Tuesday, July 24, 2007


Yesterday I had a call from the City Centre Project in Manchester, someone I hadn't spoken to before, sounded a bit confused dealing with a destitute asylum-seeker. "Jeanette" is from Congo, getting food parcels from the Red Cross, staying with a friend, feels she's outstaying her welcome, but nowhere else to go.

I have to explain that I haven't got much to offer, I can't really ask one of my girls to share a room with her, a stranger with a different culture. Congolese and Habesha are really quite different, Congolese tend to be much more "African", louder, enjoy partying....... frankly, I'm more at home with Habesha and Middle Easterners.

Anyway, I tell her that, of course, if she's going to end up on the streets otherwise, she's welcome to stay in the front room on the sofa, and Jeanette decides to come and check us out, I think she can't quite understand the situation.

I cycle back from Chorlton, bring one of my girls with me that I bump into in the street, it's always reassuring for a new girl to meet another female at the outset, and find Jeanette at the bus-stop.

The house as it happens is busy, Rahel and Tigiesty come in, best friends Zohra from Ethiopia and Natasha from Zimbabwe are attempting to wallpaper the TV room. Gradually Jeanette takes in the situation, and I can feel that she feels able to relax here.

We talk about her situation. Incredibly, she's been refused for six years now, came when she was about 16, been detained, no solicitor, no permission to work........ She completed three years' study, but was prevented by her status from continuing. She is smartly dressed, speaks excellent English; I explain that there is no drinking or smoking in the house, that visitors are allowed but must be respectful. She asks if she can receive people to braid their hair, the way ahe makes a little cash, I say no problem, but if people are watching TV their needs to a homelife can't be ignored.

She talks about how hard life is when you're refused, that many of her friends have ended up in bad situations, in prostitution. I emphasise that if she feels herself in danger, she is always welcome here, she will be safe here, not to fear for herself. She says she would never go down that road no matter what, she is a "Child of God". I say, anyway, she is a human being, she has human rights, and not in the way the Home Office pervert the meaning of those words. I say that we make a mistake to give the Home Office the power of God to control people's lives, life continues regardless of refusal, there can be many ways of winning through in the end. We talk about fresh applications, marriage, amnesty, voluntary return.

Some moment of desperation propelled her through the doors of the City Centre Project. I tell her that I feel sure she will find a better option for herself than sleeping on my sofa - she isn't isolated or crushed, not without resources of some kind. But more than that, I sense that she leaves feeling that there is hope for her life, there are people that understand and don't judge, that her faith in God to keep her safe has some practical manifestation, is not just an empty prayer or a delusion.

And so she leaves, with my phone number and sure of her welcome, not quite happy I'm sure, but not quite alone in the world either.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Aboriginal sins

Sven Lindqvist - http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,2125617,00.html - suggests there should be "penance and restitution" for historic crimes, for example against the native peoples of Australia.

However, penance implies acceptance of guilt for those crimes. I believe this would be misplaced. Guilt arises not from what happened then, but from what happens now. We should all of us feel guilt who benefit from a society in which others' lives are crippled by the consequences of those crimes.

We are not guilty of historic crimes - but we are absolutely guilty if we tolerate global poverty; and to combat this evil we must understand how it has come about, not through the inadequacies of other peoples, but through accidents of history and through injustice.

History is important, not as an exercise in guilt and self-righteousness, but as a weapon to challenge injustice today. The slaves and slavers of yesterday are dead, but the world today is gripped by excess and poverty. History can help us make a better tomorrow for all our children.

The indivisibility of right

It is a failure of understanding that leads us to think that something that hurts another can be a good result for me, or vice versa.

Instead, the best solution, or rather the only true solution to any problem, is one which benefits all parties.

Competition is conceived of as a game with winners and losers, as conflict; whereas the free-market economy is exactly premised on the idea of transactions being for mutual benefit. It is mistaken to view the market-place as an arena for sorting killers from killed, winners from losers - such a system is doomed to failure as the losers reject the outcome and the system itself. Everyone would end up losing.



How extraordinarily lucky and blessed I am
that a randomly found magazine
can bring tears of emotion to my eyes
with pictures and praise for Asmara
Italian elegance under African skies
a foreign country now as familiar
as the faces of the girls of my refugee family.


