Special thanks: IMIX, the Guardian, WeTransfer, Optimo Foundry, Conville and Walsh, Penguin Random House, Amanda Johnson, Suzanne Baboneau, Amelia Fairney, Canongate, Peepal Tree Press, Orion Books, WME, Cooke International, Andersen Literary Agency, English PEN, Premier Comms, Action for Sama.
The title of Vesna Maric’s essay in this collection encapsulates what we might imagine during – and far beyond – Refugee Week: “We are all connected,” she writes, in a piece which invites the reader to envision a world united rather than divided, and which demonstrates that this bond is not built by simply smoothing over what separates us. She quotes Audre Lord: “Difference is that raw and powerful connection from which our personal power is forged.”
Maric herself knows what it is to be a refugee: she was born in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegonvina, and left there at sixteen, fleeing the Bosnian War which began in 1992. She is only one of the many voices in this anthology speaking out for change, speaking up for hope, showing that we are united in our difference. “Borders exist, by definition, to separate us from others,” writes Gary Younge; these are writers who break down borders. Dina Nayeri discovers an unlikely connection, and a new life, through Taekwondo; Taban Shoresh, having escaped Iraq with her family as a little girl, works to find what she calls her own “superpower” – and succeeds. Rupi Kaur’s poem sings with a voice that is “the offspring/ of two countries colliding”.
Voices like these are needed now more than ever. According to UNHCR, the United Nations’ Refugee Agency, the total global refugee population is now at the highest level ever recorded – 25.9 million at the end of 2018. Persecution, conﬂict, violence, climate crisis and human rights violations push individuals and families to take extreme risk and face terrible danger to find safety. Only rarely, in truth, do stories and images force us to confront the breadth and depth of this suffering in the world: think of the photograph of the drowned body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi who was part of a group of Syrian refugees trying to reach the Greek island of Kos in 2015. Even then, a few news cycles pass and we look away – perhaps even more so when a global pandemic has us in lockdown, fearing for the lives of our loved ones, our livelihoods, our own futures. Yet of course the pandemic will only make the plight of those forced to flee more difficult and frightening.
It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of tragedy: but thinking creatively can inspire us and motivate us; listening to the voices in this anthology will help us to do just that. Imagine is published for Refugee Week, a festival running across the UK celebrating the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees. It’s been going since 1998 and is held every year around World Refugee Day on 20 June; it is now a growing global movement, too. This year Refugee Week asks us all to imagine a world where both the biggest and smallest of things could be life-changing. An act of imagination can be writing a poem or planting a garden; it can be a socially-distanced smile at a stranger. And if something positive can be said to come out of Covid-19, it’s that those acts of generosity and kindness have seemed, over the past few months, too numerous to count: visible not only on social media but in our streets and neighbourhoods all across the land.
The pieces in Imagine – from poets like Roger Robinson and Rupi Kaur, writers like Marina Lewycka and Edmund de Waal – showcase this generosity of vision; they show too how lives can be changed by positive action. Ryad Alsous was a beekeeper in Syria; he writes of being “born again in this life… born again in this country” when he came from Syria to Britain in 2015. Not only did he remake his life as a beekeeper, he now helps to run something called the Buzz Project, supporting refugees by offering them a free beehive and helping them to start their lives again. Our imaginations are bees, buzzing and making, working together. Let us imagine, then, how sweet life can be, and what we can do to make a difference.
EDMUND DE WAAL
You are in a library.
It is quiet with the warm hum of people talking softly, laughter. People are alone, or with families, friends. There are gusts and eddies of children. Some are sitting wrapped around books. Others are drawing, writing
There are books everywhere
You try and work out how they have been arranged, re-arranged, put back
And you look up and you find
The book that your mother read to you
The book that you grandfather talked about
The book that is in your language that you want to share
The book that you didn’t know had been translated
The book that you know needs to be translated
The cookery book that has pictures of the food, the smell, the weight of the food you love
And you know that you are valued, that others have come here before you
You know that however far you have come this is a place where your voice sounds amongst all the dictionaries and thesaurus and encyclopedias, the runs of classics,
You find books that take you home and bring you here
And you open your book and find that hundreds of people have written their names in it before you, have read your story
You know you belong
Edmund de Waal is an internationally acclaimed artist and writer, best known for his large-scale installations of porcelain vessels, often created in response to collections and archives or the history of a particular place. De Waal is also renowned for his bestselling family memoir, 'The Hare with Amber Eyes' (2010), and 'The White Road' (2015). He was made an OBE for his services to art in 2011 and awarded the Windham-Campbell Prize for non-fiction by Yale University in 2015.
is the offspring
of two countries colliding
what is there to be ashamed of
and my mother tongue
is her father's words
and mother's accent
what does it matter if
my mouth carries two worlds
accent – Rupi Kaur
your legs buckle like a tired horse running for safety
What my mother imagined, as she built up her store cupboard in post-war Britain, was a world without hunger. She had survived the Holodomor in 1932 and then survived WWII, and she gave birth to me in a DP camp at the end of the war.
