Thursday, 22 March 2018

Churchill Fellowship – an opportunity of a lifetime

 “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”- Winston Churchill

The above quote means a lot for me. I first applied for the Churchill Fellowship in 2014 and was not even invited for interview. I thought I would give it sometime and comeback. That was what happened in 2017. I remember getting an email from one of the most successful Churchill Fellows, Citizens UK’s Executive Director, Neil Jameson encouraging staff to apply. His encouragement was echoed by my ex-colleague and former Churchill  fellow Imogen Moore and Zrinka Bralo of Migrants Organise who is a seasoned civic leader with extensive links with Citizens UK and of course a former Churchill fellow. All the three mentioned that the fellowship was one of the most useful things they did and encouraged us to apply.

I kept the emails flagged and took time before I applied. I thus decided to put in application but I wanted to make sure that I gave it my best so that I would succeed this time around. Hence, I spent a few evenings doing a research and being clear on what I wanted to do. Once I submitted my application, I wanted to switch off, but I kept thinking about it. I thought I had done my bit to get the fellowship and if I didn’t get it, it would have meant that there were better candidates. Luckily, I got the email I was eagerly waiting for. Yes, I was shortlisted for interview. Loved it, but I was cautious and not celebratory. In life we don’t always win as we don’t always lose. Hence, I had to prepare for the interview and be once again clear with what I want to achieve if offered the opportunity.

Now that I am a Churchill Fellow I will travel to Canada, one of the most welcoming and beautiful countries in the world, to study about its refugee sponsorship program, especially to see how businesses and schools are engaged in sponsorship. Hence I am revisiting my plans and planning my next steps meticulously. I feel privileged to know many people who can help me organise meetings or connect me with those I am keen to meet in Canada. As a Churchill fellow, I aim high and aspire to meet some prominent figures and I very much hope I will be able to meet some of these amazing people and some good old friends.

Old and new Churchill fellows, Amanda, Neil and Bekele of Citizens UK

I still recall that very email from Neil and subsequent emails from Zrinka and Imogen. They were fellows that pushed boundaries. They were also folks who showed many of us why Churchill fellowship was a good thing. They travelled to learn and came back and inspired us. Yes, I say us as there are two of us from Citizens UK as 2018 fellows. My good colleague Amanda Walters is also a fellow this year as we keep the connection of Churchill fellowship and Citizens UK alive. The most inspirational Neil Jameson was a 1977 fellow who travelled to the US. Of the back of that great opportunity, Neil founded Citizens UK. That great opportunity Neil had and his tenacity to make a difference meant we have a strong guild of Community organisers, who are all striving to make a difference. I am a Churchill fellow now because my organising career helped me to build my confidence; it helped me to challenge established norms and see the world from different angles. Now that I am a Churchill fellow I am determined to be even more ambitious and get the best out of it. I very much hope this great opportunity, of course a once in a life time opportunity, will be useful for me, the communities I am working with and the wider public. It will also be an opportunity for me to share about my experiences in the UK.

Yes, I am fired up and ready to go. I will sometimes in the future sit down and reflect on my journey. Imogen Moore has shared the following as she reflects on her fellowship, “I cannot exaggerate how important my Churchill fellowship experience was for both personally and professionally. I visited neighbourhood based projects in Brazil and the US that were organising their communities to improve children’s health and educational outcomes. The projects I visited and the things I saw gave me profound insight into what we needed to create to give children the best start in life in Southwark, South London, where I was working as a community organiser. The people I met and the space I had to be creative and reflect gave me the impetus to come back to the UK and grow the Parents and Communities Together Project which has since grown to work with hundreds of families and it is now scaling to different parts of the UK. I have no doubts that what I learnt will continue to have ongoing importance and relevance throughout my career.”

I am ready to travel, learn and share; come back to share and inspire others to act. Churchill fellowship, an opportunity of a lifetime!

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Six days of learning and sharing - Life is where we learn nonstop

It looks like yesterday that I had my first leadership training, but it goes all the way back to the late 80s. Luckily, I have had opportunities to learn the same course in different schools of thought over the past 3 decades including one at Harvard Kennedy School. The last one was, however, in early March 2018. Life is exciting and a university on its own where we learn nonstop.

