Refugee Week : C-Change Empowerment

A sea of young faces sit silently in rapt attention as Syrian refugee Shiyar explains how the flat in Damascus he fled just a few months earlier had been damaged by a bomb attack almost exactly 24 hours before he stands in front of them.

His younger sister and brother, he adds to gasps from his audience, still live there.

This is the powerful, up close encounter with real people that C-Change Empowerment is bringing to young people in Swindon to help them understand why and how people who are not so very different from them risk their lives to move halfway across the world..

The visit to the brand new and sparkling clean East Wichel Primary School on a bright spring morning is a world away from the rocket-damaged, crater-riven streets of Syria that 25-year-old Shiyar left behind to undertake a four month journey to England.

C-Change co-ordinator Fidelma Meehan regularly visits schools and colleges with ‘friends’ (she doesn’t like to use the term refugee) to allow them to tell their story as part of the group’s Hear My Story project.

C-Change, which has been in existence for four years, works in partnership with Swindon refugee charity The Harbour Project.

Fidelma says: “I feel that we almost have a duty to these friends to help them to tell their story. They are just ordinary people, with feelings, with dreams and hopes. Hear My Story is a real way that these people who have been forced to leave their homes and take on very dangerous journeys can be heard.”

On the day we meet up with them, Fidelma and translator Neda Krishnan are accompanied by Shiyar, 25, and Abdullah, 31.

Shiyar explains how he left Syria after completing a medical degree. “I could not stay in Syria,” he tells his audience of nine and ten-year-olds. “It is horrible there, the country is broken by the war.”

Abdullah, a Bedoon from Kuwait, tells the audience gathered in the sunlight school hall, how he joined a protest over his peoples’ lack of basic human rights to health and education.

He was arrested, tortured, interrogated and kept in solitary confinement. He was forced to agree to spy on his own people in exchange for being released after four months alone in a tiny, hot cell with little food or water.

His family helped pay for him to escape via a perilous journey through Turkey, where he almost died after being swept from an overcrowded dinghy while trying to cross into Greece.

“We tone down the stories depending on the audience,” says Fidelma. “They leave a lot of the more horrific detail for the very young ones because it is disturbing but it is more hard-hitting for the older ones.”

Both speakers end their short talks by saying they want to continue with their studies  - and with an appeal for the youngsters to appreciate their school and their families and not take them for granted.

“They, in common with many people who come here, just want to give something back,” says Fidelma. “Part of our work  is to get that message across.”

The work of C-Change has been boosted by a £4,898 grant from the Wiltshire Community Foundation. “The money is key to us,” says Fidelma. “We wouldn’t be able to do any of this without it.”

The grant also funds a weekly lunch drop-in for the friends the group has encountered through the Harbour Project and its own work. It is held at the Harbour Project’s base in Broad Street, Swindon, every Friday.

“It’s a warm, inviting place where people can share food and tell their stories,” says Fidelma. “We talk about our cultures and we cook dishes that mean something to us. The food can be Persian or Afghan. My husband Padraig made Irish stew recently.

“It is a chance for the people who come along to socialise and be themselves. They can enjoy a bit of normality.”

Find out more about C-Change Empowerment at C-ChangeEmpowerment.co.uk and the Wiltshire Community Foundation on their website.

Refugee Week is held on the 18 - 24 of June and it is the largest festival in the UK to celebrate the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees. Not only is it a week of celebration, but a week of promotion by which refugees tell their stories and promote greater understanding of why people seek sanctuary. For more information please visit their website.

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