Tales of a City – Walk a Mile in Their Shoes

Tales of a City Tours offer walks whose guides are Leeds residents, who arrived in the UK as refugees.  Guides like Lilly, who came here from South Africa, share their stories of living in the City which has become their home. 

Thomas Chalk joins one of Tales of a City’s guided walks and sees Leeds from an altogether different perspective.

I arrived in Leeds in 2001, having previously lived in Hull and Bristol.  The same year, Lilly arrived from her native South Africa as a refugee.  Over a couple of hours, the tour she conducts takes in some City Centre landmarks and offers a chance to hear her story, touching on the reasons for needing to leave her home in Pretoria, arriving in a strange city, settling and becoming a citizen, and being a parent and a part of the community. 

We stopped off at a number of places in the centre of Leeds, ranging from the grandeur of Leeds library to a back alley with some bins.  At each, Lilly shared some thoughts about what the place means to her – some have specific connections, such as the old Post office where she collected the small benefit payment she was entitled to when she arrived and which she used as a landmark to help navigate her new home; others have a more thematic resonance, such as the library which allowed her to share some thoughts on the importance of learning and on her professional status working with children and vulnerable adults. It’s in this latter location where we heard most about why she had to leave South Africa, and whilst this tour does not try to deliver a full autobiography, there is enough detail here to help the listener understand the connections between Lilly’s work in her first home country, which led to her needing to leave, and her current work in her second home country. It’s Lilly’s story to tell rather than mine, of course, and I couldn’t do justice in writing to the understated power of her presentation. 

A few people feature large in Lilly’s story.  Unsurprisingly, the first of these is Nelson Mandela, quotes from whom help frame Lilly’s reflections on apartheid, tolerance, resilience and belonging.  The tour is not full of grand philosophising on the meaning of home and belonging – the Mandela quotes frame a presentation that is full of warm humour rather than polemical lectures – but this doesn’t mean Lilly shies away from big themes.  And then there are Lilly’s children.  Lilly introduces herself with an apology for her heavy accent, noting that her children all speak broad Yorkshire – it seems at first a throwaway line, an amusing observation, but as the tour progresses the children feature several more times, Lilly’s link to the future just as Mandela stands as a link to the past. 

The saying goes that before you judge someone, you should try walking a mile in their shoes.  While the shoes were my own, Tales Of A City allowed me to walk a mile in the company of someone whose experience is very different from my own.  Deftly weaving together snapshots from her past, present and future, in the space of a couple of hours and over perhaps a mile of walking, Lilly takes her audience on a fascinating journey.  This isn’t a tour devoted to the facts and figures of when buildings were built, though there are some touches of this, and I for one have never noticed a sculpted façade that Lilly points out at one stop. Nor is it all about refugees and migration, and Lilly states that she can only tell her story, not those of others, though there is enough detail to illuminate the subjects.  More than anything, it is a proud Leeds resident responding to her adopted home, knowing that home is more about people and community than about bricks and mortar. 

Tales of a City’s tours are pay-as-you-feel.  As well as Lilly, there are tours offered by Rawand, from Kurdistan.  Some of the tours are followed by a Sanctuary Supper (in fact a lunchtime supper), part of the Leeds City of Sanctuary project. 

You can book a place on an upcoming tour – they run every first and third Saturday in July, August, September and October.

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