“It’s time to do something” Austrian Migrant Supporter

Back in October I was in Austria, the only open gateway to the EU for migrants and refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East. I took the opportunity to speak to migrants and activists about the current situation.

These are the impressions of a young woman, who describes herself as “just a supporter”. For nearly four weeks, she had been supporting a refugee protest camp outside the police station in Graz. You can hear the story of one of the refugees, Mazin, recorded here.

This Austrian woman spoke passionately about her motivation to action. “This situation is writing history,” she explained. “When in 30 years my children ask me what happened, I don’t want to explain to them why did I just watch, why didn’t I do anything.” She sees action as a moral imperative: “I don’t see it as help,” she says. “I just see it as something you basically have to do now.”

This solidarity imperative means that, rather than becoming an aid worker, she finds herself surrounded by friends. “Everybody I met, they become friends,” she says. “It’s not like they are refugees and I am Austrian and I help them, but we’re doing something together and we become friends. That’s what it should be like.”

Unsurprisingly, she’s not terribly impressed by the governments of the EU. “They could do so much more,” she says. “If it would be about some economical crisis, they would have a solution in days.” Her laugh has real bite. “But now it’s about human beings standing around outside in the cold for hours and hours. They’re not treating people with enough humanity.”

“I always believe in humanity” Mazin Abu Khaled, Migrant from Syria

I’m very pleased to finally be publishing this, the first in a series of audio stories called Voices for Migration. The series will feature the voices of many different people, all talking about their experiences of migration – whether migrants themselves or people who have been touched by the effects of migration.

This first story is from a Syrian man called Mazin Abu Khaled, who I met while in Graz at the Elevate Festival. He is lucky to have made it to Austria, but his journey is far from over. His family are still back in Syria, but he can’t afford to pay the human traffickers who could help them escape, and is scared that they wouldn’t survive the journey in any case. “It is a death journey,” he says.

Even in Austria, Mazin is struggling. He has been waiting for his papers for months. Until his asylum claim is processed, he is not allowed to work or contribute to Austrian society, even as a volunteer. “We want to help,” he says. “We can do many things with them.” That is why he and other migrants set up a protest camp outside the police building in Graz.

Mazin’s sympathy, however, lies with less fortunate migrants, who are leaving Syria in their thousands, to be met in the EU with near indifference. The governments of the EU are not taking the problem seriously. “There is no food, no blankets, nothing,” he says. “I can’t understand it.”

So I hope you enjoy listening, and please share Mazin’s powerful story with your friends.

 

I’m a voyeur, a do-gooder, a megalomaniac!

“You’re a voyeur, a do-gooder, a megalomaniac.”

I’ve been called many things since I first started “getting involved” with Calais back in the summer of 2014. Rather than dismissing these accusations hurled as insults, I would rather examine them to discover from where they derive their power. Because power they have: I do feel, at times, a voyeur, a do-gooder and a megalomaniac.

I don’t think many people enjoy acknowleging these aspects of themselves, but I think it’s important to do so. Hopefully I’ll show you how listening to your feelings of voyeurism, do-gooding and megalomania can make you, not just a better activist, but a better person altogether.

“You’re a voyeur.”

This accusation is founded on the idea that the migrant camp in Calais represents a vision of the world so radically different to mine that I must be taking some kind of perverse pleasure in the encounter. My favourite term for this kind of activist tourism is, rather than solidarity, holidarity.

It’s true: my warm home in London couldn’t be more different to the waterlogged shanty tents of Calais. It’s also true that my life as a middle class white Englishman couldn’t be more different to the experience of a six year-old Syrian boy, alone in an unwelcoming foreign land with not much more than the shirt on his back.

The accusation of voyeurism hits the mark. The misery and squalor of Calais is horrifying. It does, sometimes, make me stare uncomprehendingly, and thank my lucky stars that I don’t have to live through this reality indefinitely.

But this is my reality. Calais is as much a part of my life as the streets of New Cross, and we are all part of a world crowded with camps as horrifying as Calais (and many much more so). Should we airbrush places like Calais from our pretty picture? I don’t think so. The only question that remains, then, is how we should act in such a world.

Here is where we get our first insight: the feeling of being a voyeur only hits me when I restrict myself to being an outside observer. This actually happens very rarely. When I’m in Calais, I usually spend most of my time talking to people, trying to teach English, sharing food, or playing cricket. The moment I take action, the feeling of voyeurism dissolves in a shared connection with real people who react and respond themselves.

It’s simple. We can’t deny that voyeurism is part of the spectrum of human feeling, but I see voyeurism as a timely reminder that we are not here on Earth merely to observe; we are here to connect.

“You’re a do-gooder.”

The sense of “do-gooding” is undoubtedy pejorative. Do-gooders are earnest, naive, impractical, patronising, relentlessly foisting their well-intentioned, but ill-conceived ideas of betterment on people who have asked for nothing.

I won’t repeat the unfavourable comparison I’ve made before between charity and solidarity, but I do feel that the difference is hierarchy and intention. (Please note that I’m not talking about all insitutional charities necessarily, but the fundamental concept.)

