What has Covid-19 meant to (me) us, people of refugee and migrant backgrounds, who have been working throughout the pandemic to support, not only our communities, but also the wider community in general? 

I am one of the co-founders of The Anne Matthews Trust, formerly known as Braich Goch-Red Arm CIC. We run a critical learning centre in Mid-Wales where we specialise in providing sanctuary experiences and developmental support to organisations and individuals with similar backgrounds to ourselves. 

(APOW, Amazing People of the World, refugee youth group at the Braich Goch)

Since the first lockdown started, our work has been very difficult as most of what we do is about creating residential experiences, which means bringing many people together under one roof, where we co-design whatever we want to learn and do.  In our experience it is very difficult to find places where we do not feel the outsiders, foreigners, the tokens, or the racialised other.

Alongside creating a “Food justice for all” project that provides 130 free and donation-based hot nutritious meals a week to the surrounding community and supports local growers and workers, we have provided online support to the groups we work with, including our sister organisation Solidarity Hull, a group of recently arrived and organised people of African descent. During the pandemic, they have found the agency, with limited resources, to provide free telephone and online advice in their own languages to the most vulnerable in their community to overcome confusion, fear and misinformation and to ensure that people’s basic needs and wellbeing are met. 

Paternalistic governments promote systems of oppression where prescribed questionnaires and surveys are directed at getting the answers that the surveyor wants.

As people of refugee and migrant backgrounds, we are often told that we need to participate in discussions, forums and consultations where decisions are made about our wellbeing and lives. This assumes that we are all ready, able and willing to “participate”.  But to arrive at that level of engagement, there needs to be a massive investment of work, time and resources in order to create the agency necessary for individuals, groups and communities to decipher, analyse and strategise to generate responsive action. Otherwise, it is always the same people from our communities who engage, those with the confidence and already in jobs in the statutory sector, voluntary or private agencies. A minority within minorities, get to represent the rest of us. 

It also fails to recognise the power dynamics at operation in decision making spaces. Paternalistic governments promote systems of oppression where prescribed questionnaires and surveys are directed at getting the answers that the surveyor wants. Most people in our communities are bound and limited by the same colonial system that keeps its ‘knees on our throats’, making it impossible for us even to imagine that a different way of doing things, a different world, can be possible. 

It is in communion with others that we are able to learn about ourselves and our immediate reality, and the world around us.

I have been a witness and a victim of cases where government and academic institutions invite a person of dark hue to “participate” and one ends up being the only dark and “exotic” face in the room, whose only function is to stand in the photo at the end of the session. I have also been in spaces where I have been called to co-design a programme or run a workshop, or give ideas and it is only after that I discover that everyone, except me, has been paid. This to me replicates models of exploitation and disrespect, as though some experiences and knowledge are more important than others.

This type of practice is the nemesis of real participatory democracy. 

In its more radical form, participation means collective enquiry, where everyone’s voices are heard and we all have equal amounts of time to talk and decisions are a collective consensus. To achieve this, we need ‘communicative spaces for genuine dialogue’, where our opinions and experience are respected and valued, where there is cognitive justice, where different knowledge and experiences converse and converge. This for us would be just the onset of a legitimate process of democratic deliberation. 

But the way we are included should be determined by ourselves, within our own spaces where we are collectively able to decode and find solutions within our own conceptions and context of the world we inhabit.

Drawing on the experience of Paulo Freire and other popular educators, genuine dialogue can lead to transformational change to self and the world. It is in communion with others that we are able to learn about ourselves and our immediate reality, and the world around us. With this learning we can start to understand the contradictions of our broken world, to develop a clear collective vision, to participate and be change makers.

Unfortunately, for many agencies and governmental bodies, these processes take too much time, and so in emergencies like the pandemic, but most of the time for that matter, only the “experts” have valid solutions.

People from refugee and migrant backgrounds have found their own feet and been resilient in the struggle against this virus. We know what our communities need and we should be included in the decision-making process of strategies that affect our lives. But the way we are included should be determined by ourselves, within our own spaces where we are collectively able to decode and find solutions within our own conceptions and context of the world we inhabit. Our participation should be respected and remunerated when everyone else is being paid. Every time we are consulted, we should also be supported not just in symbolic ways but in a real concrete manner that translates into resources that would enable us to carry on with the work we are already doing. 

This piece is part of the "Democratic Response to COVID-19" series curated by Involve and the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Westminster University.

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Javier Sanchez-Rodriguez is a Colombian peasant farmer, political activist and participatory action researcher.  Co-founder and director of Braich Goch-Red-Arm CIC, recently converted into the Anne Matthews Trust, in Mid Wales, a critical learning and resource centre. Through the use of popular and critical pedagogy methods and philosophies, Javier has supported the development of community led organisations engaging people in thinking critically about their immediate realities to generate collective action plans for positive social change in the UK and abroad.