A Pocketful of Passports

Decades before the refugees from Vietnam were given the name of ‘boat people’, and before the more recent tragedies in the Med, a group of refugees were desperately hoping for a ship to take them away from Europe, to the US, the UK, anywhere. They went through official channels, or at least they tried, applying for visas and waiting, waiting. Russian author Victor Serge described the temporary community gathered in Marseille:

Here is a beggar’s alley gathering the remnants of revolutions, democracies and crushed intellects… In our ranks are enough doctors, psychologists, engineers, educationalists, poets, painters, writers, musicians, economists and public men to vitalize a whole great country.

Many of them had already fled across Europe. Some made it to safety in another continent. Others didn’t – they left it just a little too late.

Many of those who did make it owed their survival to the work of American journalist Varian Fry, and Harry Bingham IV, the US Vice-Consul in Marseille, who provided forged visas particularly to artists at risk in Occupied France, Mary Jayne Gold , a Chicago heiress who helped to fund the operation, Albert O Hirschmann and Miriam Davenport, along with Robert Dexter , the founder of the Unitarian Service Committee.

Davenport-FryVarian-Fry-002Thanks to their collective effort, Marc Chagall (originally from what is now Belarus) and his wife Bella sailed in May 1941. Their daughter Ida and her husband left on another ship, the SS Navemar, chartered by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

The refugees who managed to get to Seville found themselves taking bunks in its filthy cargo holds (unless they had the funds to pay the captain for more salubrious quarters) – many passengers contracted typhus en route, and six died.


Even on the Navemar the conditions and the dangers faced by these ‘boat people’ were very different to those encountered by today’s boat people. But some similarities remain – a number of such ships were turned away, and had to return to Europe, a terrible prospect for their passengers. In February 1942, the Turkish police cut the anchor of the SS Struma, carrying 767 Jews, and towed it into the Black Sea, where it was set adrift without a working engine. People ashore could make out a large banner that read, “Save us.” A torpedo from a Russian submarine sank the vessel six miles from shore early the next morning. There was one survivor.

Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins wrote this haunting passage about the Struma in their book Death on the Black Sea:

Standing on the polished deck of a British Royal Navy cruiser in January 1942, Olivia Manning experienced a moment of utter confusion. She and her husband, a British journalist, had joined a party of diplomats and officials for an evening’s pleasure cruise along the Bosporus and around Istanbul harbor. The city lights sparkled in the chill air, and the ship’s forward searchlight played across the night water. The guests danced and sipped martinis and gin and tonics. The festivities stopped abruptly when the searchlight paused on what appeared to be a derelict ship, illuminating rows of faces, white and unsmiling, as they stared back at the partygoers. “Who are they?” asked one of the shocked guests. “What are they doing there?” asked another. Someone suggested it was a prison ship. “The light shifted and the party forgot its grim audience hidden in the dark,” Manning, a novelist who had lived in Romania briefly before the war, later wrote in a newspaper article. “The ship was the Struma.” The images of gaunt, ghostlike men and women from the Nazi death camps were not yet stamped on the world’s consciousness: The hair-raising atrocities were proceeding largely behind closed gates at the end of 1941. In the harbor of one of the world’s largest cities, though, a place teeming with diplomats and journalists, the panorama of Jewish suffering was visible to anyone who cared or dared to look.

As grim and hazardous as the voyages were, for those who didn’t get visas (real or forged) the alternative was clear. Walter Benjamin committed suicide at Portbou in Catalonia, having heard that his application had been refused and that he would be deported back to France. He was not the only one to make such a choice, though the bitter irony is that had he not done so, or had he, like his friend Arthur Koestler, survived the attempt, the following day he could have got the papers he needed.

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Varian Fry found himself in a bizarre position. He wrote home:

‘Among the people who have come into my office, or with whom I am in constant correspondence, are not only some of the greatest living authors, painters, sculptors of Europe . . . but also former cabinet ministers and even prime ministers of half a dozen countries. What a strange place Europe is when men like this are reduced to waiting patiently in the anteroom of a young American of no importance whatever.’

This young American of no importance whatever helped Marc Chagall, Hannah Arendt, Andre Breton, Thomas Mann’s brother Heinrich and son Golo, Claude Levi-Strauss, Alma Mahler, Arthur Koestler, amongst many others who were and remain significant cultural figures – and many whose names are unfamiliar, but who nevertheless got their chance to contribute in less public ways.

