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From the Pandemic to Putin’s War: OU research sheds light on refugees' lives

Professor Marie Gillespie has dedicated her research career to understanding and challenging inequalities migrants experience. Now, she is drawing on the international network of academics, activists and artists she and her colleagues built during the coronavirus pandemic to raise awareness and support families displaced by the war in Ukraine.

“In my childhood growing up Irish in London and my early career teaching refugee children in the city, I saw how racism and xenophobia can exacerbate inequalities”, Professor Gillespie recalls. “It also became clear how sharing migrants’ experiences can help us see ourselves in the stories of those forced to flee their homes.”

How the pandemic inflamed inequalities

The coronavirus pandemic exposed many of us to the fear and uncertainty of confinement for the first time. Unfortunately, however, detention and displacement are the reality for many people fleeing persecution and war.

“COVID-19 arrived in the UK when the political climate around Brexit was already stoking division and hostility towards migrants”, Gillespie argues. “It also worsened the challenges and inequalities many migrants face when refugees' support services stopped overnight.”

In March 2020, Gillespie and OU, UK and international collaborators, created Covid Chronicles from the Margins. The online platform allowed migrants living in precarious circumstances during the pandemic to connect, share their stories and learn new creative skills using their mobile phones. The archive now hosts more than 1,000 contributions from migrants in 22 countries, chronicling their life experiences during the pandemic through poems, songs, music, photos, videos, diaries and blogs.

Chronicling a new crisis

As we emerge from the pandemic to Putin’s war on Ukraine, the chronicles have taken on a new significance for Gillespie, who is now working with her Ukrainian social activist collaborator Olga Olenichenko, to document the unfolding war and tragic events in her country.

Olga’s Chronicles gives a heartbreakingly human account of how her western Ukraine community is rallying to transform office spaces into homes for displaced families”, she explains. “We’re now using the broader chronicles network to encourage people to donate to help pay for these families' vital electricity through Go Fund Me. Many of us feel powerless faced with such a horrific war, but every act matters – no matter how small”.

Gillespie and colleagues are also working to help the OU become a University of Sanctuary. The scheme cognises universities that have created a welcoming culture and practice throughout their governance, strategy, learning and interactions with other institutions. These values of openness and welcome, she believes, have never been more vital.

Encouraging empathy

“The outpouring of public solidarity for Ukrainians has been unprecedented”, Gillespie contends. “Still, more needs to be done in response to other refugee crises like the plight of Syrians, Afghans, and Yemenis. However, it does suggest that we have an opportunity to become a more compassionate, understanding and empathetic society towards refugees. Nevertheless, this can only happen with appropriate government policies and ongoing assertive responses from us all.”