Not quite the same story…

Nine years ago, I left my family, my friends and my work in India. There were teary goodbyes, farewell gifts, and large suitcases full of poignant, if useless, reminders of ‘home’. There was nervous excitement, a touch of melancholy, and the overwhelming promise of a new life ahead. A different life, one where I’d need to adapt, where I’d absorb new cultures, evolve a new identity and reinvent the ‘me’ I’d been living for years.

A few weeks ago, Aylan’s family left their home, their friends and their lives in Syria. There may have been teary goodbyes, but I doubt anyone was thinking of gifts. If they did have the room to bring things along, they would most likely have been utilitarian, practical things; things likely to improve their chances of survival away from the destroyed homes they were only too eager to leave. I can only imagine their nervousness, a touch of desperation, and the overpowering hope that life lay ahead. Life. Not ‘a better life’, or ‘a new life’. Just life, as opposed to the constant threat of death they’d been living with for years.

About ten days ago, probably around the same time as Aylan’s family was waiting for the boat that was meant to carry them to their new chance at life, I was waiting too. While they waited, with countless others, on a beach, I waited in the reception room of a beautifully appointed stately old home. While they probably handed over large sums of money to be squeezed up against hundreds of their compatriots in a rickety boat, I simply handed over a piece of paper that I had received in the post, was greeted with effusive smiles and invited to partake of refreshments while I waited, along with people of six other nationalities, to be greeted by officials from my local council.

IMG_3449I remember swallowing a lump in my throat as, with a few simple words, I renounced my citizenship to one country and received the rights to another, to the sound of applause. And now I am haunted by the thought of them, gasping with fear each time their boat was hit by a swelling wave. Each time they saw an official looking boat patrolling the waters.

My journey ended, in one sense, as a little red booklet arrived by messenger. Of course, this is the start of a lifetime of journeys, as the proud bearer of ‘one of the world’s most powerful passports’.

And Aylan’s journey? Well, we don’t need to see that photo again to remind us that he didn’t make it. Not him. Not his brother. Not their mother. Not the hundreds of others who brave the same perilous route to escape their realities in search of life, in a bid to stay alive.

Me, I’m a migrant. A well-integrated, settled one, fortunate to have a home and friends and rights in more than one country, including the right to espouse what one MP has called a ‘pathetic, trendy left-wing view‘ of compassion towards my fellow human beings. Armed with my new passport I can travel at will, including back to a welcoming home country.

Families like those of Aylan? They are refugees. People whose situation in one country was so perilous that their lives literally depended on making it across a border. Their reality is that it is too dangerous for them to return home. Denying them asylum can mean the difference between life and death.

There’s a difference. And it matters.

For now, all I can do is show my support, show that I’m one of those who believe refugees should feel welcome in the UK, and use my newly strengthened voice as a citizen to call on my MP to ‘End the Calais Crisis’.

If you live in the UK too, please will you sign? Several lives do depend on it.

#RefugeesWelcome

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How Snapchat works the 3As: and why I can’t wait to see it used more!

Before I begin rhapsodizing about Snapchat, let me say upfront: it’s not about the sexting. Though I can see why that would be the most popular – or most obvious? – use of the app, I’m fascinated by how much more it could do. As a communications professional, I’ve been intrigued by the possibilities offered by Snapchat and been wondering how the power of the fast-growing network could be harnessed better for causes.

Image courtesy FT.com

But most of all, I’ve been struck by how well Snapchat works the three As framework I’ve mentioned before:

Authenticity: With no ‘liking’, sharing or commenting, Snapchat users are no slaves to statistics. No metrics judge the merits of each post or each profile, which means users can be who they are, say what they think, and share what they like without constantly measuring their popularity by their notifications. The fact that the images don’t last forever gives users further freedom: to share how they feel ‘in the moment’ without worrying about where the image will show up. Yes, that relative anonymity may encourage over-sharing, but at least there are fewer consequences, whether they be awkward dinner-table conversations with parents, or job applications being rejected because of that time they were tagged in a questionable photo/mentioned in a scurrilous tweet.

