Kate Maltby is on the board of the Bright Blue think tank and edits the Bright Blue magazine. She is researching a PhD on the intellectual life of Elizabeth I, at University College London.
I didn’t expect an official delegation of Conservative MPs to do a jot of good to a Syrian refugee camp. Sure, my generation are cynical about politicians – but as a member of the team behind Bright Blue and a lifelong Tory, I’m not normally the type to sneer at people using democracy to bring about real political change. So when Dan Hannan invited me to join a Conservative Party social action group, Project Maja, working at a refugee camp in Turkey earlier this month, I never doubted the good intent behind it. But I was suspicious as to how much good a bunch of Brits could actually achieve in four days parachuted into Anatolia. More than suspicious – I was deeply sceptical. But I was wrong.
As Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP wrote for Conservative Home a week ago, our latest trip was as much about educating and introducing our MPs to Syrians in the region as it was about social action. But at its heart was the project to build a football pitch in the centre of the Nizip-2 refugee camp.
Nizip-2 is evidently the showpiece camp for foreign dignitaries visiting Turkey. The Turks are keen to show how well they’re coping with their refugee influx, so it’s hardly a surprise that every foreign visitor to the Gaziantep region gets taken to visit not the 30,000 people living in tents, but the 5,500 in “containers” (mobile homes, minus the mobility). The go-to stop for foreign royalty, it’s the Potemkin village as poverty porn.
But there’s no question that the Turkish Government has been generous – at time of writing, it has set aside $2 billion from its national budget in refugee aid. And even when, as a journalist, I escaped the official schedule to spend some time with undocumented refugees in the nearby city of Gaziantep, the most critical of Kurdish dissidents admitted to me that the vast spending of the ruling AK Party on refugee aid hasn’t become an internal political issue. Turks of all political divisions – and there certainly is plenty of division to go around – recognize the extreme hardship their Syrian neighbours face, and aren’t complaining about the government response. So even if Project Maja had accomplished no local benefit at all, it would at least have been an education – impressing on us all the moral obligation for Britain to help cover the financial costs of this immense humanitarian crisis.
But even without a new whip-round from the British Treasury, Project Maja seemed to achieve plenty of immediate good. Many on Twitter asked me why we’d spent our time building a football pitch, instead of descending, Angelina Jolie-style, with our own airdrop of food and medicine. The simple answer is that the camp we visited has reached the point where the next needed development is to relieve the community’s boredom: basic needs are already well taken care of by the Turks. There’s precious little space in these camps to do more than sit in the doorway of an iron hut and watch the day drag by – anyone who reckons the addition of a sports field superficial has never experienced the tension that builds when 5,500 individuals are forced to live without a modicum of privacy from each other. But we didn’t just build a football pitch – by insisting on measures to give girls equal access to the pitch, we managed to be ambassadors for British values in a manner I thought only existed in abstract policy unity seminar presentations.
If anyone deserves credit for this, it’s the Conservative candidate for Dudley North, Afzal Amin. Afzal is an exceptional candidate for more reasons than I have space to list here – born to an immigrant family in one of the poorest parts of the West Midlands, he’s given 13 years of service to this country in the army, risen to senior rank, and speaks with sagacity on Muslim integration. A fluent Arabic speaker (alongside Urdu and Hindi!) he spoke to the Syrians with ease, and it was he who discerned that a number of young girls fully expected that as soon as we left, the pitch would become a boys-only zone. “They only let boys play football in the street”, they told us, “so they’ll only let boys play football on the pitch.”
With my usual stridency, I complained to all and sundry that we should make the pitch adaptable for a female-dominated sport, but it was Afzal who secured a meeting with the local Imam, eloquently explained our case, and secured a religious edict which endorsed women’s soccer as a public good. A further meeting with the camp director ended with a commitment that he would reserve the pitch at regular times for the girls to have a chance to practice without their brothers pushing in.
Naturally, Project Maja won’t have single-handedly transformed the gender dynamics of a tense refugee camp. And we couldn’t work miracles. Our concerns about female sports spurred a highly energetic AK Party Youth Leader, Yavuz Caglayan, to whom we owe great thanks for much of the organisational work, to find some netball hoops – but, inevitably, the only ones to be found at short notice were completely wrecked with disrepair. And it has yet to be seen whether the camp’s leaders will stick by their promises to encourage girls’ fitness. But the advantage of a structured organization like Project Maja is that we’ll be able to keep in touch with this camp over the months to come, providing aid that suits the leaders’ needs, and visiting in a year’s time to check they in turn have kept their commitments to us.
And in the light of the tragic death in Kabul of Del Singh, a Labour candidate for the European Parliament, Project Maja convinced me that it is essential we continue to allow our democratic representatives to experience troubled parts of the globe close up. Singh was committed to aid work throughout his career: colleagues from all parties honour his memory not by calling off foreign trips, but by following his example and working with organisations like Project Maja to meet the world’s poorest face to face. How can MPs take decisions about Britain’s engagement with the wider world, without learning directly about the regions that their decisions affect?
Project Maja won’t solve the Syrian refugee crisis overnight. But working on a project has given our Conservative MPs, and their colleagues from the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists, a far greater understanding of the dynamics on the ground than could ever be achieved by passively touring a camp without speaking to a resident. They are also better able to tell when British aid is being well spent, and when it is not. Given that the number of Syrians who have fled the country has just hit 2.4 million, that expertise could not be more urgent.