4th- 9th March 2018 seem history now as they are gone and gone forever, but well spent in Markfield, England with about 45 wonderful people gathered from across Britain for Citizen UK’s National residential training. We were there as it takes us all to see change happen and work with others in the process.  Yes, we can’t afford to be bystanders. In the words of Neil Jameson of Citizens UK, “If you are a player, you make change happen. If you are an observer, you watch it happen. It is important to work with people we don’t necessarily agree with as being in action together gives people hope.” The message was clear and one that resonates to many. Nobody would have joined the training unless there was a desire to make a difference; to make the world a better place for us and the future generation. Jiten Patel, one of the participants said, “we have borrowed this world from the future generation and have a responsibility to hand it over in a better shape.”

Sometimes we feel angry when we see or hear about injustice. Good to have that anger. Anger to stand up, get counted and be the wheel of change and stuck in the change making process. When there is injustice, we are there to fight it and get it right. Carina Crawford Khan of Citizens UK, who was one of the trainers, was right to say, “when you face injustice inaction is not the option.” Action is what is needed to see change happen, but it needs to be organised. We should also be political as we live in the world as it is - striving to take it to where it should be.

During the six wonderful days together, we didn’t only learn how we can bring about change; how to build power in a relational way to see that change; but we also built relationships; helped colleagues and others in Birmingham, the youngest city in Europe, with their Common Wealth assembly and had fun. We also sung together with young and old as we are all keen to see The World in Union.

Among the highlights of the week for me was to meet new people that are ready to go extra mile and kind enough to share their stories and feelings openly; ready to engage with others; enjoying the training and making sure the training was an experience worth having.  It was also good opportunity for colleagues to help one-another, to step in when needed and share wisdom and experience in the process. Yes, we were there as a team and for a purpose. Above all to learn as we are a learning organisation. The assembly organised by Birmingham Citizens was an excellent experience for many. Those young students singing and dancing and telling the world that they  have dreams; the newly resettled little kid saying, 'Thank You’ was heart moving; the social event organised by the trainees on Thursday evening was phenomenal and second to none. These all remain in our memories for a long time. 

We were also blessed to have Elizabeth Valdez of The Metropolitan Organization and learn from her wealth of experience. And of course, yet another opportunity to learn from our very own Neil Jameson who is in the process of handing the baton. Six days well spent learning and sharing.  It is time to reflect and come back with plans for actions.  

Friday, 2 March 2018

A community that inspires many – Community Sponsorship at its best

On Sunday 25 February 2018, I had the privilege of joining many others to celebrate 1 year since a community group in Merton, South London welcomed a Syrian family to the United Kingdom through the community sponsorship scheme. The group that welcomed the wonderful Syrian family is exceptionally amazing. To see the joy on the faces of those unsung heroines and heroes of Community Sponsorship of refugees was phenomenal. Everybody who spoke at the event mentioned that by working together to welcome a new family into their neighbourhood, they also strengthened their relationships; felt empowered and fulfilled.  This is simply community sponsorship at its best.

The group is led by Major Nick Coke of Salvation Army who is one of the heroes of the Community Sponsorship scheme in the United Kingdom. Nick has inspired many, supported many others and is always willing to go extra miles to contribute to the success of the scheme. For Nick it is all about delivering social justice and getting stuck in it to deliver. 

This group is blessed as it has lots of amazing people who are never tired and always willing to do more; always willing to inspire others; always willing to find solutions and of course always enjoying what they are doing. Kudos to you all. You have pushed boundaries; brought changes and exceeded expectations. You are all inspirational and have place in the history book as you leave a lasting legacy. A legacy you could be proud of; and, a legacy the next generation could be proud of. 

The Merton Group resettled an amazing Syrian family that is a joy to be around. A family that is never short of smiles and always generous. Of course, this family has also prepared finger-licking food, as usual, for all who were part of the 1-year celebration.  In the words of Kerry Coke, “It takes a family to welcome a community.” Another group member called Mohammed said "it took us all to welcome the family and through the process it helped us to come together"

The Merton group has inspired and equally challenged many as it has now set the bar so high. It is a community that leads by example. A community that inspires  many!

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Behind the success story are the inspirational leaders

Ethiopians and British citizens of Ethiopian origin gathered at the Ethiopian Community in Britain which is located in Finchley, North London on February 4th for a spectacular event that brought together folks of different ages, experiences and talents. This event was a success by all standards. The food, drinks, music and venue may be similar and what we are often used to seeing at Ethiopian events.

