Meeting Lofa

Lofa's office in EYST, Swansea, Wales, 2017.Rosemary (R.) Lofa –
so great to see you here in Swansea. We have a small window of opportunity,
both for you to talk about yourself and your line of work which is so special,
and then to tell us a bit about what impact, if any, the Team Syntegrity had on
your life. But tell me, originally, you are from Bangladesh?

Luthfur Ullah (Lofa):
My family is from Bangladesh. I was born here. But my grandparents came over to
Leeds during the war because there was a shortage of labour. They settled in Leeds
and Bradford originally.  My grandparents
worked in the factories: my father did the same. But when I was one year old,
my family moved to Swansea. They had a friend here and this is a really lovely
part of the world ­ – they really liked it. Thirty-seven years later, here we
still are!

But I am very busy nevertheless: I have five children – 20,
18, 10, six, five – and two partners – though not at once! So it’s all a bit
hectic.

R: You don’t have to
explain…

Lofa: My oldest
son is in Cardiff University studying finance and marketing and it’s hard work
with them all but I wouldn’t have it any other way. They take me for a mug of
course and my daughters have me wrapped around their little fingers.

My name is actually a particularly patriotic Bangladeshi name,
meaning ‘the kindest’ – but it was so difficult to pronounce, by the age of
five or six, even my sisters called me Lofa – and everyone calls me that. I’m
comfortable with it.

R: You were saying
that since the Team Syntegrity event in Barcelona last June you have been
incredibly busy…

Lofa: There was
so much backlog, I didn’t realise how much my project, the family link work –
has exploded. Family Link is helping families within Swansea County engage with
services, welfare advice, whatever support they need. It may be on mental
health, domestic violence, honour-based violence – all of these things with a
BME focus. We are the lead body now on ‘race ‘ in Wales. So we enforce policy,
conduct research into the engagement of BME communities with social services
and education, integration into the community, how they feel after Brexit and
all that cohesion stuff.

This is my new office which we have built and my colleague Shahab
and myself are based here now. This week, for example, we have six emergency
cases that we are dealing with. It has been like that for months. Tomorrow I am
delivering an immigration package to Clearsprings which is a housing provider
specifically contracted to provide housing for asylum seekers. They need to be
educated now into what to expect and what cultural practises they need to
understand. There have been situations where support workers or housing
caseworkers would be going into the home and not appreciating certain
etiquettes – it could be something small like expecting women to answer the
door. Not knowing how to engage. I have been doing a lot of immigration and
asylum training recently – three courses in schools since Barcelona.

You would think that schools would be more aware than most:
but they are not. I had a primary school recently and a couple of Syrian refugee
families had moved into the area. The teachers didn’t know the difference
between an immigrant and an emigrant or how to speak to them at all. But once
the training starts we have a relationship with that school and they often
bring us back to do refresher sessions. And of course we talk to the pupils. We
follow up to see how the families are settling in and in this case they are
getting on well, and it’s all fine. We have a couple of comprehensive schools
where we go in once every two or three weeks to speak to different classes.

At two o’clock, we have four young people coming in. They attend
the Rathbone  Work-based Learning Programme
and we deliver immigration and asylum training, racism and Islamophobia
training as part of that. They do 16 hours a week apprenticeships preparing
them for work.  They are young people who
haven’t done terribly well at school. They might have issues at home. Some of
them have gone through horrific stuff. They aren’t going onto college and they
have fallen through the net. These programmes are designed to give them skills
like customer service. Some go on to further education. Hopefully we might have
changed some views there. In the beginning they were rather ignorant about the
current situation. You’ll meet them and find out for yourselves.

They may hold negative views about other communities. You
can understand where the anger is coming from. And when the media carry the
sorts of headlines we so often see, they don’t think to question those hostile
narratives.  But they are lovely kids!
I’ve been talking to them about how Germany has taken so many immigrants and
asylum seekers and Britain has taken so few in comparison.

