Tag Archives: refugees

Some Tough Reading

I have chosen to read some pretty tough books recently. They all concern the large-scale political events of the 20th and 21st centuries, and all concern wilful and intentional policy of inhumane treatment towards others. Depressing indeed!

The books refer to Russia in the time of Stalin’s great purges, Paris and Auschwitz in the 1940s, China from the 1930s through to Tiananmen Square and the plight of refugees in Europe today. Books take you to places you have never been, but can profoundly depress you while you are there. What follows is a kind of inhumanity Mash-up.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

I put off reading this novel, and then I had to restart it. It was difficult to read. With brilliant story-telling gifts Madeleine Thien retells the history of China through its effects on several generations of one family and their friends. At the centre of her narrative is Sparrow, a Chinese composer, and Lai his friend and a brilliant concert pianist. But the story stretches back from the wanderings of Sparrow’s mother in the 1930s and forward from the starting point of the novel when Sparrow’s daughter meets Kai’s daughter in Toronto. The fathers have both died.

What links them through this terrible period of Chinese history is music and literature in the face of oppression and mob enforce repression.. Music and literature forge family loyalties, even in the face of violent opposition to Western culture, or any artistic expression.

The stories of the family members over time merge, as they wander off, surface again in distant provinces, often in exile or in terrible prison camps. They suffer enforced re-education, the mob mentality of the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards, the demonstrations and repression of Tiananmen Square. The willingness of the people to try to do as bidden in order to make China better is heartrending in the face of so much brutality. One asks: and today?

It’s a captivating book and one that I have frequently seen read on train journeys.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (2016) Published by Granta 473pp

Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and short-listed for Bailey’s Women’s Fiction prize 2017

Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg

Endpaper for Into The Whirlwind

This book is a memoir, beginning with an account of the author’s arrest in 1937, accused of betraying the Revolution. Sentenced to 10 years in solitary, she endures two in the company of Julia before being sent on to a labour camp in East Russia.

From the moment she is sentenced she has no knowledge of her husband, or of their children (seeing only one of her sons in later life). It’s a grim story, beginning with the Kafka-esque accusations that began the great purge, the cult of personality. The conditions under which the first three years of her sentence are served are so appalling both in isolation and in the work camp, that one wonders anyone survived. At each stage the women support each other, learn how to deal with their warders and those who control their lives. This volume (but not her imprisonment) ends in 1940, and she continued her memoirs in another volume, up to the point of her rehabilitation in the 1950s.

The personal cost of Stalin’s monstrous campaign to ensure his own rule is vividly revealed. Remaining human was a constant struggle, to do with clothes, footwear, keeping warm, eating and acts of generosity towards others.

Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg (1967) Published by Persephone Books 344pp

Translated from the Russian by Paul Stevenson and Manya Harari

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead

While this book is a story of courage generosity and hope (cover blurb) it is also a depressing account of barbarity, inhumanity and the infliction of suffering. It focuses on the 230 French women sent to Auschwitz in January 1943, arrested for anti-German activities. It leaves us to imagine what happened to their menfolk, friends, children and the others who died in huge numbers even before the women arrived in Auschwitz.

The culpability of the Vichy government, the French police, the German occupiers of France, the many who betrayed the communists and members of the Resistance, the guards and commanders of the camps, the medical staff, the Kapos is overwhelming. And so is the disappointment of the women who were largely ignored on their return to France.

What kept the 49 women who survived alive? Friendship, care for each other, courage, hope and a determination to tell the story of what they had experienced and seen.

I included my reflections on this book in a post about visiting Auschwitz, Bookword in Poland.

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead (2011) Published by Vintage 374pp

And just in case you think that this kind of inhumanity doesn’t happen any more in Europe, I refer you to the recent post reviewing a novel about refugees in Germany: Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck.

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Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck

What is the most pressing and intractable problem facing humans today? My answer would be the responses to migration, to the movements of peoples. I mean racism and the other abuses practised on vulnerable peoples. And I mean the responses of governments and especially of the EU to the people who arrive seeking asylum. Go, Went, Gone confronts these issues.

The story of Go, Went, Gone

Richard lives in Berlin, in what used to be called East Berlin, but in his lifetime it has been reunited with the rest of the city. He has just retired from his post as Professor of Classical Philology, and now faces decisions about how he will spend his time, his life. The description of his dilemmas about confronting retirement is excellent in itself.

Memorial to the Berlin Wall, May 2014

Richard’s attention is drawn to a group of refugees who are causing the authorities some worries as they are on hunger strike and then by camping out in Orienplatz. He visits their camp and notices that they have created a community. He decides to investigate, as he might have approached an intellectual question in his professional academic life. He reads up about migration and draws up questions for the migrants and goes to interview them. Here he reflects on what he reads after he has heard some of the men’;s stories.

Much of what Richard reads on this November day several weeks after his retirement are things he’s known most of his life, but today, thanks to this bit of additional information he’s acquired, it all seems to come together in new, different ways. (142)

And when he combines his reading with his previous studies he notices something about the world.

