Posts Tagged Refugees

Oxfam and World Refugee Year, 1959-60

Originally posted on Archives+:

The Oxford Committee for Famine Relief was founded in 1942 by a group of Quakers, social activists and Oxford academics to campaign for food supplies to be sent through an allied naval blockade of occupied Greece during World War 2. In 1965 they became OXFAM adopting their new name from their telegraph address.

Oxford Committee for famine relief letter, January 1960

They already had a gift shop in Oxford when this letter was written in January 1960, ‘Oxford’s most interesting shop’. I wonder what it sold.

Mrs Barash was very involved in the support of refugees in Manchester during and after World War 2. Her contribution is recorded in material held in the archives at the Greater Manchester County Record Office .

World Refugee Year was a United Nations led initiative and ran from June 1959 until May 1960. By July 1961 £9 million had been raised and the final total was even higher. It inspired a new…

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A Refugee Camp is a City

A Refugee Camp is a City

An interesting follow-up from on-line ArchDaily to yesterday’s piece about Goma.  Ana Asensio Rodríguez is a Spanish architecture student interested in traditional and bioclimatic architecture. She is also a graphic designer, photographer, writer, and traveler without bounds.

“A Refugee Camp Is a City / World Refugee Day 2013″ 20 Jun 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 21 Jun 2013. <;


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‘The Space Between’ CARA Exhibition for Refugee Week

Originally posted on Refugee Archives and History Group:

‘The Space Between’ Exhibition for Refugee Week

CARA_the_Space_BetweenCARA is delighted to invite you to our photographic art exhibition ‘The Space Between’, taking place at The Rag Factory from the 17th-22nd June, as part of Refugee Week.  The exhibition has been commissioned by Birkbeck College and will feature images that explore the experiences of women refugee academics.

We will be holding lunch-time talks by women refugees during weekdays who will speak about their experiences leaving everything behind and starting again in an entirely new culture.  We will celebrate the contributions of refugees to British culture and challenge caricatures of refugees as people who just ‘take’.

For more information visit

Please disseminate to friends and colleagues.

See also:

CARA presents ‘The Space Between’, a week long photographic exhibition to mark Refugee Week which provides women refugee academics who hail from Iraq to Palestine, Burma to Burundi…

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Events: From Spitalfields to Green Lanes: mapping the refugee experience in London

Originally posted on Refugee Archives and History Group:

From Spitalfields to Green Lanes: mapping the refugee experience in London

London through the eyes of its communities (a talk and viewing of original documents)

London is widely known for its cultural diversity. Where, why and when did the different refugee and migrant communities settle here? Using written and audio-visual material from LMA collections, this talk will present stories from some of London’s diverse communities, focusing on their experiences of coming to London and making ‘the monster city’ their home.

Date 20/06/2013
Time From 17:30 to 19:00
Venue London Metropolitan Archives
40 Northampton Road
Organiser 020 7332 3851
Category Conference/seminar/lecture
Price Free

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From contribution to collaboration: Refugee Week and the value of seeing like a city


A fascinating and challenging contribution to Refugee Week – from cities@manchester

Originally posted on cities@manchester:

by Jonathan Darling, Geography, University of Manchester

Image from Refugee Week 2013

Image from Refugee Week 2013

Today sees the start of Refugee Week 2013, an annual celebration of the contribution of refugees to the UK that seeks to promote better understanding of why people seek sanctuary. Refugee Week has been held annually since 1998 as a response to negative perceptions of refugees and asylum seekers and hostile media coverage of asylum in particular (Refugee Week 2013). Refugee Week promotes a series of events across the UK, from football tournaments and theatre productions to exhibitions and film screenings, all designed to promote understanding between different communities.