But the February 4th event was one that transcended generations; that was unique in nature; that was well organised and started almost on time (unlike many Ethiopian events); that was led mostly by young leaders. One of the most intriguing moments was interview conducted by Ermias Kebede where he brought 4 youngsters who were born either in Ethiopia or outside Ethiopia and now living in the United Kingdom. The question on identity and why it matters was even more entertaining and equally challenging. It was also a very good opportunity to hear some wonderful stories of self - that turning points in the lives of those interviewed; moments when folks had challenges; their actions or inactions and what happened afterwards. It was simply moving.

Another great success story of the day was not only its being orderly, to the point and also participatory, but also brought in the unusual suspects into action. Even more, it brought many out of their comfort zones and helped them to be part of the flawless event. This was an amazing event that exceeded expectations of many. The only challenge is whether the organisers could do it again and whether they would be able to beat the high bar they have already set.  

I am hopeful that the board of the Ethiopian community in Britain will bring us together in the not too distant future and that it keeps delivering and exceeding.

Kudos to the organisers of the event and all who supported.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Community Sponsorship of Refugees - Where it all begun for me

I still recall sitting in a room with colleagues from Citizens UK to talk about the worsening refugee crisis; talking about what we could do to discharge ourselves responsibly. That goes back all the way to September 2015. Yes, that time needed some bold decisions and we have never been shy from taking such decisions. It was important to step in and do our bits to see change happen. Yes, it wasn't enough to feel sorry about the crisis; we had to do something about it. But we couldn’t do it on our own. That was why we had to organise, organise and organise. It was all about creating a movement out of the moment. After all it takes us all to address the crisis.

We have gone a long journey since then. The time in between has not been simple. It has had its ups and downs. But we know that life is not a bed of roses and we should stand up to challenges and use these challenges as opportunities to organise and change the course of history.

But for me it was beyond a call of duty. I have the experience of fleeing my home country. Seeking sanctuary and adjusting to life in my new home – Britain. I am a living testimony that Britain is a more humane and one of the most welcoming countries in the world. That is what I saw when I travelled up and down the country to work with people that were keen to welcome refugees. From Lewes to Totnes, from Petersfield to Cheltenham, from Bath to Crawley, from Leicester to Devon and many more places I had the opportunity to go to, people were keen to welcome and integrate refugees. They were ready for more practical work. People ready to get stuck in. That life changing experience taught me that we needed a scheme where communities could take charge of refugee welcome and become part of the integration process.

Hence the introduction of the community sponsorship scheme in July 2016 was a commendable first step. For people like me, getting it right on arrival is more than important. The first few years have impact on the lives of newcomers, especially for integration. And I believe community sponsorship can give that opportunity to newcomers.  Many people tell me that they are sad to see fellow humans denied the right to a decent life which strips people of their dignity as human beings. And the same people tell me that we all have a humanitarian responsibility to allow refugees the freedom to get sanctuary and rebuild their lives.  

Welcome Summit September 2016
The culmination of the first phase of our welcome work was 10th September 2016, when we had a welcome summit in Birmingham which brought together more than 550 community leaders from across the country. By the end of the summit, it was important to prioritise where to concentrate on in the coming months and years and luckily promotion of community sponsorship was one of the three areas. And for me, it was once again a very good opportunity to work with communities across Britain to promote refugee welcome through community sponsorship.

The journey has gone from strength to strength and I am learning a lot through the process.  It is more than encouraging to see newcomers resettled in different parts of the country including in places like Narberth in Wales and Devon.  We now see people keen to explore the scheme and do practical work. This is heart-warming.  
Launch of Sponsor Refugees 42 pledges

To keep the ball rolling and to promote community sponsorship further, the arrival of Citizens UK’s new foundation, Sponsor Refugees, is more than a bonus. It was great to see more than 25 groups and organisations willing and on course to welcome 42 families. This is only the beginning and it won’t be long until community sponsorship becomes an established tradition in Britain as it is in Canada.  I believe we should take the opportunity community sponsorship brings to us and take charge of refugee welcome and integration. We can do it and we can do it now. After all, if not us, then who? If not now, then when?

Churchill Fellowship – an opportunity of a lifetime

  “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”- Winston Churchill The above quote means a...