My programme of enquiry, observation and interview, carried out in the course of 2015 and 2016, has now come together and been published by Pluto Press in the book Looking to London: Stories of War, Escape and Asylum, which reached the bookshops in September 2017. My warmest thanks go to the friendly and efficient team at Pluto who saw it through the press so quickly, and particularly to my ultra-supportive editor Anne Beech.
London is celebrated as one of the most ethnically diverse capitals in the world, and has been a magnet of migration since its origin. Looking To London steps into the maelstrom of current and recent wars and the resulting migration crisis, telling the stories of women refugees who have made it to London to seek safe haven among the city's Kurdish, Somali, Tamil, Sudanese and Syrian communities, under the watchful eye of the security services.
The book explores a world in which hatred is being countered by compassion, at a moment when the nationalist, anti-immigrant sentiment expressed in Brexit is being challenged by a warm-hearted 'refugees welcome' movement bringing community activists into partnership with London borough councils for the reception and rehoming of victims of war. My hope is that it will be stimulating reading for people who want to think more deeply about the meaning of asylum.
We held a launch party for the book at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, on the afternoon of October 14, 2017. Raised Voices political choir came along and sang some of their ‘refugees welcome’ repertoire, and a collection was taken for the charity Women for Refugee Women.
The book launch followed on from an event, also hosted by the Centre for Gender Studies (SOAS), at the same venue earlier in the day, that I still find amazing and scarcely credible – though hugely affirming. They called it ‘a celebration to honour the academic work and feminist activism of’ - who? Cynthia Cockburn!
The generous heart behind this initiative was Dr. Nadje Al-Ali, Professor of Gender Studies and Head of the Doctoral School at SOAS, who, together with Professor Awino Okech devised a morning seminar on a particular action-research methodology some of us evolved in a programme of research in the 1990s that was published in my book The Space Between Us: Negotiating Gender and National Identities in Conflict (Pluto Press, 1998). It was wonderful to have participation in that seminar from among others, Marie Mulholland, a colleague of that period from Belfast, and Rela Mazali from Israel Palestine.
After lunch came an hour of full-on ‘celebration’ with participation from many of the feminist activists from whom over the last fifty years I have learned all I know about this field we share. As I wrote later to all who attended this ‘celebration of me’, I experienced it as, rather, a mutual celebration of and among a community of feminist, socialist, antimilitarist, secularist people – committed, energetic, imaginative and loving. For we were a roomful, and an e-mail list, of women (and some men too), who have known each other, and sustained each other, in decades of inventive and bold thinking, writing and activism for our shared goals and values.
Everyone who took the microphone and told the room about some activity in my life had (by definition) been part of it herself. Often she had been foundational to what we had been doing together, had been the first one to have the idea, devoted her life to it, written a book about it, got arrested, broke an ankle, won a Nobel Prize for it! Each one of those contributors should have been, and I like to believe in fact was, being celebrated too. It was a wonderful day affirming our movement/s, promising to be there for each other in the struggle still to come.
As 2018 dawns, may we keep talking, walking and singing!