'Refugees crossing': the little boats bearing our humanity

By Jill Segger
October 17, 2015

Just a month after photographs of the body of three-year-old Alyan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach, shocked the world, the government has announced its decision to withdraw two Border Force rescue boats which were patrolling the waters between Turkey and the Greek islands.

.But as the public's attention to this crisis wanes and the government – although winding in its rhetoric about “swarms” and “marauding migrants” has to some extent mollified criticism by emphasising a focus on settling people from camps in the Middle East, the perilous exodus of desperate people with its attendant fatalities continues. Save the Children, which is working to help the youngest and most vulnerable refugees in the Middle East, Africa and Europe, say 159 people, including 35 children, drowned crossing the Aegean Sea last month alone.

Popular opinion has to some extent been swayed by misleading promises to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees. That this is to take place over four years is not so widely reported. And the same tabloid newspapers who made much of Aylan Kurdi's death have been at their accustomed business of stirring up anti-refugee feeling. The idea that refugees who want to live in the UK are to be feared and mistrusted as a threat to jobs, communities and our way of life thrives on ignorance of the facts.

Much has been written about this attitude and its effect on government policy. But sometimes effective challenge can come from an unexpected quarter. Bern O'Donoghue, an artist from Brighton, has launched an art project called 'Refugees Crossing' which is capturing the imagination of people throughout the UK and beyond.

O'Donoghue makes small, colourful paper boats, about four centimetres in length, which carry pieces of information countering popular fallacies about refugees and migrants and the demeaning language which is used to build prejudice against them. Here are just a few:

The vast majority of those reaching Europe by boat are refugees fleeing war.

The UK govt plan to take 20k refugees over 5 years is a drop in the ocean. We must help more.

Developing countries host over 86% of the world's refugees.

Britain is home to just 0.6% of the world's refugees.

Asylum seekers are looking for a place of safety above all else.

We can build walls, we can build fences. But there is no wall you would not climb if it is terror you are fleeing.

Other, smaller boats bear single words to remind us of the humanity of the people entrusting themselves and their children to these voyages of desperation: ' Mother', 'Friend', 'Baby', 'Brother', 'Neighbour'.

Bern O'Donoghue has to date, sent out 4560 paper boats in answers to requests from 70 towns in the UK and from Berlin, Budapest, Puglia, Naples, Venice, Porto, Texas, Atlanta, New York and Kos. The idea is to place the boats in stations, at pedestrian crossings, in playgrounds, at bus stops and other places where people gather.

People are encouraged to share pictures of boats they have placed on their social media accounts. O'Donoghue is asking those who share images of the boats on Twitter to give the location and use the hashtags #refugeecrisis and #MigrantLivesMatter.

“I want people to see that refugees are in lots of ways just like them”, says Bern O'Donoghue. “I’m hoping this will inspire people to rethink the way they talk about and treat immigration.” She hopes too, that the project may gain the attention of politicians and officials, reminding them of the influence they have on public opinion.

The little boats are sailing into interesting waters. Bern O'Donoghue recently gave a talk on the project to her local 6th form students at their Refugee Awareness Week. As a result, Migrant Help and Cities of Sanctuary have invited her to become involved with their work. Cities of Sanctuary are bidding for funding for a Parliamentary event in December where they would like her to present the boats to MPs. An Australian organisation have also approached O'Donoghue to talk about setting up a similar project with information specific to their country's immigration policy.

We will all, at some time, have experienced feelings of helplessness in the face of the injustice and suffering which flow from national or international events which appear beyond our influencing. The 'Refugees Crossing' project may seem a small thing, a tiny squeak of protest in the huge clangour of power and conflict. But the bringing together of creativity, imagination and compassion speaks to us in a way that articles, debates and lectures may fail to do. It is in the small and the simple that the human scale may be found and where one mind is changed, we begin to change the world. “We are the people we’ve been waiting for", says O’Donoghue. “All it takes to change things for the better is finding a simple way to do so.”

* Paper boats can be obtained through Bern O'Donoghue's Twitter account: @Dear1NationDave


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

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