Debi Withers reviews a book of writing by and interviews with female refugees and asylum seekers in Wales
Fragments from the Dark is an important book for our times. Published by Hafan Books, a refugee charity based Swansea, Wales, Fragments is a collection of poems, testimonies, interviews, pictures and short stories of “women writing home and self in Wales”. The writing landscape of the collection is indisputably Welsh, while maintaining a focus on many of the painful realities women face in the current global political climate. Fragments is series of short interventions into a world saturated by an insidious racist and sexist illogic, played out in the field of immigration, border controls, war and political repression. It is not, however, a hopeless book, but it is not an easy one either: reading accounts of displacement, enforced destitution and rape never will be. Its power lies in the way it cuts through silence and makes experiences plainly heard so that these issues may no longer be marginalised, stereotyped and rendered invisible.
Fragments is the fifth Hafan anthology to gather together refugee and asylum seeker experiences, but it is the first one to focus specifically on women’s stories. Jeni Williams, one of the editors of the collection, says that the lack of “educational opportunities, facility with the English language, lack of familiarity with speaking in public, [and] a traditional association of women and the home” help explain why women have not featured heavily in previous works.
The editors of the collection have been self-conscious about the difficulties women asylum seekers and refugees – who may not be familiar with English or may have experienced extremely traumatic experiences – face in telling their stories. It is not just the simple act of speaking, just like it is not just the simple act of listening that makes us genuinely aware of people’s situations. The numerous interviews with women in the collection, that recreate an empathetic listener circle between interviewer, interviewee and reader, are an example of the kind of relational story-telling required to ‘hear’ these women speaking. In ‘Detention’, we read Perian X’s account of the border and immigration authority’s dawn raids on her family:
6 a.m. my door, one knock. It locked and my husband opened door and lots, twenty, police
in five cars there. They told me, ‘Relax, don’t do anything, we deporting you to your
country. Get your clothes.’ It 6 a.m., we in pyjamas. Children sleeping. I say, ‘I want to change my pyjamas.’ Four women come with me as I change.
From the dawn raid, we journey with Perian X into detention, the “prison, big building, big walls and bars all around”. Her feelings of confusion and despair are plain to understand, the injustice – which is a daily occurrence in the UK, ripping families from their beds and communities in the early hours of the morning when no one is looking – cannot be denied. Luckily Perian and her family were not deported to their country of origin, they returned ‘home’ to Swansea. However the trauma of such an experience continues to affect her long after the event. She says: “I can’t sleep, bad dreams…my skin come bad – eczema, spots.” Her son suffers from hyperactivity and wets the bed. The last lines of the interview carries a power to dispel just about every myth propagated by the right-wing media about asylum seekers:
We came by boat, very hard.
We only want to be safe.
We came by boat, some women, their children died.
I don’t want benefits. I just want to be safe and work.
These four lines articulate the sheer bravery and risk that women and their families take in seeking asylum in the UK. They do not come here to scrounge off the state and have an easy life, but most often out of a basic desire for safety. Probably the most damaging myth about asylum seekers is that they come to the UK, and other European countries, to ‘enjoy’ the benefits these states can offer. The reality is far the opposite. Asylum seekers can claim a paltry £30 a week in vouchers redeemable at your favourite multinational supermarket chains such as ASDA, Tesco and Morrisons. If their claim is refused, they cannot access any form of support and are rendered destitute or forced into illegal work. Asylum seekers are prevented by law from supporting themselves, because they are not allowed to work.
Being able to earn a living and be self-sufficient should be a basic right. Of course asylum seekers regularly and actively contribute to their communities in voluntary capacities, but they are denied the right to support themselves and be financially independent, which many of them desperately want. Other benefits supposedly ‘promised’ by the UK are also routinely denied: it was only in March this year that Ama Sumani was taken from her hospital bed in Cardiff where she was receiving treatment for cancer, to be deported to Kenya. She died as a result. This really is the extent of the UK’s immigration regime, which combines racism and sexism in the most cruel of ways to deport people to their death all in the name of a policy and quota. This collection reminds us, as if we needed to be reminded, that these are people’s lives.
There are so many heartbreaking fragments for the reader to digest in this collection, and they have more of an impact than any political speech or list of facts. The inclusion of art and poetry by asylum seeker and refugee children only heightens the emotional intensity. The words of Imène Guémar, the 11-year-old daughter of editor and Algerian women’s rights activist Latefa Guemar, invoke the importance of safe home space:
This is my room.
A private, useful space
A spacious space
When counterpoised with other testimonies of home and displacement in the collection, this sanctuary of restoration and utility, with its plaintive simplicity, only serves to increase the sense of injustice experienced by other women at the hands of the immigration system. Kera X contrasts ‘My Home’ with ‘Homelessness’. In Uganda she left behind a good quality of life, a beautiful landscape with “lots of birds and fish. The birds are yellow, blue on the back, shining blue, golden birds, some big, some small”. She was forced to leave her country to seek asylum in the UK because her life was in danger due to her political activities. Her brother had already been killed.
In ‘Homelessness’ she describes her destitute status in the UK after the Home Office refused to accept her claim for political asylum: “To be homeless is very bad… How can I survive?… I’m afraid of being detained and deported.”
