They are us: The vital importance of refugee stories

Rachel Hamada

Almost a decade ago, I was a journalist working at political magazine Holyrood and writing about every topic under the sun, from public finance to farming, the sex industry to education policy. I was used to dipping in and out of different environments, speaking to many different people – and moving on.

 However, one story particularly stuck with me. It was about children from families who had come to Scotland seeking asylum. These kids had been in the school system for years, had networks of friends, spoke with Scottish accents and had already put down strong roots here.

Like everything with roots, these children wanted to grow, and by all accounts many were thriving. Headteachers spoke of motivated, enthusiastic pupils who often brought a new lease of life into the classrooms they ended up in.

However their families were still waiting for a decision on their asylum applications.

I spoke to pupils from countries as diverse as Lebanon and Cameroon, and they all told me that their deep frustration was that however well they performed at school, they could not go on to university. At that time the children of asylum seeking families were expected to pay international fees to attend universities – and with “no recourse to work” how could any of these families afford this? They couldn’t, and bright kids ended up in limbo, unable to study further or to work.

I wrote about this, and shortly afterwards things started to change as more and more people spoke out on the issue – more scholarships were opened up to these young people so they could study at university, whether their interest was pharmacy, engineering or the humanities. I’m sure those people have gone on to great things – indeed, according to resent research, one boy I spoke to for the piece seems to now be an expert in quantum mathematics.

For that story, in 2007 I won a Refugee Media Award. It confirmed my feeling that as journalists the stories we tell about refugees are amongst our most important. Even better are the stories refugees tell themselves, directly or through journalists.

These narratives can change how we as a country treat people who have often lost everything they know. They can be a powerful antidote to hate and prejudice. They help us to remember that refugees are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, and that it could just as well be us. They are us and we are them.

This is the last week to enter the Refugee Media Awards 2016. The final deadline is Friday 8 April at 5pm. Find out more information and enter now.

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