Over 300 people turned up in Fortis Green last week to hear Yvette Cooper and Catherine West talk about refugees. Ward member Sara Hall is gob-smacked - and inspired.
I joined the Labour Party last year and went to my first ever ward meeting in October. Little did I know that three months later I would be helping to organise a record turn-out, on a bitter January night, to an event titled: Refugees: what's going on? And how can we help?
All we had started off with was a sense that there was a lot more we could do to understand and, crucially, help with the appalling situation many refugees find themselves in: in the UK, Europe and beyond. So we decided to invite Yvette Cooper, Catherine West, the Refugee Council, a wonderful lady, an asylum seeker called ‘Elsie’ (not her real name), and ten local organisations who support refugees - and hoped someone would come to listen. And they did…in their hundreds!
At the start of the evening the room seemed to fill faster than we could put out the last chairs, and even they went like hot cakes. Most exciting for me was the real buzz in the room: people going round the stalls, talking to the different local organisations asking about their work, offering to help and get involved.
The speakers were all brilliant: Yvette Cooper was very moving - and moved - about the appalling scenes she has witnessed on Lesbos in Greece and in Calais. She sent a strong signal that, regardless of what one might think about migration, this is a humanitarian crisis and needs to be treated as such. She asked all of us to sign a petition to help 3000 refugee children. You can sign here: http://www.yvettecooper.com/refugee_task_force_petition
Jonathan Featonby from the Refugee Council explained what happens to asylum seekers who are already here, and said that the way we treat refugees is putting the UK’s proud history at risk.
But the speaker that moved me the most was ‘Elsie’, who talked to us about her experience in Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre. I was appalled to hear that women who have fled their countries to save their lives and come to us for protection like ‘Elsie’ can be held in detention for as long as the authorities want. I still find this hard to believe as I type. This stuff happens in dictatorships. I was appalled to hear that every woman arriving in Yarl’s Wood is made to undergo a pregnancy test and, if pregnant, is pressured into having an abortion. As a mother of two I find this …I have no words to describe how I find this…. And I was appalled to hear Elsie’s account of a woman who was seriously ill in her cell and receiving no medical attention. Afraid she was dying, the other inmates called an ambulance. When it arrived, the Yarl’s Wood authorities wouldn't let the paramedics see the patient and sent them away. How can this happen here?
Our MP Catherine West, who chaired the event, wanted to see the appalling state of affairs for herself and requested permission to visit Yarl’s Wood. She was turned down by the Home Office. Have they got something to hide, I wonder? You can sign Catherine’s petition to overturn this decision here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/106583
But despite ‘Elsie’s’ heart-breaking testimony, it was powerful to see her up on stage vowing to keep campaigning to end the detention of refugee women. You can get involved too - just go to http://www.refugeewomen.co.uk/campaign/
It was also powerful to look at a roomfull of 300 of my neighbours all engaged and determined to do what they can to help with the refugee crisis. And the best bit is….we have only just gotten started! Watch this space…..