What's Your Story? with Refugee ActionIn September 2013 we ran a six week writing course for Refugees and Asylum seekers. In collaboration with Refugee Action, the group were tutored by award winning author, Helen Walsh. This is what she had to say about the course and her experience:
"I can think of few instances in my life to date where a group of people have inspired, challenged and subverted my way of looking at the world in such a way as my students did in those sessions. Each week I was presented with new ways of looking at the human experience, each week I was forced to pare back those uncomfortable truths of humanity, and in doing so re-evaluate my understanding of the concept of liberty, and question how often and how casually it is squandered here in the Western world.
All of my writers were brimming with stories, so rich and complex and ultimately life affirming, that they needed little inspiration from me. I hope that they will continue to lay down their pasts and make sense of the here and now and that one day, we are able to read their stories in print. I’m in no doubt that the face of contemporary fiction will be richer, deeper, better for it."
The Story of Our Table
At first we thought we wouldn't understand each other,
but then we dovetailed,
then we all made sense.
In my country it is hard to be a woman,
so I just want to listen.
It's too hard to think about the past
but the future – I'd like to be a fashion maker,
I want to be a successful person in this place.
You can use your past to build your future,
but not to dwell there.
This poem was written by participants in Writing on the Wall's Where are you from and What's your Story? event in association with Refugee Action and Asylum Link.
Translation of script:
I went over to see one of my British friends, who has a new flat which he wanted me to see. He was there with his three hippy friends who I didn’t know. Two of the guys were called Dylan and Jacob. At about 7 we started drinking, they were talking about a party called Shanti. They said it started from midnight and carried on until tomorrow, whenever you want. When I asked about the details of the party they said it was a party for hippies, full of drugs and drinks and everything and that you could stay there until whenever you wanted. They said it was full of mushrooms and acid. I didn’t take acid until that day. I really wanted to try and test it because I’d heard good things about it.
We went to the club, it was a nice club in town. We couldn’t get into the club until we finished the bottle of drink we had on us. So we were outside for about two hours. Jacob took us to an alleyway full of graffiti. I drew my tag up there. We went there to smoke weed with 12 people, one of the girls shouted “Has anyone lost any drugs? If you tell me the details, I will give it back to you.” He had found two grams of cocaine in the street. No one claimed the drugs so three of us sniffed the cocaine and started smoking weed. I had smoked a lot of weed and drunk a lot that afternoon. I had tried cocaine before, so I knew what it was. We headed to the club at two in the morning. One of the hippies, introduced me to a drug dealer who had acid. I paid £5, it was liquid. He put it in my hand and I licked it. We started drinking again and smoking fags. Jacob kept saying “Am I looking after you?” They were worried about me. We went to a house and took me upstairs and made me dinner, mushrooms in a dhal or something. There were strange and colourful pictures on the wall. He kept saying, “Look at these”, showing me the pictures. I said “What the fuck are these? I don’t understand what this is”. I was waiting for something to happen.
It was four o’clock, everyone was outside and one of them shouted, “Everyone knows where we’re going so let’s go”. We travelled from town to Kensington. When I was walking I started feeling different, something special. I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t understand the colours. We arrived at a massive building. On the ground floor, it was a big place full of decorations and pictures, just like the club. It was free to get in. Music kept playing, it was heavy house music, psychedelic music. The room had ultra-violent lights and people’s faces were strange colours. You could see people’s faces brightly in the dark. When I started looking at the pictures, I couldn’t keep my eyes of them. It was a trip, I was going inside them. It was like I wanted to find something, everything was moving in the pictures. I was so drunk and stoned, I became really afraid of the pictures. I tried to not look at them, so I just sat somewhere and talked to people. It was full of hundreds of people I didn’t know. I don’t know where my friends went, Jacob was asleep on the sofa. There was a space next to him so I went to sit there. There were two hippy girls on my right hand side and Jacob was on my left. The two hippy girl’s faces were scary, haunting. I felt paranoid. One of the hippy girls said “Do you want some mushrooms?” I replied, “I’ve taken Acid, will I be alright?” She said, “Yeah they’re similar. You’ll be alright.” So I took them. An old man with white hair and glasses came and sat with us. He was wearing a top with the exact same picture I kept seeing. He brought a glass and started making lines of coke. He was giving everyone around him coke, so I took that as well. Everyone was talking about the pictures. Everyone found something new in the pictures, people kept asking me “Can you see that, I’ve found that. Can you see that?” I went outside. There was an old man, he wasn’t normal. He kept dancing and I didn’t understand what he was saying. I was smoking out there and showed him my graffiti, my tag. He looked and said “I hate graffiti, you know.” “What? Why do you hate graffiti, it’s art!” I replied. He took me inside saying he wanted to show me something. We went back in, the two girls were asleep. He showed me something in a picture. I looked, “What is that? That’s not graffiti”. I didn’t understand.
We kept dancing till about half 10 in the morning. We went upstairs. They knew it was my first time taking acid and kept asking me if I was alright. I felt weird, it was daytime it wasn’t night anymore. I said I was alright and everyone started laughing. I thought maybe I’d done something bad. Maybe I did, I didn’t know. I still don’t know.
Eventually, I went home and was so happy that I was still alive and could still breathe. I didn’t ever want to see those scary pictures and strange guys ever again.
