Friday, 18 June 2010

Showing solidarity on £35 a week

PREJUDICE and misunderstanding abound, so I salute my near-neighbour Claire for her warm-hearted display of solidarity with those seeking asylum in Britain.
Her blog, has been an interesting read throughout the five weeks she has been trying to live on £35 per week.
That’s the allowance given to those who have come here seeking refugee status and are waiting for permission to stay.
They are not economic migrants – and there is nothing remotely “illegal” about them in any way.
They are people fleeing persecution in their home lands, who have made themselves known to the authorities here and exercised their legal right to apply for asylum under the Refugee Convention.
They are not allowed to work until their case has been determined, which can means many months living a pretty hand-to-mouth existence in Britain.
How would you make out on just £35 a week to cover everything? As Claire found, it’s not easy – and she was doing it in the heart of a warm, loving family, with a secure roof, good clothing, a decent kitchen, speaking English as her first language and thoroughly familiar with British ways of life and shopping.
I was most moved by her account of an encounter in the supermarket queue.
When the woman in front of her declined a ‘buy one, get one free’ offer, she requested the free bread for herself.
How many asylum seekers, I wonder, would have the confidence to do that, even if they had the understanding?
As a well-dressed, well-spoken Englishwoman, she naturally felt compelled to explain herself. And that led, inevitably, to a dispute in the queue about the rights of what she was doing – in particular, about the rights (and supposed wrongs) of asylum seekers.
For Claire, this was a small and rare taste of the ignorance and prejudice which asylum seekers themselves – indeed, migrants of all kinds – face constantly.
To be branded alongside a fearsome, indeterminate “They” left her physically shaken.
Yet “they” are damaged, threatened human beings who have fled here, maybe at great personal risk and hardship, because their life elsewhere has become unbearable – sometimes literally unliveable.
If you are escaping from war or human rights abuses in Afghanistan, Iran, or Somalia, say, Zimbabwe, China or Iraq, the least you should expect here is to be treated with compassion.
If each person in that supermarket queue were to sit down with an individual refugee or asylum seeker and hear their story, some of those who speak most harshly about “them” might respond more kindly. More welcomingly. Less begrudging of a pitiful £35 a week.
I hope so.


I WAS just hanging out the washing when a bird flew down and landed on the feeder not six feet away.
What’s more, it stayed there while I fetched my camera, and remained posing sweetly while I took its portrait from several angles.
The little ball of bluetit fluff, still sporting its bright yellow ‘feed me, mum’ beak markings, has clearly not yet learned to be afraid of people. Or, indeed, the dog that was lying equally unconcerned under the feeder.
This delightful close encounter occurred just minutes after I completed my stint of garden-watching for the RSPB’s latest national survey.
I’ve taken part every January for years in the Big Garden Birdwatch. This was my debut, though, in the summer version, titled Make Your Nature Count.
The tally for my hour was five blackbirds, five bluetits (one busy adult with four chicks), four great-tits (two and two), three robins (one of them a chick), two woodpigeons, two collared doves, two dunnocks and a pair of chaffinches.
Plus the rarest of the lot, three blackcaps, two of them brown-capped chicks.
I’ve known for a few years that there was a regular blackcap nest in a holly tree just outside my garden. This is the first year, though, that I have seen the young ones.
I initially only identified them because I was able to watch the parents feeding them and I’ve seen them a few times since.
I don’t know whether the great-tits I can see outside the window right now are the family that was raised in my nesting-box, but I imagine it’s likely.
And then there are the longtailed tits.
They made no appearance on survey day. But a day or two earlier they arrived in the late afternoon sun and stayed, resting, feeding and chirruping in the holly and my apple tree, for a good couple of hours.
As ever with this most charming of species, they were travelling not just as a family, but as a whole troupe. I didn’t count them, but I’d estimate four or five adult pairs, each with three or four chicks.
And why do I tell you all this?
Simply because all this abundance of life around us brings me joy, and I hope it does you too.
To notice and to care about the non-human seems to me one of the best things in being human.

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