Joe met Lorna, from the nearby village of Llanbradach where they would eventually set up home. They were married on the 7th August 1950 and later had six children and 12 grandchildren, including one step grandchild.

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Joe, pictured with other refugee miners at Ystrad Mynach Miners Hostel, – lying down at the front, posing with a pipe borrowed from a friend.

In October 1952, four years after his arrival in the U.K, Joe faced another brush with death while working at Bedwas Colliery when there was an explosion. Ambulance man, Evan Williams, described how he found Joe as follows:

‘One man lay back in the manhole. He was a big Pole named Lisak. He must have been working stripped to the waist. The skin was stripped off his body in sheets. His arms, hands and face had been burned. What could I do for him? I didn’t have half enough stuff. I covered him over with coats as he was, and encouraged him to keep still, as I would send him out first’ [6].

One person was killed, and 20 others were injured that day. Joe had severe burns from the waist upwards, including his face and his ears. Although, he retained his hearing after the accident, little remained of his actual ears. Joe spent many months in hospital, enduring operations and skin grafts. Yet, I never noticed his injuries, until I forced myself years later to take a closer look; I believe my failure to notice these things was because his personality and sheer character eclipsed them. After a long period in hospital, Joe returned to work in the mines but did not settle. He became a painter and decorator, his family continued to grow and he eventually travelled to Poland with them for many happy holidays. His children, have many fond memories of him, among them, his, sometimes, very poetic turn of phrase. He once likened his blonde blue-eyed grandson, Daniel, to an ‘angel’ who had come to visit him. On another occasion, his daughter Cheryl was standing by the half open back door that led to the garden. She was smoking a cigarette under the fading evening sunshine. The combination of smoke, reflected light and shadow, falling on her long blonde hair, led him to comment, ‘You look like an angel in a golden cage.’

In his later years, Joe became a school Caretaker at the local primary school. Indeed, he is still remembered by ex-students as ‘kind’ and ‘funny’. Joe survived a stroke but eventually died after contracting a hospital bug at the age of 72. My overriding memory of Joe, is of a man of great character and charm, of smiles and laughter, of a mop of curly white hair and a deep Polish accent, of someone who is remembered with great affection by his family, and all those who knew him.

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Joe as I remember him, pictured outside his home in Llanbradach

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Many thanks to the Lisak family for sharing their memories of Joe.

NOTES AND REFERENCES

[1] Holocaust Forgotten website http://www.holocaustforgotten.com/poland.htm

[2] ibid.,

[3] Anne Applebaum in New Republic, December 20, 2012 http://www.newrepublic.com/article/111235/evil-after-evil

[4] Ceri Thompson in Glo/Coal, https://museum.wales/media/4619/glo-allpoles.pdf

[5] ibid.,

[6] Durham Mining Museum website http://www.dmm.org.uk/ukreport/9019-03.htm

 

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The Centenary of the 1917 Balfour Declaration: Britain, Palestine and Israel

By Jane Harries, Cymdeithas y Cymod peace activist, human rights observer and Wales for Peace Learning Coordinator.

Balfour Declaration WCIA Debate Leaflet Oct 2017

The Marble Hall of the Temple of Peace and Health in Cardiff was packed to overflowing on the evening of 18th October 2017, the air thick with expectation. The Cardiff Branch of the United Nations Association (UNA) had brought together two eminent speakers to talk about the historical context and present consequences of the Balfour Declaration – a document whose centenary is marked today, 2nd November.  It was clear we were in for an interesting evening.

So what was the Balfour Declaration, and why should we remember it today?  Does it have any significance for us in Wales?

The Balfour Declaration is in fact in the form of a letter written by Arthur James Balfour, Foreign Secretary in David Lloyd George’s wartime coalition government, to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the Jewish community in Britain.  The key words are as follows:

‘His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.’

Balfour_portrait_and_declaration

The first speaker, Avi Shlaim – Jewish historian, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford and married to the grand-daughter of Lloyd George – started off the evening with a historical analysis.  He defined the Declaration as a typical colonialist act. The British had no moral or legal right to give a ‘national home’ to Jewish people in Palestine, having consulted neither with the Arab leaders, nor the Jews nor the British population. Nor was Palestine theirs to give.

Behind the scenes there were political motives. David Lloyd George wanted Palestine for the British in order to gain influence over the French and because of access to the Suez Canal.  He also wanted to dismember the Ottoman Empire and was willing to engage in double dealing to do so. Overtures were made both to Arab leaders and also to the Zionists, whom Lloyd George regarded as powerful and influential.