When he considers the path the Berbers may have taken: from the Caucasus by way of Anatolia and the Levant all the way to Egypt and ancient Libya, then later into modern day Niger (and then back from Niger to modern-day Libya and across the sea to Rome and Berlin), it’s nearly a perfect three-quarter circle. This movement of people across the continents has already been going on for thousands of years, and never once has this movement halted. There were commerce, and wars, and expulsions; people often followed the animals they owned in search of water and food, they fled from droughts and plagues, went in search of gold, salt, or iron, or else their faith in their own god could be pursued only in the diaspora. There was ruin and then transformation and reconstruction. There were better roads and worse ones, but never did the movement cease. (142-3)

Never once has this movement halted, never did the movement cease.

As soon as Richard hears the stories of one man after another, the intellectual becomes the personal. He becomes absorbed in their lives, begins to make a difference through language teaching and donations, and becomes a somewhat naïve witness to the treatment of the refugees by the authorities.

My reactions

I was quickly absorbed by this book. The stories of the refugees are full of impact, not least because surviving the fearsome passage across the Mediterranean leads only to yet more suffering. Many of the men who have landed, usually in Italy, find themselves a great deal worse off than before they made their decision to leave, and with little prospect for improving their lives. Everything is a problem: shelter, clothing, work, communications with authorities, language, transport, neighbours, money …

As he learns more, Richard reaches back into what he knew best, classical studies, and makes connections with this knowledge. The centrality of the Mediterranean emerges in all stories. Richard reflects too on parallels with the reunification of Germany and the changes that came with this, especially for those who had lived in the former GDR. German history, however, has little significance for the migrants and they know nothing of Hitler and the atrocities of the 1940s or the division of Germany that followed the Nazis.

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, May 2014

The meanings of boundaries of all kinds surface again and again. Humans seem to separate themselves from others to create enclaves; they identify and differentiate themselves from others in ways that cause huge problems. Above all, the accident of birth determines a human’s legal rights, and those who were born in the wrong places suffer over and over. The project of the EU does not help those who are born outside it.

The movement of peoples, and the dividing of peoples, the creation of boundaries to try to halt them have been going on for thousands of years. What arrogance it is that the EU, and German citizens (or any citizens) believe they can stop it. It seems to me that attempts to breach those boundaries are what it is to be human. Towards the end of the book Richard reflects on the new boundaries as he watches a standoff between the refugees and the police in Spandau.

So a border, Richard thinks, can suddenly become visible, it can suddenly appear where a border never used to be; battles fought in recent years on the borders of Libya, or of Morocco or Niger, are now taking place in the middle of Berlin-Spandau. Where before there was only a building, a sidewalk, and everyday Berlin life, a border has suddenly sprouted, growing up quickly and going to seed, unforeseen as illness.

At the New Year’s Eve party, standing with his friend Peter on his girlfriend’s balcony gazing out into the darkness, Peter told him that for the Incas the centre of the universe wasn’t a point but a line where two halves of the universe met. Is this scene unfolding before Richard’s eyes at the entrance to the asylum seekers’ residence? And are the two groups of people facing off here something like the two halves of a universe that actually belong together, but whose separation is nonetheless irrevocable? (209)

Richard’s experiences remind us that people can learn and change. His interest in and generosity to the men he meets reminds us of our individual responsibilities and possibilities. He draws in many of his friends into his activities. I also liked this book because it ended in a picnic, or rather a joyous barbeque.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, first published in English translation in 2017 by Portobello Books. 283 pp

Translated from the German by Susan Berofsky

Go, Went, Gone was the Winner of the English Pen translate awards, which, by the way, included 50% of women writers and translated. You can find the complete list here.

On Bookword

I am reading and reviewing at least one book by a woman in translation every month: here are a couple of recommendations from those I have already included.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

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Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

More tales of people on the move. We learn from Exit West by Mohsin Hamid that despite restrictive policies by governments, dangers of migration, intense loss when leaving home, people move. People move, their lives change and move on. Even in times of great upheaval people pay attention to little things. Think of Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky.

This is the second paragraph of the new novel from Mohsin Hamid, Exit West:

It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class – in this case an evening class on corporate identity and product branding – but that is the way of things with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does. (1-2)

Stories of migration have both universal and individual significance. The individual lives are made up of ‘pottering about our errands’ even as we are ‘teetering at the edge of the abyss’.

The story

The story of Exit West follows Saeed and Nadia from their first meeting in the evening class, through their escape to Europe, to their eventual separation in the US. It begins like this.

In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her. For many days. His name was Saeed and her name was Nadia and he had a beard, not a full beard, more a studiously maintained stubble, and she was always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a flowing black robe. Back then people continued to enjoy the luxury of wearing more or less what they wanted to wear, clothing and hair wise, within certain bounds of course, and so these choices meant something. (1)

Saeed meets Nadia in an unnamed city where they begin their careful courtship. We are probably in the Middle East, their religion is probably Islam but we are not given any more details. As they fall in love the political situation begins to turn bad, until eventually insurgents take over the whole city and they live in a time of difficult communication and separation.