I love the leaves
The leaves are friendly
reaching out to me with outspread arms
waving to me in the breeze
murmuring to me in m lonelieness
crying for me in my sadness
stroking me softly
telling me in their millions
you're not alone, you're not alone.


The Naming of Wars

The Great War became the First World War; the Yom Kippur War was renamed the October War, a recognition that not only Israelis were suffering; already the Hizbollah war is referred to as the summer war, in anticipation of another round that seems inevitable.

We talked for all those long years of the Gulf War, the war in the gulf of misunderstanding and forgetfulness between such near neighbours, Iran and Iraq, so different, so easily confused in a Western atlas or gazetteer, where the gap between 'eraaq and Eeraan is hardly more than that between idiocy and ignorance, between their madness and our malice.

Suddenly, after eight blood-sodden years, and an indecent interval of arms sales and sanctions, a new horror unfolded, a new Gulf War, our boys fighting for blood and oil, sand and glory, trumping the first Gulf War, now banally renamed the Iran-Iraq War, something local, a footnote.

Another interval of indecency followed, more sanctions, blustering, posturing, new actors. Bush for Bush, Blair for Major, Saddam, always Saddam. A new Gulf War, the second, or perhaps the third, like rounds of fighting in Beirut, mocking our counting as they mock the ceasefires. And so the earlier war is renamed the Kuwait War, to mark it apart from Iraq.

Those four jagged letters, four wretched years, Invasion, Resistance, Anarchy, Quagmire, and who knows what more to come? And how shall we name this when some future nightmare supervenes, when Turks meet Saudis, or Iranians Israelis, on the bloodied fields of Karbala?

But Iraq is not a war; it is the land of the two rivers, of palms and fields and mountains, of Babylon and Nineveh, Najaf and Karbala, and above all a land of people, of families, Arab and Kurd, doing their best to kep pride in the face of indignity, to stay human in a flood of inhumanity.



Nobody loves a loser
and least of all myself

Nobody would excuse one
and last of all myself

Each must take what he chooses
and I have chosen my hell

No-one has use for a loser
and I have used myself well

I'm not that much of a loser, it just feels that way sometimes.


What a load of rubbish!

My latest job is "environmental canvasser".

This means I spend 20 hours a week knocking on doors in Gorton asking people if they use the Council's recycling service, taking comments, ordering bins, giving information, and taking orders for compost bins.

Gorton is an area with a lot of social problems - although there's a fair amount of hostility toward the council, who people think I represent, and cyncism about what recycling is all about, personally I enjoy engaging with people in a friendly way. I'm not interested in preaching to people about why they ought to be recycling/composting; I'm interested in hearing about people's lives. If I can help in a small way by letting people ge things off their chests, I'm happy. If I can help to defuse people's cynicism, I'm pleased. If I can get a frightened person to oen the door and feel glad that they did, that's a result im my book. And of course, I'm never happier than when taking on asylum myths, and best of all giving respect and appreciation to people from refugee backgrounds.

But I've also found the whole exercise enlightening, not only about the struggle to maintain decency in an area swamped with deprivation, but about the ins and outs of recycling.

From supporting without enthusiasm the idea of householders separating their rubbish and having separate collections for this that and the other, I've gone to feeling that all this is essentially an exercise in guilt-tripping people, while giving them an opportunity to salve their guilty consciences in a meaningless way.

What changed it for me was the realisation that the brightly cloured bins for paper, glass, etc, cost in the region of 40 pounds each! Perhaps that's acceptable as a once-off cost, but there's a continual attrition of burnt out and vandalised bins paid for from Council Tax. Then there's the cost of the separate collections; the hassle that householders feel about obligatory sorting of rubbish and storing of bins; and the likeliehood of fortnightly collections; the difficulty faced by older people in managing multiple bins and collections; to say nothing of the gross failure of the collectors to collect, and their attitude toward cardboard in the paper collection.

My feeling is that we should move to a completely different system. Communal recycling bins within a hundred yards of every home; optional, paid-for, home collections, which could be provided privately; and the costs of recycling/disposal, as opposed to collection, to be met by the commercial producer of the rubbish.