Charities are classically and intentionally hierarchical: a material need is identified and filled by an outside group. The power resides in the charity. Clothes, food, or bikes are handed out from those who have to those who have not. At its best, this is nothing more than resource re-distribution; at its worst, however, the recipient is turned into a beggar for aid.

The concept of solidarity is very different in structure and intention. Solidarity recognises the natural and fundamental equality of humanity. The intention is simply to stand side by side with your brothers and sisters, in the good times, as well as the bad. What is yours is theirs, and vice-versa. It is similar to a friendship bond, rather than an institutional or paterfamilias bond.

I have always left Calais feeling like I was an equal beneficiary from whatever exchange of humanity took place between me and the people I met there.

So when you are accused of being a do-gooder, it’s a signal that perhaps you have assumed more power than you should in an equal relationship. The solution is simple: check your privilege, and surrender any top-down control you have.

“You’re a megalomaniac!”

A megalomaniac is a pathological egotist, conceited, self-obsessed, with an exaggerated sense of their own importance. What has this to do with activism and Calais, you might wonder. Well, there are a couple of ways a megalomaniac might become involved.

A pre-existing megalomaniac might see in Calais and the migration crisis an opportunity for his own self-aggrandisement and fame. I’m not going to talk about those kinds of people; they have a lot more work to do than I can help with here.

What I will talk about, however, are the heady megalomaniacal feelings that an activist might get when they get media or popular attention, when they are part of something awesome, or when they start to feel possession over “their” action.

Since the middle of 2015, there has been a lot of attention on Calais, not just in the media, but on the street too. Back in 2014, no one was particularly interested in what I did in Calais. One mention of “migrants” and all I’d get was a dirty look. This autumn, however, those same dirty lookers were clamouring for tips on how to “get involved”.

My small part in the success of the Calais Critical Mass over the August Bank Holiday also meant that I ended up speaking to all sorts of national and international media, in print and on TV. A couple of things I’ve written about Calais on this site have gone viral, sending thousands of people to a blog that usually gets about 50 visits a day.

At times, it’s been hard to come down from the megalomaniacal high.

When I get this kind of attention and appreciation, my heart rate rises, I feel light-headed, and my voice goes all squeaky. It’s a pretty great feeling and it would be tempting, indeed understandable, to chase that megalomaniacal high. But I know that it is not a productive emotion to indulge.

I call these feelings “megalomania”, and not something more positive like “enthusiasm” or “ecstasy”, because they always result in me turning inwards, chasing the feeling, not the results that I would like to see in the world. The antidote to megalomania is modesty.

As we rode down to Calais in an eighty-strong mass last August, I kept telling myself (and anyone who’d listen) of the modesty of what we were trying to achieve. This was not a grandiose expedition, I kept telling myself. It would be a success if just one person made just one other person smile across the battlelines of our border.

Whenever I felt myself being carried along by incipient feelings of megalomania – “This is the beginning of the borderless revolution, and I made it happen!” – I would refocus on that one little smile, and give thanks that I was able to be a tiny part of a much greater positive force.

Megalomania is another useful signal, telling me that success is making me turn inwards. The solution is to appreciate our smallest imaginable achievement, and give thanks to all the others who make this possible. Megalomania is a call to acknowledge the higher purpose we share with the rest of the planet.

Yes, I am a voyeaur, a do-gooder, a megalomaniac (sometimes)

Occasionally feeling like a voyeur, a do-gooder, or a megalomaniac is an inescapable part of being an activist (by which I mean “human”). I’m only human; I’m bound to get swept away sometimes by feelings of horror and power, fame and pride.

I see these feelings, not as enemies or insults, but as signals, important reminders to reconnect with the real reasons for why I’m doing what I do.

  • When I feel like a voyeur, I must remember to stop being an outside observer, and to connect.
  • When I feel like a do-gooder, I must remember to check my privilege, and surrender my top-down control.
  • When I feel like a megalomaniac, I must give thanks to others, and acknowledge my small role in our shared higher purpose.

As activists, we must learn to take our own temperatures (or rely on a trusted friend). When you feel yourself getting too hot, dial the temperature down by refocussing on what exactly makes you feel good about what you do. What makes me feel good is the community, being able to make a personal connection with people from Sudan, Eritrea or Syria. That’s what’s important to me.

If you can’t find any good in that moment, then it’s time to take a step back altogether. Relax, go home, clear yourself out.

Refugee Crisis: Which Side Are You On?

Last week, I visited the Slovenian-Austrian border. What I saw there shook my perception of the “migrant crisis”.

What I saw resembled nothing less than the black and white photographs we’re so familiar with from World War II: lines and lines of patient refugees, holding nothing more than a bag and the hands of their children. Except this isn’t in black and white. This is happening now.

I shot this short video to try to capture the severity of the conflict in Syria and Iraq right now, and to inspire people to realise that this isn’t something that they can ignore for ever.

The conflict in the Middle East is only escalating, displacing more and more people. 200,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq entered Greece in October alone. David Cameron has said the UK will accept 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years. That is the same number that is arriving in Austria every five days.

For all of us, history is being written in this very moment. The question is: Which side are you on?