In the city there are rumours of escape routes through black doors. These doors also provide a route into the city for some insurgents. Saeed and Nadia escape through a black door and arrive first in Mykonos, then London and finally on the west coast of the US, in Marin county. During each difficult episode the couple have been very loyal and careful of each other, even as their experiences undermine their love. They part and make new lives.

We also read cameos of other escapes through the doors, reminding us that the story of Saeed and Nadia is only one of thousands of stories of people moving about the world.

The writing

Mohsin Hamid’s writing is controlled yet relaxed. The tone is not quite as conversational as in The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) when a man sits down beside a foreigner and tells his story with increasing tension. In a novel writing class two of the 10 participants chose the opening paragraphs of that novel as most impressive.

In Exit West the style is more mythic. The two extracts I have quoted reveal a narrator who claims a longer perspective than we have. ‘Back then’ he says several times knowing what happened in the years following the story he is telling. In the same way, he explains the behaviour of the characters to us. I especially enjoy the juxtaposition of ‘corporate identity and product branding’ with the impending violence in that first extract.

Measured, usually slow, told in very long sentences (that’s just one sentence that begins ‘It might seem odd …’ in the first extract) the story that emerges is relentless yet not hard to read despite Mohsin Hamid’s refusal to dodge the difficult moments. The death of Saeed’s mother is vivid, horrific, but almost everyday, for example.

My response

Read from one perspective Exit West is a profound criticism of the failure across the world to acknowledge and do anything good about the movements of people, or to deal with ‘the nativists’. There is, however, a strand in the novel that is hopeful, as the nations manage to draw back from genocide and adopt a policy of controlled work camps instead.

On the human level, as in the tiny stories of escape, Exit West shows that humans are generous, loyal, helpful. Ultimately it is a hopeful novel.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Published in 2017 by Hamish Hamilton 228pp

My walk and challenge.

I am raising money for Freedom from Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the eighth post in the series. You can read more about this on the page called My Challenge (click on the page title below the masthead).

At the time of writing I have almost achieved my target thanks to readers’ and supporters’ donations. But donations are still acceptable.

April walk

The Walking Group

I dedicated one day on my walking holiday in Italy to the challenge. The route on the Gargano Peninsula, in Puglia, took us through limestone hills, and scrub before following a Mediterranean coastal path to the bay of Fontana delle Rose. This walk was about 13.2 km (8.3 miles).

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, walk 7 in Hertfordshire in March

Refugee Tales Ed David Herd and Anita Pincus, walk 6 in February

A Country of Refuge Ed by Lucy Popescu, walk number 5 in January 2017.

Dartmoor, Hay Tor and Freedom from Torture, an extra walk in December, supported by about 20 walkers.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. My fourth walk in December

Do Refugees need holidays? My third walk in November

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes, the second walk in October

Lost and Found, the first walk in September 2016

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

 

The next post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in May

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Refugee Tales edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus

This collection of stories relates naturally to my challenge: they connect writing, and walking and refugees. The framework is adapted from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, with a real walk and real stories told each night. The walk took place in June 2015 and took a route from Dover to Crawley via Canterbury. At any time between 80 and 150 people were on the walk.

The purpose of the Refugee Tales project is to change the language used about refugees,

That by the oldest action

Which is listening to tales

That other people tell

Of others

Told by other

We set out to make a language

That opens politics

Establishes belonging

Where a person dwells. (Prologue pv)

And of course, to change the language is to change the meaning of refugees’ lives.

The collection was produced by the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group with stories and other contributions from writers such as Ali Smith, Chris Cleave, Marina Lewycka, Jade Amoli-Jackson, Patience Agbabi.

Refugee Tales

So we have a prologue and a series of stories, modelled on Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. The Migrant’s Tale, The Lorry Driver’s Tale, The Arriver’s Tale, The Detainee’s Tale and so on. So many different stories, underlining the fact that we are all implicated in the experiences of refugees in this country.

The writers are retelling stories, experiences of people who often are unable to retell such stories in public places.

And the tone is welcoming

And the tone is celebratory

And the tone is courteous

And the tone is real

And every step sets out a demand

And every demand is urgent

And what we call for

Is an end

To this inhuman discourse. (x)

Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims. Copper engraving by William Blake, with additions in watercolour by the artist 1810–20. In the collection of the Morgan Library via WkiCommons

I am going to pick out two of the fourteen Tales.

The Lorry Driver’s Tale by Chris Cleave.

This tale made deepest impression on me. Chris Cleave’s capacity to surprise as a story teller is evident in his novels: I was shocked by The Other Hand, and surprised by aspects of the less convincing Gold. This tale begins when a leftie journalist joins the narrator in his cab a hundred kilometres away from Calais. The opening paragraphs set the scene, the cab driver as common man, sporting a UKIP decal on his rig.

