A Personal Reflection on Loss and Connection post-Brexit

Wendy Tapper, Bridgend

It seems deeply ironic and, to many of us, achingly sad that we are willing to turn away from our European neighbours just as we commemorate the centenary of the battles of the Somme, Mametz Wood, and all our shared experience of the horrors of war. At such times I remember being told stories about my great uncle – the baby of his family, the only boy in a houseful of big sisters – who was interned in a German prisoner-of-war camp in northern France towards the end of the Great War. After the Armistice of 1918, his family waited in vain for his return and neither the British military authorities nor his old comrades could account for his disappearance. At length they, a south Wales miner’s family, wrote to the German authorities for help and got a courteous and kind response. Their boy had been one of thousands of victims of the influenza epidemic that rolled across the devastated continent and he had died in the camp.

Our great uncle remained vivid in our family memory; we have picture postcards he sent home from France and my mother, who died just a few years ago, would recall her childhood adoration of a lively and indulgent young uncle. Decades later a relative traced his grave – not in one of the great memorial sites but in the communal cemetery of a small French town. There, records show that allied soldiers of several nationalities were buried alongside German soldiers, Chinese labourers, and a solitary Russian. They had all suffered and died far from home and the people who loved them.

Now, a century after the carnage of the Somme, my family – like so many others – reflects a more peaceful Europe, a more inter-connected world. We have spun outwards from that Welsh mining village. I have French and German grandchildren and through their heritage I connect with families whose memories are of living under tyranny and foreign occupation. The stories of my new, wider family include: migration to escape poverty and discrimination; the experience of living in caves and foraging for food in Italy as one of the most terrible battles of World War II raged overhead; flight across Germany in 1945 ahead of the advancing Soviet army; and the desperate journey of ‘boat people’ from communist China. They are all our family, our people; their histories have melded with ours to become our common story.

Jenan’s story

By Zuzana Nevolová

Jenan has been living in Cardiff for ten years now. Being half British, half Iraqi, she has never had problems speaking both Arabic and English. But even though Arabic is – quite understandably – much closer to her heart since she has lived in Iraq most of her life, she feels very privileged to live in Cardiff. Many members of her family are forced to stay in the isolated city of Mosul, which is currently held by the so called Islamic state.

And so, despite being very much fluent in the English language, Jenan likes to speak with most of the family in her mother tongue, Arabic. Completely normal, isn’t it? But then her neighbour abused her for speaking Arabic in her own house!

A lady living just next door to Jenan’s house repeatedly demanded Jenan, and even her visitors to only speak English. Without any further explanation she shouted at Jenan and her little grandchildren when they were playing Arabic word games on Jenan’s porch. The neighbour said that as UK citizens, they should only speak English and basically tried to forbid them to speak another language on their own property.

This happened many times, and the neighbour made it clear that she resents the idea of being neighbours with an Iraqi.

Until then, Jenan had never had someone complain about the culture of her origin in Cardiff. She considers the people of Cardiff to be lovely and her neighbourhood to be exceptionally friendly. But as an exception to prove the rule, one of her neighbours did not share this friendly attitude.

The acts of intolerance coming from the neighbour have made Jenan feel unsafe. Unsafe to speak the language in her own home, unsafe in her own skin.

The repeated insults and utterly absurd demands forced Jenan to approach the hate-crime department of the Cardiff police. The officers reacted extremely quickly, inspected the situation and talked to the people who were involved. Despite the limited resolution possibilities, the police have gone out of their way to help and to prevent other incidents from happening not only by making a record of the incidents, but by repeatedly checking on the situation at Jenan’s house though phone-calls and general reassurance.

In fact, even the positive response from Jenan’s other neighbours was heart-warming and overwhelming supportive. Many of the residents expressed their consternation, brought Jenan and her family flowers to reassure her and a few of them even started studying Arabic with Jenan!

And therefore, thanks to her Cardiff community, Jenan feels supported and trusts that the police don’t overlook such incidents.

Because they shouldn’t ever be overlooked or underestimated.

 

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.  

Cardiff, a Place for Peace

By Belén Diez

As a volunteer working on the Wales for Peace Project, my main goal is to convey to readers the personal story of on the women refugees living in Cardiff. For the past few days I have spent a great amount of time with women from a wide range of nationalities (Algeria, Libya, Zimbabwe…), all of whom have something in common: they ran away from violence in their native countries and they all have found in Cardiff a place where the have built their homes in peace.

As a personal choice I decided to tell the story of a Syrian woman. In contrast to all the stories about fear, pain and sadness that we hear in the media everyday, I want to convey a story of hope, respect and understanding.

Interviewing the protagonist of my story has not been easy at all, I still wonder why she feels shame because what has happened is not her fault but, in any case, I can understand that her story is not easy to tell. Finally, she agreed to tell her story through one of her friends that I had the chance to meet in the non profitable organization Woman Connect First.

Lets call her Irene because Irene, in its original Greek language, means peace and peace is what this story is about.

Aged 32, Irene came to the United Kingdom three years ago running away from the horror and panic of the Syrian Civil War. Its more than 2,370 miles of fear, fear for what you have left behind but also fear about what awaits for you in your new destination but also of expectation and hope: nothing can be worse that facing the war every day.

Her first residence was in London, but she couldn’t find a home there. Some episodes of racism and the high cost of living made London a hostile place for her, so she decided to move to Wales. In Cardiff Irene has found a place where she can live in peace. Indeed, most refugees I met highlight that Cardiff citizens have a high sense of tolerance.

