So refugee week is over. The fact that the UK is the only country in Europe where refugees who arrive looking for a safe haven are detained indefinitely, and are often sent back home to face persecution, torture or death, will be kicked into the long grass once again. Certain politicians continue to use the language of disaster and provoke fear by swelling numbers of arrivals, backed by box-ticking Home Office officials.
Refugees are individuals seeking asylum for humanitarian reasons and suffer trauma, broken dreams, love and loss as a consequence. They are not amorphous groups to be rendered and processed and imprisoned in detention centres like criminals. Such a hostile environment is anything but a welcoming new home, and some go crazy with grief.
As Alex Preston – journalist and author of In Love and War – put it during talk host Lucy Popescu’s rousing panel discussion ‘On Refuge’ at Waterstones in Tottenham Court Road last week: “The UK has changed and many of us do not recognise it any more. This is a good country, with good people and a history of being good and welcoming to refugees. The current political climate is an aberration.”
During the panel discussion, Christy Lefteri, author of debut novel, The Bee Keeper of Aleppo, Dina Nayeri winner of the O. Henry Prize and author of non-fiction book, The Ungrateful Refugee, and Sita Brahmachari whose latest book, Where the River Runs Gold, is for children age 9 to 11, all radiated varying degrees of embattled frustration in the face of the current global refugee crisis. It is a worldwide problem — one whose scale and severity is unmatched since World War II.
“Bees are symbol of hope: where there are bees there are flowers, where there are flowers there is new life” Christy Lefteri
Sita Brahmachari described how her migrant father’s stories about faraway places allowed her to have an imagined space to step into where she did not quite fit in, be it here or back there, but in an imagined space, which is what migrants bring to whatever landscape they go to. “We don’t write stories on our own, they come out of the landscape we live in.”
Such is the spirit behind Lucy Popescu’s two superb collections: A Country to Call Home: An anthology on the experiences of young refugees and asylum seekers and A Country of Refuge: An Anthology of Writing on Asylum Seekers.
“I write children’s books because I believe they’re the books that change people’s lives,” S. F. Said
A Country to Call Home
Lucy Popescu writes in her introduction: “Over half of the world’s refugees are children. Many arrive on our shores utterly alone. Some don’t make it. Remember that image of Alan Kurdi, the small Syrian boy, just a toddler? His tiny body, face down, washed up on a Turkish beach? The photograph was reproduced worldwide and helped temper the negative media for a short while. It was this image that made me think of putting together an anthology that explores the reality for child refugees and unaccompanied young adults making these harrowing journeys in search of safety.”
A Country to Call Home includes previously unpublished stories, flash fiction, poetry by leading young adult authors, and original illustrations by Chris Riddel. It features contributions from Brian Conaghan, Bali Rai, Christine Pullein-Thompson, Tony Bradman, Anna Perera, Kit de Waal, Sue Reid, Michael Morpurgo, Moniza Alvi, Tracy Brabin, Hassan Abdulrazzak, Moniza Alvi, Jon Walter, Fiona Dunbar, Peter Kalu, Eoin Colfer, Sita Brahmachari, Patrice Lawrence, Miriam Halahmy, David Almond, S. F. Said, Adam Barnard, Simon Armitage . . . and Lucy Popescu’s interview with children’s author, the late Judith Kerr who was born in Berlin in 1923, but escaped from Hitler’s Germany with her parents and brother in 1933 when she was nine years old.
Judith Kerr’s words describe a very different Britain to how it is today: “People were so kind to us during the war. Even though we were German and my parents spoke very little English, we never witnessed any unkindness. There was an official name for Germans who were classed as enemy aliens, but people like us were officially called ‘friendly enemy aliens’ because we were German but also known to be anti-Hitler. We had to report to the police if we went more than five miles away, so we knew the police well and they were so kind. My father once said that if he left England he would have to take the whole population with him. England is my home. I owe this country so much.”
There has been a hardening of hearts. What do we owe to each other as human beings, what kind of society do we want to live in?
So in this 21st century, what does a person forced to flee their homeland have to endure, both on their journey and – if they survive – in a new homeland?
The Sea, The Sea
The vast majority of people arriving in Europe by sea are fleeing persecution, war and famine, a quarter of which are children. Bali Rai’s story, Mermaid, focuses on the fate of a little girl and her father from Damascus – an English teacher – destined for Denmark. “I will never know how long we floated in the cold and the darkness. I will only ever remember Papa holding me close, begging me to stay awake. I was so tired, so empty, but he did not give up on me. ‘Remember the film,’ he whispered. ‘Remember the stories we made up. You are Ariel and this water is your kingdom. I will save you, just like the prince in our stories, Nadia. Soon you will reach the shore . . .’.”
Kit de Waal’s superb piece of fatal flash fiction, Did You See Me?, asks terrible questions: “Did you see me when the waves bounced me up and away? Did you hear me shout? Did you see me running in the water?”
Before World War I in 1914, there were virtually no border controls or restrictions to moving around the European mainland. In the 1950s, freedom of movement of qualified industrial workers was included in the treaties founding the European Economic Community (EEC), the predecessor of the current European Union, in 1957.
With the current rise of far-right populism, and failure of mainstream political parties to find humane solutions, border controls are overwhelmed and in disarray. Italy is refusing or delaying disembarkation of individuals recovered by rescue ships, and Hungary makes it almost impossible for asylum seekers to enter the country to seek protection.
