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. The meeting was called by George Gabriel, who returned to London from the US. There was also another colleague, Daniel Mackintosh, in that room at 112 Cavell street. 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?

9 August 2017

The National Training - 10 years ago and 10 years after

About 10 years ago, I was at Citizens UK's National Training as one of the trainees. 10 years after I was back to observe how the training was delivered and share my thoughts to colleagues and the trainees. 

10 years ago, I was keen to learn organising and leadership. But didn’t know where to go to have this training. I wanted to campaign, but didn’t know where to start. I was only a lone wolf writing articles and commentaries about human rights, current African affairs and refugee rights on many blogs and news outlets. I would sit at different corners of coffee shops, libraries and other places and voice my concerns. Cry loud about issues I was passionate about. At times, I was also a mobiliser who organised many one-off actions. Even though I was very loud online and tried my best to get noticed, there were many occasions I didn't get noticed. That was action without a reaction. Reflecting on those days, I now question why I had to act without getting somebody to react to my actions. It was during those days that I attended The Independent Asylum Commission’s public hearing at Lambeth Town Hall. That was the turning point in my life. Yes, I saw organising in action and asked the then coordinator of the commission, now Citizen UK’s deputy director, Jonathan Cox, that I wanted to go for the training. I was given the chance and my journey into organising started subsequently.

Citizens UK National Training Participants July 2017
10 years after I was along with colleagues as one of the trainers tasked to observe the training. This time the training was at Nottingham University. Yes, the university where I was a Human Rights Defender Fellow in 2009 and studied International Human Rights Law. When I returned to the University after 8 years the first person I wanted to see was professor David Harris, a gentle giant who helped me a lot in those days. I hence took time to meet my professor and share with him the journey I have gone through ever since. True to say that we all have distinct stories to share and these stories show how unique human beings are.

Going back to the 2017 Citizens UK National Training, we arrived at the university on Sunday July 9 afternoon. Some came driving, others commuting; some traveling solo and others in groups. Finding where we would rest and hide for a week was the first task followed by introduction to the training, getting to know one-another through rounds. This was followed by setting the ground rules and expectations. Lots of exciting moments. The training is as intensive as in the good old days, but there was a lot to do in between sessions and hence sometimes difficult to remember how far we have gone through the process.
Trainees leading Social action

Lots happened in between including an action organised by the Nottingham Citizens, the local chapter of Citizens UK and we were done by Friday July 14th.

Among the highlights are the trainees themselves. They were fully focused, highly engaged and creative. Their social action was exceptional and by all standard the best.

Reflecting on the training, each trainer tried her/his best to make sure their session revolved around the argument. Do you want change? If your answer is YES, then build your relational POWER, act and develop leaders through the process. Power, Power and Power. Yes, power before action! In the words of Neil Jameson, “Power gives you recognition. That is why you must organise permanently.” Neil’s advice to the trainees was “Never give up, never give up, never give”. Yes, he is right to say that. We can’t afford to give up. We either watch it happen or become part of it and help it happen.

19 June 2017

The Grenfell Fire incident leaves me sad and heartbroken

The past few days have been very challenging. Hard to comprehend this happened in London, one of the richest and most developed cities in the world.

The Grenfell fire incident has impact on many people from around the world. Some of those who perished came to Britain and made it their home. Amongst them were those who came to Britain in search of safety. They had that safety for a while but that devastating fire robbed them that; it also robbed them of their lives and the lives of their beloved ones. Those who perished were not only numbers. They had names, stories, plans, aspirations and hopes. But all that was cut short unexpectedly. It is very heart-breaking. Deeply touching. Very hard to imagine.

I don’t live nearby; I don’t have relatives in that building. But I’m in a deep sorrow because the people that perished were humans above all. They were part of my wider human family. But I also have more reasons to be heartbroken and disappointed. I took time to visit some of the families of those affected and hence was able to pay my respects; that was the least I could do. I was also able to hear stories of sorrow, bravery, endurance, kindness and humanity.