Whilst Refugee Week is a national event it finds expression in local activities organised in a range of cities. In part, this is in response to the dispersal of asylum seekers across the UK, meaning that refugees and asylum seekers have been increasing visible in a range of…

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Shelter from the Storm

For the last eighty years, academics in various parts of the world whose freedom and whose lives have been threatened in their home countries, have been helped to build new lives in the UK by CARA.  That’s the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, as it is known today.   In 1933, when it started its work, it was called the Academic Assistance Council, and the impetus for its creation was the dismissal from German Universities of Jewish academics.  The Council had three related goals: to promote acceptance of the value of employing refugees by British universities, colleges, and industry; to raise funds to support them; and to ensure that the Government allowed refugees to enter Britain (Zimmerman, p. 33).  The name changed in 1936 to the Society for Protection of Science and Learning, as the darkening climate in Europe showed that the threat was not just to individuals but to academic freedom.   By the outbreak of the Second World War, they had helped over 900 scholars.

It was not a foregone conclusion that the academic establishment would respond in this way.  Many took their time to conclude that maintaining an ‘aloof and detached’ stance outside of politics was unsustainable in light of what was happening in Europe.   My own University’s initial response to a request for support and funds makes uncomfortable reading:

‘The funds at our disposal are very small indeed and that there is a very strong feeling that our own students – many of whose parents are unemployed – have the first claim upon them. The opinion has also been strongly expressed that, as there are many rich men of the Jewish religion whose individual incomes are larger than the whole income of the University, it would be appropriate that they be asked to support the teachers in the first instance. At the same time we are very far from being unsympathetic towards the condition of these unfortunate persons, and it is only our poverty and not our will which suggests difficulties.’
Now, Sheffield was very aware of its own origins, founded by donations from working people in the city, many of whom in the 1930s were suffering severely from the economic downturn.  But the immediate recourse to the stereotype of the rich Jew – with the implication that those individuals were not doing what they could, and that the University and the working people of Sheffield were being asked to make up that lack – is dispiriting, though very much of its time.
However, whilst anti-Semitism played a part in our response in the UK to the call for help, the House of Commons also heard in April 1933 from the rather marvellous Colonel Josiah Wedgwood:
‘ I would like to see the strengthening of this country and of the British race by the admission freely into this country of those elements which are now suffering from persecution. The hon. and gallant Member for Chippenham (Captain Cazalet) who has just spoken is a Huguenot of distinguished Huguenot ancestry. Does not everybody to-day realise the enormous strengthening of the Anglo-Saxon race that has come from the admission of those Huguenot migrants into this country? They were flying from a persecution that was, I suppose, as bad as that which reigns in Germany to-day. The dragonnades of Louis XIV sent to this country an element of religion and of independence, and a commercial and intellectual element which has been of inestimable service to this country in war and in peace. I would beg the Government not to miss this opportunity of so benefiting England to-day and in the future. There we have, driven out of Germany, flying, when they can fly, to all the neighbouring countries, the thinkers, the intellectually-independent people, scientists, doctors, civil servants, artists and musicians. …  To-day those people are being turned back at Harwich, while nations like France, Belgium, Spain—rejuvenated Spain—are welcoming this new intellectual element. Those scientists would be our business men of the future, just as the Huguenots brought us the silk trade, made Norwich and made Leek in my own county of Staffordshire. The Huguenot element built up a great export trade for this country. We are now anxious to import foreign capital into this country; how much better is it to import foreign brains and amalgamate them. I do not speak from the obvious humanitarian point of view, but from the point of view of the material advantage of this country. Get those people in. …  Let English people see whether they, too, cannot receive these people into their family to make a home here, and to show that whatever the Prussian Aryan may feel about the Jews, or the peace-mongers or even the Socialists, we in this country realise the value of brains and the duty of hospitality to the oppressed.  … I wish that one result of this Debate to-day might be the opening of those doors, and the welcoming here not merely of the scientists who make the trade of the future, not merely of the doctors whom in the past all the world has gone to seek in Germany, but of those political exiles about whose fate we hear less, and who are now under preventive arrest in a dozen concentration camps throughout Germany. I wish that we might welcome those men, the free spirits of a free people, who decline to live in a land where liberty is no longer allowed, and get them here to strengthen our home and our love of liberty.