Jews had lived scattered across the globe before the First World war but at the end of the 19th century a nationalist Jewish campaign grew up in the form of Zionism, whose aim was to establish a national home for the Jews. Zionism particularly appealed to Lloyd George, steeped as he was in the Biblical passages and hymns of his chapel upbringing. This deep emotional connection may have been one reason why he became influenced by Dr Chaim Weizmann, Zionist Leader in the UK and later first President of Israel. And so Lloyd George’s government bowed to Zionist pressure and issued the Declaration, ignoring other Anglo-Jewish voices at the time, including Edwin Montagu, the only Jew in the cabinet.

Balfour_Declaration_War_Cabinet_minutes_appendix_17_October_1917

The second part of the Declaration is often forgotten – that is that the civil and religious rights of ‘existing non-Jewish communities’ in Palestine (over 90% of the population at the time) should be respected.  The British Mandate in Palestine, issued by the League of Nations in 1923, included a responsibility to implement the Balfour Declaration.  The Mandate was, however, essentially pro-Zionist and led inevitably to the series of events we are familiar with today: the Arab revolt of 1936 – 39, the rise of Zionist terrorist activity against the British and Palestinians, British withdrawal from the region, and the foundation of the State of Israel mirrored by the Palestinian Nakba (= catastrophe, mass migration) in 1948.  The Israeli- Palestinian conflict is one of the most entrenched in the world and continues to blight lives today.  This is particularly true for the Palestinians, who have seen their homeland shrink and their human rights whittled away under a now 50-year military occupation.  Even the area which the British government recognises as a future state for the Palestinian people is now occupied by 700,000 Israeli settlers.

The second speaker, Professor Kamel Hawwash of Birmingham University, Palestinian commentator on the Middle East, explained the consequences of Balfour today.  He outlined the effects of the Israeli Occupation for those living on the West Bank, including loss of land, freedom of movement and livelihood, difficult access to education and health care, and subjugation to continuous harassment and violence.  In the Gaza Strip the population essentially lives in an open prison, deprived of many resources we take for granted, including clean water and proper sewage systems.  He then turned his talk to address an unusual question.  The state of Israel is more or less exactly the same size as Wales.  What would be the situation today if the Balfour Declaration had promised a homeland for the Jewish people in Wales, not in Palestine?  Using parallel maps, he brought this supposition to life, with swathes of Welsh land having been taken up into the State of Israel and Cardiff a divided city.  This helped us to see the Declaration from a different perspective.

As the evening wore on, there was strong feeling from one young member of the audience that the speakers were one-sided; she pleaded to hear the other side.  A student of Atlantic College, it appeared that she had spent a lot of time listening to the arguments of Palestinian and Israeli students living in her house. So what can we say about the Balfour Declaration that is more balanced and even positive?

The Balfour Declaration was of its time – as Avi Shlaim said essentially a colonialist document – so perhaps it should be judged as such.  It feels obvious from the wording of the document that the author was trying to balance what was felt to be a justified case for the Jewish people to have a homeland with the rights of the indigenous population. The problem is that this double-dealing didn’t work out in practice, with both sides seeing the British as compromising their cause.  And are we really justified in thinking that such a declaration or deal couldn’t be made today – for oil, or influence, or post-Brexit trade deals?

Balfour Palestine Mandate

It is true that Jews have been persecuted over centuries, including in pogroms in the late 19th and early 20th century. In a humanitarian global society, we surely would applaud the attempt to offer a safe haven for the persecuted, and the Balfour Declaration can be seen as such. What wasn’t foreseen, however, was that those persecuted may turn persecutors in their turn and deprive the indigenous population of their rights. What would the authors of the Declaration today say to the descendants of the 750,000 Palestinians forced to flee their homes in 1948 – and some again in 1967 –  many still living in refugee camps across the Middle East?

Balfour - West_Bank_&_Gaza_Map_2007_(Settlements)

Theresa May has talked about her ‘pride’ in the Balfour Declaration and in the creation of the State of Israel, a key ally for Britain in the Middle East.  Whilst rejoicing that persecuted Jews, including Holocaust survivors, found a homeland in Palestine, what do we feel about the plight of the dispossessed? Theresa May’s current government supports a 2-state solution in principle. What does the perpetuation of a military occupation do to the soul and psyche of the Occupier? Surely a conflict that is allowed to go on for so long cannot bring good for either side.

