British celebs share family histories for refugee campaign

How do you get the public to view refugees differently – as individuals, not only as a troubling issue? One hugely effective method is to highlight the celebrities and high-achievers who have refugee roots.
Lliana Bird. David M Benett / Dave Benett / Getty Images for Paul & Joe
Lliana Bird. David M Benett / Dave Benett / Getty Images for Paul & Joe

Aside from their nationality, what do these three public figures have in common? Jazz-pop singer Jamie Cullum, author and screenwriter Neil Gaiman, and Richard Rogers, the architect behind London’s Millennium Dome and Abu Dhabi’s Maryah Plaza.

All are British, but they also share a more interesting connection: “#refugenes.”

That’s the catchy hashtag for a new campaign by the charity Help Refugees, which raises funds and awareness for displaced people.

How do you get the public to view refugees differently – as individuals, not only as a troubling issue? One hugely effective method is to highlight the celebrities and high-achievers who have refugee roots.

Organisers spent nine months identifying and interviewing 13 public figures who on camera proudly announce their “refugenes”. They include entertainers and entrepreneurs, along with Lliana Bird, the campaigner who came up with the idea.

Bird is a radio DJ and actress who cofounded Help Refugees “by accident”, she says, “as we initially meant to just raise £1,000 [Dh4,877]. Now we’re in 27 camps across Europe”. Help Refugees is also “expanding into Lebanon, and funding work in Syria”, she adds.

Her own family history, however, offers a different example of displacement: that of prosperous Europeans. Bird’s grandparents were refugees from the Russian Revolution and it was while discussing her heritage that the idea for #refugenes was born.

“I was telling this story to a friend about my grandmother and she said: ‘Oh, you’ve got refugenes,’” Bird says.

“When I started looking at people who are figureheads in public life – architects or sportsmen, singers, designers, people who’ve really contributed in a very public way to society – and how many of them have also got ‘refugenes’, we found that a huge number had. And sometimes quite surprising people.”

The videos produced by the campaign reveal what is often the little-known lineage behind well-known figures, including the three mentioned above.

As a child, Rogers and his family escaped fascist Italy in 1939. Gaiman’s grandfather travelled to Britain from Poland, through Belgium, and remained stateless. And Cullum explains that he has a “complicated family history”, with grandparents who fled both Burma and ­Prussia.

“I had no idea about Jamie Cullum,” Bird says. “It’s so interesting that on both his mother’s and father’s sides he has this refugee heritage. And what was really nice, he genuinely felt so proud of it – and I feel the same about my grandmother.

“The word ‘refugee’ – I can’t imagine what it’s like to be someone who has this label put on them, when they define themselves in so many other ways.”

Among the other personalities who talk about their “refugenes” are singers Rita Ora and The Noisettes’ Shingai Shoniwa, whose families escaped Kosovo and Rhodesia respectively; and model and filmmaker Naomi Shimada, whose grandparents were evacuees who fled from ­Japan to Taiwan during the ­Second World War.

Another is social entrepreneur Elisa Sednaoui Dellal, whose family escaped Syria and Egypt. She tells how they helped build schools and hospitals along the way, and there are certainly plenty of stories of refugees making positive contributions to the societies in which they found themselves. This is a powerful retort to the view that displaced people are a burden. Bird’s own grandmother fostered a refugee child, among other charitable acts.

“I’m really proud to say that she was a refugee,” Bird says. “For me, what that represents is that she was so strong, a survivor, and it made her this incredibly compassionate person who appreciated her life and the chance she was given. So that’s something I hope was passed down to my mother and me.”

Some of the refugee tales are truly harrowing. Gaiman’s cousin, Helen, for example, who is now 98, narrowly escaped the Nazis.

“She hid – she wound up locked in a barn, with no food, for a week,” he says. “Mice ate her hair – she still talks about that.”

Helen went on to become a renowned holocaust expert in the United States.

More personal still is singer Yasmin Kadi’s testimony: she saw her father beaten and kidnapped by soldiers during the civil war in Sierra Leone, before the family escaped to Britain.

Initially homeless, she was eventually able to attend stage school and has worked with the likes of Mary J Blige – but was compelled “to sing and write about what happened”.

Surviving such adversity can provide remarkable drive to succeed, but what of the refugees of today?

“We’ve seen terrible psychological damage, especially for the unaccompanied children, and I don’t know that refugees have ever been treated as badly as we’re treating them today,” says Bird.

“I think it’s shocking the way that Europe, in particular – supposedly known for its tolerance and compassion, democracy and human rights – is treating people.

“I suppose in generations to come we’ll find out how it affects people, the potential damage that’s been done.”

The residual #refugenes message is that any of us could become refugees, even the relatively healthy and wealthy.

Bird hopes to continue the campaign by enlisting American personalities next but, for now, that Twitter hashtag is already encouraging a global community to share their untold stories and address an issue that is not going to go away. They’ve got #refugenes. Have you?

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Published: September 13, 2016 04:00 AM


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