For Fry this contribution was far from enough. He said “In all we saved some two thousand human beings. We ought to have saved many times that number. But we did what we could.” And he continued to make impassioned pleas to the US government, to anyone who might listen, to do more, to do everything they could in the face of ‘systematic extermination’. In an article in the New Republic, entitled ‘The Massacre of the Jews in Europe’ in December 1942 he said:

There are some things so horrible that decent men and women find them impossible to believe, so monstrous that the civilized world recoils incredulous before them. The recent reports of the systematic extermination of the Jews in Nazi Europe are of this order… we can offer asylum now, without delay or red tape, to those few fortunate enough to escape from the Aryan paradise. There have been bureaucratic delays in visa procedure which have literally condemned to death many stalwart democrats… This is a challenge which we cannot, must not, ignore.

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We heard you shouting for our freedom and it gave us hope! Women from Yarl’s Wood speak


Refugee Week 2015 – Refugee Women

Originally posted on Women for Refugee Women:

Hundreds of protesters came to Yarl’s Wood on 6 June to demand justice and dignity for women who cross borders, and the closure of Yarl’s Wood detention centre. Before the protest, throughout it and afterwards Women for Refugee Women has been in touch with women who are locked up in the detention centre, and we talked to them about how they felt. We have changed the names of all current detainees in this blog.

‘We were waiting and waiting and hoping that we would hear you from the morning. Then when you walked around the back of Yarl’s Wood and we saw how many people cared we were crying and waving out the window and shouting so you could hear. It helps us to know how many people care because it often feels like we are forgotten in here. It gave us hope and raised our spirits.’ Sonia, 34, asylum seeker…

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Boat People

The first time I was aware of this phrase was in the late 1970s. The boat people then were fleeing from Vietnam, in the bitter aftermath of that long war. Others fled from Cambodia and Laos as repressive governments took over in those countries, and those who couldn’t afford to buy a safer passage by bribing government officials to give them the necessary papers took to the boats, as so many others have done in the decades since.

vietnamese  200px-35_Vietnamese_boat_people_2 The mass influx of refugees caused problems then to the countries on whose shores they landed. But there was a concerted, international effort, to spread the load, to share the responsibility. Various memorials in western countries pay tribute not only to the boat people who didn’t survive that perilous voyage, but to the nations who took them in, supported them in making a new life. Some of this was down to guilt – in the US in particular, who had lost a war and left those they had fought for and with to the mercy of the victors. Even so, this benign response didn’t last. Soon enough, the argument was made that many of those seeking refuge were not asylum seekers but people seeking a better life (sound familiar?), and therefore found themselves in detention centres whilst their claims were examined. If they were unsuccessful they faced deportation. Boat People In more recent years, people continue to risk their lives on the sea. Rohingya people fleeing persecution in Myanmar (Burma), refugees from conflict in Eritrea, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere.   So many lives have been lost – the vessels barely seaworthy and overloaded with desperate humanity, and apparently all too often a world prepared to look on and judge that these people are not worth the cost of rescue. South_East_Asia_response_2 Just the other week, David Cameron claimed that the ‘vast majority’ of those who set sail across the Med are not asylum seekers but ‘ people seeking a better life’.  He makes it sound a bit like someone who emigrates to Australia for the climate or a better paid job, or who moves out of the big city for a more peaceful life in the countryside. Actually, the better life they seek is a life free from fear of bombs, guns, starvation. As Somali British poet Warsan Shire says,  “No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”

Some commentators have shown a quite remarkable ability to scan the faces in the boats and judge where all of these people are from and therefore the validity of their claim. Abdallah’s story suggests why this is nonsensical – he is originally from Darfur, but fled after his village was destroyed, his father killed and his sisters raped, on to South Sudan straight into another civil war, a punishing journey across the Sahara which killed his cousin and brother, and then to Libya. And his third civil war. He saw the risk of the Mediterranean voyage as no greater than the risk of staying – and going home as not even a possibility. med boatmed migrants

The other thing that is ignored by those who want to categorise these boat people as ‘economic migrants’ is that whilst they may indeed have left their homes to take up jobs elsewhere – and then somewhere along the line their employers take their passports, and essentially treat them as slave labour. If they protest, they risk being reported to the police. And if they leave entirely, they risk being arrested as an illegal migrant. So they can’t go home, even if home is not itself a dangerous and hostile place, because they have no papers. The traffickers will take them.