We learn about the practicalities of dodging the illegal migrants.

If immigration is a horror film then Calais is the scene where the zombies are massing. (26)

The leftie journalist is doing an article on the burning social issue of immigration, although he is mostly a restaurant reviewer. He serves to show us how ignorant we liberal lefties are, ignorant of what happens in the ports and the areas around them, what it means to try to drive to the UK with no illegal passengers.

All is not quite as it seems, however. Our lorry driver has a lyrical streak.

At the end of the Customs queue I stopped the lorry and it made those hissing sighing noises – as though it was powered by sadness under unbelievable pressure. (32)

The tale manages to tell us a great deal about what it means for some humans to risk everything to stowaway, and what it does to others who are required to stop them. It is a profoundly moral tale.

The Appellant’s Tale

Portrait of Chaucer as a Canterbury pilgrim, Ellesmere manuscript of The Canterbury Tales. The Tale of Melibee. Early 15th Century via WkiCommons

The Appellant’s Tale was told to David Herd near Crawley. It tells of the appalling experiences of a man from Nigeria, who had been living and working legally in the UK for 30 years. But incompetence and lying in the UK Border Agency resulted in the most appalling sequence of events, a nightmare when he was detained as an illegal immigrant. He was only saved from deportation by someone’s accidental failure to dispose of a black plastic sack containing his essential papers.

This Tale is long, and slow, and reflects both what happened to the man and the way in which he speaks. It is narrated in the present tense and the second person. The reader feels appalled that someone can suffer so many awful injustices in this country, that immigration practices do not have the legal safeguards, for example to defend against lies. The UK Border Agency come out badly from this tale. So does detention and deportation.

… the question of indefinite detention, a cornerstone of UK immigration policy, has remained almost entirely absent from the debate. The principal intention of Refugee Tales was to help communicate the scandalous reality of detention and post-detention existence to a wider audience and in the process to demand that such indefinite detention ends. (From the Afterword p143)

The purpose of the collection is to alter the discourse around refugees, to make English ‘sweet again’, as in Chaucer’s time, sweet so that we can listen, write it down, make stories, so that people cannot say, we didn’t know.

My blog/walk challenge has similar purposes, to draw attention to the responses to the immigration crisis, and to tell human stories.

Refugee Tales, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus. Published by Comma Press in 2016. 150pp Profits go to Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group and Kent Refugee Help

My walk and challenge.

I am raising money for Freedom from Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the seventh post in the series. You can read more about this on the page called My Challenge (click on the page title below the masthead).

At the time of writing I have achieved 60% of my target. Please help me reach my full target which is £1800 by making a donation.

February walk

The Good Name Walk, February 2017

February’s walk could be called the ‘good name walk’. It was a beautiful but muddy day in the second half of February, for a circular walk that started at my front door, took in Coombe Fishacres, Tanyard Lane, Trigwell Lane, Ipplepen Road, Aptor Lane, Butterball Copse and Berry Pomeroy Castle. Round here, lane means very muddy track! The walk was about 12.5km (7.5 miles).

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

A Country of Refuge Ed by Lucy Popescu, walk number 5 in January 2017.

Dartmoor, Hay Tor and Freedom from Torture, an extra walk in December, supported by about 20 walkers.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. My fourth walk in December

Do Refugees need holidays? My third walk in November

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes, the second walk in October

Lost and Found, the first walk in September

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

The next post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in March

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A Country of Refuge Edited by Lucy Popescu

How easy it is to feel defeated in these difficult times. Recently friends and I have been asking, what is to be done? What is to be done in response to the increase in anti-immigrant hatred and discrimination in this country? How do we address the issues raised by people who want to keep non-British people out of this country? And how are we to approach the loss of sympathy for those who are seeking refuge? And more such questions. There are things to be done.

What writers and readers can do:

  • Tell the stories
  • Tell the stories of individuals
  • Tell the stories of individuals to prevent referring to migrants as a ‘swarm’ (David Cameron’s word) or becoming ‘the other’
  • Keeping imagination alive to help people understand the stories
  • Keeping imagination alive to tell stories of different futures

In a series of posts I have highlighted ways in which writers and readers are taking action:

Today’s post looks at the contribution of another collection: A Country of Refuge. It is the 5th in a monthly series of blogs, part of my challenge to raise money for Freedom from Torture.

A Country of Refuge edited by Lucy Popescu

This book has a clear purpose as the editor Lucy Popescu says:

I wanted the writers to focus on the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers in an attempt to directly challenge the negative press and to cast a more positive light on a situation that, for many, is a living hell. (2)

In her introduction she draws attention to our long history of welcoming people seeking refuge: the Protestant Huguenots fleeing Catholic France in the C17th, the Irish escaping the famine in the C19th, some of the 14m displaced people in Europe after the Second World War, Hungarians in 1956. She could have mentioned the Jewish people escaping the pogroms of Europe in the C19th and Nazi policies in the 1930s, the Basque families in the 1930s …

Refugees, it seems, are always with us. The challenges of migration and movement of people around the world needs to be dealt with in a coordinated way. At the moment we in the UK are getting in the way of solving the problems raised by displacing peoples. The dominant discourse is that migration is a risk for our country.