By mid-1936, however, the tenor of the debates had shifted.   There were concerns being raised about refugees taking work from British people, and the word ‘alien’ rather than refugee started to be used.   The marvellously named Lt-Colonel Gilbert Acland-Troyte raised the familiar question: ‘Why should we give away public money on these refugees from other countries?’  Another marvellously monikered military chap, Tufton Percy Hamilton Beamish, came up with yet another reason to be cautious – apparently ‘every refugee received into this country is only an incitement to foreign rulers to get rid of people who, in their opinion, are either racially or politically undesirable’.  And MP Will Thorne, in 1938, in a debate about permitting refugee doctors to practice in the UK, asked the question: ‘Does not the right hon. Gentleman think that if an application were made to the German Government, they would allow these doctors to stop in their own country?’.   Hansard does not record the right hon. Gentleman’s response.

The Chair of SPSL, Professor Archibald Hill of Cambridge University (Nobel laureate in Physiology & Medicine, 1922) spoke in 1943 in response to comments about the danger of anti-Semitism here, in response to the influx of refugees.  It is pertinent to quote him at some length, since these and similar arguments are to be found every day on the pages of the Daily Mail, and in less literate form in the comments below the line on every newspaper article concerning refugees.

It has been urged on the Home Secretary that a danger of anti-Semitism will exist, if more Jews are introduced here. This, again, is the argument of the last straw. Are the Jews so powerful and baneful an influence that one extra Jew among 5,000 Englishmen will make the whole mixture unstable? That is the proposition. To those who prefer arithmetic to magic, the whole thing is pure moonshine, but Hitler has managed to put his own pet obsession across among an otherwise sensible people. We hear wonderful stories about the number of Jews in Great Britain who have arrived here in the last ten years. An hon. Member asked me recently what on earth we were to do with the 40,000 Jewish doctors who were now in this country. As a matter of fact he had got the number 50 times too large. The Jews are said to be living in luxury while others fight; but the records of the last war and of this one show that this insult is completely unwarranted, either as to the number of those serving, or the number of distinctions for gallantry. The country is said to be flooded with Jewish refugees; in fact 60,000 or 70,000 have come in since 1933, and of that number between 10,000 and 20,000 came in as children, of whom many are still children. That is one to 700 of our population, which seems to make a funny sort of flood, not comparable with the one which has just been made by the R.A.F.

It is said that the danger to our national traditions from having so many Jews here must be regarded; but our national traditions must be pretty weak things if people who make up rather less than one per cent. of the whole can produce so great an effect. One is forced to regard anti-Semitism as a sort of contagious mental disease upon the victims of which facts and arguments are completely without effect. Ridicule, not reason, is the only form of treatment. To suggest, as responsible people sometimes do, that there is serious danger of anti-Semitism here if an extra 10,000 Jews are introduced from Europe, one in 5,000 of our people, is a gross insult to the intelligence, good nature and common sense of the normal citizen and is to confess oneself the foolish dupe of Nazi propaganda. The success of that propaganda shows that there is little chance for the human race being able to settle its affairs sensibly if it does not learn to examine critically and quantitatively what it is told.

With the benefit of our knowledge of what lay ahead for Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, we might find it difficult to echo Sir Samuel Hoare’s belief that the most tragic aspect was that many of those driven out ‘have been men of intellectual eminence who felt that their life’s training had been wasted, and that there was no future for them to carry out the professional work in which they held so eminent a place.’   But this was one aspect of the tragedy and the roll-call of ‘men of intellectual eminence’ who left in time, with the help of AAC/SPSL/CARA is extraordinary.  The loss to science, music, literature, medicine, philosophy – to all academic disciplines – had this and other organisations not reached out, would have been vast.  The loss of those who did not make it, who might have been as great or greater, is impossible to grasp.  This is not to say that the murder of a brilliant scientist or composer is worse than that of a clerk or a factory worker.  But it surely is the role of the academy to rally to the defence of academic freedom – and the freedom of individual academics – wherever it is under threat, and to the support of those who have risked so much for its sake.

