Refugees from the Calais ‘Jungle’ share their stories in new UEL book
PUBLISHED: 09:00 29 May 2017
As humans, one of our most fundamental rights is to have a voice, and to decide how and when to use it.
But for those who lived in the Calais ‘Jungle’ camp, theirs were lost in the frenzied reporting as the ‘refugee crisis’ swelled, individuals reduced in the face of thousands-strong numbers.
But a small group of refugees have taken back control of their own stories, with the empowering step of putting their lives to paper.
Twenty-two individuals from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea and many more countries shared their experiences with the University of East London, and the result is Voices from the ‘Jungle’, an eye-opening anthology featuring prose, poems, drawings and photography.
“All of them in their own way were really moving,” said Dr Aura Lounasmaa, one of two academics leading the project.
“There was this community in the Jungle. We saw fights, people who didn’t get along, when you have got 10,000 people living right next to each other that’s going to happen, but a lot of people talked about the friendship and community and kind of a new family that was born, which then was lost after the camp was dismantled.”
The book was an unintended follow-on from the university’s Life Stories course, designed by Prof Corinne Squire, which saw academics and students visit the Jungle across the year 2015/16 to offer sessions encompassing academic reading skills, writing, photography and more.
Thirty-seven people took the course, designed to be educational rather than therapeutic, but as they shared their own tales, emotions were mixed.
Mani, from Iran, enjoyed reminiscing about happier times, said Dr Lounasmaa, but in the same sense as being in a room crowded with people, and then suddenly being alone in the dark, he felt the pain of separation.
“It’s hard,” said the academic, “You have to look at something that’s beautiful, and not know whether you will experience anything like that again.”
She added: “So many of the people we met had university degrees, or had started them, and had great aspirations for education, but their degrees are not recognised by most countries.
“Not only have you changed your country, left your family, now you have arrived to a complete culture shock and shift in social class.”
There was “a lot of anger” around journalists turning up and taking pictures, some even hiding devices under their clothes, while a not insignificant number among the general public have aired xenophobic views about refugees and migrants in recent times.
“I can’t really figure out what’s going on, there’s been so much writing and speaking from different factions, and for the public to try and get the facts it’s just impossible,” said the academic. “Obviously there are also people who are malicious, and there’s no justification for that.
“Two of the guys wrote about leaving home, they are from Pakistan, and some people would say, why run from Pakistan? It’s a safe country, they should be sent back.
“But they may have been forced to join an ‘organisation’, their families were saying, we don’t think you should join the Taliban, we all think you should leave. They said, ‘We could have stayed, but we didn’t want to kill anyone’.”
UEL is celebrating 20 years of its refugee studies postgraduate course, and won a diversity prize at March’s Guardian University Awards.
A 10-week course for refugees and asylum seekers is in the pipeline, as is an advanced 10-month programme which will be a stepping stone to a Bachelor’s degree.
Of the 22 authors – whose ages range between 20 and 50-odd – the majority are in France, with some taking a foundation course at Université Lille 3, which will bring their French up to the required level for further study.
“These are their stories, and our response [to hatred] is to do more of saying here is the book, please read that. The authors now have the confidence to speak for themselves, and hope somebody might listen too.”
Voices from the ‘Jungle’ is available from plutobooks.com and amazon.co.uk. Visit uel.ac.uk for more on the courses.
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