Laughter as Hospitality

Maggie Birley
Maggie Birley

Alison Phipps reflects on a friendship that sustained and nourished her and that taught her that dignity, hospitality and laughter are intimately related.

I met Maggie Birley nearly 20 years ago when we were both doing a week of voluntary work on the Isle of Iona, and our task was to give a fresh coat of paint to the toilets in the Welcome Centre. Our equipment wasn’t exactly ideal, and we were constantly interrupted by visitors wanting to use the loos. Maggie had come prepared – she was the kind of woman who had overalls in her rucksack. I wasn’t. This quickly becomes the kind of hilarious, hard-enough task that can rapidly build relationships between strangers. As we tried to decorate under trying circumstances, white specks filling my hair from an asymmetrical paintbrush, we found out about each other. It’s the way conversation flows from the task at hand, something I’ve found to be common to all good work which seeks to integrate people into new spaces, places, and communities. “This reminds me of when we were in El Salvador,” she said at one point. “This reminds me of jumble sales in Norton Church Hall in Sheffield,” I replied and the laughter began between us. Worlds apart, yet new worlds being made together.

The laughter never really stopped. We mattocked out bracken roots together at Camas, on the Isle of Mull, on another work week, blistered hands and overflowing compost heaps, not long after I’d miscarried. Her laughter was therapy, healing and earthy and wholesome. And I learned more about the extraordinary life of this gorgeous person. She lived in a wood in Fife, with her family of three crazy kids, dog and, of course, partner in all, Jim. They’d sustained a native woodland, built a home, employed people who’d survived all kinds of trauma and abuse and opened up a sawmill as a social enterprise, living on the average wage, but no more. They’d first learned how to do this from working together in El Salvador years before and enabling the development of small businesses for returning refugees, after the war.

One of the infamous firepitsWhen we fostered Rima, a young unaccompanied minor from Eritrea who had fallen through all the safety nets, it was to Maggie and Jim we turned for parenting advice, given that their eldest was ages with Rima. And we trusted their solidity. What were hard, hard days for us with detention, threats of deportation and destitution at every turn were turned through this friendship into tree climbing, axe throwing competitions, and fire pits, plus a home-built hot tub fired by wood. There were disco-lights, holidays together on Iona, sleep-overs, dressing up parties, and hilarious practical jokes.

As we campaigned for Rima to be released and to be granted the right to claim asylum, the whole of the community in their Fife wood seemed to become part of integrating, sustaining, practical action. Maggie was at the heart of a radical set of consciousness-raising exercises. When Catherine Stihler MEP visited the local primary school it was the youngest of the Birleys who piped up that he didn’t understand why his friend had to be deported as she’d already lost one family once. A week later that MEP was asking his question, on his behalf, of the President of the European Parliament, and subsequently, there were revisions under the so-called Dublin III agreement, for the provisions for unaccompanied minors across Europe.

Through Maggie, I learned that dignity, hospitality, and laughter are closely related. Across a spectrum which involved giving the dignity of good work, fairly paid, to those who have had a really raw deal, be it in Scotland or El Salvador, Maggie welcomed everyone into her the heartwood of her life with laughter. It was as if, however tough, life was also an endless source of amusement. And if it was this, then all would be well.

When we were in utter despair at the cruelty and endless waiting on Home Office decision-making, an afternoon with Maggie and Jim and the kids would have us in stitches, and we’d return to the struggle lighter, still laughing, and suitably mocked for our heaviness, and seriousness.

Another friend of mine, a survivor of torture, has a similar laughingly insistent quality to Maggie’s. His practical approach to hospitality is all about laughter as a source of dignity because it is a great leveller. His question – a philosophical challenge – is “how can you be the dignity of a place or an encounter?” - regardless of how terrible the experiences you have survived. His answers always involve some laughter, some funny, funny tale, often told against himself.

Three years ago Maggie and I were on the floor up on Iona again, with a purloined see-saw strapping on baskets to create a make-shift set of scales for an event which would see people adding stones to tip the scales of injustice – the injustices facing refugees; those whose land or livelihoods had been taken through violence, conflict, persecution and economic injustice. We laughed all afternoon as every one of my ideas failed and every one of her practical solutions worked.

“Not so smart after all are you Prof Phipps? They didn’t teach you this at those jumble sales. I learned about this in El Salvador,” she’d laugh. But when the scales tipped, a deeper truth had been reached about what needed to change.

Maggie died earlier this summer. We heard the news just as I was"For Maggie: for all the years of laughter that you've lost, we'll be laughing in your stead." about to give the UNESCO World Refugee Day lecture at the SOLAS Festival. A small group of us gathered under a great Scots Pine to tell stories and sit with the sadness, and with the gratitude that is the hospitality griefship groups and communities can give one to another. At the celebration of her life there was laughter and fire and a great feast, all brought together and shared in that Fife wood, by hundreds. Lightly, but firmly, throughout, was the theme of refugees and shared hospitality, the insistence that marked Maggie out that ALL are welcome. Donations were requested by the family, in line with Maggie’s own wishes, for the Scottish Refugee Council. 

Why am I sharing these stories, of this life? Well, because it is unremarkable in as much as Maggie was utterly remarkable. Because we can all laugh, and make friends with strangers over a common task in our communities. We can all find ways of lightening the darkness of the suffering of others with the kinds of laughter which tell you, beyond all doubt, that you are seen, and you are alive. We may build our New Scots refugee integration strategies, and have our many necessary committees, but at the end of the day, this -- this quick of relationships, this life, this life lived openly, honestly, just welcoming folk in and in unfussed, unassuming warmth, this is what it is for. 

Maggie knew this, lived this, laughed this.

Lightening the darkness











In celebration of Maggie’s life, her loved ones raised more than £2,000 to support refugees through Scottish Refugee Council. We are extremely grateful to Maggie and her friends and family for their generosity. 

Alison Phipps is the world’s first UNESCO Chair for Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts and a professor at the University of Glasgow. She is Chair of New Scots, Scotland’s Refugee Integration Partnership, and an ambassador for Scottish Refugee Council.

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