Audiences: At its core, the app allows users to share image updates with ‘their friends’ – either individually, or in groups they select. Naturally, this means each Snap is expressly designed to appeal to the audience. Subsequent add-ons, like the Discover feature, allow users to access curated content which means they are pulling content according to their own choices; much like your Twitter/FB newsfeeds start to reflect editorial preferences, putting the audience in charge of what makes the front page.

Audacity: Ok, so this is self-explanatory! Nothing encourages #NoFilter audacity like a combination of consequence-free communications to controlled audiences and the (relative) privacy of the app. No edits, no censure, no backlash – at least, that’s what we hope – surely that would encourage ever-greater freedom of expression?

Add to all that the huge numbers that Snapchat can already boast of (in the time it has taken you to read this sentence, no less than 240 thousand ‘Snaps’ were shared!) and it’s no surprise Snapchat CEO Spiegel is being feted at Cannes by advertising professionals. Which only makes me wonder which advocacy groups are already using the service, and why more aren’t! (If you know of campaigns that use Snapchat to good effect, please can you share the info in comments?)

Meanwhile, I’m gong to download the app today, because (what I think is) a prime opportunity just arose: Qataris are preparing to grab “the chance to tell the rest of the world what life is like in the Gulf” via Snapchat’s Live Story feature, thanks to #DohaLive. And with so much attention on Doha right now (for a variety of reasons) this could be the moment Snapchat users step up to the spotlight and share a multitude of voices from Doha, the voices of the young – and yes please, particularly the young women!! – to whom the city truly belongs.

Promisingly enough, the debate has already begun.

From Deja Vu to Determination

I sat in a room at SOAS this week, experiencing deja vu.

A man I hadn’t seen for well over ten years pressed play on this 16 minute film.

Faces I recognised from a long-ago past, told their stories. Deeply personal stories: Of tragedy. Of loss. Of continuing complications.

Familiar as these stories were, when he stood up to speak about the film, there was something even more familiar in the campaigner’s voice: a note of determination, not despair. Considering the community’s long history, despair wouldn’t have felt out of place. It has, after all, been 14 years since their campaign began.

The story is an old one, and has followed an almost predictable routine so far: A big company (with all the accompanying clout, needless to point out) brings toxic technology rejected by the first world into the developing world. People and the environment are exposed to hazardous substances. Symptoms of exposure begin to appear, but doctors are leant on, journalists distracted, and bureaucrats paid off. When determined campaigners expose the reality, and do so enough times to prove impossible to ignore, the company hurriedly shuts up shop, disposes of its toxic inventory (in the most expedient way, of course… often just a few trips to a local dumpsite) and washes its hands of the entire affair.

And that’s when the real tragedy starts to unfold: as the abandoned factory site/toxic dumpsite continues to leach poison in to the local environment, generation after generation of the local citizens continue to suffer. Campaigns are launched, awareness is raised, legal succour is sought… hopes are raised. Dashed. Raised again. Dashed again. The cycle continues, even as the company evades liability and goes on to make mega-profits elsewhere in the world.

It is, of course, shocking that this story is still alive. For it to be told with urgency today can only mean that the ex-workers’ demands have not been met, nor has the environment been cleaned up of the toxic wastes left behind.

But it is heartening too. Heartening because the poison has failed to outlast the community’s determination for justice. Heartening because a new generation of campaigners is being inspired to take up the cause, and preparing to tell the same story: in a hundred new ways, to a hundred different audiences, over and over and over again… until we reach a happy ending.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I’ve been enjoying the recently-introduced Facebook memories function, not least because it makes me more aware of what (and who!) I have in my life today, and the eventful journey it took to get here. Yes, not every memory is pleasant, as some users have pointed out, but dare I say, personally it is proving to be an exercise in gratitude for my habit of sharing small pleasures and ignoring (most!) minor irritants.

While most of my Facebook memories seem to celebrate time spent with family and friends – and all those who blur the lines between the two! – every now and then, a more momentous one pops up. Here’s what it showed me on 11th May 2015. (Remember how the old timeline layout forced us to refer to ourselves in the third person?!)

