Words by Abi Scaife
Nine days of celebrating sanctuary, safety, and acceptance: Sheffield’s Migration Matters Festival is truly an incredible representation of what it means to be British in the 21st Century.
Despite its failings, Great Britain has an incredible history of opening its arms up to refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants of all kinds; and Sheffield is one of the cities which did well at this. In fact, in 2007, it became the UK’s first City of Sanctuary for refugees and asylum seekers.
We ate delicious food and watched spectacular shows including the Migration Matters Global Drag and Cabaret Bonanza, which took us around the world in four incredible acts. We heard touching stories at MongTa’s Sonic Pho event and even went to interactive kids events like Boh Boh Finds Home (hint: you didn’t have to be a kid to enjoy that one!).
“When I was growing up in Sheffield, I remember the Kosovo refugee crisis … and a lot of the Kosovo refugees came to Sheffield,” says Sam Holland, founder of the Migration Matters Festival. “I remember this outpouring of welcome, and this wanting to make sure that these people felt like this could be their home, at least on a temporary basis.”
“I think that's probably one of the things I'm proudest about, living in Sheffield - and there's a lot to be proud about in this city.”
The atmosphere of the city during the festival was so accepting and welcoming and with every event it became clearer how intrinsic the experience of immigrants is, not only to Sheffield, but also to the culture of the UK overall.
Michael Marks, of Marks and Spencer fame, was an asylum seeker; as was Sir Alec Issigonis, who invented the Mini (car, not Magnum). Even more significantly, as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Windrush generation, we should remember the scores of immigrants from the Caribbean who helped to rebuild Britain after the Blitz.
At the Drag and Cabaret, we laughed and sympathised in equal measure with the likes of Señorita Rita and Janusz, as we learned about what it takes to live separated from the home of your heart, knowing you are safer where you are.
From Sonic Pho, we learned the story of so many who had to flee Vietnam during the war, and how saying ‘I love you’ can be easier through a bowl of delicious pho, than it can through words.
From Radio Neighborhood, we learned that just one small action can change so much - and that you don’t have to experience something to care about when it is affecting others.
“The most important thing right now is for us to focus on collective empathy and compassion … and to not be focusing on things like borders, and nations and flags,” says Sam. “Because I think that kind of, that kind of rhetoric really gets in the way of what is most important:
“Building a community - building a world - where we look out for each other and support each other, and where we can open up our doors and welcome people in and, and make them feel safe and secure, and for us to celebrate our cultural identities together in a shared space.”
So maybe one festival won’t fix everything - but it goes a long way in celebrating the incredible cultures and people around the world. It also builds awareness around how many of these people have been forced to leave their homes and loved ones in search of safety.
Migration Matters Festival reminds us that all these cultures are so important and that they have a place here in the UK. It reminds us how those who have the privilege of relative safety and security, should be opening up their arms to welcome people who are struggling.
At Smiley Movement, we like to elevate the work of charities across the world. Here are three charities whose causes align with the themes in this article.
The RNLI. The RNLI is a charity saving lives at sea through lifeboat search and rescue, lifeguards, water safety education and flood rescue. Find out more here.
Migrant Help. Is a charity supporting those affected by displacement and exploitation. Support them here.
Refugee Action. This charity helps refugees build safe, hopeful and productive new lives in the UK. Learn more here.