With CARA’s 80th birthday and the start of Refugee Week in mind then, here are just a few of those who they helped in those first few years:

Sir Walter Bodmer, a prominent human geneticist who is also credited with expanding public understanding of the sciences – his family escaped in 1938, when he was two years old.
Sir Hermann Bondi, a mathematician who helped develop radar and influenced relativity theory, served as Chief Scientist to two UK government departments and as Master of Churchill College, Cambridge.
Max Born became the Tait Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh and won the Nobel Prize in 1954 for his pioneering work in quantum mechanics.
Sir Ernst Chain won the Nobel Prize in 1945 for his shared work on penicillin.
Sir Geoffrey Elton, a historian and philosopher of history, helped to advance understanding of the Tudor government.  Born Gottfried Ehrenburg, his father Victor was also a historian, and came to England in 1939, from Czechoslovakia.
Sir Ernst Gombrich brought fundamental questions of aesthetics in art to scholarly and public attention.  He came to Britain in 1936, along with colleagues from the Warburg Institute, which had itself relocated to London from the University of Hamburg.
Sir Ludwig Guttmann, founder of spinal cord injury treatment, the Paralympic Games and the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital.
Sir Otto Kahn-Freund was a leading theorist and practitioner of labour law.
Sir Bernard Katz won the Nobel Prize in 1950 for shared research on mechanisms of neuro-muscular transmission.
Sir Hans Krebs won the Nobel Prize in 1953 for his shared research into the complex sequence of metabolic chemical reactions known as the Krebs Cycle.
Sir Rudolf Peierls taught theoretical physics at Birmingham and Oxford and was involved in both the development of atomic weaponry and the Pugwash anti-nuclear movement. He was studying on a Rockefeller Scholarship at Cambridge when Hitler came to power. Granted leave to remain in Britain, he worked in Manchester under a fund set up for refugees
Sir Nikolaus Pevsner brought new perspectives on the UK’s architectural heritage to scholars and the wider public.  The AAC helped to fund a research fellowship at Birmingham University when he left Germany in 1933
Sir Francis Simon pioneered research in thermodynamics and low-temperature physics at Oxford’s Clarendon Laboratory.

A guest editorial in International Psychiatry on the occasion of CARA’s 75th anniversary said that:
‘It is perhaps unsurprising that academics (about one-third of whom in CARA’s experience are in medicine or other related disciplines relevant to psychiatry) are overrepresented among refugees from the professions. When regimes are, or become, dictatorial, or where civil strife intensifies, those who ‘speak truth unto power’ through criticism, through pointing out alternative possibilities, or through upholding ethical standards – key academic duties – are all too likely to suffer job loss, imprisonment, torture or expulsion. Furthermore, the loss of the academic members of a society will, unless they can maintain skills in exile and later return, permanently affect that society’s future. Germany was a world leader in scholarship before Hitler but never fully recovered its academic position (Medawar & Pyke, 2000); the USA, Australia, Canada and the UK all gained immeasurably, as to a lesser extent did others. The number seeking CARA’s help has quadrupled in the past 3 years and continues to grow. There has been a very significant increase in the number of medical and other healthcare professionals seeking refugee status in the UK and in other countries according to our own figures. This is partly because of the situation in Iraq, where healthcare professionals are still being targeted by extreme elements,despite media reports that the situation is improving. Several hundreds have been assassinated there since 2003, mostly because they have sought to continue their work in their specialty. Also, in Zimbabwe extremely harsh conditions apply and many have gone to South Africa and neighbouring countries after finding it impossible to practise.’  (Boyd et al, 2009)
The article ends with a call to the psychiatric profession, which could go out to all academic disciplines, to ‘ assist this constituency of academic colleagues by speaking up against the stigmatisation of such refugees, supporting the correct view that they are and may increasingly become key local and global assets for a better future and, importantly, helping them to become re-established in their careers.’

