A wave of online awareness hit a crescendo on Saturday when hundreds of thousands of people marched in support of refugees. Leaders evading action are banking on the fact that we’ll move on. Let’s not give them that satisfaction

A wave of online awareness hit a crescendo on Saturday when hundreds of thousands of people marched in support of refugees. Leaders evading action are banking on the fact that we’ll move on. Let’s not give them that satisfaction

Two weeks ago today, the world woke up to a photograph of a limp little body lying lifeless on a beach. By the following morning, the body had a name. It had a family photo and a back story that made it impossible to ignore. The death of three-year-old Alyn Kurdi, along with his brother and mother – the suffering of their father, who lost his family and future in a single day – brought the tragedy of the refugee crisis into homes around the world.

That same week I woke up to my own self-revelation. My addiction to social media had reached an all-consuming high and I realised I was doing all but living inside my phone. I was on holiday at the time, zombie waltzing through the ABC of vacation dos and donts; eating well, turning brown and lapping up the kind of family time that puts priorities back in order. The rhythm of my daily life was, if I’m honest, pretty good. And it had never felt less real. The chasm between my tiny world and the real one that surrounded me felt like it was expanding beneath my feet.

So I turned to Facebook with a newfound ferocity and slipped into a kind of social media psychosis that I haven’t quite recovered from since. I read every article shared by people I respect, watched every video that came up on my feed, and hovered for updates from journalist friends who were bearing witness to what was happening – not just sitting by a pool. I mined the internet for scraps of stories that could somehow close the disconnect, never quite knowing what I was searching for but going round in circles nonetheless.

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And there were some excellent things out there. Like the thoughtful reporting of Al Jazeera, the first platform to acknowledge the formidable power of language and make the distinction between ‘migrants’ and ‘refugees’. There was the micro-reporting from The New York Times, which delivered personal stories through an unfiltered stream that put people not politics at the fore. There was the dedicated work of Magnum photographer Jerome Sessini, who followed a Syrian family’s journey to Hungary via Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and much of Serbia. The starkness of these images, the simple desires expressed in people’s own words, were a vital break from the finger-pointing and evasion that gets in the way of action. And so I kept going, looping round and round the internet in a hopeless daze, grabbing hold of anything that could make the disorder feel human and real.

But then things started to happen – offline and #IRL! Real-life people started doing real-life things, out in the actual real-life world. They went to Calais and spoke to displaced people instead of leaving the storytelling to the news. They called for donations, flew across Europe to distribute it in a thoughtful way – knowing full well that ‘stuff’ in itself is no solution – and brought home the message that what people need most is our understanding and respect.

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Then, on Saturday September 12, our collective sentiment manifested physically as people took to the streets in their tens of thousands in cities across the world. #RefugeesWelcome may look like a hashtag online, but in the real world it’s an army with a voice.

“Say it loud. Say it clear. Refugees are welcome here. / No Borders. No Nations. Stop Deportations.”

 

The rallying cries that soundtracked London’s march – and protests around the world – are the words of people who refused to be fooled. By committing to safeguard 20,000 Syrian refugees over the course of his parliament, David Cameron will allow Britain to take in 4,000 displaced people a year (Germany took in 18,000 in a single weekend) – and the small print is still unclear. Paddy Ashdown pointed out that, under current legislation, refugees, once rehoused – once educated and embedded in British life – could face being deported within five years, meaning children would have to leave when they turn eighteen. Which seems like a bizarre thing to do with a young and eager workforce on the cusp of contributing to society. It’s still unclear how long displaced people will retain their refugees status.

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And so the rally cries have adapted. “20,000’s nowhere near. Refugees are welcome here.” One little boy propped on his dad’s shoulders held a poster crayoned in rainbow colours: ‘David Cameron Out. Refugees In’ (“He wanted to add ‘We’d really appreciate it,'” said his dad. “But he ran out of room.”) A woman in her eighties, walking stick in hand, had hobbled all the way from Finsbury. There were babes in arms, fiery young teens, and entire families; Palestinian flags flying alongside trade union banners. Outside Downing Street, a circle gathered around Sisters Uncut – the enigmatic sub-group mobilised by cuts to services for domestic violence – and belted ‘Shame on You’ at Cameron’s front door. Under Big Ben an impromptu dance party kicked off, powered by a guy in goggles who wheeled in a sound-system on a bike. Men in suits started losing their shit, taking lead from seasoned ravers, and for a moment London looked like it was fulfilling its potential – embracing the full breadth of its precious diversity and making use of the freedom others die for.

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That evening a smaller faction gathered at another meeting point, rallied together by Secret Cinema, who had partnered at short notice with the Refugee Council to put on what they were calling a ‘cultural protest’. Londoners were led into Cadogan Hall, where Maurice Wren of the Refugee Council introduced a short film by Iraqi filmmaker Bahman Gobadi – directed by children living in refugee camps on the Syrian-Turkish border – followed by his emotive feature Turtles Can Fly from 2004. Set against the backdrop of the US invasion of Iraq, the film embeds the harrowing contours of war – rape, murder and loss – into a story about friendship and family bonds that reveals the limits of how far hope can take us. Perhaps the power of film lies in our collective experience, because that night it felt explosive: at the same time that messages from refugees were thrown over the audience like a raincloud, in The Jungle in Calais people gathered around a screen to watch the 1967 french film The Red Balloon – with 200 red balloons released in a show of global solidarity. You couldn’t help but feel that Wren’s message was being amplified: “The fundamental message is this: Refugee rights are our rights.”

The emotional crescendo of those two films – the mix of pathos, humour, and almost universal pain – made you feel for just a second – not just understand – what these families have been through, in a way that possibly only film can. Abduction and rape – not knowing where your sister is, or what she’s going through – are not abstract terms when you can see and hear the pain of an entire community wailing in unison from a dark inner place that no one should ever be forced to access. Suddenly those signs that hovered outside Downing Street that day felt more prescient and powerful than before.

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And so, yes, there are connections between all these levels of awareness. Dance parties, screenings, rigorous journalism; petitions, donations, direct distribution; small gestures of hospitality and finding ways to show respect. The spectrum of action is colourful and broad. But every drop of awareness is part of a greater wave – and regardless of what triggered it or how it manifests we need every bit we can get. If nothing else, it plays a part in closing that disconnect between the life we live and the experiences we want to understand

These things happened because we took our frustrations online and connected with like-minded people. Because we searched for the stories that could help us better understand and questioned the ones veiled by agendas. Social media, in that way, is perhaps a lot like life: as good as the people you surround yourself with, and as fulfilling as you make it.

So let’s keep sharing those stories. Keep asking questions and keep airing our frustrations. Because you can bet there are people banking on the fact that we’ll move on. The situation may be complex but our actions don’t need to be. And someone’s gotta say we can be doing more.

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