Interview with Award winner Forward Maisokwadzo
Forward Maisokwadzo is the winner of the ENAR Foundation Award for a racism-free Europe in the category ‘individuals’. He works as development worker for City of Sanctuary in Bristol, United Kingdom and puts all his efforts into making Bristol proud to be a place of safety for people seeking sanctuary from war and persecution.
Tell me a little about yourself please: where are you from, where did you grow up, what did you study, and how did you get to work in this organization?
I’m a Zimbabwean now residing in Bristol, a city in the South West region of the UK. I grew up in Gutu, a district in Masvingo province, situated in the southern part of my homeland Zimbabwe. I studied Journalism at Harare Polytechnic in Zimbabwe, then at City University in London and at Bournemouth University. I became a Development Worker for Bristol City of Sanctuary merely by coincidence. I was among the first people involved in setting up a steering committee for the city of sanctuary group in Bristol. At a very early stage thanks to a small grant from the Bristol Legacy Commission, the group advertised a part-time job for Development Worker and I applied and was successful. In all honesty, I applied not because of wanting the job (remuneration wasn’t very attractive) but because I strongly value the principle of city of sanctuary (welcoming refugees and asylum seekers) after having spend two years working as Communications Officer for a journalism charity, the MediaWise Trust, which campaigns for a fair and accurate media representation of refugees. This was followed by another three years working as Coordinator for the Exiled Journalists Network – a groundbreaking organization set up to help journalists who have fled to the UK to escape persecution because of their media work.
What drives you to work in the anti-discrimination field? Is it a deep held belief of doing the right thing, a personal experience of being discriminated against, or something else?
What drives me is my deep Christian upbringing; I’m also a firm believer in social justice, equality and respect for all human kind. My everyday experience of working with vulnerable, marginalized and vilified people also inspires me to be active in the anti-discrimination field. I abhor discrimination in its totality. Above all, I’m always motivated by the wise words of two people:
The legendary Mahatma Gandhi: “An eye for eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”
And from the radical propagandist and voice of the common man, Thomas Paine: “The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”
What did the prize mean for you personally? How did you feel when you heard that you were one of our winners?
I was thrilled and at the same time humbled to realize that I was selected. It is difficult to describe what I felt then. I was inspired and motivated to hear that some of the work I’m involved in is recognized across Europe.
What makes your organization and work special?
It is a grassroots movement, inclusive, and above all city-wide. And it’s not authoritarian; nobody forces anybody to do something. Rather, it provides an opportunity for individuals or organizations wanting to work together to do it in a free way. It brings people or organizations together irrespective of their race, faith, gender, age, sex, disability, etc. to promote social cohesion, standing for justice and honoring all life.
How difficult was it to actually build this city-wide support in Bristol?
It was a marathon race and a difficult journey, but quite an exciting challenge. It involved raising issues about minority communities, particularly sanctuary seekers (people fleeing from war and persecution). My work involved a lot of networking, going to different companies, churches, schools, and meeting many people from ordinary citizens to CEOs. It also involved building a team dedicated to the cause. It was difficult, and we did not anticipate so much support, but were driven by the knowledge that we were doing the right thing. We were also lucky to find some sympathetic ears, though in all fairness there were some people who resented our campaign probably due to ignorance since they were simply not aware of the issues we were talking about. We saw this as an opportunity to engage with them and provide them with more information. A good thing about our initiative is that it does not impose on people, but rather gives them an opportunity to react in their own way. The result was encouraging because many people wanted to support us. So building support is a long and difficult process. We are now entering a second stage of the initiative, where we have to make the project meaningful, and for that we have to go back and talk to all the organizations that pledged their support. We convinced them to do this by explaining our project and asking their executives to sign a petition which only stated that their company supports our initiative, without committing anything.
How long did this process take and when did you start?
We held our first public meeting at the Pierian Centre in October 2008. Over 50 people attended and many others expressed their interest to get involved because they all agreed that the initiative had immeasurable benefits to the city of Bristol. From that meeting a group of about 20 committed people (including those with refugee backgrounds) began to meet and talk about how to take things forward. The work began in full swing in June 2009 when I was appointed part-time Development Worker. Next year, on November 16th 2010, Bristol City Council voted to give their support to the City of Sanctuary movement. In doing so, the Council agreed to adopt the following statement: “This Council recognizes the contribution of asylum seekers and refugees to the City of Bristol and is committed to welcoming and including them in our activities. The council also recognizes that a comprehensive, co-ordinated and forward-looking approach is needed if City of Sanctuary, the welfare of people moving in to the city, and community cohesion between new and existing communities are to be supported effectively. The Council endorses Bristol’s status as a City of Sanctuary and will work to implement the City of Sanctuary pledges through its Community Cohesion Strategy 2010-13.”