That didn’t hit home until I showed them a video called ‘Let
me in’ – Alicia Keys. I love her. She’s a singer and she made this video which
portrayed a reverse situation, where Americans were suffering under war conditions
and many flee to Mexico to seek refuge and the Mexicans let them in! Then that
got them thinking. In the news it is always people of colour and people less
well off suffering like this and somehow that helps them become desensitised to
the situations we are talking about. So I showed them that, and you could have
heard a pin drop. Some of them were crying. Now, to get that reaction… when
they see it could be us, perceptions change.

Before that they were saying, “No they can’t come here, they
should go somewhere else.”  So you say,
”Where would you like them to go?” They say, “Why can’t they stay in the refugee
camps?” You say, “Well a lot of them do. 
The largest camp was until recently in Kenya and now it’s in Bangladesh,
my home country… because of the Rohingyas – 800 thousand of them, that has shot
up in a few months!  But in the Kenyan
camp there are second generation and third generation refugees.” I said, “Can
you imagine somebody being in there on a permanently temporary basis? It’s
hopeless.” It opened their eyes a bit I hope.

So you’ll meet Andrew Penhale, who is their tutor. He’s a
lovely guy. We work together quite often.

R. Great. Thank you so
much for setting that up! Can I just ask you, when you work with Syrian
families isn’t there a massive language problem?

Lofa: Yes, of
course. I don’t speak Arabic. I have a few phrases for a low level conversation,
and because I’m at home with those, my few phrases are enough to make them
immediately comfortable. But you met Moossa here
just now who is one of my young people, and he speaks Arabic. I have a couple
of these volunteers – lovely boys, Qatab, Hassan – they come in to sit with me
and the Syrian families to help translate. Qatab is a young person on my
Progression Project, my second project, which is all about getting young people
trained and educated into volunteering, work or further education. I will
facilitate that by getting them work placements or volunteering opportunities.
I have a couple of Employment Champions now – someone who has gone into
volunteering or work and who is in a position to give something back to help
their peers. Qatab is a young man who came here from Iraq just over two years
ago.  When he came he had very little
English, but now he is doing level one in Youth Work and goes to college in
Llanelli. He speaks fluent English, but he comes back to me as an Employment
Champion on our Progression Project, and also goes to help the Syrian asylum
workers with translating for their families. It’s rather amazing.

Lofa as one of five critics in a Team Syntegrity discussion, June 2017.R. Now we have a
better idea, perhaps you could tell me a little more about your
experience of working with the other participants in the Team
Syntegrity non-hierarchical conference for three and a half days… 

Lofa: Well the
first thing to say is that I came back from Barcelona inspired. I thought, no,
I want to educate myself. I’ve always been on about personal development, but
since I came back, Shahab, my
colleague and myself have both signed up now for a Masters in youth and
community work. After work here every Monday, we go to Cardiff, study until
9.30pm and then back home. My first two assignments, 6,000 words, have to be in
at more or less the same time!

R. Well gosh. If I can
help – I’ll do a bit of editing any time! How interesting. Are you enjoying it?

Lofa: It’s really
good. You know what. It is making me question my own practises at work. I’ve
never really thought about the theory behind what I do before. It just comes
naturally. But now I’m thinking about it and there is one whole section on
developing relationships and reflexive
practise which has really got me thinking. I had one client who said
something to me that I didn’t really like, and now I find myself replaying all
our conversations in my mind and asking myself how we got to the situation where
he would say that to me… now I can apply a theory to it. And I think, my God! I’m
really enjoying it and it’s all your fault!

R: Did you feel you
had a chance to share your experience with the other Team Syntegrity participants
in Barcelona?

Lofa: I made some
fabulous friends, Vanessa, Rebecca – we were joined at the hip, Joan Pedro,
Dafydd – Joan Pedro and me ended up talking all night, so yes they got to know
me and quite a lot about my perceptions and my work. Definitely. I wondered if
some of the participants who were academics found it more difficult to gather
what someone who was not so academic was on about.  I’m grass roots and I do think sometimes that
people in academia live in some sort of bubble.

