Today we created a monster…and built solidarity

‘It is not a monster…it is an illusion’. Our creation.

Today was the first day of a five day annual summer course on refugees and forced migration organised by the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University.  It’s one of the main perks of my visit to Toronto. An opportunity to engage with academics, policy makers and practitioners working mainly, though as it turned out not exclusively, in Canada where narratives and political responses to the growing number of people forced to leave their homes and seek international protection are vastly different from those in Europe. On paper at least.  And a chance to talk about the findings of my latest book exploring the journeys of refugees and other migrants who crossed the Mediterranean in 2015 looking for safety and an opportunity to build a new life for themselves and their families.

What I wasn’t expecting was the chance to create a monster – or how that would make me feel.

I’ve used visual and creative methods in my own work in the past. I’ve also worked with artists and musicians who have engaged people from a wide range of backgrounds and communities to better understand migration issues – and one another. I adore the work of my good friend Ricky Romain whose powerful figurative images portray the deep sense of the pain and injustice felt by many refugees without mention of the 1951 Refugee Convention or international human rights law. Music in Detention provides immigration detainees a powerful way to voice their feelings, concerns and hopes, at the same time creating opportunities to help break down barriers of prejudice. I’ve never doubted the power of the arts and creative processes to engage people in a way that the written and spoken word cannot.

What I hadn’t realised until today was how powerful that process can be in creating a sense of solidarity and shared ownership.

Paola Gomez is a writer, a human rights lawyer and a humanitarian who also happens to be a refugee: “Canada is my adopted mum…Colombia is my birth mum” she told us, “but she couldn’t protect me”. Together with her partner in life and love Alex Usquiano, a visual artist, photographer and teacher,  Paolo established Sick Muse Art Projects which uses the arts to build and inspire communities based on anti-oppression principles.

As Paola told us the story of how she came to be in Toronto and the work in which she and Alex are so intensely involved, we were invited to ‘create a monster’ by adding our own mark to a small blank canvas circulating around the room. My contribution – a partially shaded oval – felt small, insignificant and meaningless. An hour later when it returned it had taken on entirely new meaning and form. Our collective effort had indeed created a monster, every line influenced by the one before it and shaping the one that followed. Our monster had hair and wore earrings. S/he was by the sea, with flowers and an artists palette. S/he was not the most beautiful monster and this was not a piece of work that any one of us would have wanted to take home or put on display, at least not as far as I am aware. But we had created it together and that very process of co-creation had created a sense of solidarity, of shared ownership. Whilst none of our contributions had been significant individually, they added up to something much greater than the sum of its parts.

And that’s when the penny dropped.

Whilst there is a lot of talk about the important of co-creation and co-production,  this only works in practice when everyone in the room is on an entirely equal footing,  is willing to participate, engage and contribute to the process regardless of the outcome, and has no expectations about what the final product might look like. In the end I struggled even to identify my own personal contribution to the whole. But my small, seemingly insignificant oval became our monster’s right eye. And it helped me to see.

Monster_2Eyes to see


Putting down roots

“There isn’t anything particularly radical about saying people want to connect and they want to belong but how that happens is pretty important”

So today was a nothing kind of day, a combination of exhaustion and jet lag. Only it wasn’t.

A short walk in search of food brought me to Wychwood Barns Park, a small area of greenery where a selection of people had gathered to make the most of the early morning sunshine a…man gently stretching his limbs in the warmth, a woman whose smiley dog insisted on licking her face as she tried to reach her toes.  And in amongst it all a small area of raised beds, freshly cultivated but not yet planted which, it turned out, are part of eight Global Roots plots, each devoted to particular ethnic communities with large populations in Toronto – Chinese, Tibetan, South Asian, Somalian, Italian, Latin American, Polish, and Filipino.

In Toronto it appears that the kinds of narratives and messages that we have been trying to develop in the UK and across Europe about the importance of bringing people together and of creating connections between different groups are part of the every day. In this particular project, gardeners meet once a week to tend the plots, socialize, and cook food. Bringing together older people, many of whom were food producers in their countries of origin, with young people who don’t necessarily have any experience gardening, creates opportunities for building social solidarity and shared learning.

Which is not to say of course that things like this don’t exist in the UK. The media and political focus on ‘the problem’ of migration conceals a wealth of projects and initiatives which try to improve understanding of the lives, and contribution, of different migrants to British society  – RefugTEA, for example brings people together over tea and cake (always a good bet in the British context), Refugee Week highlights the contribution of refugees to British culture and society more generally. I’ve been actively involved with both for many years.

But the problem with these kinds of approaches is that they take huge amounts of organisation, are often time-limited and focus on one specific group of people (usually refugees) in ways that are not necessarily conducive to building wider networks of social solidarity and support.

And you don’t just stumble across them when you are on the hunt for breakfast!

The longer that European – and especially British – politicians and the media continue to peddle their toxic politics of hate, exclusion and division, the more convinced I am that change will never come from the top nor from projects organised from within the ‘refugee sector’ but from the small, and cumulatively significant, actions of people who don’t work directly with refugees and other migrants but are willing to stand up for change and prepared to act collectively to make that happen, in their own communities at least. These initiatives – which are often framed in terms of social justice rather than tackling ‘the problem’ of migration – may not be prominently placed in mainstream media and political debate but they are there, quietly – and sometimes noisily – challenging the dominant narratives that can feel all-powerful and resistant to change. They offer hope that it is possible to mobilise people power and create a new narrative on migration and diversity that moves beyond fear and hate. It’s the reason why I’m such a fan of the #MoreInCommon campaign and others like it.

To be clear, I don’t think for one minute that there aren’t also deep seated issues of structural inequality and marginalisation in cities like Toronto, just as there are in every single city. But having a different political narrative and being prepared to understand migration as intrinsically related to wider issues of social (in)justice and global (as well as local) inequality opens up fundamentally different ways of starting to respond that address the needs of the many and not the few.

Any if you still need some inspiration to get out and do things differently, take 3 minutes out of your life to watch this!

More at

An addendum – a dear friend and colleague has pointed out that similar initiatives exist in the UK, for example Living Under One Sun actively creates welcoming places to share stories, ideas and skills for people to become “can do” communities, embracing and leading positive change to include and benefit all cultures, abilities, ages and Nature – in neighbourhoods and globally. I have no doubt that 100s more of these kinds of projects exist up and down the country. We need to hear much, much more about the work they do, it would be a powerful counter-narrative to the one that currently dominates British politics and the media.