Syrian academics ‘must be helped just like those who fled the Nazis’ (
‘Eighty years of solace for exiles fleeing the storm’, THE, 13-19 June 2013, p.p. 18-19

Robert Boyd, John Akker, Laura Wintour, ‘Academic Refugees’, International Psychiatry, 6, 3 (July 2009), pp. 53-4
Renee Farrar, Ludwig Guttman and the Paralympics, The Lancet, 380, 9845 (8 September 2012), p. 877.
Lucy Mayblin, ‘Beyond the Hostile State: Imagining Universities of Sanctuary’, Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration,1, 1 (2011), 31-34. Online access at
Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit, Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad (Penguin,2010)

Jeremy Seabrook, The Refuge and the Fortress (Palgrave Macmillan, 2nd edition, 2013)
David Zimmerman,’The Society for the Protection of Science & Learning and the Politicisation of British Science in the 1930s’, Minerva (2006), 44: 25–45


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A Hate Crime Named Destitution – reblogged from Sheffield RASAG

Originally posted on Sheffieldrasag's Blog:


“Whoever you are – I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”[1]


“Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away…”[2]


Hate crime occurs when an antagonist is able to hurt a victim, physically, mentally, financially, sexually or in any manner where the motivation for committing that crime against you, or the expectation of being able to get away with that crime against you is discrimination, inequality or intended hatred.


During a recent survey of refugees and asylum seekers of all categories of status from destitute through to permanent resident’s status, almost 85% had experienced hate crime.  Among those 15% of people not having experienced hate crime 2/3 were destitute asylum seekers, so must be either lucky, scary, or fibbing.


The police do not have a sanctuary policy…

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This is my country

I’m not given to patriotic outpourings.  I have difficulty saying I’m ‘proud’ to be British – I’m too aware of our colonial history to feel that in any simple way it is a matter of pride.   But I’ve always resented the appropriation of patriotism by the racists of the National Front, the BNP and EDL, and whilst flags and royal weddings and the like don’t move me terribly I do feel lucky to live here, and I love my homeland.

I wasn’t expecting to find anything about the Olympics that would move me, any more than that wedding did.   I was wrong.   Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony celebrated my Britain, my home, in all its glorious diversity, in a way I hadn’t for a moment expected.  It was a delight – I was laughing with pleasure, and with tears in my eyes.   And last night I was moved by our own Jess’s triumph in the heptathlon – a Sheffield lass, after our own Arctic Monkeys had greeted the nation with a cry of ‘Y’alreight?’ – and by Mo Farah‘s triumph in the 10000m.

2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony (11).jpg

And so the whole thing, which I’d expected to be a massive bore, has turned out to be instead a massive, bonkers celebration of this marvellous, mixed up country, where the multiculturalism which a Tory idiot and the Daily Mail derided has brought us medals beyond all expectations, where the successes of a Yorkshire girl with a Jamaican dad, and a Somali refugee have been celebrated across all the boundaries that sometimes divide us.

Last night Mo was asked if he’d rather be running for Somalia.  His answer is powerful in its simplicity and confidence: “Look mate, this is my country. This is where I grew up, this is where I started life. This is my country and when I put on my Great Britain vest I’m proud. I’m very proud.”

That’s not a pride that requires disparaging or disqualifying anyone, it’s not a pride that is based on being white or being able to trace centuries of ancestors on British soil.  It’s not about believing that we as a nation have always been heroic or just, or that our policies at home or abroad are right now.

I’m proud that over centuries we’ve kept our doors open to people who’ve needed to find refuge here, from French Huguenots to Russian and European Jews, to victims of more recent conflicts and oppression.  That’s the Britain I love, and celebrate – whilst at the same time wishing we were more welcoming, less mean-spirited (see my series of posts for Refugee Week, and if you would, sponsor me to run for Refugee Action in a few weeks time!).   Our diversity is our strength, and I love and celebrate that too.

Danny Boyle’s vision for the opening ceremony was summed up in Tim Berners-Lee‘s gift of the internet to the world, a gift, as he said, that is for everyone.  That celebration of ‘the creativity, exuberance and, above all, the generosity of the British people’ had ‘a golden thread of purpose – the idea of Jerusalem – of a better world that can be built through the prosperity of industry, through the caring nation that built the welfare state, through the joyous energy of popular culture, through the dream of universal communication. We can build Jerusalem. And it will be for everyone.’

