Because, I would suggest, there is actually, sadly, nothing very new about social distancing: what has changed is we are being asked, potentially, to keep our distance from our own communities: but invisible walls, in society and in ourselves, have long created social-distancing from those we identify as "the other": and with it the fear and distrust that is inherent in the unknown.
Just as now there is lots of discussion about creatively overcoming the barriers posed by physical distance from our loved ones, to ensure relationship is maintained; perhaps it is also a good moment to reflect on how we overcome the unseen divides that keep us from understanding the lives of our neighbours. Perhaps it makes sense to reflect on it here, because it is at the very heart of what the Stories of Hope and Home project aims to achieve.
The quality time we have been spending together as a group, getting to know one another and building community together could be a valid end in itself. All of us need to know there are communities who care about us and support us, the more so when we are going through trauma and have been torn away from family, friends and familiarity. Within our group we are already crossing boundaries of age, gender, culture, and faith to build a cohesive community.
But Stories of Hope and Home was not set up to only be that, important though it is: there was always another aspect to the project. It was always about reaching out, sharing stories, enabling encounter, challenging fear of difference. Like the first, this part of the project too feels like it is growing and bearing fruit.
A core aim of the project is to reach those in educational settings and help them to learn about the realities faced by asylum seekers and refugees. We really believe nothing has the power to do that more effectively than personal encounters with real people and true stories told by those who are living them. In these points of meeting, we discover something of our common humanity, and it is this which has the power to be truly transformative.
Fifteen of our project participants have already taken their stories out into schools and colleges. They have shared their stories with courage and grace, with the occasional tears and with plenty of laughter.
It has been a real privilege to have been invited into such a wide variety of different educational settings. We have spoken to large gathered groups in assembly halls and encountered small groups for in depth conversations. We have spoken to five-year-olds just beginning their journey in education, and 18-year-olds who are almost ready to leave school. We have visited faith schools and secular ones, state and independent, alternative provision for young people who have struggled in mainstream settings, and special education for those with additional learning needs. A quick tally suggests somewhere in the region of 500 children and young people have engaged and shared in this part of the project: and we believe it is a very good thing! We hope that every story shared, every human encounter established, is one step towards creating a more coherent, compassionate society.
While we can't define and list the concrete outcomes of these encounters because, well, we don't know what they are, we remain convinced that there is a great inherent value in facilitating these points of meeting and that allowing these stories to be heard benefits both the speakers and the listeners.
If one of those children thinks again about something they hear, one of those young people dares to challenge a misconception they hear from a peer or parent, we have done something worthwhile, if one more smile is shared, one more hand extended in welcome, one more campaign action taken, we have, in our own small way, helped to change the world for the better.
We are pleased with how the project is going, there is much, much more still to be done. Onwards!