People talk as if these are people who have choices. As if they can plan a journey to the nearest country where they won’t actually starve or be killed. It’s really not like that. They say we need to focus on stopping the traffickers – sure, but as well as rescuing the people they traffic, not instead. It’s been suggested that if we stop rescuing them they will stop coming. No, if we stop rescuing them they will keep on coming and they will keep on drowning.




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REFUGEE WEEK 2015 #RefugeesContribute

You only have to look around you to see that refugees have contributed, historically. Your knickers may well come from Marks & Spencers. Your pantry may well stock the odd pack of Tilda rice or Patak’s curry paste. Your CD collection may well include something by MIA or Arnold Schoenberg, Wyclif Jean or Bela Bartok. Your bookshelves may well include works by Thomas Mann or Nabokov, your children’s bookshelves those of Judith Kerr or Jan Pienkowski. And that’s before you consider the contributions of the scientists, the philosophers, the painters, the film directors, the sportsmen and women who, at some point in their lives, had to leave their homes to find safety somewhere else.

Of course most refugees won’t turn out to be another Einstein, Marx or Freud.   And those who arrive with nothing but the clothes they stand up in, and who live in near destitution, and in fear of deportation back to the peril that they risked everything to escape, will struggle to do much more than survive. But if they are given the chance to be who they can be, free of the threat of starvation, violence and persecution, if they are given the chance to use the skills and qualifications they already have, or to acquire skills that can be used to earn a living and pay taxes, who knows?

If we had not welcomed the children from the Kindertransport in 1939, we would never have known the contribution of impresario Bill Graham, entrepreneur Steve Shirley, film director Karel Reisz, Nobel Laureates Walter Kohn, Arno Penzias and Jack Steinberger.

If CARA had not enabled Jewish academics to take up posts in UK Universities in the 1930s, when they were unable to work in their home countries, we might never have known the contributions of Ernst Gombrich, Nikolaus Pevsner, Karl Popper, Max Born or Hans Krebs. Those individuals might well have been swallowed up in the barbarity. Anne Frank and Helene Berr left only their extraordinary diaries to suggest what might have been. Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas, Viktor Ullmann and Hans Krasa left only tantalising fragments of the musical oeuvre that they could have achieved.  Walter Benjamin, Marc Bloch, Irene Nemirovsky, Max Jacob, Dietrich Bonhoeffer- all left a substantial legacy, but could have gone on, could have continued to influence and inspire.

refugees 4 refugees 3 refugees 2 refugees 1

If you really look at the photos above, what do you see?  I see weariness and bewilderment, but also a fragile hope, the beginnings of belief in a future that isn’t all about fear and a desperate struggle to survive.  I see people like us who had everything they’d relied upon taken away from them, and who have no choice but to trust to the kindness of strangers. We’ll never know the potential of the lives that are lost in the warzones and killing fields of the world, unless we help people in desperate straits to get out, and make a new life in safety.

They won’t all change the world – but they could change us. Our communities, fearful as they are, can gain from hearing the voices of people who have endured more than most of us could possibly imagine, and understanding that it’s all rather more complicated, and at the same time rather less threatening, than the rhetoric of the ‘send them all back – Britain is full’ brigade suggests.They can give us the chance to see things differently, to broaden our horizons as we open our eyes, our ears, our hearts, our homes.






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Refugee Week 2015

I started this blog in 2012, and when Refugee Week came around that year, I decided to try to publish something every day, either my own writing or a reblog of something interesting I’d found online, about refugees.  I’ve done that each year since.  It’s a self-imposed challenge that I get anxious about in advance – will I be able to find the time to write, will I find things to write about, will anyone be interested?  But once I get started, each year the stories have found me, stories of tragedy and of hope from around the world.

So, this year, I kicked off with an appreciation of Judith Kerr, just because it’s her birthday, and because this year’s theme is #RefugeesContribute.  There are other posts brewing. But if you read this and think of a story I should be telling, let me know.

