And if you’re homesick, give me your hand and I’ll hold it
Corby on Corbyn Day and with barely an hour until kick-off I was doing the veggie equivalent of headless chickening it around Piccadilly Morrisons buying rice and pasta and tinned tomatoes and stuff. Store cupboard essentials I think they call them on the cookery programmes on the telly. But if you’ve not got a cupboard or any proper storage space as you’re eking out an existence in a tent in a dismal refugee camp on the wrong side of one of the world’s artificial borders then they are essential in the truest sense of the word.
I filled a couple of carrier bags and carted them on the bus to Broadhurst Park, a small contribution to a pre-match collection for refugees organised by FC United of Manchester supporters. It warmed the heart to see two vans crammed with bags of food, clothes, toiletries and tents; the result of people trying to help people, some of the bravest people on this planet, retain some dignity in the squalid conditions of the refugee camps in Calais and further afield. The club also donated fifteen match tickets to the Manchester Refugee Support Network.
The collection was arranged with the charity Refugee Action who are working to distribute aid to those most in need, including those in the camps at Calais. It’s difficult to get your head round what life must be like in one of those camps but it’s apparent from hearing from some of the migrants that the support and assistance provided by French and British people, in contrast to their governments, is much appreciated. As Europe’s politicians bicker over quotas and some countries shamefully slam the door shut it falls increasingly to ordinary people, and non-governmental organisations, to raise awareness of the plight of refugees and to offer support and aid, whether it’s teabags, sleeping bags or a room in their house.
This was a day when football supporters across the country showed solidarity with refugees hoping to start a new life in Europe including fans of Arsenal, Bacup Borough, Clapton and Norwich City. Before kick-off a huge “Refugees Welcome” banner was unfurled at the St Mary’s Road End of Broadhurst Park and it was perhaps apt that FC United should be playing Corby; the Northamptonshire town is often referred to as “Little Scotland” as migrants from north of the border arrived in their thousands in the thirties to work in the town’s steel industry. Hence the Scottish flags that appeared at the Lightbowne Road end in the first half.
A few hours before I’d been at a cracking exhibition at Manchester’s shiny new cultural hub Home. “I Must First Apologise…” is the work of two Lebanese artists, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, and explores the world of online scams and emails. Anyone who’s ever set up a personal email account will most likely, at some point, have been the recipient of an email from someone, often from Nigeria, claiming that they have a large sum of money and need to transfer it urgently to somewhere safe. Thousands of people get caught out by this scam each year.
In the darkness of the exhibition’s opening room, on seventeen screens dotted around the room talking heads recite some of the scam emails word for word; unless you stand close to one of the screens it is impossible to pick out any one story above the clamour of voices, all desperately trying to be heard. It feels a bit like the world wide web with everyone craving attention amidst a plethora of posts and tweets. Hadjithomas and Joreige question whether we are more likely to trust someone’s story if we meet them face to face and how we form relationships with people who we’ve only met online.
Later the exhibition ponders topically on the fate of refugees arriving in Lebanon seeking a better life. None of these people are scammers but surveyed from a comfortable distance their stories can closely resemble those used in scam emails having suffered persecution and fled for their lives from despotic regimes. It got me thinking about how we react to news stories that we increasingly consume online, particularly the current refugee crisis with many people on social media questioning the authenticity of many refugee stories. Why are so many of them young men? Why do they all have mobile phones and smart haircuts? How do we know that some of them are not terrorists?
There are even some people happy to indulge in the bonkers theory that the infamous image of a three year old dead Syrian boy face down on a Greek beach has merely been “staged” to generate sympathy for the plight of Syrian refugees. Some people prefer to believe that refugees are “bogus” or “illegal” yet the reality is that most people have never knowingly met a refugee or asylum seeker in their lives. If they had then they might feel a touch more empathy and realise that they are people with hopes and dreams just like us.
So why should we as football supporters worry our heads about the refugee crisis? Shouldn’t we be spending pre-match drinking beer and watching football on the telly rather than filling vans with aid for refugees? Ignoring for one moment the simple fact that all of us are human beings first and football supporters second, football has a wonderful power to break down the barriers of language, culture and religion enabling us to reach out and befriend those who arrive on our shores. Many refugees are football mad and often have a favourite English football team or player having watched the Premier League avidly at home. FC United of Manchester supporters, ourselves refugees, albeit on a much smaller scale, of the Glazer conflict, should perhaps understand more than any other group of football fans the need for people to find sanctuary and a warm welcome as they try to make a better life for themselves.
Of course, it’s nothing new for FC United of Manchester to be helping refugees and asylum seekers, the club has been doing it since day one. I remember the sense of pride on turning up to the very first People United Day back in the North West Counties League and seeing banners welcoming asylum seekers and refugees being paraded round Gigg Lane, the first time I’d seen support for refugees openly expressed inside a football ground. In 2011 the club fought to save a popular local football coach and community worker from being deported back to Afghanistan from where he fled as a refugee eight years before. And over the last decade FC have run coaching sessions and football tournaments for refugees in Manchester and the annual Big Coat Day has made a valuable contribution to keeping the city’s destitute asylum seekers warm in the winter months. This is as much to do with what this football club is about as winning leagues and snaffling late winners. Refugees welcome? Don’t be daft, of course they are.