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International Migrants' Day: Cerelia's story

Today (Wednesday, 18 December) is International Migrants Day, organised by the United Nations. The day aims to raise awareness about the challenges of international migration and to remember refugees and migrants who have tragically lost their lives.

Lewisham has a proud history of supporting refugees and migrants. We are working towards becoming a Borough of Sanctuary, affirming our commitment to promoting and safeguarding the rights and wellbeing of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.

Every migrant who comes to Lewisham has a name, a story and left their homeland in search of better opportunities and safety for themselves and their families.

Councillor Kevin Bonavia, Cabinet Member for Democracy, Refugees & Accountability, said: “We’re proud to celebrate the contribution that migrants make to life in our borough. Whether it’s refugees fleeing from war, people coming to work or study, or simply to be with the person they love, Lewisham is open and welcome to all."

We all benefit from migration

Cerelia moved with her family from Cyprus to Poland and later settled in Lewisham. Listen to this audio interview in which she shares her experiences as a migrant and what migration means to her.

Cerelia said: "Migration is something that's natural not just to humans but to all animals, all species, so I think putting up walls is something that's just completely nonsensical really in the face of that.

I was born in Cyprus and lived there for the first ten years of my life and then we moved to Poland. Actually my mum is Polish and lived there for the next nine years of my life after which I then moved to the UK to study. The reason why we migrated to Poland was economic reasons. My parents were teachers. So the reason why we did move to Poland in the end was my dad just found a better job.

And we were definitely famous, everyone knew about us. We looked different to people, we behaved differently, people focused on the colour of our skin, weirdly. I just had to learn how to ignore people if they were either shouting abuse or just saying ignorant things in your direction. Sometimes that included teachers as well. But looking back on it, it was just an amazing experience.

My parents met in the UK. They both went to study and I think both my parents had quite a high opinion as well of English education, English culture. I studied English literature when I first came and then for my post-grad I did international relations. I moved to Lewisham in 2015 so I've been here for four years now. We moved to Lewisham because my brother lived here then but we've stayed ever since just because we loved it so much. There is a Turkish Cypriot community, for example, in Lewisham that's quite sizable and that I didn't really know that much about. So that was quite eye-opening for me and quite interesting because I thought that most of the Cypriot community was in North London. But then discovering this whole other side was really interesting.

Why should we celebrate migration? Because I know you're also doing things around Lewisham being a borough of sanctuary and I think that that's something to be celebrated. At a time when we're engaging again in the ridiculous conversations about putting up walls and denying the fact that people might be in need or might be wanting to escape from horrendous hell zones, I just think that that's something we need people to be championing, the fact the generosity of spirit and this kind of international solidarity coming to the aid of people that need you, and along the way actually inevitably benefiting from all of that.

I think I've always been very thankful for the fact that we have international institutions, maybe more so recently than in previous years. I think now the way our society is so polarised I just feel like we haven't appreciated enough how international institutions have worked to protect our human rights: the way that we can have freedom, for example, of expression, freedom to move - actually everything that International Migrants’ Day is all about really.

I've always been interested in human rights and when I discovered Amnesty International, for example, that was completely eye-opening for me - just the fact that some societies are so closed and that there's such a contrast between what I'm able to do or what I was born into and what someone else on the other side of the world, just by pure circumstance that they're born into where they just can't control what's going on around them, what's going on in their life. So being aware of this sort of privilege, you just try to do what you can really."

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