All Our Stories: Building Empathy in the Face of Brexit

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By Rachel Elgy

Brexit is never an easy topic of conversation; even within ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ there are many disagreements and differences of opinion, but perhaps one thing we can all agree on is that the situation is complicated with no easy answers. There are several somewhat sticky points making negotiations difficult to manage, and one of these has been the topic of immigration.

Immigration, and freedom of movement in particular, is discussed and used by all sides of the Brexit debate, with incredibly divided opinions and often contradictory messages arising from discussions. Just last month an amendment passed unanimously in Parliament to protect the rights of EU citizens resident in the UK and UK citizens resident in the EU but, despite it’s overwhelming cross-party support, tabling the amendment cost Alberto Costa MP his job, as conventionally parliamentary private secretaries are not permitted to do so. Tweets ahead of the referendum in 2016 assured EU citizens that nothing would change for them if Britain were to vote Leave, but EU citizens now find themselves having to apply for settled status, with concerns that it could ‘become the new Windrush.’

One thing that can often be forgotten in debates about policies, schemes and withdrawal agreements is that when discussing immigration, we are really talking about peoples’ lives.

The Migration Museum Project, currently based in Lambeth, has the strapline ‘All Our Stories,’ as they maintain that we all have a migration story in one way or another, and that there is value in not only uncovering and acknowledging our own stories, but in listening to and learning from others’. Their current exhibition, running until July 2019, is called ‘Room to Breathe’ and features around 150 different personal stories of migration to the UK.

Visitors to the exhibition are invited to explore different rooms, immersing themselves as they uncover different stories; opening a wardrobe to find items of  clothing which have travelled miles and hold sentimental value for migrants; watching a kitchen table animation about Spanish immigrants setting up a café serving traditional English breakfasts; reading stories in exercise books of arriving at school in a new country; taking a seat in the Barber’s chair and watching videos of the communities and bonds built in the Barber shop. There is something for everyone, whether it’s connecting with a favourite music record, sharing recipes of family meals, or taking part in an art workshop exploring themes of home, identity and migration.

Children on a school trip to the Migration Museum enjoying the animations in the kitchen!

It’s a powerful exhibition, demonstrating the multiplicity of immigration, and building empathy across differences by simply telling stories.

The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Hate Crime recently published a report on building community cohesion despite rising hate crime, and a key recommendation that came out of their enquiry was the need for education.

On the day the referendum result was announced, a year 5 student, when asked for a definition of the word ‘immigrant’, told me “It’s why we voted to leave the EU.” Many schools have noticed emboldened attitudes from young people since the vote. Schools are looking to take steps to embed the voices of those with different nationalities, ethnicities and skin colours into their curriculums in order to bolster their work on immigration and counter far-right ideologies.

This positive and proactive work is essential, not only to challenge prejudicial attitudes and educate young people on the issues around immigration but also to ensure that young people feel represented, included and safe in their schools. Childline has reported a 35% increase in anxiety counselling sessions amongst young people (2015-16), and students at a London school expressed fear that immigration officers were going to deport them.

Following their ‘National Conversation on Immigration’ British Future, an independent, non-partisan thinktank, highlighted the importance of bringing people together to increase understanding.

In the age of social media, and 280 character tweets, it can be common for complex and nuanced discussions to be reduced to simplistic messages, name-calling and division. If we hope to work towards a more inclusive society, where all are made to feel safe and welcome, we must not shut our eyes and ears to stories and opinions which may be different to our own. British Future demonstrated with their National Conversation, that while immigration can be difficult to discuss, the answer is not to shy away from it, or hide behind a keyboard, but to bring people together face-to-face to talk to each other and share their varied and valuable experiences and perspectives.

In a brilliant TED talk, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned of ‘the danger of a single story,’ a lesson hard-learned but endlessly valuable. There is no single story of why voters chose Leave or Remain on the ballot paper. There is no single story of what it means to be British, what it means to be an immigrant, or even what it means to be human. We all have our own stories, and in the face of uncertainty and the potential for hostility we can fight back by listening, learning and sharing.

In the words of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword,’ and I would argue that even mightier than both is the power of stories to open minds and hearts.

You can find out more about The Migration Museum Project here.

EqualiTeach run workshops for students in KS2-4 called ‘Home from Home’ exploring immigration and what it means to be a refugee. Find out more here.

We also deliver training for staff on ‘Working with Young People on Controversial Issues,’ to support those working with young people to discuss challenging topics in a safe and inclusive way. Find out more here.

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