Last year I stood at the back of a church where people had gathered together to talk about peace. But not peace in the abstract fluffy way that we often talk about in churches.
This was a group of people who all shared a similar story; they had all fled the violent conflict happening in their home of South Sudan and had sought refuge in the UK. They shared their stories of home with each other, debated on how to achieve justice, reconciliation, peace and unity for all South Sudanese people.
We wept and prayed together.
I met a guy called Opiny there, he’s in his late 20s and runs his own hair salon in the midlands. He left South Sudan on his own when he was just a boy.
I asked him to share his story with me. I was expecting him to talk about how difficult his journey was, how he misses his country, how hard the conflict was. I’m sure those things are part of his story, but those are not the things he wanted to define him. His response challenged my assumption of what a ‘refugee story’ sounded like.
He told me: “My story? I’m a refugee and a dual citizen. But I’m a human. I want every passport. I don’t get the division – like even looking at history, the world split up and the oceans opened and everything like that. I’m a bit of a physicist at heart, time space and continuum, you know what I mean. Being a human is what we are. That is our identity. It’s not South Sudanese, it’s not English, it’s not British or whatever. It’s just human. There is nothing else. War is bad, end of story.”
I should have known that his story wouldn’t be so different to mine. We’re both human. We both want to live in a peaceful world.
It was a powerful reminder that people are infinitely more than the labels we give them. ‘A refugee’ is not where the story stops for the person behind that label.
Gathered in that church in South London I witnessed another group of people whose stories go beyond their status as refugees. We shared stories about our childhoods, about our families, the jobs we do willingly and the jobs we do reluctantly, about politics, about our faith in a God who is bigger than conflict and in whom we find a shared story. A story of love that has no boundaries. A love that doesn’t require a passport to access.
There’s a narrative about refugees in the UK at the moment that is dividing people. It’s a narrative fuelled by fear and hate. It’s a narrative that we need to change, and we can only do that when we listen to each others stories and commit to telling a different story.
There are more stories from this group of South Sudanese diaspora here.