Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Displaced life: A home for the holidays

For persons seeking asylum, Christmas can inspire mixed emotions. But I'm a bona fide festive enthusiast
December 8, 2022

As I write, the holidays are upon us and I for one can’t wait for some positive vibes —with Christmas markets, winter wonderlands, theme parks and pantomimes, all to be enjoyed with the good folk in my life. And I must admit that I love classic Christmas movies—I could binge on the Hallmark channel for weeks!

But many persons seeking asylum are alone at this time of the year. (I use the word “persons” instead of “people”, because for too long the latter has been used to lump us into a category, rather than recognising the individuality of everyone who is trying to make a new life for themselves, and of those who have died trying.) Our different ethnic backgrounds, religions and cultures mean that while the festive season is joyous for some, it can be lonely for others. For many it’s just another day on the calendar.

I, however, am a bona fide Christmas enthusiast. I love spreading the joy of it to everyone. You can’t help the family you’re born into, but you can help create one for someone else. During this season, many persons seeking asylum need this support more than ever, because of the way we have been branded and stigmatised by politicians and in the press.

The malcontent and hateful rhetoric must be drowned out. I truly believe that’s not who the British people are—it’s only a small fraction who are misinformed. We must not be afraid to have the hard conversations that we need in order to get to know one another, or avoid trying to solve the issues that divide us. Because that is how we build empathy.

One way to build empathy in the Christmas season is to discover the rituals of other cultures. Being from the southern Caribbean I love a Spanish theme, but last Christmas I also had the personal privilege of attending a Christmas party with refugees and persons seeking asylum. There were so many wonderful cultural cuisines: Arabic, Iranian, Iraqi, West Indian, Ecuadorian, Nigerian and west African.

I met a wonderful family from Ghana at the event celebrating Kwanzaa with other west African refugees. Kwanzaa is a celebration of African-American culture, based on harvest festival traditions from several parts of west and southeast Africa. The way Pan-Africans and African-Americans celebrate Kwanzaa always intrigues me, as I have African-American friends back in my native country whom I celebrated it with. Kwanzaa brings a cultural message with seven pillars, including Umoja (unity), Kuumba (creativity) and Nia (purpose). The festival speaks to the best of what it means to be African and human in the fullest sense, and strikes to the core of the person I am. No matter how much falls on me and other persons seeking asylum, we keep ploughing ahead, as looking forward is the only way to keep our minds and hearts clear.

For me, it seems Christmas is a necessary festival. We require a time when we can reflect on all the flaws in our human doings and relationships, but also celebrate those relationships in all their imperfection. Christmas is a feast of failure, sad but consoling at the same time; it is the one day of the year to remind us that we’re here for something else besides ourselves. When I recall my Christmases past, I usually find that the simplest things are the greatest occasions: time spent with my mother, father, brothers and grandparents. Those memories give off the greatest glow of happiness. And I’d like to share that with every stranger I meet, with my fellow persons seeking asylum—and with you, dear readers. Wishing you all the best of the season.