I’ve tried writing this a few times but I’ve never quite got it right. I still don’t think I have, but I’m trying to make this writing thing a habit, and that means just doing it, especially when it feels far from perfect. Very far. The philosopher Hannah Arendt said, ‘In order to go on living, one must try to escape the death involved in perfectionism.’ I’m trying.
Arendt also said, ‘Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.’ So here are some stories. They are all true, but you can add your own meaning. Warning. It gets quite personal. Here goes.
I’m moving house again this week. I’m excited. It feels like I might be able to make this next one feel like home again.
In 2011 my marriage imploded. I once blacked out in an aeroplane toilet and woke up on the floor not knowing where I was. When my wife left I felt a bit like that for about 3 years. We’d lived together for 5 years and we’d been together for nearly a decade.
I’m doing ok now, but one of the things I miss most is not having a place that really feels like home. I grew up moving a lot. I’m good at it. Good at packing. Then unpacking.
I’m not sure, but I think it’s partly genetic. When I was 2 years old my family moved to Algeria. I told this story in a previous blog, so I’m repeating it for context. Algeria was safe enough when we arrived, but that didn’t last. War, like water, can simmer towards boiling point with deceptive silence. We left when I was 5 years old. Violence was brewing, I had asthma and my mum’s eardrum burst. We couldn’t fly, so we crossed the sea on a boat. It didn’t sink. I didn’t drown.
In 2015, a Syrian boy called Alan tried to cross the same sea. His boat sank. He drowned. The image of his limp body shook people out of apathy. He was called Alan. He looked like us. Suddenly millions of people wanted to help refugees but didn’t know how.
I had some ideas and not much to lose. I decided to take some risks. With a little help from my friends Steve Chalk and Phil Green, I invited 20,000 people to come and meet refugees in 12 cities across the UK and convinced Starbucks to give them free coffee.
In 2013 I co-founded a Citizens UK campaign asking the government to resettle more Syrian refugees to the UK. The campaign was manic. I was manic. I had undiagnosed ADHD and my medication of choice was work. It was an addictive, maladaptive self-medication that damaged my relationships and my health. Despite a lot of pain, shame, and regret, I’m still proud of what I achieved and learned and I’m learning to have compassion for my former selves.
I finally burnt out at the end of 2014 and had left the campaign. We’d got the coveted 10 past 8 interview slot on the Radio 4 Today Program, and coverage in the Sunday Times and 6 pm TV News cycle. It was impressive work for a community campaign, but I’d left exhausted. By the time the photo of Alan Khurdi started rippling across the globe I had taken a sabbatical and started helping a group of British Syrian surgeons to develop 3D scanning and printing technology to make prosthetics available in war zones. I made a terrifying trip to the Syrian border, did some filming and placed the story in the national press. People with ADHD can’t reabsorb dopamine very well, so our brains adapt to constantly seek stimulation. Novelty gives us a dopamine hit that feels physically calming. So does conflict. Risk does too. It’s not always healthy.
When I got back to London the refugee campaign was gathering pace. At the peak of the press coverage, I helped the campaign again as a volunteer with a Syrian friend called Eiad. He is a dentist from Damascus. He’s articulate and charming. He’d never been inside a synagogue before, yet found himself being interviewed by Sky sharing his story with an elderly Holocaust survivor called Harry. Harry came to London as an orphan in the war. Also on a boat.
That evening Eiad came back to my flat for dinner. He met my brother and my friends. We drank mint tea and ate hummus. We wanted to make it easier for people to help refugees, and we wanted that help to actually be useful. I knew that the positive public response would not last indefinitely and that the media would move on within 6 weeks or so. I also thought that a terrorist attack would be likely before too long and that it would start to change the public mood. I wish I’d been wrong, but the Paris attack did exactly that.
In my experience, relationships, conversation, and personal encounters have the greatest impact on how people view the world. People who did want to help were often tired of clicking internet petitions or just being asked to donate money.
We wanted to start by listening and helping people to listen to each other. Eiad thought that most of his friends, and perhaps most refugees, wanted to learn English, and get jobs. Like me, Eiad was trying to find a place to call home. To rebuild his life. It’s hard enough to do that when you lose a relationship, a job or a house. When your family have been killed, you don’t speak the language and don’t understand the rules, then it’s another level of hard.
I think one of the biggest political challenges we are facing today is that the public has been taught to scapegoat outsiders. We fear difference and mistrust ‘others’. In the face of inequality and change, people are being told to blame outsiders for the legitimate pain they feel. Millions voted to leave the EU, even more, voted for Trump. Populist nationalism has been brewing for years now.
The tragedy is that populist nationalism pretends to be a sanctuary for people who feel like refugees in their own land. It’s not a sanctuary. It’s a lie. Many people don’t recognise the world they grew up in, their communities have changed, they don’t feel at home, and the skills they have don’t match the jobs that need to be done, particularly in an increasingly digital economy. People feel at sea. They don’t feel at home. It’s not their fault, but it certainly isn’t the fault of the desperate, and often brilliant people who have come here seeking sanctuary from war.
A Brexit voter in Sunderland has more in common with a refugee from Somalia than she realises. The real tragedy is that her real enemy has lied to her. Populist nationalism divides to conquer. Their real interest is to cynically hold on to power while mythologising history and fueling the childish nostalgia of frail destructive egos. I’m not disappointed, just angry.
Remarkable things happen when people connect, listen, and seek their common good. We all want to feel at home, to feel hope in the future, to have work that has meaning, and purpose. We want to feel like we’re in the same boat, a boat that won’t sink, heading to a land of hope, and maybe even glory.