To see the family of little boy Issac was so heart-breaking. To see the family of Brkite and Bruk was devastating. To visit the family of Hashim and hear their stories was deeply touching. (Hashim, his wife and his 3 kids are still missing). All the people I was able to visit were with their loved ones days ago. That is no more the case. Their loved ones are gone. Yes, they are gone forever. But these families and many others need answers as to why this tragic incident could happen in the 21st century London. They seek justice. Yes, justice is needed for those who have departed unexpectedly; for those who have lost their loved ones; for those who are made homeless; and , for those who are in fear as they live in this type of buildings. Answers and assurances are urgently needed.

My heart still aches. I am so sad and heartbroken. But I hope one day justice will be served to those affected by the terrible Grenfell fire incident. That is the least they would expect. Seeking justice for Grenfell. 

9 June 2017

Hoping one day Ethiopia becomes a democracy

The election in the UK is a big lesson for many. In a democracy, political parties cannot take the electorate for granted. Yes, in politics there is no permanent friend or permanent enemy. Those who vote for you today may vote against you tomorrow. Those who work with you today may not work with you tomorrow. What we saw in Scotland was a proof. 2 years after a successful election, Scottish National Party lost 21 seats in yesterday's election. Nick Clegg in Sheffield and Alex Salmond in Scotland are among the big beasts that lost their seats. Zac Goldsmith’s come back in Richmond Park as a Member of parliament with only 45 votes majority is among the surprises.  They say, “every vote counts”.

Before the election, The Prime Minister was not satisfied with the majority she had. The election has not given her what she wanted; rather she lost seats and consequently diminished her authority. The PM is now forced to go into a confidence and supply deal with the Democratic Unionist Party. Will this deal last long or will we once again go to the polls? It is up to time until we know that.

This election has helped Jeremy Corbyn to prove many of his critics wrong. He was able to reach out to the grassroots, especially the youngsters. His politics of HOPE worked well. Lots of gains for the labour party under his leadership. The future looks very promising for the party. Jeremy has exceeded every expectation. Another exciting figure, at least for me, in this election process was Green's Caroline Lucas. Her interventions during the debates were fascinating. She is among the stars to watch closely. The return to parliament of the likes of Jo Swinson and Vince Cable must be exciting for the Liberal Democrats. 

Yemi Hailemariam meeting British Prime Minister Theresa May 

Another exciting moment for me, as a British citizen of Ethiopian origin, was to see Yemi Hailemariam, the wife of Andargachew Tsege, who made it all the way to Maidenhead from Islington, London, and contested the seat of the PM as an independent candidate and subsequently met the British Prime Minister to demand for the release of Andy who is abducted by the Ethiopian authorities. It was Non-violent activism at its best.  

The number of female Members of Parliament has increased to 208 according to the BBC. The increase in number is encouraging, but this is not enough in the 21st Britain. Britain is not short of talented women. Bring on the women and make the parliament more representative.

There is one important thing to remember. Democracy is not only about voting on the election day. It is also about what we do before and after election to hold our politicians to account; It is also about engaging in local democracy and contributing our bits to the betterment of our world; It is also about finding solutions to the challenges we are faced with. It is a process that doesn't stop once we have voted for our representatives.

Hoping one day, yes one day, my country Ethiopia becomes a democracy. Yes, hoping that nobody is thrown into jail for criticising the government on social media; hoping that my fellow Ethiopians some times in the not too distant future relish democracy and join the Brits and others that have democracy for granted; And of course, hoping that Ethiopians remain united and march together for a stronger and prosperous Ethiopia.

Of course, we all have our bits to contribute to see that happen. It is never late to identify, train and coach the next generation of Ethiopian leaders. At least we can start with the ones in the UK.

6 June 2017

Avoid apathy. Get out and vote!

United Kingdom goes to polls on June 8. This snap election was called by British Prime Minister Theresa May. It seems that she wanted to have a stronger mandate before the Brexit negotiations. Many people call this election – Election for Hard/Soft Brexit. But it will have impact on many beyond Brexit negotiations. That is why there is a need to vote. The ball is now in the hands of the British public.

