Today, June 20, is World Refugee Day – the UN’s call for people worldwide to show support for the millions who have fled their homelands to escape war, persecution or terror. But while thousands of civic groups around the globe will host events around the day itself, Brighton College has spent the last four years working closely with a growing local community of Syrian refugees in one of the UK’s self-declared Sanctuary Cities.
In 2015, Sulaiman Wihba and Elias Badin were among the earliest Syrian refugees to reach the UK after fleeing Bashar al-Assad’s brutal assault in their homeland. Sulaiman stowed away in a refrigerated van packed with boxes of frozen chips, while Elias braved the often deadly crossing of the Mediterranean on a small boat packed with 40 refugees.
Rather than following this government’s kneejerk leads in trying to restrict opportunities for refugees to contribute positively (think of idiotic bans on doing work of any kind), Brighton College offered the two teenagers scholarships. Two years later, both achieved a string of A* successes at A-level and places to study medicine at university. “My 15-year-old self wouldn’t imagine myself here, it’s overwhelming,” Wihba said at the time.
Brighton College’s headmaster, Richard Cairns, believes that pupils should not only be aware of their highly privileged position at one of Britain’s most successful schools, but do something by way of pay back.
Which is why, every week for the last three years, boarders have teamed up with the Voices in Exile charity to connect with over 50 Syrian refugees at sessions held on the school campus.
Pupils help adults with English lessons and discussions about life in the UK, help children with English and maths classes, and have recently established a youth club and crèche for the group. The school has provided each refugee with books and learning materials to help them improve their English, while pupils have coached their new Syrian friends to help them pass the Government’s test for British citizenship – a key step to cementing new lives in Britain.
All of which plays well to the UN’s call for initiatives to help refugees become self-reliant. This in turn aims to ease the social and other pressures on host communities that have been exploited to drive hate attacks and anti-migrant feeling, underpinning the alarming rise of right-wing groups not just in the UK but across Europe.
The UK government’s Syrian Vulnerable Person’s Relocation Scheme is committed to resettling 20,000 Syrian refugees across the country – a commitment that has sparked resentment in some communities, either due to simple racism, misguided fears driven by hysteria over Isis-loving terrorists, or just worries over an extra burden on resources stretched to breaking point by Tory austerity.
As a man who lived through decades of tumult, Albert Einstein had something to say that touches closely to today’s ongoing refugee crisis: “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.”
All of us can do something to help those who have fled their homelands and ended up in ours. You can talk to the parents of the new child from another country at school pickup, find out more about the different communities in your neighbourhood, or just smile at a stranger from somewhere else.
If pupils at a prestigious British school can draw on a wellspring of tolerance amid diversity to help refugees so can everyone else. “Life is defined by everyone feeling valued for who they uniquely are,” says Cairns. “And the most important thing a school can do is create a culture where all children, whatever their background, feel loved, respected and included.” That’s true not just of a school, but a society too.