Principal’s Assembly 20 Nov 2018


Before I introduce our guest speaker, I would like to announce the names of pupils who have been awarded Commendations over the last half-term. This is the highest reward we give to pupils who live our values.
Names followed of pupils awarded Commendations for Creativity, Inquisitiveness, Ambition, Resilience and eight pupils for Making a Positive Difference.
Making a Positive Difference to our community … inspired to make other lives matter.
I first met Zainah when she was struggling over her A Level choices. Given her background and motivations, I suggested that Politics might be a good fit for her. Zainah now has a degree in Politics and International Relations from Durham University and a Masters degree in Human Rights Law from York.
The latter qualification gives you a clue as to how Zainah has chosen to dedicate her life – making other lives matter. Zainah, you are very welcome here today.
Since June this year, globally, we are facing the highest rates of displacement in recorded history. People like you and me, men, women and children who were going to school or work, celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, stressing about homework, exams and deadlines, graduating from university and getting jobs - all of these people have had their lives turned upside down. 68.5 million people have been uprooted and left with near to nothing. 40 million displaced within their own countries and over 25 million have become refugees and asylum seekers after being forced to flee their own countries. I work at Refugee Action York, and alongside a small team of 3 other people, we support approximately 130 of these refugees and asylum seekers in York. I work with people from more than 15 nationalities, fleeing various forms of persecution, and war. This have included people from Sudan, Eritrea, persecuted Kurdish populations and of course the overwhelming majority are Syrian refugees fleeing seven years of a devastating civil war.
For those who aren’t familiar with what’s happening in Syria and why it’s happening:
Syria was and still is in many parts, a beautiful country, famous for its architecture. It has a rich history, and Damascus, its capital is particularly famous in the Middle East for its literature and poetry. For decades Syria was ruled by a man, an oppressive leader called Hafez al Assad. When he died, his son, an eye doctor who had studied and was working in London took over his father’s position – Doctor Bashar al Assad. Years later protests swept across the Middle East and North Africa. Normal people rose up against dictators from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya and Yemen and one by one they toppled. In the Syrian city of Dara’a, teenage boys picked up a spray can and wrote a few words which changed everything - ‘Your turn next, Doctor’. What followed was a crackdown by the government and civil war so devastating that a lot of Syria now lies in ruins.
People fled to neighbouring countries, many just with the clothes they were wearing and ended up mainly in Turkey and Lebanon. When we take a closer look at Lebanon, it’s a resource poor, politically fragile state. It found itself responsible for over 1 million Syrian refugees – the equivalent to 20% of its population, and it was crumbling under this immense pressure. This is where we came in, countries such as Canada, Germany and the UK created their own schemes to bring Syrian refugees from refugee camps in surrounding countries and resettle them. Others, desperate and fleeing travelled across seas and walked for miles to reach safety in Europe.
Unfortunately, instead of empathy, they were met with some hostility. One particular journalist decided to call them ‘cockroaches’ and a ‘plague of feral humans and referred to a ‘swarm of migrants’ invading the country. The impression given here is that undeserving people are just desperate to be in this country for no genuine reason, just to exploit its services. I can say, without exception, that every single one the families I have been working with from Syria would return in a heartbeat. In fact, they miss home desperately and one of the most challenging parts of my job is helping people come to terms with the fact that this is it now, they’re here and they have to get on with their lives for the sake of themselves and their families.
Fortunately, the lack of empathy and humanity is a minority view. During my work, the response, work and action from people in the city of York has been humbling, emotional and heart-warming.
We rely on more than 100 volunteers from all ages and backgrounds giving up their own time to run our services. We have students, people who’ve retired, doctors and teachers. Without them, we simply couldn’t function as an organisation. On our Sunday drop in service at a Children’s Centre in York, a headteacher of the school next door saw us struggling for space as more and more refugee families were being resettled in York. He said, ‘why don’t you use our school?’ They gave us a set of keys, and the teachers of this school opened up their classrooms to language lessons, their offices for one to one support and counselling, their hall for information sessions and their canteen for a shared meal to reduce isolation amongst our families. York St John’s University became a University of Sanctuary, pledging to support the local refugee and asylum seeker population in York. They’ve since provided more spaces for mid-week services to the refugee population, in addition to free sports coaching for our young people. There are seven Universities of Sanctuary in the whole UK, and four of them are in Yorkshire.
Then there are the service users – the refugees and asylum seekers I work with. To say I am in awe of them is an understatement. I can’t imagine losing everything and having to start again from scratch more than once as many of them have had to. I can’t imagine being back in a classroom learning a new language and adapting to a completely new country, but their strength and resilience has been incredible.
These are some of the experiences of the many incredible people I have worked with. The refugees and asylum seekers, staff members for refugee support organisations and volunteers who work tirelessly to help this vulnerable part of our population.
But our work is far from done. We have a duty to help those in need, whether they are in the UK, in the Jungle refugee camp in Calais or Beirut in Lebanon. You could fundraise for local, national or international charities, whether it’s an organisation based in Leeds, Children in Need which funds our young refugee projects in York or the UNHCR which supports refugees globally. You may have unwanted items which mean nothing to you but could mean the world to stranded refugees in Calais – in that case you could organise a Yorkshire Aid collection here at the school. You could write to your local MP or councillors and encourage them to resettle more Syrian families in Leeds, as this is a local government decision. You could simply read a book about the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers and help educate others.  Even small acts of solidarity and kindness, such as wearing a badge or sticker which says ‘refugees welcome’ can make a huge difference in the political climate we currently live in.
Todays’ final thoughts are adapted, appropriately, I think, from a Quaker prayer:
Remember your responsibilities as a citizen for the conduct of local, national and international affairs. Do not shrink from the time and effort your involvement may demand.
Seek to understand the causes of injustice, social unrest and fear. Work to bring about a just and compassionate society which allows everyone to develop their capacities.

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