Apathy to participate in local democracy is not the way forward. If we want to see changes happen in Britain; if we want to see our voices heard; if we also want to see strong civil societies that can hold the state and the market to account; then it is important to get out and vote. It is important to remember that change does not come on its own. Change needs hard work and we all have our bits to contribute; or change remains a dream! 

Worthwhile to remember that many people around the world die to get the right to vote. Many others suffer in the hands of brutal dictators, like Assad, and their agents because they want to have a say in their countries’ affairs. Yet in democratic countries like Britain, there are many who do not exercise this privilege. Some even think their votes wouldn’t make a difference and hence do not care voting. We still see same people complaining about the government in power or even about the opposition. We may not like politics but our lives are affected by politics. Hence there is a need to engage actively in local democracy and vote for what matters for us. If we don’t engage locally and use our democratic rights, we must accept what others have voted for. By the end of the day, the voice of the majority rules even if we do not agree.

Avoid apathy and get out and vote! Your Vote is Your Voice! We may not get what we vote for, but it is our chance to exercise our democratic rights.  June 8 is the day!

29 May 2017

My Harvard Experience - The Global Change Agents Program

Dreams can come true!

In June 2016, I went to Boston, USA, to study Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. That was the first time I went to Boston and fell in love with this vibrant city. Thanks to my good old friend Sintayehu Dehnie, I had the opportunity to visit one of the iconic universities in the world – Harvard. I loved everything I saw at Harvard and in Cambridge and wanted to come back to this great university and attend a program. It was only a dream then.

Yes, that dream was deep in me I had to search for a program that I would be interested in at Harvard Kennedy School. It took me sometime to decide the program I would qualify for and I should attend. I contacted Harvard by the end of November 2016 for clarification and subsequently submitted my application for one of the programs – The Global Change Agents Program. The title of the program looked great and I convinced myself I should go for it. Luckily I heard from Harvard Kennedy School in December 2016 that I had been accepted for the program and consequently had to start preparation for next steps. I must admit that the next steps were not as easy as being admitted to the program. Funding was an issue but I had the courage to go extra mile. After lots of email exchanges and phone conversations, I finally secured my place. This wouldn’t have happened without the support of some amazing people that extended their support. My Many thanks go to the Global Change Agents Program, especially the then head of the program Kristi Viola who was so helpful. Also, my thanks go to Sergei Konoplyov, the current program director, who had to extend his advice and help until the eleventh hour. My special thanks go to the Old Possum's Practical Trust that extended financial support and helped me see my dream come true. Thanks to my community organising job in the United Kingdom that brings me in touch with many wonderful people that work hard to change the world for a better. At the heart of community organising is building relationship. Because of these relationships some of the people I have worked with have stepped in to help in any way possible. Among these voices of courage are Julia Thistelton-Smith, Neil Jameson, Zrinka Bralo, Nick Sagovsky, Andrew Jacobs, Anna Pincus, Kaaren Wallace, Ben Fraser, Fran Wood, John Coleby and Jennifer Monahan. Andrew Jacobs said, " I am sure you will use this training to the advantage of the disadvantaged people you spend your professional life helping". I feel indebted to these amazing folks. I can’t thank them enough.

Global Change Agents Participants with Dean Williams
The experience at Harvard Kennedy School was exceptional. What made the program special was that it brought together people from all walks of life that were willing to contribute their bits and challenge the status quo; people willing to push boundaries; people willing to challenge established norms. Each participant was fully engaged and actively participating and sharing ideas. 52 people from different parts of the world attending a program that can meet folks’ expectations. Lots of talents and experiences brought together. People ready to make a difference locally, nationally and globally. The atmosphere was phenomenal from day 1. The program was intensive and that is what one would expect from Harvard. Yet the participants were ready and up for the challenge.