Extract from ‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian’
My mother had a pantry under the stairs stocked from floor to ceiling with tins of fish, meat, tomatoes, fruit, vegetables and puddings, packets of sugar (granulated, caster, icing and Demerara), flour (plain, self-raising and wholemeal), rice (pudding and long-grain), pasta (macaroni, twirls and vermicelli), lentils, buckwheat, split peas, oatmeal, bottles of oil (vegetable, sunflower and olive), pickles (tomato, cucumber, beetroot), boxes of cereals (mainly Shredded Wheat), packets of biscuits (mainly chocolate digestives) and slabs of chocolate. On the floor, in bottles and demi-johns, were gallons of a thick, mauve liquor made from plums, brown sugar and cloves, a glass of which was guaranteed to render even the most hardened alcoholic (and there were plenty of those in the Ukrainian community) comatose for up to three hours.
Upstairs under the beds in sliding boxes were kept preserves (mainly plum) and jars of home-made jam (plum, strawberry, raspberry, blackcurrant and quince in all combinations.) In the potting sheds and garage, cardboard fruit-boxes were stacked with the latest crop of apples, Bramleys, Beauty of Bath and Grieves, all separately wrapped in newspaper, exuding their fruity perfume. By next spring, their skins would be waxy, and the fruit inside shrivelled, but they were still good for Apfelstrudel and Blini. (The windfalls and damaged fruit had been picked out, cut up, and stewed as they fell). Nets of carrots and potatoes, still preserved in their coat of clayey soil, bundles of onions and garlic, hung in the cool dark of the outhouse.
When my parents bought a freezer, in 1979, the peas, beans, asparagus and soft fruits soon piled up in plastic ice-cream tubs, each one labelled, dated and rotated. Even dill and parsley were rolled in little plastic bundles and stored away for use, so that there was no longer any season of the year when there was scarcity.
When I teased her about these supplies, enough to feed an army, she would wag her finger at me and say, “It’s in case your Tony Benn ever comes to power.”
My mother had known ideology, and she had known hunger. When she was 21, Stalin had discovered he could use famine as a political weapon against the Ukrainian kulaks. She knew – and this knowledge never left her throughout her fifty years of life in England, and then seeped from her into the hearts of her children – she knew for certain that behind the piled-high shelves and abundantly stocked counters of Tesco and the Co-op, hunger still prowls with his skeletal frame and gaping eyes, waiting to grab you the moment you are off your guard. Waiting to grab you and shove you on a train, or onto a cart, or into that crowd of running fleeing people, and send you off on another journey where the destination is always death.
Extract from 'A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian', reproduced by kind permission of Marina Lewycka.
Imagine a world where walking was for joy and not to escape from danger
In Summer 2019 I walked through the South Downs and along the English border from Brighton to Hastings with a group of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants formerly held in indefinite detention. At each stop-off there would be an evening of storytelling and music – I had been invited by The Refugee Tales to host the Eastbourne event and suggested I also do the whole walk, along the way fundraising for the charity the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group of which The Refugees Tales is a part, each footstep aiming to walk towards a better future. The walk was purposefully towards the border where the people I walked with had been detained, the theme of borders and border crossings reflected on throughout our journey.
Walking for so many people is an act of necessity – walking to escape danger, to flee home seeking a safer life, yet often facing further danger and hostility. My walk along the border led us to imagine a world where walking could be an act of hope, of joy, and of community.
The walk set off from Brighton where we were welcomed by Caroline Lucas MP, co-leader of the Green Party who gave a powerful speech before the walk set off. “We need to continue pressuring the government to end the hostile environment” she said. “More than anything this is about ending indefinite detention. It’s a scandal that in the 21st century we treat human beings in that way”. She spoke of visiting Yarls Wood immigration removal centre where people endure ‘psychological torture’ not knowing how long they will be held there. Lucas encouraged walkers: “what you’re doing today is a vital part of spreading a different message, a message of welcome, of compassion, of love.”
The walk left Brighton on a bright, hot morning and we journeyed to the city’s edge past wild flowers growing on the roadside, and soon the city gave way into countryside. It felt powerfully symbolic crossing over that border by foot. Uphill we walked into the South Downs, the sun beating down fiercely, but soon the challenging terrain was soothed with a gentle breeze and we stepped out into fields filled with glorious poppies.
