As we look ahead to the return of the Fringe this autumn and City of Sanctuary Reading marks Refugee Week, we’re reflecting on a unique event that took place at our last in-person festival in 2019, as we gathered on a sunny Sunday afternoon at the stunning Reading Minster.
Celebrating the 25 years of vital work by Reading Refugee Support Group (RRSG), Conversations with Refugees opened with the theatrical piece At the Border, devised and performed by local young people, drawing on the writing of Lemn Sissay, Choman Hardi and Benjamin Zephaniah and leaving the church’s capacity crowd captivated from the very start.
Radio 3 presenter Fiona Talkington then welcomed her special guests to the beautifully decorated Minster stage: five individuals with their stories of their journeys to making a new home in Reading. Previously deputy director of Libya’s National Council for Civil Liberties & Human Rights, Faraj had to escape the country with his family and is now a RRSG trustee. Syrian surgeon Hussam had to flee following his homeland’s civil war. Kamyar revealed how he had to leave Iran without knowing the destination after the government found out he had changed religion. 12-year-old Layla spoke of her excitement at coming to the UK from Syria. And Yamikani explained how being forced out of Zimbabwe after being tortured inspired her to work as a public speaker raising awareness.
In a truly exceptional encore to this moving and inspiring event, just days afterwards Kaymar – who also treated the audience to a wonderful performance on violin – was granted leave to remain. He has since gone on to study at Reading University and become involved in their Sanctuary Scholarship Scheme. He also returned for online event Continued Conversations with Refugees as part of Reading Fringe Digital in 2020, alongside Fiona, RRSG CEO Nick Harborne and guests from Kenya and South Sudan.
This Refugee Week, events in the town include a discussion of the Reading Black History Mural at the University with the artist Alan Howard and a celebration of 75 years of Reading and Dusseldorf friendship, including a musical performance by Jude Haste, a key figure behind Conversations with Refugees, alongside Ukrainian refugee Кирило Кушнерик.