Posts Tagged Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Refugee Week 2017 – reflections

We’re living in strange times.  Last year’s Refugee Week took place in the aftermath of Jo Cox’s murder, and midway through, we found out the outcome of the EU referendum, which for so many of us, perhaps falsely reassured by the predominance of Remain sympathies in our social media bubbles, was profoundly shocking, as well as filling us with dismay and fear about the future.  Our world was further shaken in November by the outcome of the US election – again, we were unprepared for a Trump victory, and fearful of the impact it would have – we still are, although straightforward incompetence and inefficiency seem to have mitigated some of the potential harm so far.

This week Refugee Week takes place in the aftermath of terrorist attacks which have claimed innocent lives in Manchester, on Westminster and London bridges, in Borough Market and Finsbury Park.  And then there’s Grenfell Tower, a human tragedy of unbearable proportions.  That’s not even to mention a General Election and the start of the Brexit talks.

This time last year I wrote these words, which are still pertinent:

I said a week ago when I started my annual Refugee Week blogathon that it felt different this year.  As Refugee Week draws to a close it feels unimaginably different again.  We are in, as so many people said during the long hours as the result of the referendum emerged, uncharted territory.  We are in uncertain times.

For refugees and asylum seekers there is no charted territory, there are no certain times.  But as anecdotal evidence mounts of racism and xenophobia seemingly legitimised and emboldened by the vote to leave the EU, as we wait for those who would lead us into this brave new world to give us a clue as to what it will be like, I know I am not alone in being afraid. …   But many of us do share the belief that how we treat people who seek sanctuary from war, persecution and starvation is a measure of what kind of country we are, what kind of people we are.  And many of us do believe that generosity, empathy, compassion are qualities that represent the best that we can be, individually and collectively.

So as this Refugee Week ends we will be continuing to say that refugees are welcome, saying it louder if we need to, if the voices against us are more numerous or more vociferous.

I’ve returned this year to some of the themes I regularly write about.  I’ve revisited the work of Cara with at-risk academics, for example, prompted by my own University’s engagement with their current campaigns and its funding of scholarships and fellowships for refugee academics and students.  I’ve talked again about child refugees – remembering the Kindertransport in light of this government’s shameful reneging on the Dubs amendment.

I’ve tried to celebrate the work of so many superb organisations, large and small, who are working to support refugees around the world and here in the UK, addressing the politics and the practicalities, making a huge difference against the odds.

Each year I approach this entirely self-imposed task – to post every day during Refugee Week about some aspect of the crisis faced by so many millions of people forced to flee their homes – with a certain amount of trepidation.  Who do I think I am, really, to speak about these things?  I’m no expert, I’m merely a keyboard activist, I have no direct personal experience of the things I write about.  And who am I writing for?  Preaching to the choir, surely, given that my readers, my social media contacts, by and large are people who share my world view.

But as much as I berate myself for hubris in taking the task on, I cannot relinquish it.  I write, that’s what I do.  I use this blog to talk to whoever might be listening – and if I change no one’s mind, perhaps the information and ideas and links that I gather for each piece will be useful to someone else, somewhere along that chain of communication that we build as we share and retweet – about the things I care about and the things that trouble and grieve me.  And this issue is something I care about, passionately.

Perhaps it is personal, after all.  My first Refugee Week blogathon recalled events which, even though I cannot claim to have directly witnessed them, or even to truly remember them, still shaped me:

Nigeria, 1966

During the series of coups and counter coups leading up to the secession of Biafra and the Nigerian Civil War, thousands of Igbo people were killed in the northern territories of Nigeria.  Many more fled to escape the massacres.   Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Half of a Yellow Sun gives a harrowing account both of the pogroms and of that flight, from a number of perspectives – the Igbo heroine, in Kano as violence explodes, who escapes on a train along with many others, traumatised, lost and bereaved; the Englishman who finds himself at Kano airport as Igbo staff and travellers are identified and killed; the people meeting the trains as they arrived, searching for their own friends and family afraid to find them and not to find them.

As I read her account, I found myself shaking and weeping.  I lived in the north of Nigeria at this time.  I was a young child, 9 years old, and my parents shielded me and my younger siblings from as much as they could.  But I knew that people were being killed because of their ethnicity.  I saw the mob which approached our home looking for Igbos, knew that my father and a friend had gone out to speak to them, to try to calm them and deter them but without success.    I knew of westerners arriving at Kano airport, to witness scenes of horror, some of whom got back on the plane as Richard does in the novel.  I learned later of the people who my parents found hiding in the unoccupied house across the road from us, who my father took in the back of our car, covered with blankets, to the army compound where others had taken refuge, and of the train organised by another expatriate to take them all to safety but which was ambushed, its passengers dragged out and killed.