The Balfour Declaration is not a document that people know much about in the UK.  In Palestine it is part of everyone’s awareness – generally recognised as the starting point from which everything began to unravel, leading to a continuous process of dispossession which continues today.  To illustrate this point let me take you back to an August evening in East Jerusalem in 2012. At the time I was serving as a human rights observer on the West Bank and that evening we were called to an incident in Silwan. When we arrived we realised that the cause of the problem was seemingly small: an Israeli settler had parked his car in the middle of the road, preventing people from moving up or down. It was however Ramadan, and just before the breaking of the fast, and tempers get frayed. As we started talking to local residents and the Israeli armed police who had inevitably arrived, the expected question came: “Where are you from?” “Britain”, we said. “Ah, Balfour!” the local resident retorted – and went off into a tirade. The good thing was that once this had blown over he started joking with us, and the tension was released. The settler moved the car, and the incident passed off without any repercussions. This was not a lone incident, however. I have lost count how many times I have had to apologise for Balfour on the West Bank.

Bearing everything in mind how do we, the present generation, view the Balfour Declaration?  On the positive side, we can see it as an attempt to be balanced and to provide safety and security for persecuted Jews. It certainly was instrumental in the events leading to the creation of the modern State of Israel.  It can also be seen as an essentially political deal – an attempt to favour those who were believed to have influence whilst paying lip-service to the Arab leaders. It is hard to avoid the reality however, that the Declaration set off a string of events in the region which still have repercussions today, resulting in one of the world’s most intransigent conflicts and spelling death, dispossession and poverty for thousands.

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The Israeli Palestinian Peace Process

Some sources:

The Balfour Declaration – Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balfour_Declaration

The Balfour Declaration – New Statesman, a more critical view: https://www.newstatesman.com/books/2010/08/arab-palestine-jewish-rights

The Balfour Project  – Lloyd George –  critical view of Lloyd George’s part in the Declaration: http://www.balfourproject.org/lloyd-george/

Avi Schlaim: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avi_Shlaim

What is Wales had been offered as a Jewish Homeland – Middle East eye> http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/what-if-wales-had-been-offered-jews-homeland-palestine-zionist-israel-526573400

Article on Theresa May’s stance – Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/balfour-declaration-israel-palestine-theresa-may-government-centenary-arabs-jewish-settlements-a7607491.html

Chaim Weizmann: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaim_Weizmann

Palestine – Israel: Effects of Occupation – an educational pack (from the US): http://www.palestineinformation.org/dig_deep

Jane Harries’ blog from Palestine: https://janeharries.wordpress.com 

The Children of Syria: Dealing with the Impact of War

By Georgia Marks

On 21 March, Gareth Owen, the Humanitarian Director for Save the Children, came to the Temple of Peace to give a presentation on the impact of the war on the children of Syria. The Chief Executive of the WCIA, Martin Pollard, introduced the event by expressing that the war in Syria is a pressing issue. He then went on to establish Owen’s background in civil engineering and his pivotal role in Save the Children and has been awarded an OBE in 2013 for his work in emergency crisis.

Owen started his presentation by showing us a video about the children of Syria, with statistics of the injuries they have suffered and the effect that the war has had on their mental health. The information in the video was horrifying. Last week marked the sixth anniversary of the Syria conflict, however Owen reiterated that the theme for the presentation was hope. I think this is a really refreshing stance to have because with the all of the horrific news that we hear about the conflict, it is easy to fall into a state of negativity. Also, a sense of positivity will create a more open space for change within Syria.

Owen then described Save the Children’s newest report, ‘Invisible Wounds’, which depicted the impacts that the war in Syria has had on four hundred and fifty Syrian children interviewed and showed the devastating psychological effects of the six year conflict. The study found that the majority of the children interviewed were suffering from toxic stress which can result in the increase of heart disease, drug abuse and mental health issues. The speaker stressed that the most concerning element of this is that the issues in childhood manifest in adulthood, so the effects of the war will resonate forever.

The report found that 71% of the children interviewed suffered from bedwetting, which is a sign of toxic stress. Also, 80% have noticed that they are more aggressive than before the war, and 50% of the older children interviewed have turned to drugs. The children interviewed emphasized that they will never feel safe at school. The statistics given in the presentation have made it clear that the war in Syria is affecting the children in a detrimental way, and I share the opinion of many when I say that we cannot let it continue. This brings me back to the main theme of Owen’s presentation: although the situation in Syria is horrific, there is still time to act, many children can heal, there is still hope.

