Collective classification, individual identity: seeing Refugees for who they are

Refugee week 2023 - Bramwell blog image

When I was invited to write this piece, I struggled at first to find a suitable theme and tone. Sure, I could write about why I feel compelled to support refugees: my own privileged experience of securing residency abroad, which brought into stark contrast the far more frightening process of seeking asylum, or my family’s heritage as Holocaust survivors and pogrom escapees, which is something I hope no future generation ever forgets. But those approaches felt self-indulgent, and personal in all the wrong ways.

Alternatively, I could have criticised current government policy, and made the moral case for welcoming refugees with open arms while tackling the root causes of persecution and statelessness in ways which nurture stability rather than stoke conflict. But, as a former Diplomat, I understand the huge complexity of the issue only just enough to recognise that I can’t offer anything close to an expert opinion, let alone provide any practical solutions.

So, instead, I’ll focus on the one aspect I do feel qualified to speak about: what I’ve learned and experienced, at a human level, through my voluntary work with refugees, and why I hope you will choose to take-part in this Refugee Week too.

First and foremost, no two refugees are the same. They are just as likely to come from the global north as the global south, to be young or old, black or white, of any religion or none, and to arrive alone or accompanied. The violence they flee could be political or personal, and they may have left behind everything or come from nothing at all. They may be following after family members or escaping from them, sustained by religious faith or persecuted by it, determined to start anew or desperate to retrieve their previous life. Whatever their story, it will be unique, and whatever their official status, their protracted experience as an asylum seeker will be terrifyingly isolating.

Despite these divergences, even the well-meaning among us make assumptions about individual identity based on collective categorisation. As a result, asylum seekers frequently find themselves forced into situations which only deepen the wounds of their trauma, sharing a hostel bunk-bed with a citizen of their nation’s enemy, or a loyalist from the opposing faction in a civil war - a constant reminder of the very reason they have become a refugee. Even where commonalities of language, nationality and religion exist, these are not necessarily sufficient to bond with a stranger, especially in confined quarters and vulnerable circumstances. 

Indeed, it strikes me that sometimes we demand the most from people - patience, graciousness and tolerance - when they are at their lowest, reduced to continuous transit or extended ‘holding’ like cattle but expected to rise above the average human being. Which leads to my second lesson: refugees were once just like you and me, people with family and friends, interests and abilities, and memories beyond their story of asylum. And they are still people like us - individuals with personalities, needs and dreams for their uncertain future.  

The overwhelming majority of asylum seekers are desperate to become active members of society in their adoptive country, and their ambitions are modest and admirable: to live in safety, to support themselves independently, to be ‘normal’ people with ‘normal’ lives. Many wish they could simply live in peace in their previous home; some cling to the hope that one day they will be able to do so. 

Because no one chooses to become a refugee - my third lesson. The difficult decision to flee one’s country of origin is not really a choice at all; sometimes it is a last brave attempt at survival, always it is a sacrifice: leaving behind loved ones, possessions, and work or study. No one chooses to wait in a hostel or reception centre, in a strange and foreign land, with few possessions and even less autonomy, while their fate is decided over the course of weeks, months or sometimes years by bureaucrats with numeric targets. 

Even for those who have the least to lose - those who have lived their entire life in trauma, whose story of conflict or fear is their only story - seeking asylum is still an act of surrender: community, certainty and familiarity swapped for universal unknown, which can be more terrifying even than war. Of course, none of it is their fault, and none of it is deserved - which is why I believe we should treat refugees with compassion, the theme of this year’s Refugee Week.

One of the reasons I find volunteering with refugees so rewarding is because it has provided me with opportunities to see humanity in its most raw form - which is to say, at its purest and most beautiful. 

At a reception centre in Warsaw shortly after the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, I witnessed relief and grief, humour and heartache, smiles and tears, all in the span of a few short minutes, over and over again. I saw how much can be achieved, and how quickly, by people with a common purpose if not a common language. I learned the power of non-verbal communication, felt the full weight of a human hand held gently, and found moments of connection that transcend the wrongs in this world.

Just as we too often expect the most from the people with the least, so too the people with the least often seem to have the most to give, and I have never encountered anything short of generosity and gratitude. It cost me nothing to host a Ukrainian mother and daughter in Poland, yet they insisted on thanking me with gifts from their homeland, items which had filled valuable space in their limited luggage. The young Libyan man I currently mentor always insists on sharing his food with me when we meet, despite receiving only a pittance to cover his basic needs. 

But beyond meals and mementos, the refugees I’ve supported have shared so much with me: warmth, wisdom and words with no English translation. From knowing them, I feel more gratitude for everything in my life which I might otherwise take for granted, and that is the greatest gift of all.

These reflections are based on my experiences volunteering at a reception centre and hosting refugees while living in Warsaw at the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and now mentoring young asylum seekers in London through the charity Breadwinners. All views are my own.