 

As a teenager I pieced these stories together, from the recollections that my parents were finally willing to share without holding back, and the fragmentary memories that I did have suddenly made sense.  And I’ve been piecing it together ever since, as I see the people who fled from the town I lived in over and over again, in the faces of those seeking refuge from war and persecution today, as I see them in the faces of those who fled war and persecution generations ago.

And once you do that, you become aware of the connections, of the way in which everything that is happening around the world is interlinked.

As Daesh suffer military defeats and the loss of their territory, they increase their terrorist attacks in the west but far more often in the Middle East and Africa, killing ‘Crusaders’ but far more often Muslims who happen to be the wrong sort of Muslim.  And as one of the major forces creating refugees, they are also used as a reason to mistrust those very refugees.  Because, so they say, they could have pretended to be refugees, paid a fortune to traffickers, risked drowning in the Med, lived on minimal rations in a refugee camp, simply in order to launch attacks in European cities…  The uncomfortable truth, that attacks in European cities have been carried out by long-term residents of those cities, isn’t allowed to disturb the anti-refugee narrative, and the call in the wake of every attack for borders to be closed, etc.

The first officially confirmed casualty of the Grenfell Tower disaster was Mohammad Alhajali, a refugee from Syria, who had survived civil war and the perilous journey to the UK, only to die in his own home as a result of an accidental fire and the criminal neglect of fire safety in social housing.

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And we learned that one reason for the difficulty and delays in identifying the dead, or even coming up with a reliable total of those who perished, was that there may well have been people living in Grenfell Tower who were ‘off the radar’, worried about their immigration status, unable to afford their own accommodation and so unofficially staying with friends or family but not on any list of tenants.  People like asylum seekers (those waiting for a decision, and those who have been refused), and those newly granted refugee status who have not yet got the paperwork together to get a place of their own.  Grenfell Tower sheds a harsh light on so many aspects of our society – the calls for a ‘bonfire of red tape’, the mockery of ‘health & safety gone mad’, the contempt of the wealthy and privileged for those on the margins – the culture of ‘us and them’.

I think of this, from a rather wonderful Twitter account:

5 Oct 2016

“Citizen of nowhere. You must pick an ‘us’ to be.”
“I did.”
“All humanity? Nonsense. That leaves no ‘them’.”

There is no us and them. It’s us and us. It’s all us.

them and us

That really is the heart of it all.  We can refuse the ‘us and them’, we can assert that it’s all us.  It’s the only way to be human, really.
jo cox plaque

Refugee_week_2017_A2_poster_08-1

 

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Different Trains

Kindertransport Memorial

Kindertransport Memorial (Photo credit: wirewiping)

 

I’m not a train person in general.  Not in the sense that I have any feeling for the ‘romance of steam’ or the beauty of the engines.  I’m the wrong gender to feel any urge to catalogue their numbers, or to build model railways in my attic or garden.   Trains, like cars, and planes and buses are just ways of getting where you want to go.

In general.  But in the context of the stories I’ve been posting and reading and thinking about during Refugee Week, trains have a powerful, poignant, terrible significance.   I’ve stolen my title from Steve Reich, whose composition of that name explored the journeys that he had made  and that he might have made during the war years, using recorded speech from Holocaust survivors, amongst others.

The railway station is a heterotopic space, holding together both the actual location and the destinations with which it connects.  And so Liverpool Street Station for W G Sebald’s Jacques Austerlitz connected him with his own past, as the small boy who had arrived from Prague with the Kindertransport, and with the station on which he’d said goodbye to his mother, clutching a small suitcase and a rucksack with food  in it.  Indirectly it connected him with the station at which his mother was herded onto a cattle truck and taken off to Terezin.

His name recalls the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris, where Francois Mauriac describes children being dragged from their mothers and pushed onto the trains, one sombre morning.

French Jews boarding trains bound for concentration camps in Orleans and the Pyrenees, Gare d'Austerlitz, Paris, 14th May 1941 (b/w photo)https://i2.wp.com/www.shatteredcrystals.net/images/sc_co_plaque.jpg

Not long after, on another continent, trains crammed with refugees from India to Pakistan, or from Pakistan to India, after Partition, were ambushed and their passengers massacred.  The dramatisation of those events in The Jewel in the Crown still haunts me.

Perhaps because on another continent, twenty years later, a train commissioned by an expat who worked for the Nigerian railways to take Igbo refugees south, was ambushed, and its passengers massacred.  Among them were the people who my father had found hiding in an abandoned house opposite our own, in Zaria, and taken to the army compound in the back of his car, covered with blankets, hoping they would find safety.    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her wonderful novel Half of a Yellow Sun, describes the arrival of another train full of refugees that did reach safety, but traumatised, mentally and physically.