Sendai Tsunami

The next section of Owen’s presentation asked how Syria got to into this situation. He established a brief history of the situation in Syria; the 15 March 2011 marked the start of the Arab Spring which began in Syria, and the world was terrified that it would spread. Last year marked the record amount of deaths for children. Before the Arab Spring, the population of Syria was around two million, but now half of that number have fled to neighbouring countries and Europe. The speaker went on to establish that those who have stayed behind, including children, are forced to fight work and into young marriage. The situation in Syria was described as a medieval siege like position, using starvation as a way to control the population. There have been 4000 recorded attack on schools, there is a critical need for water and healthcare, and many are living in poverty. This once again reinforces the need to intervene. A member of the audience asked what action was being taken to help children who have been forced to be in the army. The speaker responded by saying that Save the Children will soon be 100 years old. He expressed that the organisation works with factions to stop using children, but Syria is a nation of impunity, with inability to protect the children. Owen emphasized the problem of people forgetting that the United Nations was created to eradicate war. Therefore, Save the Children have taken it upon themselves, as they reach 100, to try and mobilise and change the picture. Another member of the audience questioned how Save the Children prioritises their aid given their scarce resources. The speaker responded by stating that the organisation makes practical choices but they are difficult choices to make. Save the Children always seek to help those who are hardest to reach but that is not always possible; the organisation tries to be impartial and ethical but they cannot always succeed.

Owen then talked about one of his visits to Syria in March 2013. He expressed that he had to have an alias when he visited, which shows how dangerous the country is. The speaker stated that Syria is the most frightening war that he has ever experienced. He then went on to say that the world does not care enough because otherwise we would not allow this to happen. I think that in a sense this is true; there is a feeling of complacency in society right now, if the crisis has not majorly reached our country then we do not feel the urge to act. This is a major problem because we will only make an impact once it is too late. A member of the audience asked how Owen thinks Britain have handled the situation. The speaker replied that we have utterly failed and that the United Nations are not acting to its potential. However, Owen stressed that it is always going to be difficult, but it doesn’t mean that the United Nations isn’t trying.

Owen then went on to provide examples of the positive progress that has been made in Syria, schools have been built and aid had been given, along with psycho-social support. The speaker emphasized that the conflict has meant that the Syrian civil society has to fend for itself to create organisations and work with other countries. This is one of the only positive aspects of the war, and reiterates the theme of the talk of the hopeful attitudes that we should have towards the conflict.

The speaker then went on to discuss the countries that are taking in millions of refugees such as Lebanon and Jordan, and questioned whether Britain is pulling their weight. I think this is a valid question, in comparison with other countries Britain is not taking in that many refugees. This reinforces the point established above that we appear to not care too much unless we are directly affected. In this sense Britain most definitely could make more effort in contributing to help the people of Syria. A member of the audience expressed their concerns with the plight of refugees in Lebanon and Jordan and asked whether they are able to take in so many. Owen expressed that politicians respond to the electorate, so in that sense it is in the public’s hands. The speaker then appealed to the young generation, asking how we want our future to be. We need to do something; we need political activism that doesn’t necessarily exist today. We need passion. There are no humanitarian solutions, only political.

The situation in Syria is so horrific, that the way Save the Children tell the children’s stories is so important. A member of the audience asked about the misleading information surrounding Syria and what information can we trust? Owen replied by saying that we live in a culture where facts are disputable, and there is a problem with propaganda and verifying information as a lot of information is propaganda. There is also the issue that the narrative of war is always written by the victor. However, the testimonies of the children cannot be disputed as that is their reality, and it reminds the world that we need to find a solution. The key element to the children’s stories is that of hope. Owen established that the power of hope lives in the refugees, so it is their job at Save the Children to keep the hope alive and help Syrians on a practical level as well.

