‘This is our crisis of mismanagement’: The Tab talks to SolidariTee

Meet the students behind the charity which helps refugees access legal aid, one t-shirt at a time

In 2018, despite over 80 per cent of asylum applicants coming to Europe from war-stricken countries, 64 per cent of applications were rejected. Bureaucracy, misinformation, and systems which don’t account for the traumatic nature of displacement mean that many individuals are unable to access their legal right to asylum. 

“As a society, we really haven’t done a good job with understanding how we’re going to bring migrants and refugees into the fold,” Tiara Sahar Ataii says. She founded SolidariTee in 2017 as a Cambridge fresher, and it is now the largest student-led charity working to help refugees.

The concept is straightforward: SolidariTee sell ethically made t-shirts to raise money for legal aid for refugees in Greece but the project has expanded hugely since its Cambridge origins. From selling shirts bought off Tiara’s student loan through Facebook, there are now teams in 59 universities around the world, from Sri Lanka to America.

I spoke to Tiara, the founder, and Rebecca Ebner-Landy and Jess Molyneux, who are regional directors alongside being finalists in MML and English respectively, and asked them to spill the Solidari-tea:

‘The underlying cause of any issue remained static’

Having experience volunteering with refugees as an interpreter, Tiara was increasingly disenchanted by the nature of existing refugee aid. “Having been quite wide-eyed and excited about the prospect of refugee aid and volunteering in the first trips I’d gone on, I’d begun to get increasingly frustrated with what felt like very short-term aid. Some people just kept giving basically clothes and food when the underlying cause of any issue remained static.”

During her fresher year, Tiara launched the SolidariTee – a t-shirt for students to “literally wear their values around campus” and promote conversations surrounding the refugee crises, breaking through the echo chamber Tiara identified.

All the proceeds go towards legal aid for refugees in Greece: the “most empowering” basis to enact long-term change in the refugee crisis. The t-shirts are visually striking and recognisable and have become as much of a Cambridge fashion staple as college puffer jackets. 

‘It’s not just about raising money, but also raising awareness’

As the project has expanded, the focus has shifted from not only selling t-shirts, but also raising awareness. “One of the things that we’ve added this year is that reps also host an event in pairs, so we’re adding the number of SolidariTee awareness-raising events that happen,” Jess explains. The Right to Refuge podcast has been launched, and discussion sessions are held every week for the team to attend.

“One of the discussion sessions ended up being the basis of my research proposal for my Master’s application that I’ve just submitted,” Jess says – it looks at gender identity and the experience of exile. “SolidariTee and specifically the discussion sessions have changed the course of my career plans and goals.”

Whilst primarily focusing on raising awareness amongst university students, Jess points out that this diffuses outwards into the wider world as well. “A lot of people will go home at the end of term and try and sell Christmas presents to their families and relatives.

“I think that’s a really good way to start those conversations and to talk to people of a different generation or people from different backgrounds, who might not otherwise have access to the student activism bubble.”

‘Something that we’re quite good at doing is calling people in as opposed to calling them out’

The SolidariTee team are also keenly aware of the problems of echo chambers and emotional labour within student activism. Tiara discusses how calling out racism, xenophobia, or Islamophobia can be personally draining, with “incredible amounts of emotional labour, often from the person who has fallen victim to those societal phenomena”, or ultimately unproductive, resulting in “a situation where both parties become even more rooted in their opinions”.

To combat this, SolidariTee provide accessible and informative resources to fight myths and stereotypes surrounding the refugee crisis, whilst remaining firmly rooted in facts, empathy, and dignity for those concerned. They don’t shy away from presenting the sobering reality of these issues – a recent Instagram post addresses the horrifying statistic that 29 asylum seekers have died in Home Office accommodation this year – but simultaneously provide tangible solutions for change. 

“Something that we’re quite good at doing is calling people in as opposed to calling them out,” Tiara says. “We’re not whitewashing or making things a bit pink and fluffy, but at the same time we’re offering people simple things that they can do and really informative resources, and therefore I hope bypassing the incredible amounts of emotional labour that some activists are put under.

“The social media team does an incredibly good job of providing up to date information and calling for things that are in a way radical – how hostile border policy is, and how wide-ranging immigration reform is desperately needed.

“But at the same time, we’re constantly bringing it back to basic foundational ideas that people, regardless of their country of origin, their faith, their creed, their gender, their sexuality, should have basic human rights, should have access to them and they should be respected.”

‘You become part of an amazing community of people’

SolidariTee’s strength also comes from being entirely run by students. “There’s an energy and a dynamism to SolidariTee that is almost unparalleled,” Rebecca says, enthused. “It’s an amazing group of young minds who all bring something fresh, and all have different ideas, and all have got involved for different reasons.” Talking with the team, I certainly got an sense of their incredible drive and passion for the project. 

Tiara highlights the strength of diverse leadership: “I founded it as a woman of colour, but it doesn’t just end there.” Not only is the entire charity run by students, but all of the regional directors are women as well, and diverse leadership. “Hopefully … will naturally steer things in the right direction”, Tiara said. 

Rebecca also emphasises the “spirit of the team” and the importance of creating a supportive environment for those involved. “We’ve established a welfare team and I think that shows a lot about the spirit of Solidaritee, about wanting to ensure that people who are volunteering get something back.” Decisions are democratically voted on, and there is flexibility and empathy within the structures to allow for students’ busy schedules, all culminating in “a very beautiful sense of team spirit and cohesion, and people working together in a very humane and kind way – just an amazing thing to be part of.”

‘It’s a crisis of compassion’

Whilst SolidariTee is often discussed through the lens of aid for the ‘refugee crisis’, Tiara challenges this perception. She argues there is no one refugee crisis, or even a crisis related to refugees at all. “This is our crisis of mismanagement, that in the West we seem to have not been able to deal with it compassionately.

“It’s a crisis of compassion, it’s a crisis of deterrent policies, it’s a crisis of mismanagement, but the crisis is not intrinsically that refugees exist. Refugees have existed for millennia, and were never labelled a crisis until suddenly we decided it was a crisis.”

Within the NGO sector of refugee aid, SolidariTee have pioneered a policy to never show the face of a refugee. She explains that the onus shouldn’t be on refugees to prove that they are sympathetic, or worthy of empathy. “The onus should really be on us to get our shit together.”

SolidariTee can be found on Facebook and Instagram, and t-shirts are available here.

All photos credits to SolidariTee 

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