Idealistic, naive – perhaps.  But that’s my country.  And I’m proud.

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No place like home


‘Borders can become stifling and murderous.   The dotted lines on the cartographer’s map can be transformed into walls of flame’ (‘Bricolage: An Interview with Michel Butor’, YFS, 84 (1994), 17-26)


All this week, I’ve been blogging about refugees.  I set myself the task of posting at least once a day on this theme, and whilst it’s been demanding (given the day job, and all that) to keep to that, there’s never been the remotest danger that I would run out of stories to tell.  The stories have spanned more than a century (Ukrainian Jews relocating to Sheffield at the end of the 19th century, through to Medecins sans Frontieres’ bulletin from South Sudan, and campaigns in the UK for refugees facing deportation and destitution), but only two continents, and every continent, every nation has its refugee stories.


The refugee story is perhaps the true story of our age.   In the chaos of Europe after the Second World War the numbers of people displaced – because they’d fled, or been deported, or been driven out of their homes by fighting or bombing – were so great (around 40 million) that for the first time the idea of the refugee was given serious consideration.   Our legal definitions come from that period, though they have evolved and adapted since.    Estimates of numbers vary considerably, based on the nuances of the definitions – from 8.4 million to 62 million if we include people displaced within their country of origin, as well as those outside it.


The classic definition – a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country’ – is based on the idea of a national identity, and of national borders.  Borders change, of course, and are in the main arrived at through conflict, occupation or colonisation – or by nature’s arrangements of sea or mountains.   Nigeria’s ongoing hideous turmoil is felt by many to be a product of the arbitrary lines drawn on a map by colonialists with little notion of the land those lines were enclosing or the peoples who inhabited it.


Borders can be absolute – one step over and you are in safety or in peril – but there’s also the notion of ambiguity, in the old Marchlands – borderlands rather than borderlines – which were dangerous places where the rule of law might not prevail.  And there were also sanctuaries – places where the rule of God rather than man prevailed and so one could be immune from arrest.   That notion is powerful and long-lasting, despite the terrible roll call of abuses.   The flight to a hoped-for place of safety sometimes did the work of genocidal mobs for them, as in Rwanda where a church in Nyarubuye and the technical school which had been a UN base had attracted many hundreds of refugees, who were surrounded by the Interahamwe and massacred.


The frontier can represent the limits of exploration (‘Space.  The final frontier’), to be boldly gone beyond, with all of the implications that what lies beyond may contain unknown and unimaginable dangers.  It’s a romantic notion in a way – and one which when given a historical context such as the American West reminds us that beyond the frontier wasn’t empty space to be occupied but homelands and homes  and people to be displaced and destroyed.


‘I think I belong on the border.  I feel safer psychologically if I have two countries, two places to go’.  Carmen Bugan still feels this, decades after leaving Romania.  W G Sebald, no refugee, but an exile, unable to feel at home in the place of his birth, said that his ideal station might be ‘a hotel in Switzerland‘ – a non-place in a neutral country.   Going home – if one can – may be as painful as being a stranger in a strange land.  For Carmen, returning to Romania two years ago to revisit her family home and old school was “one of the worst experiences of my life”.  ‘Yet there is still an inescapable desire to reconnect. Her writing is circling ever closer to Romania. “Do I want to turn back?” she wonders. “Is Romania really the sun and am I the sunflower?”‘  A S Byatt said of Sebald’s narrator in Rings of Saturn that he “journeys in great circling spirals in order not to go home, to get away from his origins”.


Every day’s papers bring more news of people forced to make unimaginable choices, people for whom home is no place.   South Sudanese refugees facing expulsion from Israel, boats carrying Sri Lankan asylum seekers capsizing in the Indian Ocean, Ugandan Asians returning to the homes from which Idi Amin drove them, Burmese Rohingya refugees seeking help in Bangladesh, refugee camps filling up in Turkey, in DRC.  It would be terribly easy to despair.   But the other side of the picture is, as it always has been, the story of generosity and hospitality, of people giving a damn when it’s not their turn to give a damn, of the marginalised and spectralised finding a place in a community and people to listen to their stories.


