Extending a welcome to refugees
To mark the start of Refugee Week, DAVID CLENSY meets the Zimbabwean journalist who fled the Mugabe regime and found a new home in Bristol.
FORWARD Maisokwadzo was a campaigning journalist with decades of experience in the Zimbabwean capital Harare. But when he arrived here in Bristol as a refugee fleeing Robert Mugabe's crackdown on the free press, he was given an unceremonious welcome to our city.
After moving in to his new modest home in St Anne's, he was met with a wall of unfriendly distrust from the locals – gangs of yobs hurled racist abuse at him in the street, and stones and eggs were thrown at his family's new home.
It was nothing compared to the threats, taunts and repeated periods of imprisonment he had received back in Zimbabwe at the hands of Mugabe's henchmen, where ultimately his life was at threat for simply reporting the truth. But it was still far from the warm English welcome he had hoped to receive.
"It wasn't very friendly at first," he says. "But I had plenty of experience of trying to reason with unreasonable people, and I went out and negotiated something of a truce with the youths who were throwing stones and eggs at my new home.
"Then I rapidly integrated myself into the local community – volunteering to get involved with all kinds of community projects, and I was then rapidly accepted by my new neighbours."
Working for the media ethics charity, Mediawise, Forward quickly settled in the city, and after five years living here, Bristol had become his adopted home by the time he was invited to become one of the founding co-ordinator's of the City of Sanctuary charity in 2009.
"Bristol is a welcoming city generally – it's a place with decades, centuries even, of allowing newcomers from foreign lands to settle and integrate here. But the idea of creating a City of Sanctuary allowed us to target the small pockets that were spoiling Bristol's great reputation. It was an opportunity for me to try to do something to change the sort of attitudes that had made my arrival in the city so unwelcoming."
Later this week Forward will join a host of recent refugees who have settled in the city who will be joining the Lord Mayor of Bristol for a typically English "cup of tea" welcome at the Mansion House to mark Refugee Week.
"I'm very much looking forward to it," he says. "It's just a simple occasion, with tea and cake and a few speakers, but it's a very significant event for newly-arrived refugees, and will go a long way towards making them feel welcome here."
Back in Zimbabwe Forward raised the suspicions of Mugabe's henchmen with his campaigning journalism with the Zimbabwe Independent – one of the only newspapers in the country that wasn't state-controlled.
"Things hadn't been too bad when Mugabe first came to office in 1980, but his influence on the country's free press gradually increased, and by about 1985, it was already becoming difficult to run stories that were critical of the ruling elite," he says.
"By the mid-1990s, I would pick up our newspaper in the morning and find stories in there bearing my byline, which I'd never seen before – Mugabe's intelligence officers simply wrote the news and published it under your name in your own newspaper, such was their power." Forward is "uncomfortable about reliving the details" of the kinds of trauma he experienced at the hands of Mugabe's men, but he survived for a number of years being incarcerated regularly on account of the stories he wrote.
"We were a weekly paper, and at one stage the government men would simply make sure you were behind bars for deadline day, even though you had done absolutely nothing wrong," he recalls.
"I was glad to get away, but strangely enough I do still miss my homeland, my family and friends and the job I did there."