Monday, 14 September 2015

Action not Sympathy

Syria has been in the news for so long that many people have stopped listening. The unfolding media story about the current refugee crisis has appeared almost as if by magic - the underlying causes distant and poorly understood because they don't make headlines. But understanding the causes is always important because that is the key to improving the future. Increased objectivity requires subjectivity - not snapshots of current events divorced from their past.

The civil war in Syrian appeared to many to be part of the so called "Arab Spring", a wave of cries for independence from those subject to authoritarian rule in the Middle East. However, as this cartoon succinctly explains, the biggest underlying cause of the Syrian War was in fact, Climate Change. The exodus from the rural areas of Syria when crops failed during the worst drought in the region on record destabilised urban areas - and what might have been a simmering dissatisfaction exploded.

Syria should be a lesson for us all.

The current, tragic refugee situation is also in no small part due to our intervention in Iraq under Labour which destabilised the Middle East and precipitated the "Arab Spring". The West then misguidedly, largely under public pressure, supported and funded the opposition to Assad in Syria. That initial opposition was in no small part what we today know as ISIS.

For all these reasons international responsibility should be accepted and consensus sought to respond to the situation. All agree crisis management is not enough, a coherent long-term policy is needed to deal with the problem at source. That would need renewed international efforts to sort out the civil war in Syria and destroy IS, yet neither is likely to happen any time soon. We can't even get past the initial emotional response, let alone begin to tease apart the facts. The public got it wrong before - and should bear a large chunk of responsibility for the current strength of ISIS and Russian support for Assad, people should think carefully about an over-reaction to a heart-wrenching situation. The power of social media and our thirst for a "quick fix" of news perpetuates knee-jerk responses to events. We must not lose sight of the bigger picture though and engage our brains as well as our hearts before responding. Even worse, viewing events elsewhere through the spectacles of our own lives distorts reality further.

"Most Syrians want to stay in their country or close by. Instead of the siren calls luring them across the sea to an uncertain fate, they need our practical help on the ground to give them food, shelter and the strength, one day, to take their homeland back." 

True. We should never forget the appalling reality that is life for many, in a war-torn country struggling to survive and leave fellow human beings to "get on with it". The video below has a powerful message. 

This isn't new, and I've seen it before, which is perhaps even sadder since the war in Syria is now so old. But the...

Images like this video and the photo below matter, because we live in a global environment, where ignoring events on the other side of the planet no longer buys you peaceful and ignorant isolationism. We can't pick and choose which parts of the world take our interest, we have a responsibility to consider the whole which in turn impacts on every one of us. But images that focus on individuals are only part of the story. No conflict is ever won by identifying with the individual  - and the same is true of international crises.

Courtesy of Bengin Ahmad

The media's current obsession with a "refugee crisis" - which is very real and affecting many people in different areas of the Middle East and Africa - neglects the migrant crisis and the longer term impact of the "Arab Spring". In fact most of those people you see on TV are not asylum seekers, but migrants who are opportunistically seeking to enter a more affluent country at a time when national borders are struggling to cope. Many have even held jobs for several years in countries they have already claimed asylum. Today the BBC began to acknowledge this. Confusing refugees with migrants has also precipitated an hysterical response from many including celebrities engaged in an unpleasant "caring one-upmanship" because a boy died tragically crossing from Turkey. But that's just a tiny part of the real situation.

The real people suffering are those in the refugee camps, who have yet to claim asylum, whom the World Food Programme and UNICEF are trying to support. Those people whose funding has been cut by all governments except the UK as they struggle to finance the mass migration of those who have already successfully claimed asylum, but who seek to move further to better themselves.

Whilst that's highly understandable no one mentions that according to the Dublin Agreement refugees must claim asylum in the first country they reach and cannot make multiple claims. That some fellow muslim nations nearby are doing nothing and Saudi Arabia has tens of thousands of air conditioned tents on their border close to Syria. That many people on the boats are seizing the opportunity when they have been several years in Turkey, with jobs and homes there. That those taking vast sums to smuggle these migrants are bankrolling ISIS who are also using the current crisis to get fighters across into Europe. And that the boy who tragically died was not even a refugee. He had a home in Turkey for 3 years and his mother wanted to stay. His father wanted to join family in Canada but lacked legal means to do so.

