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As Europe forecasts another refugee crisis following the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, Toxteth’s Bridge2 is a lesson in restoring hope, dignity and purpose for those fleeing violence abroad.
You’d be forgiven for assuming the launch of an art gallery would struggle to top the bill of a Freedom Weekend itinerary. As far as galleries go, however, the opening of Gallery 1889 on Windsor Street is an anomaly. “Come and see, come and see!” beckons volunteer Hugo to passers-by who appear convinced less by the gallery’s collection and more his camp charm and promises of free Prosecco. True to form of any metropolitan vernissage, sparkling flutes do await gallery-goers, but if visitors come for the freebies, they stay for something far more sating. Entering the renovated old Mission Hall plonked a stone’s throw from the Gothic cathedral, their initial skepticism at the hype over another city gallery is quickly allayed by what lies within.
An infant hand clinching a weathered index finger, a friend hitching a piggyback ride. These are nostalgic, hope-filled moments bottled up and thrown onto oil on canvas. Where some capture life’s philosophical threads – friendship, love, parenthood – others spotlight its passing, everyday joys – nature, comic superheroes, the human portrait. Marking Gallery 1889’s inaugural exhibition, the large collection of paintings are the work of Oxford-born artist Micah Hayns, whose proceeds will be invested back into the gallery’s parent organisation, Bridge2, to help fund what many here acknowledge to be essential opportunities for the city’s asylum seeker and refugee communities.
“We could have 45 people coming through the door one week, and then the following week 10 of those could have been moved on by the Home Office. They’ll receive a letter in the morning saying someone will be here to pick you up and move you across the country.”
Rauni da Mota, one of Bridge2’s directors, is familiar with the transient journey of an asylum seeker in the UK. As of March 2021, 2,032 asylum seekers lived in dispersed accommodation across the Liverpool City Region, according to the North West Regional Strategic Migration Partnership. Many of them find their way to Bridge2, a community interest company serving the city’s refugee and asylum seeker communities through various initiatives, from free English classes to upcycling workshops.
Once asylum seekers arrive in the UK, much of their relief is quickly replaced by the bureaucratic protocols of a modern state apparatus that now deems as criminals those taking “irregular” routes into the country to escape conflict and violence. The optimism and hope that comes with promises of a new life is matched equally by the exhaustion of risking everything. “As we deal with asylum seekers,” Rauni continues, “we see a lot of people start their journey here with their dreams crushed because they’ve just left everything behind.”
Outside in Bridge2’s International Community Garden – lovingly restored from an overgrown dumping ground now boasting raised soil beds with carrots, lettuce and chard – traumatic memories that share in the journey to a new life find a welcoming space to unravel and process. Eyeing a nearby bed of lettuce and a thicket of herbs, Rauni has seen for himself how nurturing a seed with hope can, over time, spring new life. “These are human beings and, as a nation, we in Britain should feel honoured that we can provide safety for people.”
Twice a week, Bridge2 hosts free English classes for asylum seekers and refugees with groups loosely segmented by ability. For the students here – many giving up technical, highly-qualified employment – the classes are a ticket to opportunity. “A lot of these people come from cultures where honour is a huge deal,” Rauni continues. “They feel ashamed to live without having contributed, so not being able to function well in the language and go to a job interview because they can’t communicate with someone is a huge deal. Language is a huge contributor to that not happening. If you are to succeed here and reach your full potential, that bridge has to be built.”
One of Bridge2’s English teachers is Alison Kerner, a former computer programmer who gained her TEFL qualification following a change in career shortly after the Millennium Bug. Relocating to Liverpool from India, where she taught English, Alison now teaches around 50 to 70 students a week with a focus on situational language development.
“We’re here to provide support and equip them with useful language in what is an otherwise difficult situation. If you are to call 999, what are they going to say? And what do you say back? A lot can’t access face-to-face GP appointments yet, so you’ve got to get through some sort of phone call or speak to a receptionist.”
By imparting scenario-based language skills, Bridge2’s English classes offer students much more than a way to build their situational vocabulary. “It gives them the best chance to integrate,” Alison explains. “Whatever dreams they’ve come with, language will help them to be a part of society and enjoy where they are. You can’t really fully live without being able to communicate with people, especially somewhere like Liverpool where everyone will talk to you.” Nevertheless, in addition to grappling with the complexities of learning a new language in new environments, asylum seekers at Bridge2 must navigate a whole other intrusive and often dehumanising process altogether – the asylum claim itself.
In July this year, a report published by the Refugee Council confirmed the grim realities of waiting times for asylum seekers in the UK. At the end of March, 66,185 people were awaiting an initial decision from the Home Office, the highest number in over a decade. From 2010 to 2020, meanwhile, the number of people having to wait for an initial decision for more than a year had risen 820 per cent from 3,588 to 33,016. Through her weekly language lessons, Alison sees this administrative quagmire play out on a more local level where asylum seekers are exchanged between state institutions and private enterprise.
