Hay 2019: Onjali Q Rauf

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Some people are blessed with the art of speaking to an audience and making each person feel that they are being addressed directly. Such was my experience earlier this week when I was lucky enough to hear Onjali Q Rauf speak about ‘REFUGEES: REALITY, REPRESENTATION AND REACTION’.

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Onjali’s warmth and passion captivated the whole audience as she spoke with great sincerity about her experiences and the people she had met whilst working to support refugees. She started by explaining how at the age of seven, she had heard Michael Jackson’s ‘Change’. Having declared herself a feminist a week later, she realised that change starts with the individual and their actions. By the time she was a teenager, she had become an activist and was taking part in anti-war marches and wanted to find out about ‘change-makers’, particularly women.

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Irritated by newspaper headlines which put such a negative slant on refugees by their use of language and mis-information, Onjali spoke passionately of how this narrative had been shattered by the story of Alan Kurdi, the little Syrian boy whose image made world-wide headlines after he drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. Although this was too short lived, it changed the way things were reported for a short while. Highlighting the differences between ‘refugee’ and ‘immigrant’ and ‘camping’ as a recreational activity and a refugee camp, Onjali shared heart-breaking stories about individuals and families she had met and explained how they had influenced her book, ‘The Boy at the Back of the Class’.

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Peppered with her vivacious humour, Onjali’s talk was one of the most compelling and moving sessions I have ever attended. Twice, I found myself in tears as the compassion and humanity she spoke with brought to life individuals she has helped to support whilst visiting the camps in Calais. Finishing by looking at how refugees have enriched our lives, I am sure this remarkable woman touched the heart of every member of the audience and made each and everyone of us think carefully about how we can make a change.

You can read our review of ‘The Boy at the Back of the Class’ here.