“They used to be mathematicians and composers, criminologists, accountants and teachers. In England, without money and papers, they must labour illegally as cleaners, dishwashers, care assistants…”
Bidisha’s Asylum and Exile: The Hidden Voices of London (Seagull £14.50) grew out of her outreach work with refugees and asylum seekers and gives an invaluable insight into the humour, vivacity, talent and will to survive, despite the precarious lives people have to leave. A Country of Refuge: An Anthology of Writing on Asylum Seekers ed Lucy Popescu (Unbound £8.99) is a powerful collection of short fiction, memoir, poetry and essays exploring what it really means to be a refugee: to flee from conflict, poverty and terror; to have to leave your home and family behind; and to undertake a perilous journey, only to arrive on less than welcoming shores.
The world has, of course, been built on migration. Written in 1975, the late great John Berger’s A Seventh Man (Verso £9.99) conveys what it is to be a migrant worker, the material circumstances and the inner experience, and in doing so, reveals how the migrant is not so much on the margins of modern life, but absolutely central to it, and yet is excluded from much of its culture.
In attempting to convey the need to flee one’s homeland, journalist Samar Yazbek’s The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria (Rider £8.99) tells of her exile by Assad’s regime, her secret return visits, the humanity that can flower amidst annihilation, and why so many Syrians are desperate to flee.
There is also a wealth of fiction which speaks to the refugee experience. Nadifa Mohamed’s Black Mamba Boy (Harper £8.99) is a wonderful novelisation of her own father’s experience as a Somali boy travelling through Yemen, Eritrea, Sudan and Palestine during the second world war, until finally finding a home in England.
If you or anyone you know needs legal advice, there’s a very useful self-help guide against detention and deportation: For Asylum Seekers and Their Supporters by Legal Action for Women (Crossroads £4).
Children’s books are a fantastic way for new arrivals to have a story to identify with, whilst also informing the next generation. For older children, Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy (Bloomsbury £7.99) tells the story of Alem, a child of an Ethiopian father and an Eritrean mother, forced to survive alone in England. For younger ones, Sarah Garland’s Azzi In Between (Frances Lincoln £7.99), Mary Hoffman’s The Colour of Home (Frances Lincoln £6.99), and Barroux’s Welcome (Egmont £6.99) all depict youngsters arriving and adapting to their new home, whilst Shaun Tan’s masterful The Arrival (Hodder £14.99) is a silent graphic novel, a migrant story told as a series of wordless images that might seem to come from a long forgotten time, but convey the struggles and survivals of every migrant, every refugee, every displaced person. It is a majestic tribute to all those who have made the journey.
And if you still can’t understand why people may need to migrate and seek a life far from their home, Janne Teller’s little book War: What If It Were Here? (Simon & Schuster £5.99) depicts a Britain under dictatorship, war and the Britification police. Europe has fallen apart and the only place at peace within reach is Egypt. You are now a 14-year old refugee escaping to a life far from home…
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