In A Country of Refuge we can read short fiction, poems, memoir, essays, and a lecture to help us consider the experiences of refugees, of leaving one country to try and make a home and a new life in another.

Two examples from A Country of Refuge

The Dog-Shaped Hole in the Garden is a short story (or memoir, or perhaps a mixture) by Hassan Abdulrazzak. Hassan and his family had lived well in Baghdad, but found Saddam Hussein’s regime increasingly threatening because of their family connections. He was a young lad when they left to begin a period of travelling, eventually settling in New Malden in Surrey, where Hassan ached to own a dog. The story of the family’s assessment by the RSPCA lady is humorous but tells of the separation of cultures, the misunderstandings, the crossed wires, and the adaptations and one or two unexpected sacrifices the family had to make. He twice uses the striking phrase ‘falling out of Eden’ about their losses. Hassan Abdulrazzak writes plays.

One of AL Kennedy’s two contributions is a lecture from the European Literature Days Festival in Spitz, Austria in October 2015. She asks again this question, what is to be done and she gives us an answer.

[But it is also true that] failure of the arts, of artists, helps the cruel among us triumph and begin to oppress us all, even in relatively free societies, including – and perhaps initially – those who are communicators. (205)

She makes the argument for a more careful use of vocabulary, challenging David Cameron’s ‘swarm of people’, and suggesting that noticing the individual people, identifying them, describing them and the people close to them, telling their stories makes it less likely to see them as a swarm. When we are confronted with photographs and the name of Aylan Kurdi, the little boy photographed on the beach, drowned, he and his family become hard to fit into a faceless swarm.

AL Kennedy reminds us of the lack of depth in our public media even when it pays attention to stories, such as Aylan Kurdi’s:

The massive displacement of human beings from their homes all across Europe and the Middle East was rarely examined in anything like depth, or presented as being perhaps of more importance than a variety of celebrity talent competitions and soap operas. (208)

She suggests that artists, writers, must show how important imagination is; imagining different lives, imagining different priorities and solutions, better futures for us all. And above all, imagination can help us escape from ‘othering’ and blaming victims for their situation. She reminds us that:

history teaches us that our greatest wrongs, crimes against humanity and genocide, arise from cultures where hatred has become part of the air the citizens breathe. (211)

By drawing attention to the activities of those who do not accept the culture of hatred, who provide aid, who march against unjust wars, through the best of the arts, she reminds us that we have the capacity to dream a better future.

Three notes

A Staffordshire activist, Michaela Fyson, organised, through crowdfunding, for every MP to receive a copy of A Country of Refuge as a Christmas present in December 2016. Lord Dubs supported the event. Michaela said she was moved to this action because:

there are too many politicians referring to these groups of people as if they are animals – talking about them ‘swarming’, or needing their teeth checked like horses to see how old they are. That is what we need to change.

Lucy Popescu has a track record of exposing mistreatment of writers through her column in The Literary Review and her work with PEN. She is also a mentor with the Freedom from Torture Write to Life Group. (See Lost and Found and Souvenirs).

Lucy Popescu had found it impossible to attract a mainstream publisher to A Country of Refuge. It was published through crowdfunding, by Unbound. Writers describe the books they want to publish and readers are invited to support their publication.

A Country of Refuge Edited by Lucy Popescu. Published by Unbound in 2016. 231pp

My walk and challenge.

I am raising money for Freedom from Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the fifth post in the series. You can read more about it on the page called My Challenge (just click on the page title below the masthead).

Please help me reach my target by making a donation.

January walk

My companion was my brother Mont, and we walked in early January on a sparkling day on a circular walk that started inland, took in Noss Mayo and part of the SW Coast Path. The fifth walk was about 13km (8+ miles).

Mont and me, January 2017

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

Dartmoor, Hay Tor and Freedom from Torture, an extra walk in December, supported by about 20 walkers.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. My fourth walk in December

Do Refugees need holidays? My third walk in November

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes, the second walk in October

Lost and Found, the first walk in September

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

The sixth post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in mid-February

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

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Do Refugees need Holidays?

Freedom from Torture runs a Holiday Hosting scheme. The organisation supports refugees who have suffered torture. Why would people who have been tortured need a holiday? Isn’t every day a holiday if they are now free? Of course not. The effects, physical, emotional, familial, even economic are long-lasting. The scheme has given help to victims of torture to come to terms with what has happened to them.

This is the third of my posts in support of Freedom from Torture, asking readers to support my walking/blogging challenge. More details can be found by clicking on the Challenge page link above the picture. And the link to my Just Giving page for your donation is here.