7 years ago:

Namrata Chowdhary updated her status.
has finally moved to London. What a wait!!

Seven years.

That kind of memory forces you to pause, to take stock, to consider… seven years ago, so much was different! Yet so much is the same.

There were friends we hadn’t met yet, and children who weren’t born yet, who would go on to occupy such large chunks of my heart. But there were so many others too, who were there then, had been there before, and are still here for me now.

There were parts of London I hadn’t even explored yet, but would start to call home soon. From that first flat my husband and I moved to in London, we moved not once, but twice; and each time, with each new home, whether large or small, we managed to fill it with the love and laughter of people who mattered. And I always managed to find my piece of the London sky.

There were charities I hadn’t worked with, causes and campaigns I had no clue about, that I would become a passionate advocate for. But considering the inter-connectedness – of values, of causes and of the ‘global campaigner community’ – some things have come full circle with an air of inevitability. Social justice intersected with climate politics,  gender neutrality with child rights, livelihood struggles with ecological principles, animal welfare with disaster preparedness… and almost everything with economic justice and that beautiful, all-encompassing phrase: sustainable development. (I use it with only mild irony.)

The one thing that hasn’t changed at all, though, is the worst fear that expats everywhere must share: the sheer helplessness of being away from your family and friends when tragedy strikes close to home. It takes one news headline, one text or tweet, to send your heart rate soaring and your hands reaching for the phone.

That unchanged reality was brought home today: as I texted back and forth with my parents-in-law about their upcoming visit to our home (and whether or not they should bring banana chips – yes! and home-made ghee – no!), there was a sudden, long gap in the conversation… Followed by a slew of terse messages:

“Just felt tremors and rushed out.”

“Massive earthquake but all well here, do not worry.”

Immediately turning to the news, I realised that the earthquake was centred in Kathmandu again, so my family in Delhi were reasonably safe. But of course, it made me think immediately of the three people I know personally, one of them a good friend, two – actually, all three! – of them ex-colleagues currently in Nepal as part of the international aid effort, and a fourth who has taken up residence there. So I spent the next few hours closely following news reports, Twitter feeds, Facebook posts and the television, hoping to hear good news from these four individuals even as I felt awful for the impact on the people of Nepal.

So yes, in that one regard, nothing has changed in these seven years. And probably won’t for the next seven either. Because at the end of the day, tragedies on this scale only become really real to us when they’re personal. And when you’re an expat (or when you otherwise belong to a group as diverse as international charity workers) somehow, it is always personal. Or becomes that way.

Climbing for a cause

My friend Mitun Gupta is in training, or has been for the last several months, because she is about to go climb the highest free-standing mountain in the world. Can I just repeat that, as it feels even more impressive, every time I say it: the highest free-standing mountain. In the world.

So while I amble along shopping malls, reflecting on pedestrian pace and social etiquette, Mitu trains. HARD. This is how she spent the school half-term holidays, instead of holidaying with her husband and two kids:

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Why is Mitu doing this? To raise funds for another impressive organisation, founded and run by an amazing woman I know personally too. The Khushboo Welfare Society provides care facilities and rehabilitation education for children with mental, often multiple, disabilities  and sensitisation for the support network around these children. They’ve been working – and growing their influence on the lives of more and more children – for the past several years, and I have seen for myself the true passion that drives Sonali Savakoor, their chairperson.

The Khushboo Welfare Society genuinely brings joy to the lives of so many children.

Considering the number of causes and the variety of charities I work with, I make it a point not to fundraise off my friends (I’m at risk of losing most friends anyway, with my often too-passionately declared opinions!) but this time is truly unique: it is a mammoth challenge my friend is undertaking, and for a really small organisation that doesn’t have a marketing-comms-PR machinery running to support its truly meaningful work. (I had to remind myself of that fact as I tried to make my own donation earlier – without an international donation page, you need to first sign up with your actual address indicating which country you’re in. Then log out and log back in, and you’ll be able to make a local currency donation. Sorry it’s complicated but I’m sure they did the best they could!)