The rubbish stream could be monitored to ascertain the originator of the material; in practice it should be straightforward to identify the branding of 90% of material and charge the brandholder according to the costs of dealing with that particular material. Manufacturers/branded retailers (Tesco et al) would then have an incentive to use less material that is expensive to handle (plastics) - and council taxes would be reduced by 80-100 pounds a year.

For doorstep collections, the charge should be a flat fee per collection; householders can be encouraged, but not compelled, to separate their waste. Certainly, separation of cans and glass is easily achieved in the depot. Only paper is really worth keeping apart.

Instead of householders feeling browbeaten by the council, the rubbish collection service would be one which they choose and take ownership of. One of the stated aims of householder rubbish separation is to raise people's awareness and force them to take responsibility for their waste; while this does work to some extent, I feel that it tends more to increase people's alienation from the council and the environment generally. Certainly, people can feel that by going to the trouble of maintaining separate bins, they have done their bit for society, whereas in reality the changes society needs to make are far more wide-ranging.

An example is with the consumption of plastics. The theory is that people will become aware of the amount of plastic in their waste, and will then do something about it; in practice, they do become aware, but feel helpless. There is as yet no sign that consumer opposition to plastic results in any commercial pressure on manufacturers and retailers.

It's a bit like a screw mechanism: in theory, you might think that applying downward pressure on a screw would force it to turn and bite into the wood - in fact it might, but you might break your hand first; however, turning the screw will force it to bite down with only a minor effort. Forcing consumers to move manufacturers' behaviour can work eventually, but there's a much more painless way forward.

There endeth the Lesson!

Letter to Gerald Kaufman MP

Dear Gerald Kaufman,

I am writing to you about the question of social housing allocation to refugees. I refer here only to those granted refugee status, not asylum-seekers.

It is clear that there is much resentment about what is perceived to be the unfair prioritisation homeless refugees. Because they are homeless, they automatically get housing ahead of others who are in overcrowded or unsuitable housing, but who are not actually homeless.Although refugees are only one element in the priority homeless population, their presence is the most noticed. It is a fact that homeless refugees place a huge additional burden on council homelessness provision.

However, the sloution to this is substantially within the hands of the government. Refugees become homeless because they are evicted from NASS accommodation at the conclusion of the asylum process. The problem could be eased by adjusting the "grace period" from 28 days (in practice often much less) to three or six months; the problem could be substantially solved altogether by allowing NASS occupation licences to be transferred to social housing tenancies.The latter step would allow refugees to remain indefinitely in the (ex-)NASS properties if they so wished; it would require agreement with the NASS property providers. Unfortunately, despite representations on the subject for many years, new contracts were signed with the providers which made no provision for this.In spite of the evident unwillingness of the Home Office to contemplate this, I raise the topic again now because the rise of the BNP (9% vote in Sedgefield) is focussing attention on the matter of social housing allocation.

The cuurent system transfers a modest accommodation cost to NASS to a huge expense to local authorities in temporary housing; creates resentment against refugees and immigrants generally; builds enormous frustration and distress among those officially recognised as in need of welcome and protection; causes disruption and expense to services such as GPs and schools; seriously damages social cohesion; and even undermines the stated purpose of NASS dispersal, to settle newcomers in designated areas away from the South-East.

I urge you to take this up with the new Home Secretary. I apologise for the length of this letter, but hope ou recognise that the points made are grounded in solid experience, which I feel anyone connected with asylum or social housing could confirm.

Yours sincerely,Jim Holloway

Friday, July 20, 2007

Rageh inside Iran

Just watched a brilliant film by Rageh Omaar visiting Tehran, you can really feel his sense of humanity coming across, he's written somewhere that he made the film wanting to bear witness to the lives of people in Iran hoping that the West will empathise with them rather than hurl them into the pit of hell as they have done in Iraq.

Rageh Omaar is up there for me now with Robert Fisk, Gary Younge, Craig Murray et al: men that I wish I could be - if I was fully myself, yes I would have the confidence and the focus and strength of character and intelligence and cultural sensitivity of those guys.