Meet Gill and Tim

Gill and Tim provided holidays for refugees for several years. I met Gill and Tim while we were training as befrienders for young unaccompanied refugees with FFT several years ago. They were no longer offering holidays but supporting refugees through befriending. I asked them if I could use their experiences of offering holidays for my FFT challenge, and they kindly agreed.

299-evil-cr-cover

I was delighted that it all started with a book. They began offering holidays in their home because they had read An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan (1992). Keenan describes his imprisonment in Beirut as a hostage, and how he survived in part because of his friendship with another hostage John McCarthy. Impressed by the book, when they received a request for donations signed by John McCarthy, Gill and Tim began to support the charity and it developed into offering holidays. John McCarthy is a patron of FfT (then called the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture).

What did their guests get out of it?

At that time many refugees rarely got out of London. The holiday scheme offered a week in ordinary homes. Some of their guests had never been inside a British home before, still less stayed in a British home. Gill and Tim were living on Merseyside amidst pinewoods and sand dunes and they therefore also offered a different aspect of Britain to their guests.

In their home the guests were able to relax. Some got practical help, like the Iranian couple who were living in a B&B and so unable to open a bank account. Gill went with the wife to all the banks on her high street to try to persuade them to take on these guests as clients. Although they were turned down by every bank, the wife was later successful. She told Gill she had used the words she had heard Gill use to make her case.

Others found outlets for their feelings. Gill told me about a young man from Afghanistan who was in a tearful state when he arrived. He needed to tell his story, which was horrific as he had seen his family killed by the Taliban. In the garden a tree had been felled and Tim invited their guest to help chop up the tree. An axe was found and the tree was despatched. A therapeutic tree chop.

Another guest became very close to her hosts, to the extent of becoming the nanny to their grandchildren. The nanny’s children have in turn trained as a doctor and a pharmacologist.

Gill and Tim in Kyoto

Gill and Tim in Kyoto

Some difficulties

Sometimes it was not possible to do anything more than just be there for their visitors, Gill told me. There were limits to what they could do to help the refugees with their problems, some were beyond their powers or without solutions.

Some difficulties were hard to negotiate, like the different levels of faith and significance of religion and belief.

Bookish Connections

I asked Gill and Tim for their bookish connections. Their list started with An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan (1992), and they had four more recommendations.

  • What is the What by Dave Eggers (2006) A true story of a boy who was separated from his family in Sudan’s civil war and his journey through simply horrendous situations, till he reached America
  • The Road Home by Rose Tremain (2007) The fictional story of Lev who arrives at Victoria Coach station from somewhere in East Europe, where he was unable to support his wife and daughter and we share in the highs and lows of his attempt to make a new life in London.
  • A Long Way Gone: memoirs of a boy soldier by Ismael Beah (2007) The true story of a boy growing up in Sierra Leone in the 1990s during the violent civil war. Taken as a boy soldier he transforms into someone as addicted to killing as he is to the cocaine that the army makes readily available. But a few years later when agents from the United Nations pulled him out of the army and placed him in a rehabilitation centre. Anger and hate slowly faded away, he abandons violence, he takes it upon himself to speak for the voiceless- -other children trying to survive amidst war. A powerful book.
  • Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (2011) In this novel, Harri, an 11-year old Ghanaian boy arrives in the UK, with his mother and sister, leaving behind other members of his family. They move into a highrise flat in south London where they are among many immigrants, the alcoholics, dealers, petty criminals and teenage members of the Dell Farm Crew gang. Harri and a friend see a boy killed on the estate and they set about to find the identity of the murderer. Harri talks to a pigeon who visits him on his balcony. Harri is an endearing 11 year old and a vivid life is portrayed through his lively, funny, innocent curiosity, though there is an air of menace overlying the story.

What matters?

When I invited Gill and Tim to talk about the holiday scheme I expected to hear good things, but I was struck with how the important thing was the human connections they made. Their guests were people who had suffered, and to whom they offered generous connections. This to me is the best of humanity. And I loved that it emerged that writing had played its part in this process, launching them into it and helping them understand something of the suffering of their guests.

Thank you Gill and Tim for your help in writing this post.

My walk and challenge

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I am raising money for Freedom from Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the third post in the series. You can read more about it on the page called My Challenge (just click on the page title below the masthead).

Please help me reach my target by making a donation.

November walk

Danbury Down, November 2016

Danbury Down, November 2016

The third walk was about 10km (6+ miles). I planned to walk home from Newton Abbot, but the bus I found on-linefor Sunday travel didn’t exist. In the end I walked in a loop around the equestrian countryside. There were two landmarks: the iron age fort of Denbury Down, seen from a different perspective than my usual view, and HM Prison Channings Wood, where visitors were waiting.

channings-wood

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page. Please be generous.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

Lost and Found, the first walk in September

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes, the second walk in October

Souvenirs in May 2016

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

 

The fourth post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in mid-December

 

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Filed under Books, Books and Walking, Freedom from Torture Challenge

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes

At its best fiction takes us to places we might never go, introduces us to people we may never meet, and to situations we would avoid in the normal course of our lives. I have never been to The Jungle, the refugee camp in Calais, but through the medium of these eight short stories I have a better understanding of the place and its effects.

