Last semester, The Saint’s Siobhan Ali explored the work of Refugee Action St Andrews (RASA) in their campaign for equal opportunities in accessing university education. Their focus was primarily on advocating for a specific scholarship fund aimed at allowing refugee students to attend university here in St Andrews, as is already the case in several other UK institutions. Their initial petition received over two hundred signatures, including from MP for Northeast Fife Stephen Gethins.
In their recent discussion event looking at the legal scope of our understanding of ‘refugee’ as a concept, RASA were joined by the newly formed St Andrews branch of SolidariTee, a national, student-led initiative also focussed on the rights of refugees, but this time raising funds for legal aid. Launched in January 2017, SolidariTee was founded by University of Cambridge student Tiara Sahar Ataii, who noticed that media coverage of the refugee crisis had significantly declined, and who had herself experienced the important work of the Non- Governmental Organisations (NGOs) dealing with legal aid, as a translator and interpreter.
“It goes without saying that [the refugee crisis] is an important cause and I think it’s a mixture of the fact that we’re seeing such large waves of migration at the moment and people living in such desperate conditions. This is an international phenomenon. So I think that’s why it demands so much attention,” Ms. Ataii told The Saint. When asked about how SolidariTee aim to offer help, she continued: “The money [we raise] all goes to legal aid for refugees.” The legal aid funded by the NGOs SolidariTee supports typically consists of covering the costs of a lawyer or legal advisor who can help a refugee obtain legal status to live in their country of temporary residence.
SolidariTee has now spread to over 30 universities across the UK, as well as France, the United States, and Australia. “The idea behind SolidariTee is beautifully simple,” second year Social Anthropology student and Chair of SolidariTee St Andrews, Lizzie Violaris, explained. “All the teams across the country (and now the world!) sell t-shirts for ten pounds each, and the money raised goes towards NGOs working directly with refugees on the ground.”
By purchasing one of these T shirts (or SolidariTees), students are contributing to NGOs operating in the legal sphere, and fighting for basic rights for refugee families. This is something which particularly appealed to Ms Violaris, who had heard about SolidariTee when it began, but hadn’t realised the importance of legal aid until she visited a friend on her year abroad in Jordan. “Student activism often, by default, leans far more towards discussion and passivity than action which is why I was so keen to become part of a campaign which is actively creating change,” recalled Ms Violaris. “[SolidariTee] also opens up the conversation surrounding legal aid – something which is often overlooked by the sensationalist media”.
In addition, the direct link between the money raised and the action taken is glaringly evident. Speaking about how an organisation, which is unusual in its ability to remain entirely student-run at such a large scale, manages to operate so efficiently, Ms Ataii said, without hesitation: “We use our money really effectively.”
In particular, the group have found that remaining faithful to their goal of sustainability has transcended all aspects of their business. “We courier our shirts around the country so we don’t pay any delivery costs. We don’t really pay for Facebook ads, we try and do everything organically. We recycle the paper that we wrap our SolidariTees in so that we’re not paying for wrapping paper. We’re really careful about the money we use, and the money we have. None of us are paid for our time.”
Expanding on the groups business model, geared at raising as much money as possible for those who truly need it, she continued: “I even paid for my own shirt! We support really small NGOs at the beginning of their life scale, with the reason being that we therefore know exactly where our money is going and we know it’s going really far.”
SolidariTee as an organisation stand for “sustainable change,” and Ms Ataii explained that this means going a step further than a band-aid fix that crumbles when it faces the merest hurdle: “In terms of [why we back] legal aid, I would say that’s because it’s the most long-term solution we have. I mean, we can house people in camps for ages and try and sustain them on clothes and food and tents, etcetera, but a more effective way of doing this is to try and get them legal status and then the state will provide for them and therefore they will immediately have free education, free access to healthcare.”
For the students behind SolidariTee, “sustainable change” means not only a more hopeful future for refugees, but an effort to alter the stigma and commonly negative approaches towards refugees which are unfortunately present within our society: “What we’d really like to do is to change people’s minds. I think that’s something really powerful. The refugee crisis wouldn’t be so dire if people didn’t have some slightly discriminatory preconceptions about refugees, and if people were more welcoming towards refugees then perhaps we would see really meaningful policy changes that would result in a more dignified and humane asylum process.
“I think it’s a really commonly held opinion that you can’t be too nice to refugees because otherwise you are encouraging them to come illegally. But I think that’s a lie, basically,” Ms Ataii emphasised. “No one leaves their community and country where they are comfortable and have lived all their life just to try their luck somewhere else, just to have a bit of fun. So I think this [opinion] is something we can also really rally against.”
The St Andrews branch of SolidariTee say that events such as their collaboration with RASA will become more frequent as they establish themselves as a presence within a thriving, and sometimes overwhelming or seemingly overcrowded realm of student activism and activity. “Speaking for the St Andrews team, I think we would like to continue to grow our presence and collaborate with other established societies here working towards the same causes,” Ms Violaris said. “We have a lot of great events coming up and we would like to try and open them up and encourage as many people to attend as possible.”
“Buying a t-shirt for ten pounds is the equivalent to a couple of pints at BrewCo or a Mozza lunch for two and it’s not just instant gratification. Not only are your donations going directly to change the lives of refugees stuck in temporary camps but, by wearing it, you are prompting an important conversation.”
Ms Ataii added that becoming a SolidariTee representative is another rewarding way to contribute to this student endeavour: “The way people can get involved is to be a representative, which involves selling thirty shirts and working with the regional team. We’ve got a lovely St Andrews team which is always expanding so [anyone is] more than welcome to join.”
Although still in early days, the determination of the current SolidariTee members to work with others, not in competition with them, to produce tangible results for worthy beneficiaries, is amazing, not to mention that we can all look great while doing our bit (I, for one, am off to place an order).
SolidariTee shirts can be purchased by contacting the team via their Facebook page (Solidaritee National).