Owen then showed us the example of Ahmed and the Exodus film and how Britain helped to get his family over to the UK. I found this story refreshing as it shows Britain’s potential to help the people of Syria, and how our aid can have a positive impact. Another video was then shown, a ‘Don’t Bomb Children’ advert which has been televised quite frequently recently, and depicted a British school child being under attack from terrorist forces and having to flee her country. The main message of the video was that just because it isn’t happening here, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care about what is going on in Syria. This video in particular was very powerful in conveying that message. It appears that the shock factor is one of the only ways to get us to respond to the crisis in Syria. This is really disappointing, but at the same time at least we are starting to respond more to the war. The war has spurred responses among well-known figures, Owen exemplified Stephen Hawking’s contribution to Save the Children. Hawking fronted an appeal, giving voices to the children of Syria. I think this is really positive, because if influential figures advocate a more active stance in regards to Syria then hopefully it will encourage others to protest to help Syrian people. The last example Owen depicted was the search and rescue in the Mediterranean, where thousands of refugees drowned attempting to cross the border. The speaker explained that 4700 died in the Mediterranean and 800 of those were children. From all of the examples given, it is clear that we need to take more action to help the people of Syria, as we cannot continue to sit back and let this happen to innocent people.

Owen concluded by talking about the future. There have been talks of safe zones and peace talks which can only be viewed as progress. He went on to express that the price of humanity is whatever it takes to keep the people of Syria alive. According to the speaker, we will be judged harshly in history in terms of how we have helped Syrian people. He ended by asking which side we wanted to be on.

Overall, I found the presentation really insightful and I think it was really effective in motivating the audience. I think we are in a really important period right now which will hopefully influence change in attitudes towards Syria. We need to think positively, but in order for there to be results, we need to take action. There is no doubt that more can be done to help the situation in Syria, and we need to get out of the mind-set that it is someone else’s problem.

 

A reflection on the positive developments the world has seen in 2016

By David Hooson

 Every year, December encourages us all to look back on the year as it comes to a close. In 2016 perhaps more than ever, upsetting events have dominated and can naturally dominate our memories of the year. However, there were also plenty of positive events this year, as well as things that can give us hope that the world is still progressing towards peace and understanding between all people. Let’s recall just a few of these positive developments.

The Paris Agreement on tackling climate change, which was drafted at the end of 2015, was signed in April and came into effect in November. As the most comprehensive international agreement on climate change, with the most international signatories, it has been hailed as a historic step towards tackling the environmental challenges of the future.

The terrorist group Boko Haram, one of the greatest threats to peace and security in West Africa in recent years, was further weakened this year and now appears to be on the brink of total extinction. The January release of 1,000 women held hostage was a big moment, and a further 600 people have been freed in December. The group are still holding many of the Chibok schoolgirls they kidnapped in 2014, but some have been returned to their families throughout this year.

The 52-year conflict in Colombia, in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed and millions displaced, was resolved with a peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC rebel group. Negotiations had been ongoing for four years, and the first draft of the deal was rejected by a referendum in October. However, a revised peace agreement was signed by President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leaders in November and the Colombian Congress voted to approve the deal. President Santos was also presented with this year’s Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his efforts to bring peace to his country.

In June, the United Nations’ 47-member Human Rights Council voted to appoint an independent expert on LGBT rights to monitor violence and discrimination against LGBT people globally. Past attempts to make progress on LGBT issues at the UN have been frustrated or defeated by opposition from countries where the law actively discriminates against LGBT people, so this decision represents a significant breakthrough. An attempt to overturn the decision through the UN General Assembly was defeated in November, giving this new role an even more solid basis to campaign for an end to violence and discrimination against LGBT individuals.

The Council of Europe’s ‘Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence’ – known as the Istanbul Convention – was finally ratified by 22 countries, having been signed five years ago. In some of these countries, the Convention is now the strongest protection women have against gender-based violence, sexual violence and domestic abuse. The UK is now in the process of becoming the 23rd country to ratify the Convention.

In stark contrast to divisive media rhetoric and concerning hate crime statistics, refugees from Syria arriving in Wales were warmly welcomed by local communities. The number of refugees allowed into the country is determined by the UK Government, but Local Authorities across Wales have been more than willing to help families and individuals fleeing violence, with refugees being settled all across Wales.

Examples of refugees being welcomed:

Aberystwyth

Wrexham

There will be many challenges for the international community to address in 2017, some new and some continuing, but stories like these should give us hope that we can and will continue to make progress. Hopefully next year the stories of hope and progress will dominate, and 2017 will keep the world on track towards a peaceful future of justice and equality for all.

‘Sanctuary in the Senedd’. But what about in the Welsh government?

