Until Coronavirus 19 struck, the Malcom X Centre was a place of welcome. Refugees and asylum seekers in Bristol could bring their children to the Early Years Project at Bristol Refugee Rights (BRR) to be looked after while they went to one of the classes available – for English, computer skills, or advice on coping with Britain’s fiendishly complicated asylum system.
The virus made that impossible so Anna Burness, who runs the Project, decided to maintain a virtual connection. Each week she makes contact with the children and their parents on-line, children’s songs are sung, and I, as a volunteer at BRR, read a different story each time. These stories have no direct connection to the experience of the children or their parents but sometimes they will have resonances for refugees – in The Selfish Giant the children are driven out of the garden in which they were playing happily, in The Ugly Duckling he is told to “quack, quack, get out of town” and in The Three Billy Goats the goats have to make a hazardous journey before they can reach the green green meadow on the other side of the rickety rackety bridge.
Every Christmas BRR, with the generous help of Parkway Church, has given presents to each of the children at the Early Years Project, carried into the Welcome Centre by Santa in his sack. This year a number of BRR volunteers, organised by Kathy Janes, took the presents to the younger children’s homes. I was one of them, dressed as Santa with a face mask underneath my cotton-wool beard.
It was a moving experience. The presents were going to find a home in some of Bristol’s most basic accommodation – a converted garage, the top flat of a high-rise block – but everywhere I was greeted with overwhelming delight by parents and children alike. Santa’s journey became a way of saying that at least some in Bristol want nothing to do with the ‘hostile environment’ policy. Few refugees in Bristol have yet found the green green grass but at least some have crossed the rickety rackety bridge.