July 15th 2022, a day that will be forever marked in my memory, but I’ll come back to that in a bit.
Writing my last blog of the year I have found much to be hopeful. From the determination, actions and commitment of the Diocesan Climate Committee who continue to pursue climate action in the Catholic community in Birmingham, to the bravery, beautiful food and generosity of the women at Fatima House and the creativity and challenging questions of the school children we have met.
Yet what stands out most, and a subject I haven’t particularly written about, because it’s often hard to find the words is my time with Stories of Hope and Home. A charity coordinated by Steph Neville, to create a safe space for asylum seekers and refugees to share their stories and journeys with schools and communities, but also for them to explore their stories creatively, through poetry, performance and art.
So July 15th, a day of nerves, excitement and wonder. Will the babies stay quiet, will the members deliver their lines, will the school children understand their stories? This was the final performance day of a seven month project between the members of Stories of Hope and Home and the Welsh National Opera, with a helping hand writing the script coming from spoken word poet Steven Camden otherwise known as PolarBear. The performance, called ‘Refugee: What do you know about me?’ traces the stories of our group from their memories of home, to their arrival in the UK and how they found home here. Beginning with some lively Nigerian singing and culminating with a wonderful Iranian lullaby, it sought to break down the stereotypes and barriers between their communities and illustrate overall their humanity: that we have more in common than that which divides us. (Jo Cox)
The process was at times frustrating, pairing the chaotic, free-flowing and excitable family members of the Stories group, with the expectations and professionalism of the WNO. There were some weeks where I think some wondered whether we would make it to the final performance, but there were also moments of great joy, celebration and surprises. The performance drew together stories from our group that they wanted to share, whether they were sad, frustrating or celebratory, the stories which formed the crazy, unlikely yet loving family they were a part of now.
Steven drew these ideas together with joy, weaving the excitement, the journey and the memories of their home countries together with such care and attention that as we read through the script for the first, second or third time exclamations of ‘that’s my story’ could still be heard in the room. As the music came together and the group learnt to sing to express themselves and present their work immense pride emerged from each person. It was something special to spot budding directors, actors and singers emerging, even in the final rehearsal we had a surprise talent show itself in the group!
So having been through the process of pulling teeth, chasing children and ironing t-shirts late into the night, the nerves were well and truly present for the final production in front of 500 local school students. Yet as I had experienced a lot in my childhood when performing, when everything seems like it could just fall apart, it comes together in a wonderful unexpected and brilliant way on the day. I couldn’t help but smile as each member took to the stage to read a line, perform a monologue and sing together with the professional singers. Their confidence had grown beyond all expectation, their joy shone through their sometimes painful stories and their pride at being able to bring all of these young people and their teachers into their magnificent colourful, patchwork quilt of their lives.
This group of misfits, raggle taggled souls and courageous heroes had become a family to me over the past year. I shared in their celebrations; BBQs, birthdays, births, first words and for some, getting their status. I shared in their sadness, frustration and disappointment. Most of all I learnt how to find freedom in a society that seeks to confine us to stereotypes, status and colour. Our differences, quirks, languages and experiences brought us together. Our compassion, determination and vision for a warm welcome for everyone seeking safety, security and community.
So for a group self titled Stories of Hope and Home, I can confirm that these people, their stories and their hope has become a home for me. No fixed abode as such, but a feeling, a community and powerful presence which I can’t name but I will carry with me wherever I go.