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On the road to hope

Lucy Popescu shares some of the stories and poems produced by a writing group to mark the theme of this year’s Refugee Week

17 June, 2021 — By Lucy Popescu

An image which illustrates the refugees’ stories in the Write to Life zine

THIS year, Refugee Week’s theme is “We Cannot Walk Alone”. Islington-based charity Freedom from Torture is marking the date with a collection of stories, poems and memoirs produced by their creative writing group, Write to Life (WtL).

It’s been my privilege to co-edit WtL’s inaugural zine with Marsha, a talented writer from Bangladesh.

Together, the contributions reveal the refugee journey: from fear and desperation, through frustration and sadness, and finally to acceptance and hope.

They remind us of the importance of being able to share, and alleviate, their pain.

This collection is a testament to the resilience of the WtL group and a poignant evocation of Refugee Week’s theme.

A narrative arc swiftly emerged from the writing submitted.

It began with Jade’s introduction to Refugee Week:

Let us remember
The wonderful people who put their lives on hold
To help refugees and asylum seekers
For without them
I would not be writing this poem.

In New Arrivals, Aso imagines the dangerous journey by sea made by many desperate people attempting to reach safety:

We are in Calais, France. We’re waiting to cross the channel, this is my third attempt, maybe the fourth.

This time it will be different. Instead of a lorry we are going to use a small inflatable boat; it is more dangerous and could be our final challenge. This is our fate, there is no turning back.

The road to heaven is never ending.

It could be a mirage; this heaven might not exist.

But we have left hell, that’s why we believe suffering must end somewhere.

We are illegal and the wild passengers of this endless path, carrying pain and stories, looking to settle somewhere, on the edge of life.

But we always depart and never seem to arrive.

This is our last chance. Things will end here, somewhere between stop­ping and continuing…

The challenge will start soon. Our destiny is to reach our final destination.

Either we will end up under the English Channel or in English heaven.

We are in Calais. We are waiting for it to get dark.

The night always protects us from the eyes of the light… from the guardians of heaven.

We are like a ball kicked between Monsieur and Mister.

Everybody likes to kick the ball.

But nobody wants the passengers. No one holds the hands of the barefoot children.

We are in Calais.

We are waiting for the inflatable boat, full of fear and uncertainty.

Finally.

We are on our way, the moon in the dark sky offers the light of a candle.

Its reflection in the sea is bright.

The moon tries to come with us, to be a refugee on the waves; just until we arrive, then it will return to the sky.

We are leaving Calais…

(New Arrivals, Aso)

In Reunion, Yogi poignantly describes being reunited with his family after 13 years:

Those 12 hours before they arrived, when my wife and daughter were in the air flying from Sri Lanka to London, seemed to last forever…

In the arrival lounge, my heart was pumping so much and so fast, it felt worrying to me.

I watched the people get off the planes and looked at all their faces.

When at last I saw them in the airport, it was unlike anything I have experienced in forty-nine years of being in this world. It was different from any other feeling I have ever had.

The last time I had seen my daughter in real life, she was two-years-old. Now she’s 15.

These past few weeks since they arrived, I’ve been happy.

(Reunion, Yogi)

Others write of the nightmares, loneliness and despair they’ve struggled with while trying to adapt to their new lives. Some accounts are tinged with anger. Shahab observes:

Even people in positions of remarkable power are refugees or migrants of some sort or other. Our prime minister, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel: Johnson’s paternal great-grandfather was the Ottoman journalist Ali Kemal, of Turkish and Circassian origin, who was murdered for his anti-nationalism.

While Priti Patel’s grandfather was from Gujarat. As Home Secretary she has cut the rope connecting her to new migrants in the UK, despite coming from a Ugandan-Indian family who could not have migrated with the new migration rules.

If we were to have a heritage DNA test, we would discover how many brothers and sisters we are related to in other parts of the world and how many bloodlines we’re made up of.”

(Shahab)

Yonas worked as a key worker during lock­down. He questions what it means to be a refugee:

I am a foreign stranger. Born in Eritrea, raised in Ethiopia, now living in England; where do I really belong? This is a question I have asked myself silently over the years. I am a foreigner everywhere I go, even in Ethiopia. “You always think like a white man,” is a statement I get wherever I go. It’s not the words, but the way they say it that makes it sound positive. As if thinking like a black man is a weakness!

Some reading this might say, why don’t you go back to your country if you feel you don’t belong here? But they fail to understand that I don’t feel at home anywhere. It is about how valued you feel in the place you live.

(Yonas)

The collection is also an affirmation of hope, exemplified by this extract from Nalougo’s poem:

I would like to be happy
To live a normal life
To blossom

I would like to contribute to the flourishing of the world
Finally, I discover there is hope
Knowing that without it
I will achieve nothing.

Finally, my co-editor Marsha celebrates the power of community.

Her characters bond over food in a north London community garden. When Write to Life used to meet in person, we would share a simple meal at the beginning of every writing session.

Marsha reminds us of breaking bread, of sharing sustenance, of celebrating what unites us. This is what Refugee Week is about. Ack­nowl­edging what we share, finding ways to welcome those who’ve sought safety here and ensuring that they no longer walk alone.

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