A boy returns home to look after his grandma the late Christine Pullein-Thompson’s story, I Want the Truth, set on the eve of the Romanian revolution in 1989 . . . “There was a lorry parked near him now full of sacks. He could climb inside and hide. The driver had disappeared in the direction of the frontier, leaving the engine running. For a moment Ion’s legs refused to move. Then he bounded across the road and clambered into the lorry.”
While Sue Reid, in Our Bridge to Freedom, evokes the turmoil of Hungary in 1956. “He didn’t know how they managed to get on the train. What a scrum! People shoving and pushing each other, desperate to find room for themselves and their families. That should tell the Soviets something [. . .] He was a refugee too now. It was easy to forget that. A refugee had always been something other people were. Someone who had no country to call home.”
Road to Nowhere
The terror of leaving the place where you grew up, not being able to return home, or knowing how the journey will end is brought alive by Michael Morpurgo in his story about a little Afghan boy’s escape with his mother in The Little Red Train. “I counted twelve of us in all, mostly from Iran, and a family – mother, father and a little boy – from Pakistan, and beside us an old couple from Afghanistan, from Kabul . . . The smell, I’ll never forget the smell. After that I think I must have lost consciousness because I don’t remember much more. When I woke up – it was probably days later, I don’t know – the lorry had stopped.”
Moniza Alvi’s The Camp is an extract from a book-length poem based on a family story set at the time of the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Thousands of people were killed in civil unrest and millions were displaced. “Holes in shelters. Holes in families . . . The nothingness was palpable – you could pluck it from the air.”
The Front Line
The reality of today’s Britain is a different one to the refugee fairy tale peddled by people smugglers. People go through hell just to be believed, the bureaucratic process appears to want to find fault with applications so people can be sent home regardless of the persecution or death waiting at the end of the line.
Tracy Brabin, in Dawn Raiders, describes an asylum-seeker’s nightmare when the family home is raided at dawn. “Mr Kizende, I am arresting you on suspicion of illegally overstaying in the UK. You and your family will be prepared for immediate removal.”
While Michael Morpurgo, in Locked Up, writes about children imprisoned in a Yarl’s Wood, “Then they were shouting at Mother, telling her we had five minutes to get ready, that we were illegal asylum seekers, that they were going to take us to a detention centre, and then we’d be going back to Afghanistan. That was when I suddenly became more angry than frightened. I shouted back at them. I told them that we’d been living here six years, that it was our home.”
And Jon Walter, in Every Day Is Christmas, writes through the eyes of a child from Addis Ababa interned in a camp on Christmas Island off the coast of Australia. As with the UK, those seeking asylum in Australia can be held in detention indefinitely. “Mother says that stories fill you up with all the goodness in the world. That they help to make sense of who you are. But now all the stories they tell me are of their past.”
Home Sweet Home
The pieces by Sita Brahmachari, Fiona Dunbar, Miriam Halahmy, Patrice Lawrence, David Almond and Simon Armitage show the traps and pitfalls of trying to adapt and learn a new language, the humiliation of relying on handouts of clothes, the stress, isolation and disempowerment. The trauma of exile can turn murderous, as concluded by Adam Barnard in Learning to Laugh Again, about a group of teenage refugees going to a farm in Devon for a sort of therapeutic activity holiday. It’s a roll of the dice.
The young survivor of the Sri Lankan Civil war ends up working in a service station in Anna Perera’s Gowsika Auntie. Her colleagues are oblivious to historical violence and the contradiction of seeing certain tourism spots as must-visit destinations. “I hate the smell of petrol but have a job in a service station in Essex. One day a woman with spiky brown hair and a ring through her nose was buried in pictures of beautiful hotels, idyllic beaches, tea gardens and heritage sites of my home country, Sri Lanka. She smiled to herself as she turned the pages of the magazine.”
Peter Kalu’s tale is about Sana, a Kurdish asylum seeker who works in a kitchen. She is the referee in the annual football match of Kitchen vs. Servers which seems harmless enough but there is a profoundly dark undertow. Whereas Eoin Colfer, in Christopher, conjures the Lord of the Flies type cruelty of little boys, “Marco felt sick to his stomach and wished that he could just go home. But he knew he must return to the factory.”
A Country to Call Home is not devoid of hope though. Hassan Abdulrazzak’s love story, The Good Girl in the All-Terrain Boots, between a Mexican girl and a Syrian boy rescued by a veteran rescue dog called Frida is touching and imbued with dark humour. “War happened in Hazem’s country. It was sudden and unexpected. I sort of understand war. I guess it’s like when two packs fight over a turf. One side says this is my domain, I’ve pissed all over it, and the other side says no, it was I who pissed over it first. Then both sides jump at each other and begin snarling and biting. Come to think of it, you people don’t do much biting, you prefer to blow things up instead.”
Lucy Popescu’s A Country to Call Home is a tremendous collection which brings into sharp relief the plight faced by thousands of children facing an uncertain future, and reveals how writers are responding to our challenging times. There’s something for everyone – fatalism, death and despair; humour, romance and poetic licence. Relevant and empathic, this book would enrich school classrooms and could go towards creating book clubs to make reading interesting and topical.
Being genuinely good to one another means displaying compassion and kindness and finding ways to engage with and support “the most voiceless our society who are locked up and treated abominably for no reason.” Why not show you care all year round, rather than for just a week? There are plenty of ways to help, and numerous organisations trying to make a difference. Here are a few:
The Children’s Society – Young Refugees and Migrants
A Country to Call Home (ed.) Lucy Popescu | 256 pages Unbound, London | ISBN 978-1-78352-604-8 (trade pbk) ISBN 978-1-78352-606-2 (ebook)
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