Elevate: Lightful! Yes! Workshop

I am currently documenting Elevate, a festival of arts and political discourse that takes place every year in Graz, Austria. This workshop brought together a roomful of creative activists to share ideas on how to give our ideas a colourful and powerful impact on society. (Follow these guys through their Twitter feeds.)

First, Mike Bonanno from The Yes Men took us on a magical mystery tour of creative protest, from the suffragettes dressing up as Ancient Greeks and Gandhi’s salt march, to bread helmets in revolutionary Egypt and the KGB’s flying penises.

“Big campaigns are won by small numbers of people,” Mike says, pointing to the US Civil Rights movement. “It wasn’t even the majority of the minority that was involved.” This is why being creative and making a big noise in the media is important: you can have a disproportionate influence on the political process. “The tendency of the media is to re-tell the same story the whole time,” Mike says. “Keep reminding them what the real story is.”

You can find a lot of Mike’s inspiration through these three resources for creative action:

Ksenia Ermoshina brings a creative perspective from a very different part of the activist world: Russia. Ksenia describes the Russian activist environment, where the police have a tendency to over-react, arresting people who protest by dancing in cathedrals, for example. This has the pleasing effect of amplifying the activists’ message.

Equally, however, Russian civil society has no repertoire of action, as you find in Europe or the States. In France, where Ksenia currently works, the activists can immediately draw on a palette of actions, from die-ins to occupations, that everyone is familiar with. They don’t have to reinvent protest every time.

Ksenia describes her adventures in adbusting, creating speech bubbles for inanimate objects like bricks: “Only for throwing at cops.” Ksenia’s inspiration is Hakim Bey, who declared that, even if only one or two people are awoken, the action is still a success. She also always insists on filming the whole process of preparing the action, whether it’s printing and posting photos of Syrian children or making a Vladimir Putin puppet, so that other people can see exactly how it was done and how they too can protest.

Ksenia’s action has a very immediate and personal element, however. Her mother, a journalist, recently lost her job at one of the few remaining independent publications in Russia. Her question for the workshop: How can we talk to more people, reach more people, in countries where regimes are becoming more authoritarian?

Bruno Tozzini comes from the very different background of advertising, a $137bn industry in the US. And yet he shows us a series of creative responses to social problems, some created by advertising agencies and all using corporate platforms, including an intercultural language exchange over Skype, an online street art exhibition using Google Maps, and the sharing through Facebook of the “invisible” stories of homeless Brazilians.

Bruno then takes us through his “four steps of making” and, in the afternoon, we launch into a workshop focussed on generating creative responses to the refugee crisis in Graz. We brainstorm together and formulate half a dozen actions that could be implemented today, from wifi sharing, a refugee hackathon and SMS skillsharing, to the simplest imaginable creative response: “Just go and say hi”.

Christian Payne is a networked storyteller. It wasn’t always thus, as he shows us through his journey from Alpine pastoralist to newspaper photographer and finally encrypted multimedia archivist. “All media is social,” he says. Christian himself promiscuously shares, not only text, but audio, video, geographic data and photos to tell the stories he encounters from Sudan to Iraq, from Twitter to Storify – from a man holding a smartphone to our ears, eyes and hearts.

Christian is a particularly big proponent of unobtrusive, lightweight, multitasking audio storytelling. He is usually to be found in some quiet corner of the Elevate festival, deep in conversation with some bright philosopher, hacker or DJ, seamlessly sharing their words and thoughts with an audience far away in time and space. He describes audio as an intelligent and intimate storytelling form, akin to reading a book, rather than watching a film.

Christian finishes with a warning about posting online. “You don’t own your image, your image belongs to popular opinion,” he says. “You can attempt control your content, but not the way people react to it.” When it comes to protecting yourself online, his advice is simple: “Connect with kindness.”

The final input of the workshop came from Charles Kriel, founder of Lightful and former game designer and circus performer. Lightful is an app that attempts to solve a problem Charles has encountered when advising NGOs on how to share their stories and get access to funding.

Charles opens, however, by discussing the tragic death at a Turkish airport of journalist Jacky Sutton, a former colleague working in the Middle East. The Turkish authorities claim that she’d missed a connecting flight, been unable to afford a new ticket and had, as a consequence, gone into the ladies’ toilet and hung herself. Charles points out that such a course of action would be ridiculous for a seasoned journalist like Jacky, who’d been working in the region for a decade.

Besides the fact that Jacky had €2400 in cash on her person when she died, enough for a dozen new plane tickets, Charles himself has experience of that same fateful flight. “I’ve missed that connecting flight,” he says. “Everybody misses that connecting flight. It’s a guarantee.”

That starting point shows how dangerous is the work of promoting a free press, particularly in the Middle East. “The region is in even more turmoil than is being reported at the moment,” Charles says. His dream is to create an app that will do some of the dangerous work that puts journalists, NGO workers and activists in such mortal danger. Lightful is that app.

Charles and his small team hope to launch Lightful in stages, starting with registered NGOs in a limited geographical space in the next three weeks. The start may be small, but his aim is quietly ambitious: “I’d like people to get into the habit of doing good work.”