Cumberland Lodge Scholar, Nour Al Kafri, reflects on her first Christmas away from Syria in December 2018
The spirit of Christmas has extended a warm welcome to students from all over the world for over 70 years at Cumberland Lodge, and this year was no exception.
Forty-three international students from 21 different countries and 19 universities gathered for this year’s Christmas conference at the Lodge, with a programme inspired by the theme of ‘Identities & Belonging’.
Following a warm welcome on Monday from the Principal, Ed Newell, participants spent time getting to know each other through a ‘round the clock’ game facilitated by TrustLab co-founder, Debbie Dannon. This offered opportunities for inter-cultural exchange as well as an exploration of all our different identities.
Exploring identities and navigating cosmopolitanism
The following day, Debbie focused on exploring identities and navigating cosmopolitanism, moving fluidly through different activities that helped students explore outside their comfort zones and create a counter-culture of dialogue and learning.
We consciously examined a deeper level of dialogue by contrasting the intention we have in mind when engaging in conversations with the impact our language has on others, and we practised gently challenging each other’s ideas with love and understanding instead of with judgements and presumptions.
We learned how to be respectful and open to other cultures, to be self-aware of stereotypes and generalisations, and to always assume the good intentions of others.
That afternoon, Debbie chaired a panel comprising: the journalist and author Edna Fernandes; a civil servant and interfaith worker, Mamataj Begum; and Maya Ghazal, a young Syrian refugee living in the UK. The discussion revolved around reclaiming representation and the role that social media can play.
The panellists shared their own stories and told us about challenges they had faced on their respective journeys, giving others inspiration and hope for the future. It was incredibly empowering to see how effective the use of stories can be in the internet age.
A stunning walk to the Royal Chapel in the rain, and a carol service, kicked off the festive celebrations. The simple structure of the chapel and the warm spirit inside gave everyone a sense of connection to one another, both in spirit and in mind, of sharing the same wonderful experience together, away from our stressful daily lives.
As the evening approached, I was personally looking forward to the incredible opportunity of experiencing a traditional British Christmas dinner, as someone who has celebrated Christmas with Middle Eastern traditions my whole life.
The evening’s soiree was amazing, and full of laughter. The students put on various performances, and the atmosphere was full of joy and happiness, encouraging us to each share our own respective talents. Playing the piano, dancing and singing together made us feel like we are all part of one family as the fun continued long into the night.
The final morning session brought all the students together in a meditational exploration of our different personal identities. It made us recognise the things we have in common and really was the best way to say our fond farewell to our newfound friends.
This conference was a reminder, at the end of a busy and mostly self-centred year, that each one of us is a part of a large, universal family of humanity, every member of which is entitled to be loved, listened to, and appreciated, regardless of their nationality and background, and even though this was my first Christmas away from my small family, the Lodge was the perfect place to share the Christmas spirit with new friends and a new, amazing, global family.