Asylum and Exile – The Hidden Voices of London – Bidisha

The most recent United Nations Refugee Agency report detailing the numbers for people forcibly displaced shows the highest level ever recorded, with 59.5 million (in June last year) compared to 37.5 million a decade ago. Other reports say it is the highest since World War II, who to believe? Besides the actual staggering amount of forcibly displaced people there is no doubt that politically those people who then seek refugee or asylum status has caused an international debate. In countries such as Australia elections are fought over the political party’s stance on asylum seekers, and there is a massive groundswell of people who are lobbying to increase Australia’s refugee intake, to shut down off shore detention centres and to come up with an alternative view that “you will not settle here”.
Bidisha, is an author, broadcaster, outreach worker and international human rights journalist, and through the English PEN Program worked with refugees and asylum seekers in Britain, teaching them the basics of the English language, in an outreach capacity. The English PEN program has a motto “to defend and promote the freedom of expression, and to remove barriers to literature.” The PEN charter was approved in 1948 and reads as follows:

  • LITERATURE KNOWS NO FRONTIERS, and should remain a common currency between nations in spite of political or international upheavals.
  • In all circumstances, and particularly in time of war, works of art, the patrimony of humanity at large, should be left untouched by national or political passion.
  • Members of PEN should at all times use what influence they have in favour of good understanding and mutual respect between nations; they pledge themselves to do their utmost to dispel race, class and national hatreds, and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace in one world.
  • PEN stands for the principle of unhampered transmission of thought within each nation and between all nations; and members pledge themselves to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in the country and community to which they belong as well as throughout the world whenever this is possible. PEN declares for a free press and opposes arbitrary censorship in time of peace. It believes that the necessary advance of the world towards a more highly organized political and economic order renders a free criticism of governments, administrations and institutions imperative. And since freedom implies voluntary restraint, members pledge themselves to oppose such evils of a free press as mendacious publication, deliberate falsehood and distortions of fact for political and personal ends.
In this 2014 published book, Bidisha opens her compelling story explaining that she had worked at the same East London resource centre for asylum seekers seven years prior, writing an article “about the area’s migrants, outreach projects, youth groups, homeless people and community leaders. The article was not published and now Bidisha is returning to teach:
Every year the centre looks after thousands of ‘refugees, asylum seekers, stateless people, victims of human trafficking, separated families and unaccompanied young people’, as it says in its most recent annual review, adding that many of these people ‘have limited or no entitlement to state support or the right to work. Many live in temporary or insecure accommodation and are victims of crime.’ The place is extremely dynamic, its staff both highly skilled and ferociously committed, and it has a wonderful atmosphere which makes my heart lift every time I visit. Surely it deserves more help and better resources?
 With students in her class from very diverse backgrounds, this book is her story about the refugees’ stories.
I see myself as I am really, a middle-aged lady living on a continent I wasn’t born in, with hope for a better future, never misplaces or misunderstood again.
The journey as we learn more about each refugee is a very moving portrait of people marginalised from society. With no permanent residency status they are not allowed to work, small illegal “cash” jobs, where underhanded tactics are rife, are the norm, attending a class with English PEN where payment is in cash of £8 is an incentive, with no welfare, borrowing and living with acquaintances can be the norm, and as we hear more of these asylum seeker’s stories we learn that a number have been living in Britain, under these circumstances for 10-15 years!!!
Bidisha asks the students to write various “stories”, letters to people, poems, memories and it is through these written stories, which are replicated, the voices of these people begins to be heard. We find the humanity of these people in crisis, musicians, family people, writers, all highly educated in their homelands who are now forced to work illegal cash jobs to survive. Even though they have awaited Government rulings for ten years plus, it is not the horror of these stories that is the most revealing, it is the humour, the resilience and determination to survive that really strikes home.
There are also the musings of Bidisha’s situation, where she teaches English in another class to a group who have been settled, their different economic situation, there are personal indiscretions, in one case treating a promising student as a “favourite” and there are also the “rules”, for example her classroom being a “Politics free-zone”:
But national and international politics are what brought us together, in this room, in this country. It’s all defining and inescapable and is reflected, in one way or another, in everything my students so, say or write. I have students from the two Congos, Cameroon, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Burundi, Sudan, Iran, Syria, Ghana, Liberia and more. All these people’s lives have been politicized by violence or violated by politics, or they wouldn’t be here. They are all existing in reaction to what other groups’ or governments’ brutal power-playing – local, national or international, formal or informal, governmental or military, social or economic, rebellious or established, distant or close – has done to their home countries. And the way they’re treated here is influenced by Europe’s own political leaders’ rhetoric, which both follow and reinforces media misrepresentations.
The book also reveals some of Bidisha’s own prejudices, hers coming towards the classmates who only engage in the wartime stories but avoid the exercises discussing family stories. But then Bidisha reflects, there are recent examples of Libyans seeking asylum, where they were ALL in detention, nobody believed any of their stories, the prejudice flowing through to whole asylum seeker groups.
Of course this is a highly political work, but by giving a voice to the voiceless, by “humanising” the people who have become political and media fodder, by mingling statistics and quotes from official reports with a personal account of working in an outreach centre, Bidisha has blended this into a very readable book.
As per usual for Seagull Books, it is also beautifully presented in a hardback edition, and it forms part of the “Manifestos of the 21stcentury” series currently running to twenty one titles
As Seagull Books themselves says:
Free expression is as high on the agenda as it has ever been, though not always for the happiest of reasons. Here, four distinguished writers address the issue of censorship in a complex and fragile world where people with widely different cultural habits and beliefs are living in close proximity, where offence is easily taken, and where words, images and behaviour are coming under the closest scrutiny. These books will surprise, clarify and provoke in equal measure. Index on Censorship is the only international magazine promoting and protecting free expression.
A haven for the censored and silenced, it has built an impressive track record since it was founded 35 years ago, publishing some of the finest writers, sharpest analysts and foremost thinkers in the world. In this series with Seagull Books, the focus will be on questions of rights, liberties, tolerance, silencing, censorship and dissent.
More on these titles can be found here. Although the series now runs to twenty writers (not four as mentioned above), I think a few more may be making their way into my reading collection. “Asylum and Exile” is another gem from the publisher that has a worldwide reputation for producing beautiful books, who needs an e-reader?  

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