What could I say, to sum up what this week has been about?  Just that, as I said in my first Refugee Week post, every story that can be told is precious, a little bit of light in the darkness.






PS – Many thanks to all those who’ve retweeted and reblogged these posts to bring them to a wider audience than I could reach.





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Nigeria, 1966/World Refugee Day, 20 June 2012

Nigeria, 1966

During the series of coups and counter coups leading up to the secession of Biafra and the Nigerian Civil War, thousands of Igbo people were killed in the northern territories of Nigeria.  Many more fled to escape the massacres.   Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Half of a Yellow Sun gives a harrowing account both of the pogroms and of that flight, from a number of perspectives – the Igbo heroine, in Kano as violence explodes, who escapes on a train along with many others, traumatised, lost and bereaved; the Englishman who finds himself at Kano airport as Igbo staff and travellers are identified and killed; the people meeting the trains as they arrived, searching for their own friends and family afraid to find them and not to find them.

As I read her account, I found myself shaking and weeping.  I lived in the north of Nigeria at this time.  I was a young child, 9 years old, and my parents shielded me and my younger siblings from as much as they could.  But I knew that people were being killed because of their ethnicity.  I saw the mob which approached our home looking for Igbos, knew that my father and a friend had gone out to speak to them, to try to calm them and deter them but without success.    I knew of westerners arriving at Kano airport, to witness scenes of horror, some of whom got back on the plane as Richard does in the novel.  I learned later of the people who my parents found hiding in the unoccupied house across the road from us, who my father took in the back of our car, covered with blankets, to the army compound where others had taken refuge, and of the train organised by another expatriate to take them all to safety but which was ambushed, its passengers dragged out and killed.

As Rob Nixon said, in the New York Times, ‘“Half of a Yellow Sun” takes us inside ordinary lives laid waste by the all too ordinary unraveling of nation states. When an acquaintance of Olanna’s turns up at a refugee camp, she notices that “he was thinner and lankier than she remembered and looked as though he would break in two if he sat down abruptly.” It’s a measure of Adichie’s mastery of small things — and of the mess the world is in — that we see that man arrive, in country after country, again and again and again.’

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s literary role model is often said to be Chinua Achebe, who himself was caught up in these events.  His writing having brought him to the attention of the military who suspected him of having foreknowledge of the coup, he had to send his pregnant wife and children on a squalid boat through a series of unseen creeks to the Igbo stronghold of  Port Harcourt.   During the civil war which followed, his family had to move repeatedly to escape the fighting, returning to their destroyed home only after the war was over.   His poem, ‘Refugee Mother and Child’, reflects those experiences:

No Madonna and Child could touch
that picture of a mother’s tenderness
for a son she soon will have to forget.
The air was heavy with odors
of diarrhea of unwashed children
with washed-out ribs and dried-up
bottoms struggling in labored
steps behind blown empty bellies.
Most mothers there had long ceased
to care but not this one; she held
a ghost smile between her teeth
and in her eyes the ghost of a mother’s
pride as she combed the rust-colored
hair left on his skull and then -
singing in her eyes – began carefully
to part it… In another life
this would have been a little daily
act of no consequence before his
breakfast and school; now she
did it like putting flowers
on a tiny grave.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (London: Fourth Estate, 2009)

Chinua Achebe, Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2005)

Rob Nixon, ‘A Biafran Story’, New York Times, 1 October 2006


World Refugee Day, 20 June 2012

di·lem·ma \ : a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially ones that are equally undesirable.

No one chooses to be a refugee

Every minute eight people leave everything behind to escape war, persecution or terror.

If conflict threatened your family, what would you do? Stay and risk your lives? Or try to flee, and risk kidnap, rape or torture?

For many refugees the choice is between the horrific or something worse.

What would you do?

World Refugee Day was established by the United Nations to honor the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children who are forced to flee their homes under threat of persecution, conflict and violence.

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