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The writers were commissioned to give voice to the refugees through these stories, having listened to people who associated with The Jungle.

I commissioned Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes to go to the Calais refugee camps to distil stories into a work of fiction about escape, hope and aspiration. On another level, however, these stories also take seriously the fears of people who want to close their borders. It’s that dialogue that isn’t happening in real life. A work of art can bridge that gap. Meike Ziervogel, Peirene Press.

This is the second post in my challenge series, to raise money for Freedom from Torture.

Everyone has a story

The stories are told from different points of view, and mostly in present tense. Some narrators are refugees, others include a wannabe smuggler, a volunteer, a foster parent in the Calais area, an asylum seeker in Bradford learning English from a volunteer teacher.

Everyone is touched, and for most people the experiences are not enriching. Refugees trying to get across the Channel to the UK respond to the impossible circumstances with skills they have learned along the way: lying, dissembling, stealing, exploiting. The circumstances can bring out generosity, support, connectedness, even shared humour but everyone involved wants something from the Jungle.

Calais overview via WikiCommons January 2016 by Malachy Browne

Calais overview via WikiCommons January 2016 by Malachy Browne

There are the young men, looking for a truck they can climb into; the police whose job it is to prevent them; the smugglers who earn money by facilitating transport; the volunteers who get to feel good; the young women who desperately need money and respond in the way women have throughout the ages; the groups who support each other for a while, but get splintered when one of them gives up or achieves a crossing; there are the truck drivers, the volunteers

From Counting Down, the opening story:

GPS tells me it’s eleven minutes. I don’t think that’s right. It’s too short. How can you cross a border, go from one country to another, and be there in eleven minutes? It took us two weeks to get here.

The others laugh because I say I want them to call me Obama. We are sitting down by a tree to plan the eleven minutes.

‘Why not Clinton?’ Calculate says. ‘At least it would sound like you got some action.’

I don’t know what he means; I know some boys who are called Clinton, back at home, in Sudan. It’s nothing special. But Calculate is old. Normally I wait for him to speak. (9)

Jungle Books via WikiCommons January 2016 by Katja Ulbert

Jungle Books via WikiCommons January 2016 by Katja Ulbert

From Oranges in the River:

This shabby truck will be stopped for sure. Jan has been on several like it. They’re easy to open and easy to hide in, so the police and the border guards always stop them. But Jan must take every opportunity. His parents sold their property for him to get this far, their insurance for old age is gone, so he can’t flag, he can’t fear, he can’t fail – he must push on. Plus, of course, he must stay on the safe side of the smuggler who drove him here and who wouldn’t take kindly to his refusing. And after all, he reminds himself, Walat made it. (135)

Breach reminds us that each migrant has their own story, and that many others are invested in her/his passage across Europe; that many countries are implicated; that the journey before crossing to the UK is fraught with difficulties, danger and is expensive. Life after arrival is frequently very difficult as well.

The bigger picture

The stories cumulatively ask questions about the effects of migration, which are broadly raw and undesirable. And we come to see that those who make the decisions and take the actions that result in the collection of migrants in a place like The Jungle, are far, far away from the consequences of their decisions.

Calais demolitions and police via WikiCommons March 2016 Amirah Breen

Calais demolitions and police via WikiCommons March 2016 Amirah Breen

These stories are imaginatively written, and do not duck the issues, nor romanticise or demonise. We are shown what people do when they are forced into seeking refuge. We see the way lives, relationships, everything is interrupted while basic needs such as shelter, food and clothing occupy so much time. The lives of the migrants are focussed on the next stage of their journey: Jan, the character who hides in the truck in Oranges in the River quoted above says,

All these nights waiting for trucks or waiting in trucks or running away from trucks. (138)

And even when he has arrived in the UK, in Bolton, Algahli reflects:

Here they are nameless; it doesn’t matter what they call themselves, they disappear and dissolve. Here it is muteness. It doesn’t have a name. (143)

Never Really home, he texts his friend still in Calais.

And those that would rather the refugees went away, where are they?

Complexity has crept up on us. And answers are not being proposed. The human suffering continues, Even if President Hollande succeeds in his proposal to close the Jungle and disperse the residents, people will still want to get to the UK, the people who have got this far will still be in Europe.

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes. Commissioned and published by Peirene in 2016. 155 pp. 50p from each purchase of Breach will go to Counterpoint Arts.

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My walk and challenge.

I am raising money for Freedom From Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the second post in the series. You can read more about it on the page called My Challenge (just click on the page title below the masthead).

Please help me reach a third of my target by making a donation.