Last week I said that Europe wouldn't maintain its open borders and already many countries are closing theirs. There is little support for free migration in any country in the world, and most leaders recognise that their first duty is to the people whom they represent. Increasing a population by even 1% overnight has an enormous long term impact on resources and prosperity, can threaten national security, national health and well being. We should be helping the refugees, those rendered stateless due to conflict in Syria, but evacuating vast numbers in an uncontrolled way is sure to precipitate dangerous tensions across Europe and leaves a vacuum in the Middle East which will destabilise the situation further.

Short-termism has become endemic in world (as well as domestic) politics, but we must take our heads out of the proverbial sand and look beyond the here and now or the future will take us by surprise once again.

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Saturday, 12 September 2015

Round we go again....

This is H, aged 5, at his sports day many years ago. He's looking confused, and not a little distressed. You see he'd just run the 50m running "race" and won by a mile. Fastest boy in his year group. The day is forever etched into my memory - but not because of this great achievement. Let's face it this was in Reception, when at least half the year can barely coordinate themselves sufficiently to hurtle down the track let alone understand the point of it all.  No, the reason I will never forget the day was because of the comment made by the teacher running the event.

"Round you go again!" she said.

You see, his school didn't believe in competitive sports. Ever. "Everyone's a Winner" was the school's motto, and very commendable it sounded - if a little overly politically correct. But to put this ethos into context you should know that this little boy had never, ever been a "winner" in his life.

Non verbal until well past the age of three, he found school impossible to comprehend. He spent most of Reception under the table, a convenient place from which to lob heavy books at any passing teacher! With 46 fixed term exclusions to his name by the age of six school was not somewhere he shone. Rather he endured, they crisis managed and I cried. A lot.

So when my little Cygnet (as his class was known) raced down that track, completely engaged and utterly focussed on that finish line, I could have cheerfully strangled the insensitive, dismissive voice that expected him to keep re-running the absurd "race" until it was time to move on to the next activity.


There is a reason children participate in a huge variety of activities in school, beyond the academic, and it isn't just to give the teachers a break. Children learn in a huge variety of ways, and learning is never solely about reading and writing. Emotional and social education is a fundamental part of any child's education, and many children - particularly younger ones, gain most social and emotional learning from activities outside the classroom, in addition to the holistic environment they are in. My child had, at that moment, made an enormous breakthrough. He had been engaged in a group activity, focussed on a delayed result which required immediate engagement and participation, and appreciated the potential reward of any effort he made.

Which was swiftly taken away from him with that single sentence.

Unsurprisingly, the children who excel in the classroom are rarely those who are equally talented at sport. Or music, or art. All children are individuals with gifts, talents, difficulties and challenges as diverse as their faces. So denying children the opportunity to redress any imbalance within the classroom by removing competition outside, is misguided and potentially damaging.

So why am I telling you this now?

You may well ask. Two reasons really. H is nearly 14 and we've seen a complete turnaround over the years. Still hugely challenging at times, he now excels in the classroom, whilst the athletics track brings more of a challenge. Due to poor management of joint hypermobility and a huge delay in obtaining appropriate support he not only has completely flat feet but also something known as external tibial torsion. Basically his legs curve outwards below the knee, offsetting his entire skeleton and he simply cannot run fast anymore. Indeed, before he started wearing day splints, night splints and summer in casts to stretch his calf muscles last year, he could barely run at all.

The second reason for remembering this event is that we do seem to be "going round again" with the twins. Unable to play much sport because of health issues my youngest son is a gifted chorister. But no amount of persuasion could prompt his school to permit him to shine. Their obsession with group work and "equal opportunity" blinded them to his lack of opportunity in other areas. His singing gives him confidence and since joining our local church choir he is a different child.

Similarly, his twin is incredibly good at art. Whilst that might seem rather boastful, I can honestly tell you that she's really not much good at team games, struggles with Maths and finds friendships quite a challenge at times. Art is her "thing". But try convincing anyone that's it's ok to excel publicly and gain opportunities to work outside of a group and it's as if you've suddenly grown a second head.

H himself summed it up best after his enthusiastic and commendable participation in his High School Sports Day in July this year. He tried so hard and wasn't last but was quite thoughtful after. He hadn't forgotten that day eight years ago either.

"I was fast once, wasn't I Mummy? When it didn't count."

Except it did. It counted HUGELY for me. I observed and recognised every little achievement in those 50m and will never, ever forget that day. It's made me want to celebrate all goals reached, to recognise all my children's talents and appreciate where they are NOW, and let them feel good about themselves.  Because none of us are equal - and difference isn't a bad thing. That child winning the race may well be fighting battles you have no comprehension of - and deserves to be a winner, to come first. It might be the only time they do.

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