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Stories from our Community: Nathalie 

Nathalie Jaifar is Kurdish and French and moved to Bristol when she was 8 years old. Previously a trustee of Refugee Women of Bristol, Nathalie is now a trustee of Bristol City of Sanctuary.  She currently works for the Refugee Resettlement Scheme in Bristol City Council and has supported resettled families from the Middle East and Africa as well as Afghanistan and now Ukraine. 

 We had the chance to speak to Nathalie about her experience of welcome, her opinions on Bristol, and her ideas of what we could do to improve welcome in the city.  

Nathalie’s experience of ‘welcome’. 

In nature, if we think of a garden with only one type of plant, this may initially seem straightforward. However, eventually, the soil will be depleted, and the environment impoverished, whereas a healthy garden has diverse plants which flourish alongside each other; every plant has its value in the ecosystem. That is how I feel about cities: a healthy city is a diverse city. When people from diverse cultures settle here, with them comes increased richness and possibility.

When I arrived here as a child, I didn’t speak the language. We had been separated from the rest of my family when we lived in France so upon arriving here, we were reconnected with my family from Iraqi Kurdistan while simultaneously coping with the loss of previous chapters of my life: loss of friends, my home and the city where I had been born and knew. I was also encountering this new city, a new language and a new school and facing the challenges that come with adjusting to these.  

It is these experiences both from my own childhood and from what I witnessed within my family that have led me to explore the themes of identity, belonging and displacement and to the work I do today.

The first challenge for those seeking sanctuary who arrive here is being uprooted. If you go back to thinking about our garden, imagine digging up a plant from one place and moving it to another and think about the stress this causes. Once replanted, even in the same garden, the plant needs time to adjust. Unfortunately, the immigration system is the first service you encounter, and it is hostile.

When I think back to those early years and the process of “rebuilding a life”, I reflect on the fact that adapting goes both ways. Ideas about ‘integration’ place all of the responsibility on the person seeking sanctuary, but, in fact, a sense of community, belonging, and acceptance are processes that all parties must adapt to accommodate.  

What determines where someone belongs: is it where we were born? Where our parents are from? Or what our religion is? The notion of only belonging somewhere is changing. As Amin Maalouf says: ‘The identity cannot be compartmentalised… I do not have several identities, I only have one, made of all the elements that have shaped its unique proportions’.  

I don’t like to assign my identity to artificial borders, and I like to think we are all made up of lots of ingredients. If we look at the Earth as a whole, we can see it is all one land and one humanity. That is my vision. At the same time, my reality is that my exact location is Bristol, and feeling a sense of belonging where we are at any point in time is important. I like to think that the diversity of Bristol can represent the whole earth on a reduced scale. 

 Bristol – the best bits, how things have changed and what more could be done.   

When I arrived in Bristol, there weren’t any other people from Kurdistan and not many people knew where it was. Today that is very different. Bristol has changed a lot over the years. Now we can encounter the whole world in our city. All the colours and tastes are here. Then, even finding certain foods was difficult; I have memories that it was problematic for my parents to find coffee.

Now when I am asked “where are you from”,  as is the same for the children from refugee families born here, it would be odd not to say, “from Bristol”. Now, I have lived here longer than anywhere else. I grew up here. I had my children here.  

I like the hills; I don’t think I could live in a flat city now. I like the green spaces and the easy access to the countryside. I like that we are not a very long drive away from the mountains in Wales. Mostly, I feel that Bristol is a place where new arrivals including those seeking sanctuary can feel accepted. That is very important to me. 

A lot of progress has been made in that respect however, there is always more that could be done. At a grassroots level, there is welcome, but a lot of this is goodwill: someone going above and beyond in their role. It is important that organisations such as businesses and healthcare settings also work with people seeking sanctuary in a systemic way. We need systemic inclusivity in the city’s institutions and services and, critically, in policy. And since 2010, that has been our unique role at Bristol City of Sanctuary – to embed this kind of long-term culture change, by supporting organisations across the city to take practical actions of welcome, recognised by our Sanctuary Awards.

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