Kera explains why her claim was rejected: “More weight was given by the Home Office to me speaking English than to my political activities. The Home Office thought, ‘How could you speak fluently the language unless you stayed here a long time. You are a liar.'” The sheer ignorance of the Home Office, with its ingrained racism and sexism, filtered through the warped mindset of Western privilege that refuses to believe an African woman could be educated to speak more than her native language is startlingly apparent. This is despite the fact that in Kera’s country, as a byproduct of colonial education systems, children are taught in English up to and including university-level. This is neo-colonial, sexist, capitalist racism at it very worst and as a consequence, Kera’s future is “covered by darkness”.
While Kera’s downfall was her aptitude in English, many women struggle to convey their experiences to barristers and judges whose legal discourse is itself baffling to negotiate. ‘Words to Remember’ is a collection of words one woman, who was not familiar with English, took with her to court to convince the judges that she be granted to leave to remain in the UK. She was asked to remember words like “village, fields, tanks, dragged, friend, girlfriend, tank, many, rape, many, rape”. You only need to imagine what this woman suffered. Getting a rape conviction is ‘mainstream’ legal cases is hard enough (the conviction rate in the UK is 5%), let alone when you are faced with the added barriers of unfamiliarity with the language and, more often than not, poor legal representation. The difficulty women have in representing their cases to immigration courts can be illustrated by the fact that seven out of 10 women in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Prison have been raped, according to a a report by the CrossRoads Women’s Centre.
The UK’s detention complex, which is owned by private companies such as Group 4, and is run privately for profit, is expanding. The plans to open a new immigration prison called Brook House in March 2009 will increase the UK’s detention capacity to 3,500. Immigration prisons are indiscriminating about who they take in, including women with severe mental health problems and very young children, who spend their early lives as ‘criminals’, their one crime being being born in the wrong place. Many of the places in these prisons will be taken up by women like Kera X who have fallen foul of the unfair system, or women like Nedjma X from Algeria. In ‘Speaking Out’, she describes how even after convincing the Home Office she was raped, this was not adequate enough ‘evidence’ to grant her refugee status, this putting her at severe risk of detention: “The Home Office believed I was raped, but they said that my husband was political, not me, so I wasn’t a refugee… they came to deport me.”
What is alarming is that incidents like the ones described by the women in the collection are happening every day and with the expansion of the immigration industry (which is an industry where profit is pursued regardless of people’s misery) will continue to do so unless there is wider awareness among the public about what is actually happening to people who come here for sanctuary and safety.
Hopefully this collection, with its powerful and emotionally affecting and connecting stories, will help. The insularity of people in the UK needs be shattered. Many of the problems these women are running from are indirectly connected to the policies of UK government either in the colonial past or in the neo-colonial present; whether the state sells weapons to regimes or have in the past unthinkingly drawn lines on maps which continue to impact upon the political situation of many countries and many people’s lives. How long before we wake up to the fact that we live in a global, interconnected world and we are mutually interdependent with each other?
We need to see the global in our local communities. This book could provide a way in. These testimonies bring the problems of a ‘foreign state’ outside of ‘our’ borders home.
Janet Dubé’s poem, written in response to events of September 2001, invokes the idea of a global community:
It takes a village to raise a child said
the wise ones. Only connect said another
and now as we watch each other’s death
or life up on the screen, we’re connected.
It takes a whole village to raise a child
and this is the global village, like it,
whole, or not. If we can’t love each other,
best pray for each other’s children.
Fragments from the Dark makes the reader feel that the world has unquestionably changed in the 21st century, as much as many of the familiar tales of women’s oppression remain painfully the same. It reveals the shifting priorities of racism in our times, as Sadhbh O’Dwyer talks of her now “acceptable ethnicity”. She says: “10 years ago I would have been the one searched at Heathrow airport (reddish hair, Irish language passport); now Muslim women are the suspects. I suppose I should feel lucky, I’m part of a ‘cool’ ethnicity.” Depending on the particular needs of the political climate, some groups are more ‘other’ than others.
Fragments from the Dark is a book everybody should read. Underneath its words are millions of women’s voices screaming out to connect with you, demanding a freedom and support that should be all of ours to share. In the words of Afsaneh Firoozyar, “someday we need a new revolution”. That day is now.
Facts about asylum
Asylum Seeker An asylum-seeker is someone of any age who has fled his or her home country to find a safe place elsewhere.
Refugee Someone whose asylum application is successful.
Home Office Government department that makes decisions about asylum seekers’ claims.
Immigration Removal Prisons Imprison failed asylum seekers, or those waiting upon decisions about their claim. They are privately run, for profit and can hold up to 2,900 people (to increase to 3,500 with the opening of Brook House in 2009).
- There are between 283,500 and 450,000 failed asylum seekers in the UK.
- At least 26,000 failed asylum seekers are destitute, living on Red Cross food parcels.
- 23,430 new claims for asylum were lodged in 2007 and 73% were refused.
- Last year, 13,595 failed asylum seekers including their dependents were deported.
- During 2006, 3,500 adults and 1,300 children were detained in dawn raids.
- Around 27,000 people are put in detention centres every year.
- There have been at least 12 suicides in detention centres.
- The UK takes 3% of the worldwide refugee population and ranks 14th in the EU for the number of asylum applications.
- No one monitors what happens to people who are returned.
Sources: The Home Office, Refugee Council, British Red Cross, Amnesty International, National Audit Office, NCADC
Special Issue of ‘Crossing Borders’: Women on the Move