R. Joan Pedro was
quite articulate about the need to break down those class barriers wasn’t he? I
think that was one of his chief learnings from the event: or perhaps he has
always thought that way and our three-day event just confirmed it?

Lofa:  Yes, that’s right. I didn’t feel
uncomfortable.  But at times, I felt a
bit of a dunce – and asked myself what I was doing there? I was aware that –
wow – some of these people were so intelligent that you could have built
spaceships in there if you’d wanted to! But actually they made me feel so
welcome. And if you asked questions, they would explain. It’s just the way it
is – people come from totally different backgrounds and those differences have
to be negotiated. 

R: And it doesn’t seem
to have put you off academe…

Lofa: No, I
wanted to learn more.  This is what I’m
reading now: I’ve always been interested in politics…

R: “Britain and France
and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East“…

Lofa: And here’s
another of my favourites, Noam Chomsky. You know, I’ve always had a passion for
reading but never had the time. And now I am taking a bit more time for my
education.

R. You were in two Team
Syntegrity discussions as a discussant responsible for the outcomes –  was one on global citizenship and one on the
rise of the far right?

Lofa: That’s
right. On that last one, I did get to see a different viewpoint. What I
experience of the far right in my work is quite negative. The far right has a
bit of a stronghold of activism here in Swansea, so our projects are all about
challenging it, alongside challenging Islamic extremism and challenging
exploitation.

The far right discussion at Team Syntegrity, Barcelona, June 2017.But in that discussion, as well as sharing my views and
perspectives, I got to thinking that the far right are not that way just
because it is the way they are. Maybe their environment contributes to the
choices they make. It was Wiebke from Hamburg who made some really good
arguments on this. I was really impressed by her. But to be honest, if you ask
me – they were all amazing – my
fellow participants – they were all amazing! 
She broadened my view on the whole issue of how we might set about
eliminating racism. I don’t know if we will ever manage it, because it isn’t confined
to any one grouping, of white people, for example. There are plenty of people
of colour, take India, plenty who think they are superior to others because
they have lighter coloured skins… so it’s a very widespread phenomenon all over
the world. But she has got me thinking about the many different reasons why
people start thinking that way.

Global citizenship – that was such a hard topic, because
it’s on such a scale. I am a member of the Welsh Alliance for Global Education
and Citizenship, although I’ve missed the last two meetings just because of
being too busy. We deliver global citizenship education in the schools here as
part of ‘personal and social education’ (PSE),
and it is not taken very seriously.

I know they are trying to embed it as part of the national
curriculum here – and the Donaldson Report highlighted the need for
mainstreaming aspects of global citizenship into every subject. They are
looking to do that, but it’s not easy to do.  My fellow-participant in that discussion, Markha
– another lovely woman – wanted to put her ideas over and I wanted to do the
same. But we weren’t connecting.  She is
brilliant though and I do like her grand vision!  I like her plans. But I felt her programme in
world scholarships was far too ambitious and that we need to start with baby
steps, something that anybody could do and be a part of and feel a part of !

So since I have come back, I took a particular interest in
the youth exchange that we had arranged with quite a mixed group of 25 people
from Molenbeek in Belgium, the community that acquired notoriety recently in connection
with terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. They came for a week, and it was
very interesting! Here, they met Iraqi and Syrian asylum seekers, kids from the
Bangladeshi community and from the white mainstream. Unfortunately the kids
with more rightwing views don’t access our shelter as much as we’d like them to…
I don’t know why. If they came more often, I think they’d be blown away by some
of these things that are going on here.

When they get together they actually get along – we have had
football matches and so on! These are the small steps – just getting people
together to do anything, football every Thursday, beauty parlours for the
girls-only drop-in centre attended by Asian, Muslim, Syrian and Welsh girls. That
is what most interests me. And on a global level, I wouldn’t try and get them
to study because everyone everywhere is on very different educational levels –
but if we could just meet! Take people from the north and south of India! Just
hang out and chill out and talk to each other. Never mind bringing the
Europeans over at this stage.  Just
meeting would be a good start!

Market-place of ideas, Team Syntegrity, June 2017.

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