“The process goes through the Home Office and accommodation in the North West is provided through Serco. Once they’re in the system, asylum seekers get around £5 a day and most of them are placed in hostels, which isn’t brilliant accommodation. It’s cramped and you’ve got a lot of traumatised people living together in close quarters who haven’t got a clue what’s going on sometimes. They often live in just one room with lots of them sharing bathroom and kitchen facilities. [Serco] get them into more homely environments as soon as they can, but what that means for most people is they’re moving a little further out. We might think Wavertree or Kensington isn’t very far, but if you’re not very mobile, that’s far enough to isolate you.”
Whether someone is in the crux of their asylum claim or have been granted refugee status, one enduring lodestar at Bridge2 is ensuring their right to have a say both in the running of the organisation and their place within it. Rebecca da Mota, project manager at Bridge2, helps attune the organisation’s offerings through the invaluable first-hand experience of refugees. “We’ve got two refugees who came through the process and now they work with us, because they see the value of supporting people through the process. The International Community Garden actually came about because of them – we have a community forum where we review our services and they were like, ‘Can we just grow stuff in the garden?’”
One of the two refugees employed at Bridge2 is Bülent, an accountant from Turkey who now runs the international community garden as its coordinator. After studying at university in Mongolia, Bülent returned to Istanbul in late 2004 where he worked for several years before fleeing in 2019. “[President] Erdoğan didn’t make our communities safe in Turkey,” he recollects. “He always threatened our communities and we were always targets of the authorities. I didn’t feel safe and I had to come here. I couldn’t use a plane from Turkey, so I crossed the border to Greece and came here on a plane.”
For asylum seekers in cramped hostel accommodation, enjoying access to and autonomy over green space is a privileged rarity. Here, in the modest International Community Garden, refugees and asylum seekers cooperate to maintain a space in which they each have an equal stake, and where the connections between food and freedom are strengthened with every harvest. The very act of participating in a communal garden not only solidifies a shared bond, it rekindles a sense of purpose – the sort of honour that Rauni refers to – that many asylum seekers were so willing to sacrifice in their search for freedom. “For me, it started as a hobby,” Bülent says with a grin, gesturing to the garden. “Then I found myself here, where my hobby is now my job.”
Where the symbolic community garden enables some to cultivate fresh produce, Bridge2’s upcycling and enterprise workshops teach others how to restore discarded and unwanted furniture – and how to flip them into marketable products. Justin Thomas, a real estate agent from Kentucky, brought his business acumen with him when he made the 4,000-mile trip to Bridge2 in November 2020 and he now oversees the organisation’s upcycling workshops.
“We’ve got a really cool furniture upcycling project that we’re working on right now that people can turn into a business. We just take old, discarded pieces of furniture and turn them into something nice. To some people, it’s artwork. To some people, it’s something that’ll fit in their home so well that they’re willing to pay £300 for it. So, it’s like, this is a viable business that could be taught.”
Basking in the late-afternoon sun, the International Community Garden is sheltered in some parts by Bridge2’s external walls and a row of conifer trees nearby. But there’s another, palpable presence here. Three days before Gallery 1889’s launch, the 87-page Nationality and Borders Bill passed another parliamentary hurdle on its path to becoming law. A flagship policy of the government’s strategy to address a “broken asylum system”, the Bill aims to grant border police extra powers – including the use of reasonable force – to turn back migrant boats crossing the Channel using “irregular routes”, effectively criminalising those fleeing war and persecution.
For now, the focus at Bridge2 remains – in every seed planted, every discarded piece of furniture flipped, every English lesson completed – on helping as many people as possible adjust to their new life here. That demand is certain to increase in the weeks and months ahead following the recent evacuation of vulnerable Afghan citizens eligible for resettlement. Shortly after Liverpool City Council announced its readiness to support the government’s plans for a refugee programme, Bridge2 issued a call-out on social media for essential supplies in anticipation of new arrivals. That call-out was quickly met, and soon the interior of Gallery 1889 was covered not just with Micah Hayns’ prints but swelling bags of supplies awaiting new owners.
As Bridge2 continues with its diverse provision of asylum seeker and refugee support, its central ethos is driven by a simple act of humanity. “We use the term asylum seeker so often,” Rebecca reflects, “but it lacks humanity and the sense that we’re talking about real people. For us, we know people by name, we know their story. We need to listen to people’s stories. We’re not here to advise them or heal their past, but just to validate someone’s story. It’s not an illegal story, you know, they’re often stories filled with pain and trauma.”