When I was old enough, I spent months on the road to somewhere, travelling any way I could: plane, train, thumb. Often these roads would lead me to Rome. This is where I met my friend, Mike. I want to speak briefly of him and our unlikely meeting from disparate places along very different paths.
Mine had led from a small Hertfordshire village in comfort and security, through schooling in an average British comprehensive in the 2000s – British bulldog, penises drawn on anything possible and the ever-enthralling cry of “Bundle!” at lunch time – through a law degree at Bristol University and a year in Japan to an unpopular corner of one of the world’s most beautiful cities.
Mike’s path had been more difficult, and far longer. Born in Gambia, Mike was advised to flee the country by his family at the age of 16 after his father’s incarceration. His journey to Rome took him across the Sahara into Morocco where he was unwelcome; into Algeria where he was imprisoned and tortured, from which he still carries the scars across his back; eventually into Libya where he became a boat person and successfully made the crossing to Lampedusa and the EU. There again, met by police, flashing lights, brutal authority and racism, shuttled to Rome and given drugs to sell in lieu of legitimate refugee papers. Mike’s journey to Rome took him 6 years. Mine took 5 hours.
When we look at the numbers, the hundreds of thousands coming to European borders, we can struggle to contemplate what any one is coming from, and why. I could never have understood the pain Mike was holding, and thousands of others like him, by glancing at the Guardian alone but it was right there, in his eyes.
When I sat down to write this speech, I asked myself what exactly we’re celebrating tonight. I asked myself: what are we to do in a society in which the homeless are silently segregated from the prosperous, in which we build spikes in the ground to ensure no one nasty rests their head there? What are we to do in a society in which our private prisons act not as rehabilitators of angry people, but as finishing schools for the hardened criminal? What are we to do in a society in which increasing numbers of our elders are isolated from social contact and lonely in their homes?
What are we – mostly fresh-faced recent graduates who think working hard is staying up all night long, typing – to do?
In answering this question I think Year Here gets two things right. The first lies in the importance of frontline experience. We cannot learn about these problems nor hope to untie even one of the many knots which tangle their web without giving our time to the people living where the knot is tightest, where the problem is most acute. Go to the people. This we know in our hearts to be right, and it lays bare a double standard we hold which sees more success in our child working as a parliamentary researcher in Westminster than as a social worker in Ealing.
The second thing Year Here gets right is what has made the past 9 months a supreme privilege for each of us Fellows. It is in building a movement around the simple belief that every one of us has the power to change our world. It is the strength that comes from being surrounded by people who believe that you are capable of momentous things. And in working with old and young people alike, people vulnerable in so many different ways, it is this that has sustained us. Because social action is not as sexy as Year Here’s marketing makes it seem, and social action in Croydon or Poplar has none of the allure that’s packaged up with going abroad to some exotic place. It is a relentlessly hard road.
It is being surrounded by these people which has pushed us: to grow initiatives to allow young people in gangs a safe pocket of belonging in what seems to them a callous world and to break the invisible barriers between the homeless and the homed that our social structures create and perpetuate. It’s what’s driven us to take part in the early steps of redesigning our city, from the grassroots to the glass roofs of City Hall.
So what do we do, now? Afraid of making rent at the end of September, hopeful that our journey will lead us to some promised land, somewhere fulfilling and beautiful, and uncertain how the world around us will respond to our endeavour.
I can’t answer this question for anyone else, but I’m going to take the liberty of making a suggestion. Because we can control our interaction with those busy living beside us, we must claim responsibility for making the best of it.
My friend Mike is an extreme example but we are all, everywhere, holding our own burdens. We all have our own hopes, fears, petty jealousies and dreams of how our life could be. We’re wrapped up in these, often lost. So is everybody else. The man on the tube who smells of BO, the lady who scoffs as you wriggle onto the packed morning Northern line carriage, that kid playing Tinchy Stryder from his phone halfway along: they’re all part of our journey.
Solidarity is not an extravagance. We’ve built our society upon the transcendent ideal of human dignity. But it is an ideal we can only realise through compassion, patience and an attempt to understand those around us at any moment.
So fellow Fellows, and everyone else: go forth with a compassion that accepts everyone around you just as they are, in that moment, and smiles. Try hard to remember what it was like to look on the world as a child. And wonder.