It’s Refugee Week. Every year a time to consider what drives people to leave everything behind and throw themselves on the mercy of a world that is often indifferent, suspicious and hostile. Every year a time to consider what our culture has gained from those who’ve sought sanctuary here, and what it’s lost in those who never made it.
Two very different refugee stories that I came across in the last few days:
Occursus told the story of Pauline, whose family came to Sheffield from Ukraine, and were part of the Jewish community in the slums around Scotland Street. There’s a multiple loss here – of the original home in Novograd-Volynsk, of the area where the 19th century Jewish emigrants settled, and the family home on Allen Street, but also of the connections to that past, and those lost places. Pauline was discouraged from exploring her family history, and now pieces together what she can from fragments and guesses, and sensory memories – smells and sounds. And the Guardian featured Carmen Bugan‘s memories of her father, a dissident in Ceausescu’s Romania, and the family’s escape from oppression. Carmen’s memories have been enhanced in an unexpected way – by the secret police files which she’s now been able to access and which shed a weird light on the years of surveillance and suspicion, imprisonment and torture, but also gave her back a story she’d written as a child and the endorsement of her father’s love for his children in the words of an anonymous watcher.
These stories chimed for me with reflections on Storying Sheffield’s 2012 exhibition, from Matthew Cheeseman’s Einekleine blog, talking about the sensibility of loss, the fragmentary past, memory appearing as traces. He says that the work in the exhibition ‘makes one marvel at all that is not there, at all that is truly gone, erased forever.’ It offers ‘a field of stories so deep, so potentially endless, it induces vertigo, a sense of terror at what has gone before and what will be left behind. … Within this vertigo is a response to the finality of Derrida’s traces: more will come, more will happen. Traces will be replaced by traces, all dying, all corroding, but giving into others, in a protean, quantum-field of experience which is not only filled with loss but also, seemingly at least, a generative, life-affirming push. Speech and stories may be fragile and delicate, but they are replaced and revived by their own action. ‘
There are many, many lines of flight from here. Reading history in the gaps, the absences, the lacunae. Ghosts and revenants, walking the streets of our cities. Themes for future blogs – but in this specific context, a reminder of the field of stories from those who, like Pauline’s parents, and Carmen’s, left behind lives that are unrecoverable now, and made new lives in unfamiliar places. Every refugee has these two narratives – the life before and the life since. And the former interweaves itself with the latter, consciously or unconsciously – Carmen lives on the border between France and Switzerland, where her husband works at CERN: ‘I think I belong on the border. I feel safer psychologically if I have two countries, two places to go’. Another line of flight – borders, frontiers, liminal space…
The refugee story is our story too. Not just in the sense that it could be any of us, though of course it could be – but because how we, our community, our city, our homeland, respond to the strangers who turn to us for sanctuary is a compelling story too, on every level from the most personal to the global political. The refugee story told by some of our newspapers is a travesty of the truth, a mean-spirited, mendacious, xenophobic narrative of a Britain already full up, being taken for a ride by workshy foreigners with sob stories about persecution and spurious appeals to human rights. I would be fairly startled if anyone reading this blog subscribed to that set of views. But because it’s so pervasive, the counter-narrative needs to be robust, and to establish both facts (the laws around asylum, the benefits and entitlements of those seeking it, the numbers involved) and principles.
For Derrida, ‘ethics is hospitality’:
‘Hospitality is culture itself and not simply one ethic amongst others. Insofar as it has to do with the ethos, that is, the residence, one’s home, the familiar place of dwelling, inasmuch as it is a manner of being there, the manner in which we relate to ourselves and to others, to others as our own or as foreigners, ethics is hospitality’. (Cosmopolitanism & Forgiveness, p. 16-17)
He goes beyond this assertion to recognise the possibility that hospitality can entail appropriation, control and mastery, and to explore therefore the idea of cities of refuge, an idea that goes back centuries, but raises issues of state sovereignty and law which he acknowledges are obscure and difficult. There’s no simple way of enshrining that simple principle at national and international level, but without that, the fate of the exiled will always be precarious. Kwame Anthony Appiah‘s study of cosmopolitanism, subtitled ‘Ethics in a world of strangers’, defines it as ‘ universality plus difference”. Based on this, we should offer hospitality to the stranger because of the former – because what we share is more important than what we don’t. That difference may be the first thing that strikes us, and Julia Kristeva sets out a shockingly stark polarity of responses: ‘I’m at least as peculiar as this other, and so I love him/her’, says the observer , or ‘I prefer my own peculiarity, and so I kill the other’ – more recognisably, fascination or rejection. Kristeva’s analysis is complex and problematic on many levels and certainly doesn’t offer – any more than Derrida or Appiah – a programme of change. But it offers some powerful images of what it is to be a stranger – in a state of permanent transience, one’s space ‘a moving train, a plane in flight, the very transition that precludes stopping’, torn between here and elsewhere, belonging nowhere. The stranger loses their language and their place in the community – they count for no one, no one hears them.
W G Sebald’s Jacques Austerlitz came to Britain on the kindertransport. Sebald explores the “effects political persecution produces in people 50 years down the line, and the complicated workings of remembering and forgetting that go with that”. He is interested in the long-term effects on émigrés who “may appear well adapted but, especially as they move towards old age, are still suffering from having been ostracised, deprived of country, family, language. There are damages to people’s inner lives that can never be rectified.” In The Emigrants too, he explores the ‘great time lag between the infliction of injustice and when it finally overwhelms you’.
Derrida rejects the option of giving examples of individual refugees in his text, ‘for there are too many; and to cite the best known would risk sending the anonymous others back into the darkness (mal) from which they find it hard to escape’ (p. 6). There’s truth in this – but the refugee risks losing past, history, identity and language when they uproot themselves to find safety amongst strangers, and every story that can be told is precious, a little bit of light in the darkness.
Refugee Week is obviously about more than telling the stories. It’s about campaigning, to end destitution for refused asylum seekers (Still Human, Still Here), to change practice on the treatment of gay and lesbian asylum seekers, for asylum seekers to be allowed to work. It’s about fundraising to provide resources and support for refugees. It’s about raising awareness and understanding, refuting and challenging prejudices and misconceptions. There are many organisations working in this field, at the local and national level, some of which are listed below. I choose to support Refugee Action, for which my brother has worked for a number of years, and for whom I will be fundraising by participating in the Great Yorkshire Run in September.
Julia Kristeva, Etrangers a nous-memes (Paris: Gallimard, 1988)
Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism & Forgiveness (NY, Routledge, 2001)
Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (London: Allen Lane, 2006)