October walk

The ridge north of Pewsey

The ridge north of Pewsey

The second walk was in the Vale of Pewsey, about 15km (9 miles). I was pleased to walk with my friend Sarah, meeting at the railway station and walking north across the valley to a ridge, along the ridge in a horseshoe and the descending to cross the valley to meet the Kennet and Avon Canal and return to the station. It was a beautiful day and we could see for miles.

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page. Please be generous.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

Lost and Found, the first walk in September

Souvenirs in May 2016

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

Peirene Press, from whom Beach can be ordered.

The third post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in mid-November

 

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Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Freedom from Torture Challenge, short stories

Souvenirs

Who doesn’t have one or two things that they keep to remind themselves of something in the past: a photograph, a pebble, an item of clothing? Those of us fortunate enough not to have a disrupted life are able to hold onto our souvenirs. For those, forced through fear of violence to flee their country, the souvenirs may be lost or less easy to understand. Tracy, a refugee and a victim of torture, said

What happened to me, the marks on my body, the memories, they are going to be my souvenirs.

FFT On My WayTracy had contributed these lines to the play Souvenirs. Living with one’s past can be unbearable, and that’s where the work of Freedom from Torture is so valuable. A group within that charity assists refugees through writing: The Write to Life group. I had a small connection with them before I left London. This is a revision of the post I wrote after I had been to see a production of their play: Souvenirs.

Souvenirs

Writing takes one to some surprising places and to meet some amazing people. Writing as therapy may sound dry and self-indulgent, but the Freedom From Torture’s Write to Life Group are lively, thoughtful and funny. They were also very welcoming when I joined them at one of their meetings. The group was established in 1997 and is co-ordinated by Sheila Hayman, assisted by a team of mentors. It supports torture survivors through writing, a therapeutic process.

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Souvenirs was based on the words of five of the group’s participants whoworked with two theatre companies: iceandfire and Tamasha Theatre Company. The writers played themselves.

Tracy said: What happened to me, the marks on my body, the memories, they are going to be my souvenirs. …I want to show people how I feel. In my struggle I did not have a voice and I want the world to know the truth. Talking, acting, writing about it, it’s another way to free myself.

‘The woman sitting in front of you…’ Jade, sitting centre stage, inescapable, speaks the first line. We, the audience, cannot escape. Her words, perhaps first spoken to Christine Bacon, the scriptwriter, are repeated several times in the short production. Jade sitting on the stage, is speaking to me, to you, to the other members of the cast.

The writer-actors tell us what we would rather not hear:

  • This country, my country, refuses asylum to some victims of torture
  • My country does not allow asylum seekers to work
  • My country treats people as if their needs for food, shelter, comfort, transport, communication with home, are irrelevant
  • Children in other countries are forced to become soldiers
  • Children can and do kill people
  • Parents leave behind their children and partners
  • Parents don’t know when or if they will see their children again
  • Refugees fear memories of torture but they are made to repeat details when they claim asylum
  • Individual acts of small kindnesses are treasured
  • Suffering does not stop when they reach the UK, and can be made worse by experiences here
  • Suffering and healing are all around us
  • Witnesses are sitting in front of us, on the stage.

Tracy says to the audience that she tells other sufferers of torture to speak out. This is part of the healing process. Another participant in the Write to Life group said, ‘talking, acting, writing about it, it’s another way to free myself.’ An audience is like a mirror in front of her, after all the horror and degradation, she is still powerfully and triumphantly alive. This is the mending power of words.

After a previous performance of Souvenirs at the Bath Literature Festival, Mohamed said:

When I saw the audience, I found myself saying it to them with my whole heart. Saying that script – it took me right back. … I want to change people’s perspective of asylum seekers – this is a kind of advocacy for people who are voiceless, which is invaluable. (from the Freedom From Torture blog)

Performing the play was an emotional experience for the participants. And also for the audience. The applause was prolonged.

Words bear witness to these things we don’t want to know. But we cannot now unknow them. We are the people in front of whom stood Jade, Mohammed, Tracy, ‘Uganda’, Hasani, and, in the revised script of the play, Conteh. Words allow us to know and to share, to change. Words lead to action. Now we know, what will we do?

‘Uganda’ said: This is the only way to speak out. It is a way to let the world know what is happening – we are alerting people to get things done.

Postscript

Rescue off the Canaries, November 15th 2006. Noborder Network via WikiCommons.

Rescue off the Canaries, November 15th 2006. Noborder Network via WikiCommons.

We tend to think that the crossing of the Mediterranean is the worst of the refugees’ journey to freedom. But what happens when they land, when they apply for asylum, these things can be as damaging as anything experienced up to that point. I am still ashamed now, more ashamed even, of how my country treats refugees. I continue to support Freedom from Torture.

The text of Souvenirs is available to buy from Freedom from Torture at £5.

254 FFTlogoThe original post, Souvenirs and Writing Home, was published in April 2013.

 

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Filed under Writing