Seeing Leeds through the eyes of a refugee.

I love stories. Whether it’s through reading books, watching films, seeing plays, listening to podcasts… you name it. I love hearing about people’s different experiences and perspectives.

Last weekend I got to enjoy hearing the story of Lilly, a South African migrant, through a Tales of a City walking tour of Leeds.

Tales of a City is a “Pay-As-You-Feel tour company, providing cultural walking tours around Leeds city centre led by tour guides with a refugee background.”

The company’s aim is to:

“1) to show the city from a newcomer’s perspective

2) raise awareness of different cultures and celebrate our city’s diversity

3) challenge stereotypes and prejudices around refugees and migrants in the UK through the first hand experiences of our tour guides.”

I was invited to one of the tours last weekend, and along with my friend Emily, got to hear all about Lilly and her journey from being a South African native, then migrant, asylum seeker, refugee, and finally a British citizen living in Leeds.

Lilly speaking in Central Library
Lilly in Central Library

We met outside Leeds City Museum before moving on to the tour’s starting point – Leeds Civic Hall. I don’t want to write too much about Lilly’s tour as I think you should go on it yourself and hear her story, but I will say that it was a really interesting way to find out about someone.

I enjoyed how she used each location to focus on a different aspect of her life, such as her time in her home country, education and work, family, faith and race. Interspersed with poignant quotations and images, the tour was more than just a walk through the city.

Leeds Cathedral
Leeds Cathedral

Although I was familiar with most of the places we went to, it was really good to actually stop and be still in them, and think about what each location might mean to someone else. For example, I often rush through Mandela Gardens as a short-cut and never really stop to look at how beautiful it is or think about why we have it.

I might pop in to Leeds Central Library to return a book before dashing off to get the train, but rarely spend enough time in it to appreciate what an amazing building it is, or how it helps people access information they may not otherwise be able to get, as well as offering a safe space and sense of community.

Staircase in Leeds Central Library
Leeds Central Library

The tour was a great way to get a fresh take on the city I love and be encouraged to think in a different way. It was also really nice to have an excuse to be outside and do something different.

(I would recommend finding out in advance how far the tour is and how long; although our tour wasn’t particularly far in distance, we did spend a lot of time stood up which may be difficult for some people. Also, those hard of hearing might struggle unless you make sure you stand close to your tour guide.)

Group of people in City Square
Sunday’s tour group

It got me thinking about which landmarks in Leeds I’d choose to chronicle my life here. I think I’d select the following:

  • The Royal Armouries – I was taken here as a child with my brother and cousin a lot when it first opened. I loved the tournament days and the shooting games they used to have upstairs.
  • The Corn Exchange – As a teenage mosher, I loved coming to the Corn Exchange to hang out with kindred spirits with tatty black nail varnish and rucksacks covered in badges. (If you’ve only just moved to, or visited, Leeds in recent years, I realise this might sound confusing. The Corn Exchange may be a boutique shopping hub now, but it used to be full of goths, punks and emos.)
  • Joseph’s Well – I was always at gigs in Leeds, supporting local bands. I was really into ska music and was at Joseph’s Well most weeks, but could also be found at others pubs and venues like The Cockpit or Carpe Diem. (All three of which are now shut down!)
  • The University of Leeds – After moving away to Liverpool for university, I returned to West Yorkshire and had a couple of jobs in Wakefield. A few years later, I ended up working in Leeds at a PR agency before moving to the University of Leeds where I’ve been for the past five years. I love it here and like working for an employer that plays such a big part in the city.
  • Leeds City Museum – Confession: I had never been to the museum until this year. As a mum, I’m always on the lookout for child-friendly places, particularly ones that are suitable for wet weather and don’t cost the earth. My toddler loves going to the museum. He enjoys playing with the toys in Toddler Town, and pushing the pram around the big open floors. (He also loves closing all the doors so I have to run around after him and open them up again!)

Where would you choose to map your time in Leeds?

Thinking about these places has reminded me how privileged I am. My race, ethnicity, religion (or lack-of), social status, finances, or gender hasn’t stopped me enjoying any of these venues. I wonder how many other people can say the same, or how different their story of their home town would be.

The Tales of a City tours run over summer on the first and third Saturday of the month and are led alternately by Lilly and Rawand. To find out more information and to book your place on a tour, visit the Eventbrite page.