'I Am a Refugee': The Many Voices of Refugee Experience
When it comes to human stories, no two are the same. To reflect the huge range, diversity and intricacy of refugee experience in the UK today, we asked writers who have experienced displacement first-hand to share their thoughts about how their own journeys as refugees or asylum-seekers have shaped their writing.
Hassan Akkad, author of Hope Not FearSince I arrived to the UK in 2015 as a refugee, I have been using my skills as a photographer and a filmmaker to tell stories. Refugee stories are significant because they help us make sense of an ongoing crisis and look for productive ways to respond to it. Despite the terrible things I have seen – from a prison cell in Syria to that ward in London – my story is one of hope, not fear. If anything, it is a simple example showing that if we unite in kindness and love – wherever we are from, whatever we look like and however much money we make – we can get through the darkest of days.
Hamed Amiri, author of The Boy with Two Hearts
During my journey, I thought the pain of the experience was a curse but, in reality, it became a blessing in disguise. Knowing I survived the ordeal of travelling for over 18 months across countless countries, losing our livelihood within days and almost losing my mum to public execution simply for standing up for women’s rights has given me the strength, determination and self-belief to know I am capable of overcoming any challenge in life.
Refugees shouldn’t be identified as a label; for me it was simply a last resort to seek safety and a chance for my older brother to get the medical attention he required. I am a refugee but also a human being with a story to tell like many others across the world.
My past has shaped my future; being a refugee isn’t something to be ashamed of but something to be proud of!
I'm Hamed Amiri and I’m proud to be a refugee.
JJ Bola, author of The Selfless Act of Breathing
If the past year or so, during COVID-19, has taught us anything, it’s that life is precarious, that we live on shaky ground, and are never as secure as we think we are. That, at any moment, we could lose our jobs, or loved ones, our friends and family, our homes. That at any point, when we step outside, we have to be so careful, not to come too close in contact with anyone else, fearing we may be exposed. That we have to be grateful for each day that passes, never knowing what may happen next. This is the life that refugees have had to live all these years. To us, there’s always been a pandemic, but one of borders, and documents, and go home vans, and deportations. Our double dose of vaccinations; humanity and hope, which we are still waiting for everyone to receive.
Maya Ghazal, contributor to You Can Change the World!
People think refugees have all walked through the jungle to get here, but my family arrived by aeroplane. I’d never flown before, so I felt nervous, but I wanted to be in a school without bombs and explosions around me.
I felt dislocated in my new surroundings. For months I struggled to find a school to accept me. It felt like my future was dripping away. So I taught myself better English and persuaded a teacher at a college to trust me to pass my GCSEs.
I found that if you struggle, things will get better with a little hope. I gradually learnt it’s important not to try to blend in, but to stand out.
Ever since we came here, I’ve been fascinated by aeroplanes: the calm journey to a new life. I’m now at university studying to become an aviation engineer. Soon I’ll be able to fly other people to safety.
Dina Nayeri, author of The Ungrateful RefugeeAs a child, I became a refugee. I lived in a camp. I waited with other children to be accepted to a new country. Years later, long after I had become an American, after I had fixed my strange accent, and caught up in English, and learned all the cultural touchpoints, I still thought about this fretful, liminal time in my life. As I grew into adulthood, I kept wondering about the next batch of children being kept in the waiting place. After a while, I was old enough to be their mother. Then I had a daughter of my own, and felt urgently and viscerally the possibility of displacement in her future – all the ways she might be rejected, cast out. I wanted to go back. So I started traveling to refugee camps in Greece, and I wrote The Ungrateful Refugee. But even before my non-fiction book, my displacement was coloring my fiction. I wrote in the voice of outsiders, people tossed into shameful situations. I wrote about misunderstandings, clashes in culture and language. I wrote about shattered expectations and lack of money and dignity – all the embarrassing private calculations. I think maybe I'll never be able to write from the perspective of someone comfortable, someone in control, who lives at the center of things. It's just not the story I know.
Natalia Sierra, contributor to Refugee Tales IV
Before I fleeing my days were filled with images.
Creating spaces, directing actors in the mise en scène and editing films was a natural way for me to bring my ideas and dreams to life. Writing stories and journaling was a precious practice, but I kept it only for myself as an intimate treasure.
Packing for a lifetime journey was problematic. Twenty-five years of memories embodied in journals, postcards, souvenirs, photo albums and film rolls didn’t fit in my big suitcase. My old journals stayed home and I brought a new notebook with me.
Writing found me. It became my last resource to make sense of the pain, confusion and absurdity of my life as a refugee. Every blank page was a path toward a beloved past, unspeakable present and brighter future.
It’s been five years since we’ve flown. I hold dearly every moment where I took the courage to imprint my life on a blank page. Writing became my companion in remembering, appreciating and healing.
As well as hearing the diverse voices of the refugee experience, it is important to remember the work many charities do to support people who have had to leave their home because of war or persecution. One such organisation is Three Peas - a UK based charity that works mainly in Greece with individuals stuck on European shores, supporting housing programmes, community and sport centres, food distributions and emergency interventions.
Clémentine Koenig, Three Peas Charity, on Kind by Alison Green
When Scholastic suggested a book on kindness to support the work of our refugee charity, all of us at Three Peas were ecstatic. Publisher and author Alison Green wrote a warm and inspiring picture book text. Our patron Axel Scheffler wrote the foreword and provided illustrations along with 37 kind illustrators including Sarah McIntyre, Lydia Monks Guy Parker-Rees and Nick Sharratt. Kind is now in 19 languages and a donation from every copy sold goes to support refugees (50p on the recent paperback).
Kind asks readers to ‘Imagine a world where everyone is kind. How can we make that come true?’ The smallest act of kindness can have a big impact.
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