Tag Archives: Refugee

In the Sea there are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda

Two things immediately draw the reader to this short book. The first is the title, a child’s warning of dangers lurking for a voyager crossing the sea. It is the cry of fear by a young boy about to enter a boat in the Mediterranean, who does not believe it is safe. Although there are no crocodiles in that sea, the boy is correct. There are salt-water crocodiles, and the journey from the shores of Turkey to Lesbos in Greece is perilous.

In the Sea there are Crocodiles has a sub-title: The story of Enaiatollah Akbari. In the Author’s Note, the writer Fabio Geda recounts meeting Enaiatollah Akbari at a book presentation in Italy and how they agreed to retell his story of migration. He reveals that while it is based on a true story, the two of them had to reconstruct Enaiatollah’s journey and that what we have is a ‘recreation’. The story dates from about 2000. 

The second thing that interests the reader is the set-up for the story.

One night, on the dangerous Pakistani border, Enaiatollah’s mother tells him there are three things he must never do: use drugs or weapons, cheat, or steal.
When the ten-year-old Afghan boy wakes alone the next morning he realises that she was saying goodbye – and that it is now up to him to find a place of safety. [Blurb]

His mother believed that Enai was at more risk from the Taliban if he stayed living in their village than if he lived outside Afghanistan. He is from the ‘wrong’ ethnic group. But what does it mean for a ten-year-old boy to be abandoned by his mother?

In the Sea there are Crocodiles

At first, after that morning, Enai must simply learn to survive, which he does by being useful. He is polite and willing to apply himself. He adapts himself to many jobs in the course of this story, and his lack of complaints is probably one of the reasons why he survives.

Enai gradually moves away from the border town to find work in Iran. He is by no means alone in being exiled from Afghanistan. He benefits from a loose brotherhood among the exiles, and also, one imagines, from the vulnerability of his age. Nevertheless, he must work for his living. Pretty soon he is caught up in the building trade and he learns the ways of indebted labour, saving what money he can to meet the requirements of traffickers who are essential to his search for safety.

What is revealed is how the building trade, the world over, relies on an illegal work force, which keep costs low and also feeds into the trafficking economy. I was reminded of Sunjeev Sahota’s novel called The Year of the Runaways (2016) which was a raw account of the lives of migrants from the Indian sub-continent who worked illegally in the building trade on sites in the Midlands and the north of England. Enai works in Greece to complete the Olympic sites in 2004, for example.

Enai’s journey

Enai did not set out to travel to the EU. At 10 years old he hardly knew it existed. Instead, he makes decisions to improve his lot, to follow his friends or to find more work. As a result, he goes to Iran, is returned to Pakistan, moves back to Iran, and then decides to move on to Turkey. He learns about better opportunities in Greece and finally of his chances in Italy.

Life is hard for a young boy with no resources but his wits and the ability to work and learn. He faces up to being an illegal worker in Pakistan and Iran, sometimes having to work for months to pay off the traffickers who transport him. When he decides to go to Turkey he faces a long, gruelling journey over the mountains to Istanbul. After the dangers of the mountains there follows a 3-day trip in the false floor of a lorry. Many do not survive. 

To get to Greece, he joins a group of even younger boys who endure a terrifying passage by boat, without encountering any sea monsters. Finally he makes it to meet a fellow refugee from his Afghani village in Turin.

The story reveals the endurance and resilience of a young boy. He also benefits from a fair bit of luck and the kindness of strangers. We also learn about the commerce of trafficking, how it is an organised trade. It is exploitative, but it also provides a service for the trafficked, the employers along the way, as well as an income for themselves.

It is a moving story, not least because we would like to think that boys of 10 do not have endure a life such as Enai’s. But it leaves us with some important questions:

  • How many migrants do not have his happy ending?
  • How can we understand refugee and migrant experiences without stories such as these?
  • How is it that we live in a world where such conditions persist?
  • While traffickers make a living off migrants, they do not cause the migrant crisis. Why does our government persist in making them the targets of action, the bad guys, rather than using resources to make the conditions of migrants’ lives more humane?

In the Sea there are Crocodiles: The story of Enaiatollah Akbari by Fabio Geda, published by Tamarind in 2011. 215pp. Translated from the Italian by Howard Curtis. 

