Asylum and Exile: the Hidden Voices of London


Free Word Centre, London, 3 February

I’ve been on the English PEN mailing list for years, but as their events are mostly in London I’ve never actually made it to one before. This one was also in London but I had some holiday to use up so I took a half-day off work to make my leisurely way to Clerkenwell and listen to a fascinating discussion around issues of refugees, asylum and the written word.

Bidisha, a writer who has run writing workshops in London for asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants, has written some great background to the event here so I will summarise fairly quickly and nudge you over there for more detail! The event took its name from a book Bidisha is publishing (official release date is 11 February, though last night was effectively its launch) about the writing workshops she ran, the people she met through them and the stories they had to tell. (I started reading it on the train home and I’m already most of the way through – it’s a great book that I will post more about soon.) She is an elegant, poised woman who spoke with passion but also plenty of humour about issues surrounding asylum. The event is part of a series organised by English PEN to counter the pervasive negative media picture of asylum seekers in the UK and Bidisha was joined on stage by people who have worked for or with a whole host of related charities, mostly with a literary aspect to their work.

Maurice Wren, CEO of the Refugee Council, kicked things off by explaining that the problem they face when countering media stereotypes is that they are “tackling simple lies with complex truths”. It’s a tough task, but one thing everyone on stage believes can work is telling individual stories. It’s certainly true that the things that stand out for me from last night are those individual stories – they are unavoidably more powerful than numbers, however big or small.

Bethan Lant works as an advocate for asylum seekers for Praxis Community Projects, dealing with the legal side of things but also the practicalities of finding them a place to sleep, an interpretor for those who don’t speak English and so on. She told a very telling story about two young men who recently showed up in her office at the end of the day with no English, no place to stay, no clue what papers had to be filled in or what status they needed to apply for. Bethan went into work mode, solving all their problems, including escorting them to the Tube to reach their temporary accommodation. Afterward, she realised she hadn’t even asked their names until a form required it, and all she knew about them was their country of origin and that they had come to the UK via Calais. What stories they could have told her, what journeys they must have led, but she had fallen into the trap of seeing those young men as problems not people.

Bethan added that the problem isn’t exactly that refugees’ stories aren’t heard. They have to tell their stories over and over again in the official process, but they aren’t heard as human beings. This point was picked up by Bamidele Hassan, a refugee from Nigeria who now runs poetry workshops for the Migrant and Refugee Committees Forum. The worst part of the UK process for asylum seekers is that the Home Office assumes your story is false. It is not uncommon for refugees to spend years in various detention centres being told over and over that they are lying, which is not only dehumanising but can make people doubt their own sanity.

Nadifa Mohamed and Malika Booker are both writers who came to the UK as children. Nadifa has been here now for 30 years, but says that anti-immigration rhetoric still has the power to make her feel like an outsider, that this isn’t her home. Malika added to this that she is alarmed by the rise of the far right wing across Europe; looked at in historical context this is something that should worry us all. An audience member added that it isn’t just Europe experiencing this. In her native South Africa, violence against refugees and migrants from other African countries is on the rise, but newspaper reports focus on the outrage of the South Africans at the “invaders”, never on the migrants.

Bidisha picked up the baton here with her own hope that art can be a counter narrative. The people she spoke to for her book weren’t writers but when people are talking about things that really matter to them, they are eloquent. These are the stories that need to be heard, not the nameless faceless numbers games that newspapers play. She urged the audience to go away and write articles, spread these stories. Malika said that it’s not just for political benefit that these stories should be told. She has learned from the writing classes she runs that it’s of huge benefit to people to find a way to tell their story and feel heard. Bethan added that the best way of doing that is to get a group of people with similar backgrounds together, to let them discover for themselves what is universal and what is unique about their experience.

Which is of course where Bidisha and her book come in, because they make this point so very well. The experience of exile, seeking asylum, building a new life from nothing, is sadly all too common, but the people sharing that experience are hugely diverse, from the lives they led before to their personalities to the way they approach life – it sounds like a crass, obvious thing to say, but it’s all too easily forgotten. It would be easy to say what I learned last night about Bamidele is that he spent 11 months in detention before being granted refugee status, the suffering and indignity that he went through. But I also learned that he is a soft-spoken man brimming with justified anger. I heard the conviction in his voice when he told others’ stories and implored us to see that the system cannot be right. I saw how shyly he read out the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, with what quiet power he explained why it speaks to him, and in particular the final lines:

“It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.”

Thank you to the Free Word Centre and English PEN for organising this excellent event. I only wish I could do it justice, but suffice to say that I came away both suffused with the need to share these stories and full of hope because these people are already doing such wonderful things that I really believe in.

For more information, please do check out the excellent work that these charities do:
Free Word
English PEN
Refugee Council
The Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum
Praxis Community Projects
Migrant Voice