Group 7 at the Global Change Agents Program

The fact that we had small groups that would meet every day to share ideas and discuss challenges and opportunities in an open way was very helpful. It brought togetherness and friendship. I wouldn’t be surprised if I see one or two of these Global Change Agents Program participants taking some senior positions in government departments in the countries they come from – if not they happen to lead their countries. Lots of truly inspirational folks who are willing to go extra mile to make a difference. Folks who also find time for fun. Who forgets the Karaoke? The many selfies? Exchanges on WhatsApp? Keep shining colleagues and friends!

Bekele Woyecha with Former President of Ecuador Jamil Mahuad

I also enjoyed the way each session was structured and stories shared.  Each session was led by a highly qualified and competent individual who was able to take us on a journey without us feeling bored. Lucky us to hear lots of first hand moving stories from Dean Williams. Great opportunity to see Hugh O’Doherty holding the space with his silence and challenging each and every one of us. Excellent engagement with Tim O’Brien who was able to keep us focused. And of course, highly moving stories of Jamil Mahuad, former president of Ecuador, among the highlights of the program. 

The case studies presented by 3 of the participants brought opportunities for attendees to discuss adaptive challenges in the world we live in.
Bekele Woyecha presenting his case study
I can’t forget the program coordinators who were so professional and showed adaptive leadership in practice.  

Harvard, you have met and exceeded my expectations and left me challenged to go for yet another program. I may be back. Who knows when? God willing, that dream may come true in the not too distant future. One thing for sure. Harvard is not only for a few privileged folks. Dreamers could also go to Harvard. Yes that is possible!

24 March 2017

London my London

London my London  
Where I live and shine 
Without being asked 
As to where I come from 
After all it is in London 
Where I'm never alone
So do many others
Who have made London their home
In this great city of ours
The city of cities 
The most beautiful ever
That will never be silent
Rather goes from glory
To another glory
Go on London
Keep shinning
After all you are London,
The most cosmopolitan ever
With people of every nation 
People of every creed
People of every faith 
And of course, that of non-faith 
That we have in this world
All gathered in London 
They never feel alone 
In the city called London
Either in the day or evening 
In the city that never sleeps 
Even if one is a stranger 
One would never feel alone
I'm in Love with this city 
That has welcomed me
Without any hesitation 
Gave me the opportunities 
To rebuild my life again 
London my city and home
My adorable London 
Keep shining my city 
After all you are London 
The city of cities 
The best city ever
The beacon of my hopes, 
Beacon of my liberty, 
My freedom and humanity.

Bekele Woyecha
London, March 23rd 2017

11 March 2017

Empowered Are The Organised

They were here 20 years ago. They are here 20 years after.

20 years ago there was an organiser called Neil Jameson, who had to have as many one to one face to face meetings as possible in East London. There was no hidden agenda this disciple of Civil Society and Democracy was carrying with him. He was all about getting the East End organised. “Organising was what East London needed most in those days as it does need it now” says Bishop Paul McAleenan, who was a local priest at St. Scholastica's in Clapton 20 years ago and now the Bishop of the Diocese of Westminster. Bishop Paul was there 20 years ago at the founding assembly and he has once again come back to join the 1000 strong delegates to celebrate the 20th year anniversary of The East London Citizens Organisation (TELCO).

Bishop Paul McAleenan of the Diocese of Westminster addressing the assembly

The founding assembly took place at York Hall in Bethnal Green and it felt great for many including Rev Paul Regan, Fr. John Armitage, who was the co-chair of the founding assembly, Dr. Muhammad Bari, and many other veterans to go back to the same hall on Thursday 9th March 2017 to witness history unfolding.

The 20th anniversary was an opportunity to see democracy in action; opportunity to see unity in diversity; an opportunity to show case what civil society can do to address the challenges it faces in an organised way; opportunity to see civil society holding the state and the market to account; but also an opportunity to rebuild and re-energise the East End and start yet another march towards securing social justice through organising. "Divisions in our societies across West seem to be deepening. Yet we are here this evening to recognise TELCO as an organisation which has built bridges, not walls" - Rev Paul Regan.

This anniversary is a product of many months of organising, a series of meetings, a series of agreements and disagreements, a series of plotting and democratic engagements. Organising needs patience, endurance, tenacity, leadership and it is one that should be fun. That was what we saw on Thursday the 9th of March.