The Sweet Potatoes Across The Stream
The rain had been pounding the earth for almost two hours in this remote village of Bulilimamangwe district in the Southern African country of Zimbabwe and showed no sign of relenting., when my little sister Linda , may her soul rest in peace, and I decided to dash to our granny Gwibby’s. The two homesteads were separated by a stream that at the time was bursting in the seams with the dirty brown rain water as it roared along the stream’s course westwards.
We sneaked and darted out of our grandmother’s kitchen thinking only of the sweet potatoes that granny Gwibby ,who was our maternal granny’s young sister, was popular for in the neighbourhood. The thought of the little clay pot by the open fire side combined with the prospect of a surprise appearance before our unsuspecting host made us oblivious of the danger we were about to expose ourselves to. She was five and I was six but we could be taken for twins.
Hand in hand we excitedly headed for the usual crossing point which at the time was only imaginary due to the flooding ravine. Without even thinking we threw ourselves into the muddy water and in no time we were swept off our feet and in panic let go each other’s hands, as the strong current took charge.
As I reflexively fought to remain afloat, at a chance glance I saw my young sister being helplessly tossed in and out of the raging water. It happened so fast that none of us uttered any scream for help which would hardly be heard above the thundering storm and the roaring usually friendly stream turned monster. In my struggle to survive, my body was tossed against a hard object which happened to be an exposed root from a mopani tree that went across the stream. I clung to it for dear life and as my eyes opened, I saw Linda standing on the bank on the other side. Somehow the water had thrown her out and she was sobbing, shivering and stomping the soaking ground in desperation, with fear written all over her face.
I realised that the root that had been my saviour was not very far from the edge and before I could even think of what to do next, my sibling took the risk and caught my foot by which she dragged me out of the water. We stood there in each other’s arms for a time that seemed eternity without a word before we proceeded to our destination.
It was still raining when we entered granny Gwibby’s warm kitchen, soaking wet and frightened. The old lady was so shocked that she spent some seconds just staring at us before she asked us to sit down before the fire .She was not amused at all and she cursed her sister for having sent us out in such hostile weather. Before we could even respond the shrill voice of grandma voice penetrated the air as she yelled out our names.
Granny Gwiby got out of the kitchen and yelled back that we were at hers. The near fatal episode of drowning and how we survived remained our guarded secret that we only reminded each other of now and again during the course of our lives till my dear Linda passed on at the age of forty eight in the year of our Lord 2002.
by Vincent Ndlovu
It was a Thursday afternoon, late in Spring, and where I lived in the West of Iran, snow still capped the mountains. I was thirteen years old and I was travelling back from Bistoon, a historical place of interest which I’d visited with my class. My classmates and I had feigned interest as we walked around the remains of a castle and viewed the Persian writing on the walls. I remember Mr Karamei, our form teacher, being exceptionally quiet that day. Looking back he had been quiet for a while. We on the other hand, were boisterous. We larked around, not paying that much attention to the history. I was already thinking forward to home time when I could slump down in front of the tv. The school day ran from midday to 5pm and by the time I reached home I was usually tired.
I sat at the back of the bus. Mr Karamei sat at the front, seemingly at a distance from our noise and banter. Occasionally, he would turn his head to view the snow covered mountains speeding past the window, but not once did he look behind at us. I had dragged out a couple of empty water containers from under the seat. During the summer months they would always be filled with water, lest the bus break down on the long, arrid stretches of road but now they were empty and they offered themselves up as a diversion on the journey home. I slapped them, as though they were drums, while my friends sang out a familiar Kurdish ditty. I hit the drums harder and harder. The water cans buzzed in the after burr. My friends laughed raucously. Mr Karamei sat at the front, perfectly still.
The noise reached a crescendo. I had been banging the drums for fifteen minutes now. My friends danced on the seats. Outside the window, the mountains fell away to fields and in the distance my village rolled into view. It must have been at this point that Mr Karamei got to his feet. I was thumping the drums, singing, dancing. I didn’t see him walk slowly, very calmly, to the back of the bus.
He punched me in the face, once, twice. And then his fists rained down on me – on and on and on. My friends stood back for a moment, shocked, confused and when the onslaught showed no sign of abating, they jumped on him and pulled him away. I must have blacked out for a minute. When I came to, I saw the faces of my friends stooped over me. They were filled with quiet relief.
Naturally, my parents were enraged when I returned home that night with two swollen slits for eyes and. My older brother threatened to kill him. If the truth be told, a part of me wanted him to. The next day my parents marched into school, demanding an explanation. “Were they going to suspend Mr Karamei?” “Surely the police should be informed?” But the headmaster told them that none of these things would happen. He explained that Mr Karamei had been a soldier in the Iranian Military who had fought against Iraq. He had tried to save our land and our people. He had been stationed in an area where lots of bombs went off. The noise of the drums had triggered this reaction. My family understood at once, and in a flash their anger turned to sadness.
Later that evening, they sat me down and explained about Mr Karamei’s situation. I was still angry but I no longer wanted my brother to kill him. I felt sad for him. From that day on, I sat quietly and obediently in his class.
A massive thank you to Helen Walsh, Kevin Keech, our sponsers ESF and of course the WYS? participants.