A couple of brief notes, ahead of the next substantial piece:

Michael Grade in the current Radio Times talks about his upcoming Radio 4 programme, where he interviews Kolbassia Haoussou, a refugee from Chad, and now spokesperson for Freedom from Torture.  He speaks of his paternal grandparents who left the Ukraine in 1910 and undertook a remarkable, dangerous journey to England, where they built new lives, and where their children, and grandchildren achieved great success .  Grade says ‘When I see pictures of boatloads of migrants heading to Europe from North Africa, I think how desperate they must be to risk everything, putting their lives in the hands of the traffickers and their deathtrap boats.  I think about how they must be driven to the only option that remotely offers trhe prospect of release from the wars and the militancy and the savagery that goes on in some of these countries. …. So let’s welcome the risk-takers, wherever they may come from.  It’s what a bold society does.  We have much more to gain than lose’. (Michael Grade, ‘Taking a Chance’, Radio Times 13-19 June 2015).

And yesterday a group of writers, artists and musicians set off on a new pilgrimage, The Refugee Tales will be a unique walk, on paths taken by travellers over the centuries along the North Downs Way from Dover to Crawley via Canterbury, while reflecting on the long and dangerous journeys that many refugees make fleeing war and persecution, seeking a safe place to live.  The organisation behind this is the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group

I’ll keep writing.  If you like it, share, follow, like, retweet, reblog…

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#Refugees Contribute – Judith Kerr

Serendipitously, the start of Refugee Week 2015, with its theme of the contribution that refugees make to the communities in which they make their new homes, coincides with the 92nd birthday of Judith Kerr.

Her books were not part of my own childhood – I was too old by 1968 to enjoy The Tiger Who Came To Tea, and certainly by 1970 when the first Mog book appeared.  But I read those books – again and again and again – to my own children.  And unlike some books which I read to them again and again and again, which irritated me more with every rendition,  it was always a joy to read anything by Kerr.

Mog_the_forgetful_cat 170px-The_Tiger_who_came_to_tea

If pressed, I could probably still recite part of The Tiger, and certainly odd phrases from the Mog series (the cat who ‘forgot she had a catflap’, and who got an egg AND a medal after unwittingly foiling a burglary) have passed into our family language.

Nothing in the world depicted in these delightful stories suggests the circumstances in which Judith Kerr arrived in the UK.  They’re not cloyingly cosy – after all, the final Mog book says a final goodbye to that forgetful cat.  But one wouldn’t guess that her family had to leave their Berlin home suddenly in 1933, when the Nazis came to power, because her father had been openly critical of the party. He left first, having been tipped off that he was at risk, and her mother and the two children followed not long afterwards, travelling initially to Sweden and then to France, before applying for and being granted British citizenship. They could not have known in 1933 the full extent of the danger that they, as Jews, would have faced had they stayed, and they left France before that country ceased to be a safe haven, but  as the war went on, Judith’s parents carried suicide pills with them, in case of a Nazi invasion.

Michael Rosen has suggested that the Tiger, who comes to tea and eats everything in the house, drinks all Daddy’s beer and all the water in the taps, was suggested at some subconscious level by the childhood awareness of an unexplained threat, that your home could be invaded, everything you have could be taken, without warning.  That may be, and it’s certainly part of the unsettling charm of the book that we never forget that the Tiger is a tiger, that if not placated with all the food and drink he demands he could be dangerous. But at the same time, the willingness of the family to allow this unexpected visitor to empty their pantry conveys generosity and hospitality, along with imperturbability, rather than fear.  It could be that this reflects the way in which parents maintain a calm unflappable air in order not to frighten children too young to understand real danger.  But of course the Tiger leaves, of his own accord, and never comes back.

Kerr did write directly about her past, in three autobiographical novels collectively titled ‘Out of the Hitler Time’. She’s very conscious of her own good fortune, not only in that, unlike so many other families, they lost no one, but that they found a safe home and a welcome, and the chance to build new lives.

‘People here were so good to us in the war. It must have been awful for my parents, but when you consider what happened to the others who stayed behind, nothing bad happened to us. We didn’t lose anyone. All our family got out: my grandparents, uncles, aunts, they all got out. Nobody died. We had a terrible time with money, but so did lots of people, and people were very good to us wherever we went.’ (http://www.booktrust.org.uk/books/children/illustrators/interviews/104)

Happy birthday Judith Kerr, and thank you.


