Monday, 21 November 2011

DIVERSITY MATTERS: ‘Soil of my ancestors.. I miss you’ : Writing with asylum seekers by MIRIAM HALAHMY

Miriam Halahmy
Since the 1980s I have worked with asylum seekers, from the Vietnamese boat people to the present day newcomers from Africa and the Middle East.

I am rooted in an asylum seeking past, with grandparents who fled the Polish pogroms at the end of the nineteenth century to my husband and his family who were forced into exile with almost the entire Jewish community of Iraq in 1950.

My life has been a mixture of languages; English, Yiddish, Arabic, Hebrew and a mixture of food; chopped herring, chick peas, falafel and chips. I am therefore at home with languages, cultures, attitudes, religions, food and artefacts which are not Standard English. I love it all and it has enriched my life and my writing.

My poetry and novels have been strongly influenced by this background. The novel I published this year, HIDDEN ( Meadowside Books) focuses on the plight of Iraqi refugees influenced by my husband’s story.

Two teenagers find an illegal immigrant washed up on a beach and hide him to save him from being deported.

The book has had a profound effect on my teenage readers. “I didn’t know we had immigrants in England,” wrote one thirteen year old from a small village.

It was therefore a natural transition for me to offer my skills as a writing facilitator and mentor with the many different groups of asylum seekers in London today. I have worked for Exiled Writers Ink!, The Medical Foundation for the Victims of Torture and English PEN.

Asylum seekers are often keen to record their memories and their experiences and the title of this post is taken from a poem by Stephanie, called, ‘My Soil.”  Stephanie wrote this poem during a time of great home sickness and in despair after waiting seven years for the right to stay in England. She was a lawyer and journalist in Cameroon but was jailed and beaten after criticising the government. She has finally achieved refugee status and has enrolled on a Social Work course to support herself and her five year old son. But it has been a long, hard road. The worst thing was knowing no-one from Cameroon for almost a year after she arrived.

Many asylum seekers talk about the loneliness they have to endure along with homesickness and knowing that they will probably never see their families again. Coming together weekly to write gives them companionship, a shared purpose and the chance of having their voices heard.

In all the organisations I have worked with we have been funded to produce a booklet of work and the absolute delight of the writers seeing their work in print is unimaginable. Having their writing appreciated is a huge boost to plummeting self-esteem.
As Jacqueline from Uganda said to me, “You have taken us from sad to positive.”


Some asylum seekers get the chance to take their writing further forward. Yosof, from the Sudan, who worked with me on a project in Victoria, was later funded to do a course at the Poetry School.
What a delight it is/To walk on rain/ Clouds are your umbrellas... he wrote during his course.
Both Yosof’s English and his poetry made great leaps forward and I know that he has continued to write.

Sometimes you only see someone once and yet they can make a huge impression on you. I ran a workshop about food at a centre in the East End and passed round crusty fresh bread to share. Tesfu, who had arrived from Somalia a year earlier, wrote a piece which clearly shows he had been through a famine.
I hungered for plenty/ you were little and never enough./ Drought and war made you scarce/You appeared for lunch and then disappeared for a day or two...
Tesfu did not return to the workshops but at our end-of-course presentation at The Free Word Centre, I read his piece out and the audience were very moved.
Free Word Centre

Giving asylum seekers the chance to engage with their memories of home in a supportive atmosphere can be very enabling and life-affirming. Asylum seekers often describe their situation as a ‘waiting game’; they wait in line, wait for the lawyer, wait for a letter from the Home Office. Many of the people I have worked with have waited like this for years, unable to work, study or move on in their lives.

I wrote my novel, HIDDEN, to challenge the prejudices and stereotypes that prevail about asylum seekers and to open up the minds of young readers to the needs and hopes and dreams of people who have come to this country because it is too dangerous for them to remain in their homelands. I am humbled and inspired by the young people and adults I have been privileged to work with over the last thirty years and by the stories that they have shared with me.

If you would like to find out more, here are some useful websites ;
Freedom From Torture
Exiled Writers Ink

Congratulations to Miriam. 
HIDDEN has been nominated for the 2012 Carnegie Medal!

Miriam has also featured as a guest blogger on tall tales & short stories



Leslie Wilson said...

An inspiring blog, because Miriam has shown how crucial self-expression and poetry can be to people's sense of themselves, and to healing their hurts - not to mention reminding us that asylum-seekers are people, not unwelcome and threatening statistics, still less the caricatures painted by the tabloid Press

Laura Atkins said...

What a great project to be involved with, and shows how writing can have an impact on people's lives. I'll be picking up a copy of Hidden to read - it sounds like a fascinating story.

Related Posts with Thumbnails

Popular Posts

The Bookseller