By Rosa Brown

Dr Thierry Grah is a qualified GP from the Ivory Coast. He is ready to work and keen to help support the Welsh NHS, but has been unable to do so because he is an asylum seeker and does not have the right to work.  Dr Grah is a symbol of the failures in current legislation’s  treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. For too long this debate has been driven by numbers and straplines: the UK government’s pledge to rehouse 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020, the use of the UK’s £12bn international aid budget to house Syrian refugees. Such an approach reduces the subject to a matter of statistics rather than one of human life, in addition to overlooking the quality of living conditions and health that is provided to refugees and asylum seekers. Furthermore, it risks the creation of a hierarchy in the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers based on where they come from, a categorisation of ‘who has suffered the most’.

Whilst Dr Grah’s story indicates the shortcomings of immigration policy issued from the Home Office, the role of the Welsh government has also left a lot to be desired, particularly in relation to matters of health, education and integration.

Last week Dr Grah and many others who seek to make Wales their home were invited to tell their stories at the ‘Sanctuary in the Senedd’ event, organised by the Welsh Refugee Coalition (WRC). The WRC unites over thirty organisations- including the Welsh Centre for International Affairs (WCIA) – to speak as one in the interest of asylum seekers and refugees. Personal testimonies from asylum seekers and refugees along with written evidence produced by WRC members will be recorded and submitted to the Equalities, Local Government and Communities Committee as evidence for their inquiry into the support available for refugee and asylum seekers in Wales.

In March 2016, the Welsh government published its Refugee and Asylum Seeker Delivery plan, to detail how Wales would support these people in need. The report largely considered issues such as mental and physical health, social cohesion and education- particularly in terms of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). A Welsh government spokesperson has claimed that the plan has already resulted in positive changes, though they acknowledged the need to update its information on new schemes as they develop.

However in the last few weeks members of the WRC have largely criticised the Welsh government’s plan, namely under the accusation that it has attempted to present already established schemes as a means to solve all issues relating to the refugee crisis. Rocio Cifuentes, Director of the Ethnic Youth Support Team in Swansea, implored the Welsh government to do more to consider how asylum seekers and refugees are being perceived, particularly in local and national media. There have also been calls to put pressure on the UK government to invest more money in ESOL schemes, as the persistence of language barriers is detrimental to any person’s education, development and employment prospects. As education policy is devolved in Wales, the Welsh government have a responsibility to exert this pressure and deliver.

A further issue which the Welsh and UK government must be held to account is in regards to the housing of asylum seekers in Wales. As a result of the Home Office’s responsibility to implement UK policy on asylum, a £119m contract was issued with Clearsprings Ready Homes to provide all asylum accommodation in Wales. The condition of many of these houses has been severely criticised, from broken fire alarms and electrical sockets to leaking plumbing and damp.

According to the Welsh Government’s report on asylum seekers and refugees, the government ‘will work in partnership with the Home Office and relevant agencies and service providers to encourage the development of efficient and fair services for asylum  seekers who come to Wales’.  However, in regards to Clearsprings, there appears to be little evidence of this. A spokesperson from the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) admitted to the Equalities, Local Government and Communities Committee that no evidence of the poor housing conditions in Wales had been presented to the Home Office.

The existence of the ‘Sanctuary in the Senedd’ event is important, as it provided the opportunity to not only hear the stories of asylum seekers and refugees but hear what needs to be done. The Welsh government’s Refugee and Asylum Seeker Delivery plan does not currently appreciate the context of the refugee crisis and the needs of those who look to Wales and the UK for sanctuary. The Welsh government’s partial impact in this area of legislation may complicate this issue, though this should not be used as an excuse. Once any refugee or asylum seeker has reached Wales, the government is obliged to help them rebuild their lives and currently it has fallen short of this responsibility.

This is a story – A different story. This is Alice’s story.

By Linda Blankenburg

When Alice* was 29 years old she made a decision that was going to change her life. She decided to abandon her loved, always sunny home country Zimbabwe for cold, cloudy Cardiff, UK.

What does a woman from southern Africa want in the busy city of Cardiff? Alice left Zimbabwe because of religious and political persecution caused by President Robert Mugabe and his party the ZANU-PF. Mugabe has been ruling the country dictatorially leading it to an economic crisis.

But Alice didn’t only leave her country; she left her family, her friends and her dream job. Following two of her older brothers who were already living in Cardiff, she took the plane to the capital of Wales in order to start a new life. While reading this we have to keep in mind that the life we have here is completely different from life in other countries. Going out for a drink, walking alone on the streets at night – this is a luxury we might not appreciate enough. Nor do we value ever-present rights such as the freedom of religion or the right to vote.