By then we already had over 120 organizations across all sectors and over 700 individuals who pledged their support to our initiative. Then, on March 2nd 2011 at the City of Sanctuary National Network meeting in Nottingham, 32 people from 10 cities voted unanimously in favor of Bristol being recognized as a City of Sanctuary. Finally, on June 22nd this year Bristol will celebrate its new status as a place which welcomes refugees and asylum seekers, offers them a safe place to live, and values their contribution. This event marks the beginning of the next phase of Bristol as a City of Sanctuary; it will be a Call to Action, aiming to raise awareness and provoke actions from the citizens of Bristol that make explicit the support – both emotional and practical – that we offer as a city.
What are the other difficulties you face in your work?
Providing a voice and empower victims of discrimination is a challenge in itself. But change happens gradually: it is not a short sharp sprint but a marathon race. My experience tells me that building relationships and being persistent pays off.
Two other main difficulties are lack of funding and the fact that refugees and asylum seekers are sometimes used as scapegoats, especially by the tabloid media. The result is that the negativity associated with refugees and asylum seekers makes some people uncomfortable to support the initiative. In all honesty, for certain parts of the media it sometimes seems as if seeking asylum is tantamount to committing a crime. Furthermore, during the UK’s May 2010 general elections immigration was high on the public agenda and, unfortunately, our movement became a victim of political campaigns. Within certain political quarters there were even attempts to use it as “political football”. It is against this background that we had to operate, but we continued to emphasize the importance of listening and welcoming diverse views.
How do you believe the ENAR Foundation’s award will help you overcome some of these difficulties?
Firstly, the award is important because it further demonstrates that the work I’m doing really matters. Secondly, it will be helpful because we will use it to cover some of the expenses involved in running the initiative. Thirdly, the prize came at a very good time as we had just finished the first stage of achieving recognition. But we have a lot of work to do to make this recognition meaningful and to fight against stereotypes. Change does not come overnight. We will continue to raise awareness especially among those still skeptical about our initiative. We will listen to their views and try to find solutions that benefit the whole of society. Part of the work will also focus on young people, “our leaders of today and tomorrow”, by mobilizing support and resources for the “Schools of Sanctuary” initiative based on lessons learned from the city of Leeds. In this way we will help young people to become better informed about issues and make better decisions in their future communities.
Was there anyone in particular who was/is the “driving force” behind the organization’s creation?
Yes! Its founder is Inderjit Singh Bhogal, a leading Theologian and Methodist minister who is currently working as Leader of the Corrymeela Community. Between 2005 and 2011 Inderjit was CEO of the Yorkshire and Humber Faiths Forum. He is a former President of the Methodist Conference. You can visit his website
Some would argue that an anti-immigration feeling has been growing in Europe in the past few years, especially since the economic crisis. Do you see this in your work?
This is a challenge we have to accept as a movement. We initially had to postpone the council vote on our initiative in February 2010 because it coincided with a general election period when the “political temperature” was so high that we found ourselves on the receiving end of the political debate. The environment has also been worsened by economic problems because people think more about bread-and-butter issues. But we have to continue our campaign and find ways to address these challenges.
What message would you send to those with opposing views?
The fundamental issue here is that we are dealing with human beings, and we all have to treat every human being with dignity and respect. Everybody who respects human rights should respect people who are seeking sanctuary, and it is part of the responsibility of any government in any place to take measures to protect those who need protection. We are talking about refugees here, people who have been uprooted and forced to leave their homes because of very difficult circumstances. You cannot talk about this if you have insufficient information about their plight. Apart from this, we live in a globalised world and the contribution of migrant communities is enormous wherever they go, from both a socio-economic and cultural perspective. I would argue that we especially need to do more to highlight the economic benefits of immigration. In any case, I am of the belief that in spite of any divergent views, we must all sit down with each other and discuss issues amicably. Listening is an essential part of this process.
Finally, based on your work, what message would you send (1) to people who are being discriminated against, and (2) to the wider society as a whole?
To victims of discrimination I would say: “Don’t feel discouraged, disheartened, and don’t suffer in isolation. Build network and seek opportunities where your voice can be heard. It is through standing against some of these bad practices that we’ll have a respectful society where everybody is treated equally. Faith communities are also generally a place where one can start to build a support base to fight against discrimination”. To the wider society I would say: “Treat with a pinch of salt what you watch on TV or read in the press. I’m afraid that media reports are not always fair and accurate, although they play an important role in raising awareness and expanding your knowledge. More importantly, you have to try and learn to listen and accept diverse views on some issues. Finally, try to accommodate the vulnerable and marginalized in your communities because equality and anti-discrimination have immeasurable benefits to the whole of society”.
Interview conducted by Victor Popa