Just a few months after moving to Cardiff, Irene was hired as a teacher in an Arabic school as well as a babysitter. With her work she can afford the cost of the rent of her apartment and support her family. However, what she most likes in Cardiff is its open-minded people, always willing to integrate, regardless of nationality, language, religion or skin colour. Here kindness is the only response to diversity.

“Do you think that the local Government is working hard in improving and promoting the integration of refugees?” her answer is absolutely positive, pointing out that legislation on rights and the creation of a budget for rental assistance are the main paths used in order to support real integration.

The last question of the interview is whether she prefers to live in Cardiff or in Syria and the answer comes out from her mouth clearly and unhesitatingly: Syria is my home, it is where I grew up and is where my family and my memories remain, “Coming back to Syria would be a miracle.” Meanwhile, Cardiff gives her a place to live in peace, to enjoy the feeling of being part of a community. In her own words: “here, I have rights”.

From my personal view, the greatest achievement is that local citizens feel proud to live in an environment of diversity and multiculturalism; this ensures respect, understanding and peace.

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.  

Growing Peace Stories in Riverside

By Esther Jones

As part of Wales for Peace, UNA Exchange organised the Growing Peace Stories project. A group of international students from across Europe spent two weeks (9-23 August 2016) volunteering with a group of women from Women Connect First (WCF)*.

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Photo by Martina Gargari

Every day the international students worked with local volunteers from WCF as they helped to prepare for the Riverside Festival, build plant boxes and garden, as can be seen in these photos. The volunteers also spent quality time sharing and listening to stories and reflections on peace and worked together to produce and share these ‘Peace Stories’. They tell these stories through blogs, videos and presentations. Take a look at their stories:

What does peace mean to different people?

This video and presentation show what the concept of peace means to the international and local volunteers, including their definitions of the word. What’s interesting is that many of their answers are similar, despite their different backgrounds. A unity and like-mindedness seems to have emerged from the groups sharing, listening and experiencing one anthers’ stories.

Personal stories of the local volunteers

These are the international volunteers’ perspectives on the stories they were told by the local women volunteers, often stories of seeking peace and refuge away from their countries of origin. They take you step-by-step through the journeys of some of the women and explain how they found peace .

Peace builders and heroes

These accounts illustrate how some of the local volunteers and organisations have played a significant part in helping to establish peace in their local communities.

*Wales for Peace is a WCIA project funded by HLF seeking to answer the question how has Wales contributed to peace in the 100 years since the First World War. UNA Exchange is an international volunteer exchange organisation. WCF is an organisation based in Riverside, Cardiff, which seeks to empower Black & Minority Ethnic women in Cardiff and South East Wales by offering a range of services and training in order to improve livelihoods and employability.

Share your peace story with Wales for Peace so it adds to the Peace Map of Wales

Volunteering helps Shoruk find peace

By Catherine Bony

On Wednesday evenings Shoruk can be found patrolling the streets of Riverside neighbourhood, clad in a tailor-made police uniform. If you take a closer look at her, you will see that a scarf frames her seventeen year old smiling face under the regular police helmet. If needed she can undertake first aid, or in any case, assist her senior colleagues.

She has been volunteering for a year in the police force and for a few years in other organisations. She loves it. “I feel peaceful when I do volunteering work”, she explains to the group of international volunteers who are listening to her testimony. She is not only committed to ensure that people’s safety and peace is maintained but she is also involved in raising money for the charity ‘Human Appeal’, which is a girls orphanage in Palestine. She has pledged to gather at least £10,000 for the charity.

The striking element of Shoruk’s story is the contrast between her engagement to promote peace and welfare to the Welsh people whilst a war is currently raging in her home country, Libya. She had left her home country seven years ago with her large family. They stayed in several different places: Czech Republic, Tunisia and America before eventually ending up in England. It was here that her brilliant father could pursue his PHD studies in electrical engineering.

So far, they have been denied the asylum that they have applied for, however, there is no doubt that they fully deserve recognition and will obtain it. Meanwhile, Shoruk remains as committed as ever but admits that she has not settled down entirely, for her heart still beats fast for her homeland!

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.  

Reflections on social work and peace

By Fernando Vespa

During my interview of a member of Women Connect First, the topic of social work attracted immediately my attention. This because during my work as trainee lawyer specializing in human rights law I’m always facing social and integration issues, that are obviously linked with the theme of peace and of living together in a community.

One WCF member, involved in local social activities organized by the Cardiff Council, told us that Social Work is first of all important for you as a person and as a human, because of her experiences of social work in the UK. This because if you are a social worker you will be called to help people in a lot of different ways, to develop your skills in listening and understanding and to appreciate the positive values linked to cultural diversity. She told us that be a social worker is also responsible work, because you will be involved in very sensitive and delicate personal stories, and confidentiality of all information will be strictly required.

You will be called to interact with many different types of people, all requiring different type of attention: homeless people, people with disabilities, victims of violence and abuse, older people, people with psychological problems, etc.
At the end, we made a brief comparison with the situation of social work in the other countries of origin of the members of WCF. We realised that in Europe there is a lot of public sector support for this kind of activity (e.g. from Cardiff Council). However in other countries the existence of the role of social worker is not to be taken for granted. The Arabic women told us that there is no such thing as social worker support in their countries, while the women from India and Pakistan told us that there was in theirs.

These different situations made us reflect on how the approach to social problems can change depending on country of origin, and a worldwide call for attention for people who needs help seems absolutely necessary. In this context the role of social worker will be very important to ensure that everyone could live together, and better, in peace.

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.  

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.