I work for a group that helps refugees and asylum seekers, something which would not, I realise, send me to the top of the Christmas card list of the average Red Top editor or reader. Sometimes people ask me why I do it.
As I am not the kind of person who, poised like Rodin's Thinker, probes his deepest motives, I don't find this question easy to answer. Perhaps, though, some purpose might be served if I try to answer it here.
The group I work for is based in Hastings and supports Kurdish people, an ethnic group I don't think I even knew existed 20 years ago. The first time I can recall hearing of the Kurds was when I saw a news report of the massacre at Halabja in 1988. Knowing nothing of the background to this disaster made it seem all the more sinister, a mysterious catastrophe visited on a distant people.
Ten years later, with the opening of the first “asylum hotel” in Hastings, victims of such attacks were no longer distant.
The first Kurd I met was a young man who had lost 6 members of his family at Halabja. Having direct contact with such a person made the plight of the Kurds imposingly real to me. As I learnt more of the Kurdish experience my sympathies deepened and I came to see how much they'd been denied - language rights, cultural rights, security, status. Across the Middle-East, and beyond, a smothering blanket had been thrown over Kurdish Identity; and no amount of repression seemed to disturb relations between the regimes responsible and our own governments.
Knowing all this helped persuade me to get involved with starting up the support group when, five years ago, a Kurdish friend asked if I wanted to participate. Most of the people our support office sees are caught up in the daily grind of living, and political activity is not common. Some though feel impelled towards activism. One such is Yaser Dirki who campaigned locally for Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish leader jailed on a Turkish island.
”It made perfect sense that I came to England for political asylum and I was politically active,” he explains. Didn't he feel worried about campaigning before his asylum case was settled? He observes: “When you believe in something you don't worry that much.”
In London there is more political activity from larger Kurdish communities, with the Ocalan situation again being a focus of protest. In a way such activism mirrors that of earlier generations of refugees and exiles - Russian Jews who protested here against the persecution in their tsarist homeland, refugees from nazism and facism who organised in England... It's a tradition that's threaded through our history and it isn't about to stop.