21 July 2016, The Tablet

Hard-luck stories


A Country of Refuge: an anthology of writing on asylum seekers
edited by LUCY POPESCU

Towards the end of this magnificent anthology comes the piece that made this hardened reviewer weep. Only six pages long, Marina Lewycka’s “A Hard-Luck Story” is written in the voice of Colin, a man who’s not had much luck. He has finally got a job, working at a deportation centre, when a woman insists on his listening to her story.

She is a doctor whose husband, an academic, has been “disappeared”, and she is about to be deported. Her experience is all too familiar. She managed to get to Libya and was put on an overcrowded boat, whose captain abandoned his passengers. Their boat capsized, and her small son was drowned. She saved her daughter, along with the tiny baby belonging to a woman she’d earlier noticed, who had also drowned. Rescued by people she described as Angels, she eventually got to England. Idly, Colin wonders why this had been where she had wanted to go. “I learn England is a good country,” she explains. But, raped and robbed, she had been dumped in a field, and now had nothing at all apart from the two little children.

Throughout her account, Colin adds his own comments: “Well, anybody can say that,” and, “It’s bloody hard work trying to keep you lot under control … don’t expect no sympathy from me.” When the moment arrives for her to be deported, she is injected with a sedative, and slumps to the floor. Colin hands the baby to the little girl. “That’s a nice touch, Colin,” says his supervisor. “It’s better if they go quietly.” “No more trouble from you, lady,” thinks Colin.

Lucy Popescu works closely with refugees, and has heard many such stories. Some of our finest writers have contributed to this book and the result is a first-class collection of essays and poems, stories and memoirs. Addictively readable, they are strong, angry, compassionate and enlightening.  Some are surreal: in Amanda Craig’s “Metamorphosis 2”, Katie F is transformed from airhead celebrity into a cockroach and meets a truly sinister fate, while in “Inappropriate Staring”, A. L. Kennedy seems to imagine a conversation among visitors to the monkey house – or are they actually casually watching a crowd of refugees? Elsewhere, Ruth Padel writes factually about Sangatte, Sebastian Barry about the coffin ships taking survivors of the Irish Famine to America, William Boyd about the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa and Nick Barley about his forebears, who found refuge here after the Hungarian uprising.

Though all so different, themes emerge, particularly the suffering of children. Kate Clanchy writes from the viewpoint of a teacher, whose refugee pupil, Shakila, describes running from a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, while Roma Tearne gives a harrowing account of the death of a small boy who did not get away in time. Joan Smith draws a parallel between Otto Frank, the father of Anne and the only one of his family to survive the Holocaust, and a Syrian Kurdish barber named Abdullah Kurdi, also fleeing with his family from a brutal dictatorship, only to see them all die. He is the father of the little boy, Aylan, photographed so pitifully washed up on the shore of Kos. Both men had relatives longing to take them in, and were thwarted, largely, by bureaucratic red tape. Such is still, far too often, the fate of the persecuted. Elaine Feinstein’s grandfather, fleeing from Odessa a century ago, had seen England as “the country of fair play”. If only that were still true.

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