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Occasionally people seem surprised at my enthusiasm, my geeky love, for the world of Marvel on the big and small screen. I read Proust, I love enigmatic French arthouse movies where nothing happens, very stylishly, for hours on end. I have argued elsewhere that one can love Proust AND Stephen King, and I see no reason why one cannot also love Alain Resnais or Michael Hanecke’s Caché, AND Thor, or Captain America. Who would want to be limited to just one brow?

In any case, it’s an open secret that I’m a Buffy obsessive and a Whovian, so no one should really have to reach for the smelling salts when I get giddy about heading off to Cineworld to see Avengers Age of Ultron in 3D.

It seems to me that there’s a direct line from a lot of what I read during my bookworm childhood to these more recent passions.   As soon as I could make the squiggles on the page into words in my head, I read everything I could reach. I read children’s classics (Nesbit, Lewis, Tolkien, Alcott, Burnett), grown-up classics (Dickens, Malory, Bronte, Shakespeare), newer children’s writers (Garner, Sutcliffe, Garfield, Treece). And in many of these I found ways into other worlds.

Tolkien and Garner both drew on Norse and Celtic mythology, one to create his own world, the other to imbue ours with magic. Lewis led his child protagonists through mundane portals into his alternative world where they became heroes and battled with evil.   Malory, Sutcliffe and Garner gave me different takes on the ultimate British hero, the once and future King, a medieval knight or a celtic warlord, or a sleeper under Alderley Edge waiting for our hour of need to awake. And in Roger Lancelyn Green’s vivid retellings I got to know the tales of Greek heroes.

The notion that our everyday world can slip its mask and reveal another reality, darker or brighter, bigger and badder, invading and intervening as the gods of old always have done, is often terrifying, always compelling. That’s why my greatest fondness is for those narratives which start with the world we already know. Think of how a certain episode of Doctor Who has rendered statuary decidedly uncanny – the familiar become strange and scary.   Think of how Buffy subverted the teen high school movie, so that being grounded really was potentially the end of the world. Think of how Stephen King’s It showed the adult world oblivious to the terrors that the children had to face unprotected.

age of ultron

Marvel movies are bigger and noisier than the above. They’re sillier, perhaps. But they’re tapping into those old, deep stories, and reinventing, representing them in bright and shiny ways, with (particularly where Joss Whedon has a hand in the script) wit and humour. They’re not scary, but they’re exciting, exhilarating. In the Avengers ensemble movies, in one glorious superhero binge, we have elements drawn from an eclectic range of sources – from myth and legend, from Robert Louis Stevenson and Mary Shelley, even an American King Arthur, woken from sleep to defend the world in its hour of need.

weirdstone cap frozen

I’m not arguing for the Marvel movies as the most profound examinations of moral questions, or of the human psyche. But neither are they devoid of interest on those planes. They are never quite as simplistic as one might expect, with all the exploding and the fighting. The very daftness of the idea of these very disparate characters coming together is part of its charm. The humour, and sometimes poignancy too, often comes from their disparity, whether it is the cynicism of Iron Man playing against the moral uprightness of Captain America, or the straightforward warrior sensibility of Thor against the conflicted, tortured Banner/Hulk.

Thor: The gates of Hel are filled with the screams of his victims!

[Natasha glares at him while Bruce groans and puts his head in his hands]

Thor: But not the screams of the dead, of course. No, no… wounded screams… mainly whimpering, a great deal of complaining and tales of sprained deltoids and… gout.

And once one has suspended one’s disbelief and accepted the premise, that humour and poignancy makes you care about the outcome, root for the good guys, not just for their victory but for their wellbeing. Their superhumanity comes from different sources – technology, programming, divinity – but there’s always humanity there too. And it’s the flawed and fragile beauty of humanity that the Avengers fight for:

Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings. … A thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It is a privilege to be among them.

Echoes of the Doctor there, I think. Amongst all of the forces that see the weakness of human beings and want to destroy, some stand with us. The Doctor said that in 900 years of space and time he’d never met anyone who wasn’t important. He tells us again and again that we are in our very ordinariness extraordinary, in our bloody-minded going where angels fear to tread, our curiosity and our moments of courage.

These stories, these new/old stories may not change the world. But stories are vital. Stories are the way we’ve always tried to make sense of the inexplicable and the unbearable, and to infuse the everyday with magical possibilities. Marvel’s gloriously epic and gloriously daft stories give us moments of startling beauty and poignancy (we are Groot), massive explosions and battles, deadpan humour and heroes we can root for. Pretty damn marvellous.

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