14 years have passed since then and many things have changed. Not only did Alice get used to the (in her opinion) cold weather, but she also started appreciating life itself. Still, there are many difficulties to overcome: As for all asylum seekers, Alice had to apply for asylum in the UK. Though she was persecuted and leaving her country was the right decision, her asylum application has been rejected three times. At the moment she is waiting for a positive response from the responsible immigration authority.

Sometimes Alice is sad. She is sad because she misses her family and friends who are still in Zimbabwe. But she is also sad because she is not allowed to work or study here. In Zimbabwe she was working as an IT System Administrator – a job that suited her perfectly.

As she can’t work and therefore has a lot of free time, she started volunteering. Four days a week she helps in organizations such as Women Connect First in the heart of Cardiff. There she met many women who have been in similar life situations. Volunteering also helped her gain more confidence, and experience a loving and caring community. Although she hasn’t been to Zimbabwe since she came here, Zimbabwe will always remain her favourite country.

She would love to go back when the situation is better but right now it is still too dangerous. This is not the life she imagined and this is not the life she was dreaming of when she was a little child, nevertheless one can see that she is happy here. This is mainly due to the fact that she found peace here. She felt the peace she had been waiting for so long, the first moment she arrived at the airport.

Defining peace is a difficult question. Someone might find peace while doing yoga or just taking a bath and relaxing. But is this really the same peace other people feel? Alice’s definition of peace is being happy and content with what you have. For her peace is also connected to love and care. Alice definitely changed my perception of peace because I wasn’t aware of how lucky we are here. What is your definition of peace? Did this story change it?

*Name changed in order to keep privacy

This blog was written as part of a UNA Exchange / Wales for Peace project: A group of international volunteers from across Europe spent two weeks volunteering with a group of women  from Women Connect First based in Riverside, Cardiff. As they volunteered together, they shared peace stories.  

Dreams, food, peace

By Alejandro de Miguel

Is it possible for the woman I met to follow her dreams? This question rumbled in my head while we were eating Farial’s feta pizza, an Italian-Middle East recipe, in a break of an activity in Woman Connect First as a part of the UNA exchange work camp 2016. Before eating I sneaked into the kitchen following a charming smell as mice followed the pied-piper and I saw her focused on her task putting a lot of effort into her cooking. After we all cleaned our plates she seemed really fulfilled, with satisfaction in her face, but I thought: Was it her life dream?

Farial grew up in Jordan, a small country in the Middle East. It is considered one of the safest places in the area and it is also famous because is really advanced in comparison to other countries nearby. However, she was brought up in a strict Muslim society and her life was decided from the very beginning. According to her: “there is no respect for woman in my country”. When she was young she aimed to be a journalist with a wish in her mind: ‘to give voice to women’s demands’. But, as a member of a sexist culture she was supposed to be married and so she did.
She started a new life with his husband and they had 4 sons.

Life brought them to Italy where they spent sixteen years. Europe was a radical change for her: ‘when I arrived to Europe I felt different, free’. Farial claimed that she was alone in a foreign country and she felt insecure but nonetheless she had to cook for all her family and be creative and diverse. Farial took advantage of her background in Jordan and her national cuisine and included some inspiration from Italian food. Even though she had never had cooking lessons she learned from the experience. Finally she found a new goal to fight for: her family.

After their Italian adventure, Farial’s family moved to Wales. She started to work as a chef in a restaurant. She cooked Middle East food such as falafel, hummus, cucumber-mint yogurt salad, etc. This period of her life was quite stressful because there were only two employees and a plenty of work regardless the fact that she had to take care of her children. At some point she decided to quit and do something different with her cooking skills.

Farial started to volunteer in a nursing home in Cardiff. She cooks Italian recipes for them and everyday she feels satisfied. She said ‘It’s not just about food, it’s about making people happy’. Farial found in cooking a way to make a difference.

Journalism and cooking are things apparently different, but in the way that Farial spoke about them, they are not so dissimilar. Both can be used to do something for others, so, in some ways, she did follow her dream, despite all the challenges she faced. Live is tough but Farial shows everyday that things can change when you put your heart into it.

This blog was written as part of a UNA Exchange / Wales for Peace project: A group of international volunteers from across Europe spent two weeks volunteering with a group of women  from Women Connect First based in Riverside, Cardiff. As they volunteered together, they shared peace stories.