Refugee Week

Argus title : Refugees need the right to work and bring up a family – is that too much to ask?

Last weekend saw the end of Refugee Week.

During the week a number of different events took place around the country – both to celebrate the positive contribution refugees make to this country and to counter fear, ignorance and negative stereotypes.
Not a lot happened in Sussex. All credit to the children of Durrington Middle School near Worthing who spent a week learning about diversity and the lives of refugees and then decided to use their own bodies to spell the word “Peace” on a local field.
According to the Argus report “many of the pupils had been shocked by the stories they heard about the experiences of refugees and had been inspired to make a statement.”
Credit is also due to Mary-Jane Burkett of “Brighton Voices in Exile” who last Friday evening organised a sleep-out on St Peter’s Church green. This was one of several sleep-outs organized across the country, as part of a Campaign called “Still Human, Still Here”. The aim was to highlight the fact that many refugees are literally homeless.
A total of around 40 people gathered on the green to light candles and, during a minute’s silence, reflect on the suffering of refugees. We stood and considered the oppression and suffering which leads people to flee their homes, including trafficking, torture, rape and murder. We remembered the confusion and terror of their journeys to this country and the poverty and deprivation they often experience when they get here.
Thousands of asylum seekers whose claims are turned down are unable to return home. In some cases, their countries are so dangerous that the government cannot legally deport them. Nonetheless, such people are denied state support and are not allowed to work.

A spokesperson for “Still Human, Still Here” said “Destitution is being used in an attempt to drive people out of the country – but many thousands cannot leave…..government policy…is both inhumane and ineffective.”

My friend Magda Traverso was there on St Peter’s Church green. Like me, she was born in South Africa, but came to England long before I did, back in the 1960s. She was born and brought up near Stellenbosch where her family owned a large fruit farm. As a family of Cape Coloured origin they were of mixed race, part of a centuries-old community. Magda explained “We were the descendents of slaves who worked for the Dutch settlers from the 17th century.”

Like so many African and Coloured families who owned fertile land, they fell foul of the Apartheid laws. Under the infamous Group Areas Act their land was taken and they were dispossessed.

Magda married and had a child. Unusually, her husband was White. Though it was only later that the Apartheid laws made such marriages illegal, there was still intolerable strain upon them. His White friends disapproved of her and eventually the marriage broke up.

Magda said “We were always treated as underdogs, but it was worse under Apartheid.” The final straw came when her daughter was refused a place in a school, for no other reason than the colour of her mother’s skin. Magda came to the UK with nothing, determined that her daughter would not grow up under Apartheid.

In common with many refugees, she brought considerable skills. As an accomplished seamstress, she soon found work making clothes for Jean Muir, a well known London couturier. Despite the great cost of the clothes she produced, Magda herself never made much money. She is not bitter about this, though she misses the life she had before Apartheid tightened its grip. She says “You have to look forward, not back. And at least I could work and bring up my daughter.”

And this is the great difference between Magda and the refugees we stood in silence to remember. The refusal to let them work condemns them to extreme poverty. They cannot pay for housing or food. If they have children, they cannot properly support them. These proud and often traumatised people are forced to accept charity if they wish to survive.

Two days after the sleep-out I met with Kate Bujama, whom I had met for the first time several weeks earlier at the St Peter’s Saturday coffee shop.

Like Magda, Kate is in her late 70s, full of life and interested in everything around her. Though she is British-born, her family has also been scarred by slavery. When I first met her I noticed her olive skin and deep brown eyes and assumed she was perhaps Welsh or of South European extraction. I was intrigued to learn that her grandfather was a Sudanese slave.

His name was Sura Bujama. He was still a child when he was taken from his village, marched across the desert by Arab slave traders and sold into slavery in Cairo, where he was bought by a wealthy British trader. Kate does not know why or how he was taken from his family, nor is she sure of the name of the trader, only that “his business was the buying and selling of factory made products”.

Sura travelled around Europe as the trader’s servant. Kate showed me a copy of an old photograph of her grandfather, dressed in Turkish livery. According to her grandfather, when the time came for the trader to return to England he told Sura “I must go back to England, but I can’t take you there, you would die of cold.” Sura replied “I would rather die of cold in England than die a slave here.”

The trader brought Sura to England and employed him as a footman in his London house. There he met and fell in love with a young maidservant called Alice Sones. They married and produced 5 children, including Kate’s own father, Horace.

Sura must have been financially shrewd because he was eventually able to leave domestic service and buy a pub in the Elephant and Castle. He and Alice ran this establishment for several years until his premature death in 1900 from “galloping consumption”. Kate speculates that the way in which drinks were shared – passed from customer to customer in pewter mugs – led to high rates of infection. He was almost certainly weakened by the hardships of his early life.

Sura had managed to acquire some shares in local railways, but after his death these were soon used up. Alice went back to scrubbing floors in order to bring up her children. All of them did well, despite the racism which was all around them. Horace joined the railways, then went to nightschool, eventually qualifying as an electrical engineer. He was a clever man, who invented innovative new equipment for the railways, but it was never recognised – almost certainly due to racism. He was passed over for promotion and in later life became severely depressed.

Kate cannot remember her parents talking much about her grandfather. They would say he came “from Egypt”, but little else. She says “In the 1930s, having a Black parent wasn’t considered quite nice. You found yourself bullied.” Kate herself was called names, hit and kicked by other children and had stones thrown at her. She remembers a little White girl kicking her right in front of a teacher who did nothing to protect her.

When Kate grew up, she travelled abroad, nursed for a while and then trained as a teacher. She was most fulfilled when working in Hounslow, in a school for children with disabilities.

The family have few photographs of the older generation, though Kate does have one which means a great deal to her. It is of Grandfather Bujama with 3 of the children, including her own father aged just 6 months.

Kate said “They are beautifully dressed in the fashion of the time. Grandfather is in his Sunday best, black worsted suit, with a stiff white collar and a shining gold watch chain dangling from his waistcoat pocket. Baby Horace, supported on his papa’s knee is clothed in a long embroidered baby gown….”

I asked her what it meant to her and she replied quietly “It shows he prospered. He worked hard and looked after his family despite all he had gone through. He taught my father to be the good father he was.”

Kate will never know just what her grandfather suffered and why his health was so damaged. What she does know is that as a refugee, he needed above all things, shelter and the right to work and protect his children.

It isn’t much to ask.

Brighton Voices in Exile can be contacted on 01273-719556.

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