A warm gesture on a frosty February day
Roiling sheets of pewter buffet the stoney shore, throwing brine and pebbles cascading onto the concrete groynes, half visible in the mist. The waves are causing an earth-shuddering clamour, which I can hear all the way from the visitor centre, some four or five metres away. It's not a blustery day, but the beach on this side of the headland is affronted by these breeze-born behemoths no less.
Turning the corner into the Estuary, the sky is holding its breath - it's suddenly like walking in space. Not a wisp stirs on the mouth, now a pool of liquid silver, rippling only where a Black-headed Gull skids its surface, or a Sandpiper brushes its beak along the silken edge. I start to skip back to BC and believe the world is flat again, the water is so achingly smooth and tranquil.
I pass the chic kerfuffle of beach huts, colourful wooden frames painted as if they featured in the world of Balamory, and march on across the sandy banks. Opposite, Iford Spit hosts a herd of grazing horses and a flock of white wetland birds, too far to pick out, probably more gulls. Christchurch Parish peaks out above the canopy line, dapple stone fading into dapple sky.
And as I continue on, it is here, nestled in this sheltered nook of the Christchurch Estuary, I spy Southbourne Canoe Club.
Why am I seeking it out on this frosty February day? During the balmier months, the club has been welcoming members of the local refugee populace into its sessions and I’m here to see where the welcome takes place. The water is inviting, even on this chilly day in winter. And since the water is welcoming in this sheltered space on the Estuary, Southbourne Canoe Club are welcoming too. In 2016, its oar’s were thrown open in a warm gesture to the refugees in the community.
Christie Murphy, who put forward the idea has been a member of the club since 2011 and acts informally as the groups’ Communications Officer. Her interest in welcoming refugee citizens to the club was inspired by her work teaching ESOL classes through the local refugee and asylum- seeker charity, the International Care Network.
She tells me of her delight and surprise when the club agreed to offer free memberships to local refugees. “I asked at the AGM, thinking maybe one free membership per year, but they immediately said three memberships per year” The enthusiasm is perhaps not surprising when you see the way the club genially invites new members through its online presence. Turn to the FAQS and the first question 'Do you welcome new members?’ brightly exclaims; “Of course! We are always keen to see new faces. A vibrant club is reliant on new people coming in and joining in with the fun and games, bringing new ideas and energy.”
“Of course! We are always keen to see new faces. A vibrant club is reliant on new people coming in and joining in with the fun and games, bringing new ideas and energy.”
And she has some inspiring stories to share about the refugees who joined their paddles.
“He had a real fear of the water,” Christie explains about a father who brought his two children to the club. The children of about twelve years old were excited to learn to paddle and took to the water quickly, but explains Christie, the father had a previous scary experience in water. “The club aims to help people have a great time on the water and do as much as you’re capable of doing,” says Christie, “and in the end he did overcome his fear.”
Christie’s immediate connection to the refugee members through her work meant that she was in a good position to do the bridge-building between the British canoe-ers/kayakers and the new members.
“British people can be a little shy and sometimes it’s easier to ignore others when there’s a language barrier, rather than try to overcome it,” she observes, noting that she did witness conversation and cooperation, while acknowledging that there could be ways to encourage and facilitate this further within clubs.
“But sometimes it’s not entirely easy to break through the reserve,”
“But sometimes it’s not entirely easy to break through the reserve,” she then says, expressing how the refugee members were sometimes shy as well, “It could be their most intensive contact with English people.” She suggests that clubs could appoint another member as a ‘first friend’ - someone who can mentor and look out for the new refugee member, as well as build bridges with others in the club. Another idea she puts forward is that welcoming speakers of the same language, it can help make new members feel at ease.
Overcoming the barriers
To be a member of the club and join the regular Thursday evening paddle sessions throughout summer, members are required to have the British Canoeing 1 Star Award to demonstrate their ability and confidence on the water. The new members were all offered training by their dedicated volunteer trainers to match this requirement and obtain the necessary experience in the water.
Christie offers another tip on this point. During training, language barriers can best be handled in one-to-one sessions. Refugee members could benefit from this independent instruction, providing far more constructive opportunities to learn than might be found in group sessions where trainers are unable to attend to unique language and other needs so easily.
Other considerations that Christie suggests clubs might need to address include difficulty traveling to the club meeting point, language barriers when training and the transient nature of living in an area and then moving on to another place to settle when a job opportunity presents itself. “For one refugee coming to the club, ICN were able to arrange lifts with another member who lived nearby in the area - they paid their membership.” In this instance, a local refugee charity were able to lend financial support and arrange with the member who was resident close to the refugee's home, but other ways of ensuring transportation is accessible could be possible - some clubs might already be in places easier to travel to, while others might be able to organise car-pooling or shared taxis to and from the destination.
“As much benefit flows the other way.”
For one refugee from Afghanistan, her biggest challenge before she could start her canoe training, was to learn to swim. But here came a whole separate hurdle. “It would be culturally inappropriate for her to learn to swim in public swimming pools,” Christie explained, so she set about finding a private pool for her to practice at. In this way, Christie explains that the key to a successful welcome is about understanding and catering to the different needs of members from the refugee community.
A young Eritrean boy who joined the paddle sessions really enjoyed his time with the club and thrived in the water, “It gave him confidence and he had a lot of fun.”
Christie tells me how inviting the refugee members into the club was a reciprocal exercise, helping refugees in the area to feel part of the community, but equally giving British members an insight into the lives of refugees and other cultures and an opportunity to build new friendships, “As much benefit flows the other way.”