At the heart of this anniversary were the organisers and community leaders who had to make sure everything was in place. They won’t leave anything to chance and hence had to prepare for every eventuality. It needed meticulous planning and readiness with proper fall-back positions. That is why we had organisers like Emmanuel, Yasmin, Caitlin and Daniel who were all doing their bits to see the assembly through. That is why we had the Bernadette Harris of TELCO, the John and Naomi Cliftons of the East End, the Angus Ritchies of our world and many other veteran leaders who had to sit day in day out to plan this wonderful occasion. After all it is about organising. Organising is not about them; rather it is about US together. Neil Jameson, the Founder and Executive Director of Citizens UK paid tribute to all who made the long journey with TELCO. He said the following, "Our member institutions are our greatest asset and our leaders are the glue which hold everything together. Here is to 20 more years of power, action and justice"

Kudos to all who made the founding of TELCO a success 20 years ago. Kudos to all who have travelled the long journey together. Kudos to all who contributed their bits and made the day historical. Kudos to the kids, the young, the seniors and everybody who made it to the assembly. 

Organise, Organise and Organise. It was the call then; it is the call now. Keep organising, keep marching together and of course keep winning. Empowered Are The Organised!

10 March 2017

The refugee crisis: Three ways London could do better

Eleven years ago I lived with my young family in Ethiopia. Life was enjoyable, but the escalation of an already precarious political situation meant it got harder; eventually I had to leave Ethiopia and seek asylum in Britain.
11 years later, I’m part of the London community. I’ve given back to the city by volunteering for The 2012 Games, and through my work with Citizens UK I support other refugees who hope to make this city their home.  My story shows that refugees can start a new and successful life in Britain, but I believe the city could still do more to help people seeking refuge. Here’s just three ways we could do better:

Language is the greatest barrier

My experience has taught me the importance of welcoming refugees when they arrive in London, to support them into society, rather than shut them out. When I arrived in Britain I was immediately locked up in a detention centre as if I were a criminal, unaware of when I would be released. I was incredibly fortunate that I could speak English, because it meant I was able to communicate with the officials there, unlike many refugees.
There should be a dedicated centre to support refugees arriving in London which should be equipped with translators. This should help newly arrived asylum seekers with their applications, but also support successful applicants to integrate and become part of our society. English lessons would break down that barrier and help them to get jobs and revive their confidence. It should also be extended to other migrants. They say, "language empowers".

Recognise their potential

Highly skilled refugees are not often able to get jobs which match their skill levels. So, as a country we lose out on valuable skills. I see qualified people in different professions working totally unrelated jobs as they have been unable to get jobs they are qualified for. Many are overqualified for the jobs they are doing. I regularly hear people saying they are willing to help refugees; it is important to make practical steps to do this. The corporate world should be willing to provide refugees with opportunities for success.
London must remain open and welcoming

The mayor, Sadiq Khan, is ready to make sure that London remains a welcoming city, open to people from across the world. But if we want people arriving in London to engage in society then we need to make sure that they’re welcomed into the community and helped to get started in the city - in terms of job opportunities, homes and education. As I write this piece, there are 65.3 million people displaced; 21.3 million refugees stranded in camps across the world. Most these refugees are hosted by developing countries who are not equipped to deal with the influx. I believe that London must set an example and show the rest of the world how refugees and migrants alike should be welcomed and integrated into the city.
I know how civil wars and political unrests can strip people of their dignity as human beings, and I feel a deep concern about the current refugee crisis. I fear for the people in Ethiopia and across the world who are being persecuted for their political beliefs, religion, race, sexual orientation, and who are forced to flee their homes. 
I believe that not only do we have a humanitarian responsibility to allow refugees the freedom to seek sanctuary, we must also recognise - and celebrate - the positive contributions that they make to our society, economy and culture.

The Global Refugee Forum – time for meaningful participation of Refugees

  As the Global Refugee Forum takes place between 13 - 15 December 2023 in Switzerland, it is vital that we have meaningful participation of...