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Lost and Found in Exile

What is the experience of life in exile, as a refugee, as a survivor of torture? Six writers and three musicians took to the stage to tell us at the Roundhouse, in London, for a performance of Lost and Found. Tickets were sold out. When they came to the end of their show applause was prolonged, the audience rose to its feet: we had all been moved by the stories.

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Lost

The cast, Uganda, Jade, Alex, Prossy, Neda and Faryad, are members of the Write to Life creative writing group at Freedom from Torture. Their stories reflect the deep losses experienced when they were forced to flee to another country. Music is lost: a violin buried stands for the destruction of beauty in Iran; a Ugandan song recovered in and unintentionally sung to the occupants of the British Library Reading Room; the ubiquity of dance music in Cuba; the sadness of Kurdish songs.

I was cut in half in exile, always trying to find my other half.

The search for what is lost may not be successful. Life in a new country may not be good. It takes years to recover from torture and it is more difficult in this disbelieving climate.

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Music can express the loss of dignity, self-respect, physical integrity through flight, exile and torture. Waiting for my Number was an amusing song. But it is not a good experience for those who must queue to report to the authorities at Lunar House, Croydon. It is mostly about waiting for their number. A stateless person, seeking asylum, reduced to a number by the system. No one is only a number!

Found

Some things are found, sometimes through the kindness of strangers. With nothing to live for, it seemed, Jade was ready to step in front of a car in Greenwich and end it all. She was saved by a passer-by and made a permanent friend.

After three and a half years of imprisonment in an unknown place, another member of the cast escaped hoping to reach London. She found she was already there.

A family, alive and well, was rediscovered in his Ugandan homeland, his mother able to speak on the phone, everyone changed after 20 years.

The Writers Group, Write to Life, at Freedom From Torture, has a therapeutic purpose. Writers rediscover their voices, their sense of self, their dignity and can tell us, who are more fortunate, about what torture and exile means.

The six writers had told their stories to Christine Bacon who brought these stories together in a script. Music and lyrics were added by Ana Silvera and performed by her and Alice Zawadka and Will Roberts.

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My walk and challenge.

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

285-walkSeptember walk had a literary connection. Agatha Christie lived at Greenway, Devon. She too was lost and found at one point in her life. I walked on Thursday 15th September, a circular route, from Broadsands to Greenway on the River Dart, and then back along The John Musgrave Trail and SW Coast Path. 13kms (8 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

Souvenirs and Writing Home April 2013

Dear Jade September 2013

Souvenirs May 2016

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

 

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

… in mid-October

 

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Souvenirs and Writing Home

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 currently co-ordinated by Sheila Hayman, assisted by a team of mentors. It supports twenty torture survivors through writing, a therapeutic process.

The evening I was present, one of the mentors led a workshop on place and home, starting with a discussion that explored English words for home (abode, mansion, accommodation) and then moved on to consider the concept of home in different countries and languages. We wrote for 20 minutes about home and listened as some were read aloud. We heard nostalgia, memories, homesickness, connections with the people of childhood and of the people still at home. And some poignant details about people and places left behind.

FFT On My Way

This was not my first meeting with members of the group. During Refugee Week last summer I went to their performance at Tate Britain, Where are you from? The Tate was showing the exhibition Migrations and writers from the group had chosen artworks from the exhibition or the permanent collection that resonated with them in some way, and responded in writing. Two in particular stood out: Hasani reading his poem The Land, in front of Turner’s etching: Hedging and Ditching. And Yamikani reading I’d never seen the sea in front of Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shallot. And the group as a whole supported, encouraged and applauded each other and welcomed strangers to hear and talk about their writing.

Souvenirs, based on the words of five of the group’s participants and on which they worked with two theatre companies: iceandfire and Tamasha Theatre Company is being performed at Jackson’s Lane this week. 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 they will see their children again
  • Refugees fear memories of torture and are made to repeat details in claiming asylum
  • Individual acts of small kindnesses are treasured
  • Suffering does not stop when they reach the UK, and can be made worse by treatment here
  • Suffering and healing are all around us
  • Witnesses are sitting in front of us, on the stage.

Tracy says to a member of 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)

I knew from the participants that this was an emotional experience for them. And so it was for the audience. The applause was emotional and 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’ and Hasani. Words allow us to know and 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.

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