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In Easter Week, the Marist religious community in Europe held a colloquium entitled ‘In the face of the globalisation of indifference, is there still a place for mercy ?’ I was one of about 45 participants from all over Europe, representing Notre Dame Refugee Centre.
Pope Francis has called for a re-engagement with mercy. For 3 days we explored a contemporary understanding of the world we live in, the role – if any – of mercy, and the witness to which Marists and their local communities are called. Our discussions were organised around 3 themes : dialogue, welcome and solidarity. All resonated with the work at NDRC. The following insights helped me to reconsider my approach to ‘mercy’.
Dialogue : Human relationships are open spaces and mercy means putting oneself in someone else’s place. In peace building the most important step is often the one towards the aggressor.
Welcome : hospitality is a form of creation of a new community. The Swahili term ‘ubuntu’ means ‘I exist because you exist and we exist in community’.
Solidarity : involves equalising relationships in order to achieve justice. Mercy is a tool for achieving this.
Today, working with refugees and asylum seekers often means confronting hostility more than indifference. The insights from the colloquium remind us why it’s such vital work and encourage us to keep going. I came away very grateful to the Marist community for their bountiful hospitality at the lovely Centre of La Neylière, in the Monts Lyonnais near Lyon.

Martin McAnaney SM, Don Flynn and Mark Scott speaking at the Central London reception held by the Friends of Notre Dame de France Refugee Centre

Martin McAnaney SM, Don Flynn and Mark Scott speaking at the Central London reception held by the Friends of Notre Dame de France Refugee Centre

On Friday 26th February, nearly a hundred people gathered in central London to learn more about the work of the Notre Dame Refugee Centre and listen to experts on refugee and asylum issues.  NDRC is an independent refugee and asylum organization offering welcome, support, training and advice. It is associated with Notre Dame de France Church, the French Catholic Church, just off Leicester Square.

The panel of speakers was introduced by Martin McAnaney SM, the Marist Provincial for Europe and Chair of the Centre’s trustees.  “There is so much fear around,” he said, “so many myths and scare stories, and such a lack of balanced, responsible, compassionate conversation. We have come to realise that we are a forum for such conversations, as well as doing our core job of supporting individuals and families.”

Don Flynn is the director of Migrants’ Rights Network (MRN), a network of civil society organisations working to support the rights of migrants. He helped found MRN after 30 years’ work on migration issues in law centres and as a policy officer at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and an immigration caseworker in London. Don says: “This is a crisis of policy, not a crisis of people. … Now we need to join in the bigger picture. The experience of organizations like this need to be projected into the public arena.”

Mark Scott is a solicitor with the law firm Bhatt Murphy, which specialises in immigration law.  Mark has successfully  represented unaccompanied children and vulnerable young adults living in the Jungle camp in Calais, and along with Citizens UK, has enabled them to join families living in the UK. Mark says, “We can’t go on going to court, just in order to make points about existing laws: governments need to take responsibility for enabling them to be implemented.”

John Walsh is a barrister specialising in immigration and asylum law at Doughty Street chambers, and appearing frequently before the Immigration and Asylum Chamber of the Upper Tribunal and First-Tier Tribunal in all areas of immigration law, including refugee, human rights, family, EEA, student, points-based system, and deportation cases.  John is a trustee of Notre Dame Refugee Centre.  John says: “We don’t need new laws, we need a sense of history, of the historical context in which these things are taking place, and an accurate interpretation of existing laws.”

Sarah Hughes is Director of the Notre Dame Refugee Centre. ‘This evening has demonstrated how many people are deeply committed to achieving respect and dignity for refugees and asylum seekers in London’ she said. ‘Our Centre has vital evidence to bring to the table and we are exploring new ways of doing this’

Members of the Art Group and some of their work, with trainer Allegra ...

Members of the Art Group and some of their work, with trainer Allegra …

Theatre gives me strength!

Today’s drama club was full of fun and mischief!” explains Mura, one of the centre’s Theatre coordinators. Every Thursday, Mura and Eve invite refugees who come through our doors, to join their theatre workshops, a space of creativity, relaxation and fun.

Today, says Mura, we played a chair swap game where participants had to swap chairs without the person who is “on” stealing the chair off them. The class got completely into the spirit of it, so much so that when I stood up to demonstrate how not to do something, someone stole my chair as quick as a flash, to howls of laughter from the group!”

The group of women is visibly relaxing together and making a joyful noise. For C., a refugee from Democratic Republic of Congo:

“this is a moment for me. I can relax, forget all my problems and feel really good. It’s therapeutic.”

soundscapes...

soundscapes…

The theatre club offers a genuine space that looks directly at building refugees’ confidence using their bodies, their voices and their emotions. “For example, details Mura, “ today we did soundscapes in a circle, everyone adding a sound to the other’s sounds. It was amazing to hear people doing lions not as a “roar” as people in England would do, but with the real sound, more of a quiet menacing growl.”

Many of the women attending the workshop hardly speak English; they are cut off from their own culture and not sure what tomorrow will be made of. All this fragility enters the studio when the workshop starts, but drama gives them a voice and a sense of belonging.

N., also from DRC, explains:a space of freedom

“Theatre gives me strength. Here I am able to express myself. It’s a space of freedom. There’s no other outlet where I’ve been able to express what I feel and still feel happy”.

The drama club also helps in overcoming isolation and loneliness – a major issue for refugees.

R. from Sudan recalls:

When I first came to theatre club,  I knew nobody and was intimidated. But after the session, it was a transformation. I had new friends and felt much more confident. There are moments of real communion that make you stronger and closer to the others”.

Mura remembers one strong moment during a session: “the group were asked to translate emotions into human statues, using their bodies. One participant stood with arms outstretched, their smiling face to the sky. We had to guess the emotion and we decided upon: hope”.

Today, hope and joy were all around in the theatre club. “The joy of not being afraid to look silly , concludes Mura, “the joy of playing games with others and the joy of coming together and being open and ready to have a go.”

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