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Us vs Them: Recent Books About and by Refugees

Malu  Halasa By Malu Halasa Published on February 8, 2017
This article was updated on April 3, 2017
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The first I learned of A Country of Refuge, the new anthology on asylum seeking edited by Lucy Popescu, copies were being given to Westminster MPs. It wasn’t enough to read the stories of despair across social media or watch bodies wash ashore on the evening news. MPs needed a return to basics. The word asylum, according to Ruth Padel, one of the twenty-three contributors to the book, comes from ancient Greece and means “the place that cannot be plundered.”

Just how MPs have plundered that sacred place was further revealed by the poet and writer in her essay “Children of Storm”: Padel takes the British government to task for privatizing the asylum business by hiring “escort agencies or security solutions firms on hourly pay … [that] don’t get a bonus unless they return deportees to their country of origin. A record of criminal assault is no bar to employment as an escort and their actions are not open to public scrutiny.”

It is a theme she returns to with a vengeance in her poem that appears later in the book – some writers in Country of Refuge contribute more than one piece to the anthology – when describing the violence escorts mete out to hand-and-leg cuffed deportees, on planes. She could be referring to a human rights report: "'They fist-squeeze his testicles, kicked/ in his ribs and his stomach’" because of the single quotes. Then she concludes: “ … He cried, they say / they always say, for help. But fighting for breath / he can only shout at the floor.” Hence the poem’s chilling title: “Carpet Karaoke.”

With poetry, fiction, family memoir and critical essays by a range of impressive writers, Country of Refuge addresses the moral test of our times. However the book’s strengths are not case studies of those forced out or not let in. Like a mirror, it shows the culpability of the privileged residing comfortably behind fortified borders. It is a state of being Hanif Kureishi encapsulates with a new definition for his essay “These Mysterious Strangers.” “The immigrant is a collective hallucination forged in our own minds … but the paranoiac looking wildly around can never see that the foreign body is inside him.”

It’s “post-truth” yet again where nastiness and laziness are rife. In “A Time to Lie,” Nigerian journalist Noo Saro-Wiwa recalls the reaction of the British press to Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina’s 2014 admission of being gay. “‘Shall we be expecting at least one application for asylum shortly, then,” chortled an unspecified tabloid.

An Internet search would have shown that Wainaina was spared assault by escorts paid with British tax pounds, on a Nairobi-bound flight because he is the director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Literature and Languages at Bard College and resides in upstate New York. The incident only proves A. L. Kennedy’s assertion in “The Migrants” – a lecture adapted for the anthology – “Most attacks are framed in fact-free outbursts of rage.”

Also instructive is Saro-Wiwa’s analysis of “selective persecution” and its implications within her own family. Her father, Ken, an environmental activist in oil-rich Ogoniland, was executed in 1995 by the then Nigerian military dictatorship, and a cousin was imprisoned and eventually gained asylum in the US. This took place while her father’s youngest brother was a serving officer in the Nigerian army. When it comes to Africa she believes there is a preference for society-wide oppression, “Rwandan-style,” before Western powers deem to act.

Joan Smith’s remarkable essay, “To Avoid Worse,” contrasts two family histories: Anne Frank’s with that of the Kurdish barber Abdulla Shenu Kurdi, father of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi whose dead body washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015. “Seventy years apart, their stories are characterized by the same depressingly bureaucratic response to refugees fleeing fascist regimes,” she writes. The lack of legal avenues encourages the criminal gangs and “dangerous routes to Europe,” which only increases terrorist threats. It’s become all too predictable.

The short stories in Country of Refuge are uncommonly good and demand re-reading. In “Fragments of a Journal, Author Unknown” by twice Costa-winner, the Irish novelist and playwright Sebastian Barry, poor starving laborers leaving Ireland to Quebec in 1847 are stuffed into ships like African slaves during the Middle Passage. Roma Tearne captures the tension of a mother and political exile waiting at an airport, in “The Blue Scarf.” Kate Clanchy’s story “Shakila’s Head” takes place in a poetry group with three teenage schoolgirls, a Sunni, a Shia and a Goth. “The Road to Silvertown,” by Courttia Newland – about an ordinary family fleeing suddenly – has an understated tone, which turns into the genuinely frightening.

In the current climate of populism and xenophobia, Kennedy is right: “Imagination is, on all sides, apparently failing.” She maintains, the writer or creative artist does have a duty. “We must somehow be guardians of the imagination of wider thought, of culture. What have we done wrong? What did we forget? What can we do now?”

One response is to provide spaces for voices not about refugees but ones that draw directly from the wellspring of firsthand experience – voices belonging to the less known, the usually not heard or hard-to-get published migrants and refugees. These are the books that should be required reading for Westminster MPs too.

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Palewell, a new human rights press run by the British poet Camilla Reeves, is publishing Tiger and Clay, a slim volume of memoir and poetry by 28-year-old Syrian refugee Rana Abdul Fattah, living in NGO parlance as an “irregular resident” in Istanbul. The book is a young woman’s meditation on becoming: rejecting stereotypes and fighting off her own feelings of panic and insecurity as she loses first her homeland and the love of her life and somehow dares to live on, accommodating an always-changing situation. In Tiger and Clay Fattah declares her universal independence: “I am legal and a person no matter what my passport is, or lawyers or states think of me … I have the right to be where ever I want to.”

The memoir also confronts readers’ assumptions about women and Islam. Fattah is observant and wears a scarf (she doesn’t describe it in detail only to admit she doesn’t want to be convenient photo op – the woman in a veil – at the demonstrations for Syria). Memories of a former lover inspire the book’s intimate poetry. Its intensity suggests he had been, for her, a buoy and safety net. Now that he’s gone, she wonders where is that feeling of kaynuneh from the Arabic verb kin, which means “settlement … physical or spiritual. Some call it emotional security.”

Eventually she rethinks ideas of home and Syria but admits, “something is broken. The country is changed, destroyed. I am not scared for the future of Syria … What I am scared of is more death and destruction.”

Fattah and some of the writers in Country of Refuge tell us about experiences we wouldn’t wish on anyone we loved or even strangers in the street. That’s enough of a reason to let them in. But for those who still require convincing, Saro-Wiwa gives no better warning: “Today’s paradises could become the purgatories of tomorrow. Which is why it’s best to treat others the way we would like them to treat us.” 


Malu Halasa is Jordanian Filipina American writer and editor based in London. Born in Oklahoma, she was raised in Ohio and is a graduate of Barnard College, Columbia University. Her books ... Show More

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