GENEVA 2018 –  PERSONAL IMPRESSIONS from Tiffy Allen – City of Sanctuary Ireland and Scotland Regional Coordinator

Tiffy represented City of Sanctuary UK and Places of Sanctuary Ireland at the annual UNHCR consultation event in Geneva  this summer and here communicates its flavour in her personal refection:

“All the pictures on chocolate boxes and fancy cheese packs are true.

We glided into Geneva, surrounded by the glistening snow-capped Alps, the blue of the largest and most beautiful lake in Europe matched by the cloudless sky, the airport cool, crisp and efficient.  My last few trips to Europe have been hallmarked by guesswork and stumblings in Portuguese, Spanish and Italian, none of which I know, and my first feeling was a childlike delight at being surrounded by French, a language I understood. Moreover, as I navigated my way through the airport, onto the bus and then through the narrow streets of the old city to my hotel, everyone I approached for help understood me and replied clearly enough for me to catch their helpful directions, with no-one switching to English as they do in Brussels nor even looking down their nose as they do in Paris.

Geneva is casual and nonchalant in its sense of identity, quintessentially French-Swiss, comfortable and unapologetic in both, discreet enough to never brag its vast wealth, free enough to blare horns far into the night when Switzerland qualifies for the World Cup knockout stages. It is outrageously expensive and no-one seems to mind. The first afternoon and evening I was completely alone, and took time to explore the lake area, search for any place that might sell food at a reasonable price, practice my French and map reading skills, keep an eye on the World Cup matches being shown on big screens, and prepare myself for the presentation I’d be making the next day.

Twenty four hours later I had made new friends, been touched, inspired, moved to tears and outraged by the reports coming into the conference from all corners of the globe, sobered by the updated statistics of 68.5 million refugees, humbled by the reports of partner programmes in countries as far apart as Peru, West Africa and Australia. This was a transformative ­­and people-centred zoom-out to the bigger refugee picture like never before; a global snapshot first hand from refugees and practitioners from five continents and every corner of our shrinking and troubled planet. I had stood between the rows of flags leading up to the UN headquarters, gone through endless security checks, and begun to understand the multiple and complex tasks of UNHCR and their partners. UNHCR chose the simple and evocative theme of ‘Putting People First’ and all the messages from the High Commissioner and his team reflected their openness and their desire to listen and learn. It was now my turn to make a presentation to one of the ‘regional gatherings’, mostly from European or Western countries. Two of my fellow panellists had run into travel cancellations, leaving me with Duygu from Turkey, and our moderator, Lisa from the Refugee Council. Our mandate was to present what we had been doing and to draw out questions, contributions and ideas from the gathered delegates.

I looked around; most people were taking notes, looking very serious and a little tired. It was just after 2pm, we had been listening to one report after another since 9am, and the outside temperatures were touching 30. I decided that if I wanted people to catch the flavour of City of Sanctuary, we needed to move from head to heart, from objective to subjective and indeed, to be awake and ready. So I began with my own experiences of Geneva.

“Yesterday I came to Geneva; I knew no-one and I’d never been here before; I had to find my hotel, find my way around the city, look for a place to eat and find my way here today. If your experience of arriving in Geneva was similar, please put up your hand.” About half the gathered delegates raised their hands.

“OK everyone, look around. Now please find someone with their hand raised, and just shake hands with them, smile, and tell them they are very welcome, tell them you’re really pleased they came.”

It was a such a simple, small action but it somehow changed the atmosphere, relaxed the ‘culture’ of that particular gathering. Every one of these people was committed heart and soul to the welfare of refugees, every one had a story of paying a high cost to be on the journey that led them to be in Geneva for this conference. But we all somehow needed to be reminded of the simple and easily forgotten truth that sanctuary is something each one of us needs, something we all search for when our circumstances feel strange or threatening.

Lisa had been worried that with two speakers missing, we may not be able to fill the two hours. But people were still talking, asking questions, adding their ideas when it was time to go. It was inspiring and humbling to hear delegates from Turkey describe the some of their many community-based and holistic responses to the vast influx of refugees, to listen to the anguish of Hungarian groups as they courageously stood against the tide of antagonism and racism, to learn of the creative and persistent efforts being made in Israel to offer sanctuary to undocumented Africans in their cities. People from several countries, cities, organisations came and asked for more information, said they wanted to start something similar or that they were working along similar lines. I had arrived weighed down with leaflets, handbooks, stickers and mythbusters from around the network, and I put everything out after our meeting. Within 24 hours it had all gone. And my Big Task was done – a lot of people wanted to thank me for the presentation, loved my style, and I felt that if this was one of the sections of my ‘swan song’ (or maybe, as it is getting fairly protracted, my ‘swan symphony’), then I had represented the movement fairly well.  Now I could relax, meet people who wanted to hear more, and absorb the unique diversity of this amazing gathering.

