The Good News Is Published By Us

A British Citizenship ceremony with a Syrian refugee family inspired this Thought For The Day for BBC R4.

I’m sitting with Hussein, who’s 12 years old, when he turns to his father Mohamed with a sudden insight.

‘Now that we’re British,’ he says, ‘We will have to eat British food.’

It’s mid October and I’ve joined Mohamed, his wife Leila and their three children in the local town hall because this morning, six years after arriving in this country, they become British citizens.

There are about fifty of us in the council chamber and as people’s names are read out I calculate we’ve come from a dozen countries.

Everyone is asked if they want the religious ceremony or the non-religious one? Mohamed and Leila, devout Muslims, choose the religious.

Since they arrived in the UK, from war in Syria and refugee camps in Turkey, their lives have been turned upside down .

They’ve also changed our lives. It was Mohamed who first got me attending Friday prayers at the local mosque and he and Leila have cooked delicious Syrian meals at our church. Hospitality is their middle name.

As I look from them and out around the chamber I recall the UN Declaration of Human Rights that everyone is born free and equal in dignity and rights… but I remember that some people believe that too many people are seeking a new life here.

I recall the mantra of my friend Pip Wilson who says even those we disagree with are a BHP — ‘a beautiful human person’.

Which is the non-religious version of the Bible’s idea that everyone is made in the divine image.

The Lord Lieutenant — representing King Charles — opens the ceremony by telling everyone their presence here makes Britain an even better place.

Then our side swears their oath with god and the other side swears their oath without god — and it doesn’t feel as though god would mind either way.

One by one everyone stands to pledge themselves to the laws of their new country, to freedom and freedom of speech.

As we sing the national anthem I think of the ways in which our asylum system fails so many beautiful human people.

How this week’s news has reported on refugees being so poorly treated. And yet… this ceremony feels like a small sign of hope.

Finally everyone goes forward to receive their certificate and a union jack, to wave for their photo with the Lord Lieutenant.

I ask Mohamed, ‘Who are you now?’

He says: I am Syrian. I am British. I am Arabic. I am Muslim.’

In a beautiful poem The Good News, the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, wonders at the ways in which we can miss the news.

‘The good news,’ he writes, ‘Is published by us… we have a special edition every moment and we need you to read it.’

And Mohamed turns to his son and says to him, ‘Ok Hussein, now we are British, what food do we eat?’

‘Beans on toast’ says his son, with a cheeky grin.

— — — — — — — —

‘Julian of Norwich’s Teabag’ is a collection of poems I made recently with Wild Goose Books.

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