I think sometimes of a children’s book by Susan Cooper, who can conjure up a terrifying sense of evil, enough to chill adult bones – it’s part of her The Dark is Rising series, but I can’t recall which – in which the rhythms of the train say ‘into the dark, into the dark, into the dark…’  Hard to get that out of one’s head, once it’s been introduced.  And I think of it every time I read the accounts of those trains crossing Europe, heading East, to ‘work camps’, to Pitchipoi, into the dark.

And perhaps most hauntingly, of ‘le train fantome’.  In the summer of 1944, as the Allies were advancing across Europe, with Paris liberated, the convoys were still rolling.

 

But not all of the trains took their passengers into the dark.

matthew-rozell1

This photograph captures an extraordinary moment.  The 743rd tank battalion encountered a group of civilians, skeletally thin, terrified.  They had been en route to another camp, but abandoned by their SS guards – at this  moment they understood that they were free.

And at railway stations in England, in 1939, and so many years since, the trains have brought people into hope and life and freedom.  They brought with them not just the belongings that they had managed to salvage and to hold on to on the journey but the places they had lived, and the lives they had to abandon, and the memories that would shape them.

 

For how hard it is

to understand the landscape

as you pass in a train

from here to there

and mutely it

watches you vanish

(W G Sebald, Poemtrees, in Across the Land and the Water)

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Nigeria, 1966/World Refugee Day, 20 June 2012

Nigeria, 1966

During the series of coups and counter coups leading up to the secession of Biafra and the Nigerian Civil War, thousands of Igbo people were killed in the northern territories of Nigeria.  Many more fled to escape the massacres.   Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Half of a Yellow Sun gives a harrowing account both of the pogroms and of that flight, from a number of perspectives – the Igbo heroine, in Kano as violence explodes, who escapes on a train along with many others, traumatised, lost and bereaved; the Englishman who finds himself at Kano airport as Igbo staff and travellers are identified and killed; the people meeting the trains as they arrived, searching for their own friends and family afraid to find them and not to find them.

As I read her account, I found myself shaking and weeping.  I lived in the north of Nigeria at this time.  I was a young child, 9 years old, and my parents shielded me and my younger siblings from as much as they could.  But I knew that people were being killed because of their ethnicity.  I saw the mob which approached our home looking for Igbos, knew that my father and a friend had gone out to speak to them, to try to calm them and deter them but without success.    I knew of westerners arriving at Kano airport, to witness scenes of horror, some of whom got back on the plane as Richard does in the novel.  I learned later of the people who my parents found hiding in the unoccupied house across the road from us, who my father took in the back of our car, covered with blankets, to the army compound where others had taken refuge, and of the train organised by another expatriate to take them all to safety but which was ambushed, its passengers dragged out and killed.

As Rob Nixon said, in the New York Times, ‘“Half of a Yellow Sun” takes us inside ordinary lives laid waste by the all too ordinary unraveling of nation states. When an acquaintance of Olanna’s turns up at a refugee camp, she notices that “he was thinner and lankier than she remembered and looked as though he would break in two if he sat down abruptly.” It’s a measure of Adichie’s mastery of small things — and of the mess the world is in — that we see that man arrive, in country after country, again and again and again.’

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s literary role model is often said to be Chinua Achebe, who himself was caught up in these events.  His writing having brought him to the attention of the military who suspected him of having foreknowledge of the coup, he had to send his pregnant wife and children on a squalid boat through a series of unseen creeks to the Igbo stronghold of  Port Harcourt.   During the civil war which followed, his family had to move repeatedly to escape the fighting, returning to their destroyed home only after the war was over.   His poem, ‘Refugee Mother and Child’, reflects those experiences:

No Madonna and Child could touch
that picture of a mother’s tenderness
for a son she soon will have to forget.
The air was heavy with odors
of diarrhea of unwashed children
with washed-out ribs and dried-up
bottoms struggling in labored
steps behind blown empty bellies.
Most mothers there had long ceased
to care but not this one; she held
a ghost smile between her teeth
and in her eyes the ghost of a mother’s
pride as she combed the rust-colored
hair left on his skull and then –
singing in her eyes – began carefully
to part it… In another life
this would have been a little daily
act of no consequence before his
breakfast and school; now she
did it like putting flowers
on a tiny grave.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (London: Fourth Estate, 2009)

Chinua Achebe, Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2005)

Rob Nixon, ‘A Biafran Story’, New York Times, 1 October 2006

 

World Refugee Day, 20 June 2012

http://takeaction.unhcr.org/

di·lem·ma \ : a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially ones that are equally undesirable.

No one chooses to be a refugee

Every minute eight people leave everything behind to escape war, persecution or terror.

If conflict threatened your family, what would you do? Stay and risk your lives? Or try to flee, and risk kidnap, rape or torture?

For many refugees the choice is between the horrific or something worse.

What would you do?