So if you can spare a couple of pounds, dollars, or rupees please consider doing so. I know it will be well appreciated – and even more importantly – well spent. Please,  won’t you click here to donate?

And Mitu – YOU GO, GIRL!! I am so proud of you.

Walk with me?

Image credit: movebetterfeelbetterplaybetter.com

Moving, as I do, between well-populated cities and lovely leafy suburbs in two distinctly different parts of the world (I try and holiday ‘at home’ in India at least once a year and yes, there are pockets of suburban quiet there too!) I often notice the not-too-subtle differences in crowd dynamics and social norms. How many people you can fit into a square metre of space isn’t simply a question of physics, after all! The definitions of personal space, of boundaries (both physical and psychological) are so vastly different in the two countries I interchangeably call home, it becomes a fascinating revelation of human nature for a people-watcher like me.

Walking from a crowded shopping centre towards a train station in London today, I noticed I had fallen into step alongside a woman in audible high heels – you know, the kind that you can’t help noticing because they clip-clop-clip-clop down the street? I had been listening to music as I walked, but found I was matching her beat instead. As I turned to look in her direction, she smiled at me, so I took my headphones off and told her, “You know, hearing your heels on the pavement reminded me of something.” But she had interrupted me at ‘heels on the pavement’ and said, “Oh, I didn’t mean to scare you!”

But as I told her, it wasn’t that she had scared me, but that she had reminded me of a social experiment I had read about. One that described how people invariably change their pace when a stranger walks beside them for a while. I can’t find that link any more (please link to it in comments if this sounds familiar) but I did come across this video when looking for it.

Funnily enough, though, despite my telling her about this – and after she had smiled in my direction, after all – she laughed, but immediately sped up and walked away!

Searching for the actual experiment once home, I realised I’m not the only one who finds this fascinating – there’s an emerging field of science dedicated to observing, understanding and predicting crowd dynamics, and a suitably dense scientific paper written about it too, cryptic formulae and all.

When you think about it, as growing urban populations put increased pressure on public spaces and facilities (try boarding an early morning city-bound train and the suburban station won’t seem quite as genteel!) planning around human behaviour and crowd dynamics could mean the difference between a stampede and a successful evacuation in an emergency. As the crowd scientist (what an interesting job title!) Mehdi Moussaid points out, it requires an understanding of physics as well as cognitive behaviour, and essentially means you have to adjust for cultural bias.

And here’s an interesting conclusion from Moussaid’s report: A comparison of Germans and Indians revealed that although people from both cultures walk “in a similar manner” when alone, their behavior varies greatly in the presence of others. As one might expect given the densities of their respective countries, Indians need less personal space than Germans do, according to the researchers. As a result, when Germans encountered traffic during a walking experiment, they decreased speed more rapidly than Indians did. “Surprisingly the more unordered behaviour of the Indians is more effective than the ordered behaviour of the Germans,” the study concludes.

Just a complex way of acknowledging that I walk differently when in India – for a whole variety of very scientific reasons! And that my journeys are no less effective for it. In a few days’ time, I shall put this theory to the test!

Hope is alive in Delhi today!

Today, for me, is about Hope.

Hope is Democracy, that seems to have rediscovered its soul: honest, people-powered, class-less, caste-less and secular at its core.

Hope is an electorate that chooses to engage, that turns out – not just to campaign, but also to vote. And then stays engaged, ready to hold politicians to the promises they made.

Hope is a new page in the politics of India: powered not by the deep pockets and arrogant clout of corporate lobbyists, but by the passion, indeed the desperation, of the common people wanting change. Now.

Hope is also a new class of politicians: willing to admit their mistakes, re-group, review, re-strategise and re-emerge with clear plans and meaningful promises. And yes, they’re willing to laugh at themselves too.

Hope is a city ready for renewal. Hope is the citizen ready to clean up campaigning litter, roll up their sleeves and become partners in governance.

Hope is participation. Real, meaningful, constructive participation.1964928_648494525250311_2231204453461590538_n