My dreams of immersing myself in French didn’t really come to much, for the simple reason that I found myself in the centre of a different, somewhat unexpected language group. At the first breakfast in our hotel, it was pretty clear that all the single tables were occupied by delegates who would be going to the same conference. I sat on a table next to a young African man and began to chat. Robert was a refugee from East Congo, he founded a charity helping refugees in Uganda. I decided to ask if he spoke Swahili, and within a couple of minutes we were chatting away about this and that, extending the greetings, questions and remarks on the food, football and weather that Swahili somehow blends into a kind of a song.  A few moments later a beautiful young woman wearing a stylish hijab came to join us. Farhad’s  parents had fled war-torn Somalia to Kenya when she was very young; they were fairly well-off and she had a good education and plenty of opportunities in Nairobi. But a vision for her home country had grown in her heart since her early teens; she kept asking her parents, “Why are so many people leaving Somalia? Who will be there to rebuild our nation?” When she had completed her education she went on an exploratory trip to Central Somalia, and within a couple of years had founded a charity there to empower young women. Our little Swahili group extended to two inspiring young women from South Sudan: Rose, who is working with Nile Hope to rebuild South Sudan in desperately complex circumstances and Anyier, who lost her parents in South Sudan and grew up in Kakuma Refugee Camp till she was resettled in Australia; Anyier is a stunningly beautiful girl who combines a successful modelling career with awareness raising among Australians and travelling back to East Africa to encourage young refugees. The Swahili group expanded when we got to the conference; there was a large delegation from Kenya and several others from the region, and I was thrilled that these inspiring young people included me in their group and drew me into so many unique stories of finding sanctuary and changing history in East Africa.

The programme was packed and sometimes bewildering in the choices available, but a rhythm began to establish itself.  Networking took prime place in many minds as conversations in the vast foyer and corridors became deeper, longer and more focussed and people followed up snippets they had heard in the sessions. I met Claire, who coordinates #WithRefugees Partnership – we explored ways a grassroots, volunteer-driven and far flung network like our own can meaningfully connect with UNHCR so that there are live links that will be mutually beneficial. For now, the practical action of cities and towns signing up to the simple Statement of Solidarity and joining the coalition of organisations committed to welcoming refugees seem like a good start. People from Paris, Bulgaria, Israel, Italy, Scandinavia, Australia, Germany, Japan, USA and UK were among those I remember pulling me aside and wanting to talk more about how City of Sanctuary ideas could work in their setting. In the evenings growing groups of us gathered in bars and on beaches around the lake. Friday arrived and suddenly it was a day full of goodbyes, everyone leaving with a pocketful of business cards and a phoneful of memories.

I was nervous about the trip home. Staying for the whole conference – a legal requirement if, like me, your travel was covered by the UN, meant that the Aer Lingus flight for that day had left a couple of hours before I was free to travel, so I was booked on two KLM flights with a forty minute turn around at Amsterdam’s huge and busy airport. Negotiating my way through the sardine-packed crowds in Geneva airport, I suddenly began to feel my age and realised I was exhausted. I needed sanctuary. The check-in desk didn’t really offer any help, so I mentioned my dilemma to the tall blonde Dutch airhostess on the plane. She broke into a huge smile and replied, of course, in impeccable and accentless English. “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. Our entire crew is transferring to the Dublin flight!” And I didn’t need to worry – Amsterdam airport was a breeze, I had time to sit down in a cool and airy bar where for some reason someone gave me a free glass of beer.

Sanctuary. I looked down from the last leg of the flight at the Wicklow coast and Dublin Bay. Home – for people like me, most people I had met on this extraordinary week, all refugees, home is a moveable feast, a shifting value. But home essentially is the place where you know sanctuary is there for you. The skip in my step was back by the time I dragged my bag through customs, as delighted to hear the Dublin lilt as I had been a few days back to hear Swahili. Sanctuary. Can I measure the value, the impact of my trip? I don’t think so, a lot of what we do is bread cast upon the waters. Over the week ahead I’ll be talking to a dear Afghan friend whose family are finally able to join him, talking about the practicalities of the journey, their arrival, and all the strangeness they will face. The prayer in my breath as I settled into the taxi home and changed the thinking gear from global to local is that I, and others who take an interest in what I was doing, will be sharpened and refuelled in our commitment to making Sanctuary a reality for people like this family, day by day, recognizing the value of each individual life in the great unfathomable global picture.”

Tiffy Allen, July 2018

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