World Refugee Day was established by the United Nations to honor the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children who are forced to flee their homes under threat of persecution, conflict and violence.

http://takeaction.unhcr.org/

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Holocaust Memorial Day 2012

When I was 9 years old, my family lived in Zaria, in Northern Nigeria.   It was 1966, and a series of coups d’etat were hiking up tensions between the north and south, tensions which in May and September of that year resulted in mobs seeking out and killing on the streets, in the schools and hospitals and churches, anyone recognised as being of Igbo origin.   I don’t know how many died.   Probably no one does.   Because of the civil war that followed, the pogroms in the north have received little attention – though Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her stunning novel Half of  a Yellow Sun portrayed these events incredibly powerfully.  I was a child, and my parents protected me and my younger siblings from the horror of what was happening.   But even as a child I heard and saw enough – even when the adult conversations stopped abruptly in my presence – to be haunted by what I’d half overheard, seen out of the corner of my eye.  I’ve needed to try to understand what happened, not just in Northern Nigeria in 1966, but whenever an attempt is made to wipe a group of people from the face of the earth.

We’re told that we must remember the past in order not to relive it.  It’s a lot more complicated than that of course.  In order not to relive it we’d have to understand it.   Memories aren’t necessarily trustworthy – after the Liberation, Michel Butor has spoken of how his parent’s generation said of the years of occupation, 1939-1945 was a nightmare, but it’s over, so we’ll forget all of that and pick up where we left off.  His generation of writers has been preoccupied with memory, and how we revisit,  rework and reshape as we try to master the past.   The simple imperative to remember would seem to have done us little good in the generations since Auschwitz.   It didn’t stop, or even slow down, the slaughter in Rwanda, the massacres in Srebenica, decades of pogroms in Nigeria, the devastation in Darfur, the killings in Cambodia.  But remember we must.  The important thing is that we remember right, and we remember well.

I’m reminded, oddly perhaps in this context, of a song from South Pacific: ‘You’ve got to be taught To hate and fear. You’ve got to be taught from year to year.  It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear. You’ve got to be carefully taught.’  Frances McDormand’s character in Mississippi Burning echoes these words very closely: ‘Hatred isn’t something you’re born with. It gets taught. At school, they said segregation is what’s said in the Bible…  At 7 years of age, you get told it enough times, you believe it. You believe the hatred. You live it… you breathe it. You marry it.’   And so we need to teach the opposite, for the sake of the future.

And for the sake of the past.  The perpetrators of genocide don’t start by taking lives.  First they take everything else – name, livelihood, home, dignity, humanity.  For it to be possible for society to collude in this, the victims have to become less than human – cockroaches, perhaps, or lice.   Or less, even, than that – one of the most powerful Holocaust documents  is a memo, addressing technical problems with vehicle stability.  As one reads it, it takes a while before the nature of the destabilising ‘load’ becomes apparent: this load has a tendency to rush towards the light, which causes problems in getting the doors closed.  This load may also scream.

And so, for the sake of the past, we need to give back to the victims of genocide what we can – their names, their stories, their voices.   Serge Klarsfeld reconstructed the convoy lists from the French internment camps and gave the people once herded onto cattle trucks a name, an address, sometimes a photograph, a letter.   The photographs of the children – see them if you can bear it, and I think one has to bear it – in their best clothes or on summer holidays, looking solemn or smiling for the camera, tell you everything, in a way, about genocide.  Sheffield’s wonderful Ensemble 360 performed music last spring by composers who were imprisoned at Terezin –  music created in the midst of a nightmare, by composers who had barely begun to achieve their potential before they were silenced.

Hélène Berr is one of the people I will be thinking of on Holocaust Memorial Day.   She was 20 when Paris was occupied, from a thoroughly assimilated French Jewish family, a student at the Sorbonne.   She was 21 when she started the journal in which, at first, the war and the Nazi persecution are almost background noise.  She was almost 23 when she was arrested, a few months before Paris was liberated, and then deported to Auschwitz on one of the convoys from Drancy.   It was her 23rd birthday when she was moved from Auschwitz to Bergen Belsen.   She was 24 when she died, in Bergen Belsen, 5 days before the camp was liberated.    Her journal, kept by surviving members of her family after the war, was finally published in 2008 and when I read it I loved her, and I grieved for the fate I already knew would be hers.   Another voice that wasn’t quite silenced, after all.

http://www.memorialdelashoah.org/upload/minisites/helene_berr/index.html

Hélène Berr,  Journal, 1942-1944 (Paris: Éditions Tallandier, 2008)

http://gideonklein.cz/fruvod.htm

Les 11400 enfants Juifs deportés de france (Mairie de Paris, 2007)

http://www.holocaust-history.org/klarsfeld/French%20Children/html&graphics/T0423.shtml

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (Harper, 2007)

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