The journey has shown the power of both walking and talking, what Robert Frost called “talks-walking”, and as special as the places I passed through were the amazing people with whom I walked. I walked for some of the way with R who left his home and family in Sudan and had a treacherous journey into Libya and then Italy. He lost friends during the journey who drowned. He was unconscious when he reached Italy and woke up in a hospital. He lived in Leeds for a while before being arrested and sent to a detention centre where he says conditions were awful and that life in detention was not really life at all. Other former detainees I spoke with include the inspiring M from Sudan who also had a heartbreakingly horrific journey – one of the three boats which set off from Libya sank killing 200 people on board. I also talked with the talented Ridy, an artist and one of the participants in Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group’s research project, ‘Don’t dump me in a foreign land: Immigration detention and young arrivers’. He arrived in the UK as a young child, experiencing Operation Nexus and prison, and being detained for a total of more than five years in Immigration Removal Centres in the UK.
The former detainees I spoke with have all been connected with the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group of which The Refugees Tales project is a part. GDWG volunteers visit detainees in centres and offer hope, support, unconditional acceptance and welcome to those in indefinite immigration detention. The UK is the only country in Europe that detains people indefinitely for immigration purposes for days, weeks, months and years (we know 9 years as the longest period someone was detained). Over half of people detained are later released into the UK after unnecessary family separation. 24,000 people a year are detained in 11 immigration removal centres. Detention is inefficient (£21 million was paid out in unlawful detention claims over the last five years), it is expensive and a waste of human life.
We continued our walk through the South Downs, traversing a route along the River Ouse for 9.1km, stopping to admire egrets, herons and gull, and getting very muddy in the process. We walked for two hours passing the village where Virginia Woolf lived and the point in the river where she met her death. After lunch the walk continued towards Charleston and to Alfriston – some of the most quintessentially ‘English’ places - and onwards we walked all the way to Seven Sisters cliffs and beyond to Eastbourne, Bexhill-on-Sea, reaching our final destination on a day of sunshine sparkling the blue sea – it was impossible to witness such beauty and not remember the horrors that have happened here at the border. Our walk through the English countryside was one of reclamation, breaking down barriers of race and place – those with whom I walked had felt the worst of discrimination and the hostile environment. Our journey has also shown the great power of hospitality and kindness, of treating every human being equally, and of strangers becoming friends.
As we walked, each footstep felt one of hope; as the writer Ali Smith, patron of The Refugee Tales said when she welcomed us near the end of our journey: “How fine your feet are in the world, you’re walking towards the better imagined”. The week I write this sees the government’s Immigration Bill voted through the House of Commons, a bill which seeks to end free movement, to close borders, to harden the hostile environment even further. In such an atmosphere it is all too easy to give in to the weight of despair and pain – yet it is now more than ever that we need to keep imaging a future where we can, each and every one of us, walk freely and without fear through the world.
of morning, and keep staring at it till you sleep.
The Job of Paradise
It is the job of Paradise
to comfort those who’ve been left behind,
to think that all those loved and lost
would live on there like tiny gods.
It is the job of mumbled prayers
to help you calm your hurts and fears.
It is the job of the long black hearse to
show we head to death from birth.
It is the job of a clean neat grave
to remind us how to live our days.
If only I could live my days till death suffice
and make Earth feel like Paradise.
From the book 'A Portable Paradise' published by Peepal Tree Press
Roger Robinson is a writer and educator who has taught and performed worldwide. He is the winner of the 2019 TS Eliot Prize and his latest collection ‘A Portable Paradise’ was selected as a New Statesman book of the year. He was shortlisted for The OCM Bocas Poetry Prize, The Oxford Brookes Poetry Prize and highly commended by the Forward Poetry Prize 2013.
(first published in the Guardian)
End all immigration controls – they’re a sign we value money more than people
Humans have always travelled, but barriers are lifted for capital while, for the global poor, borders are made ever tougher to cross
When I was a teenager I went to West Berlin with my local youth orchestra to take part in an Anglo-German cultural exchange. It was 1983 and the wall was up. As we toured the city over 10 days, we would keep butting into this grotesque cold war installation blocking our way, and butting up against my 14-year-old’s defence of socialism.
At that age I reflexively rejected most dominant narratives about race, class and nation. During a period of sus laws and anti-union legislation, I already understood there had to be another version of freedom out there that included me, and I was busy piecing together the fragments of my own worldview. And yet no amount of rationalisation could shake my conclusion that people whom I disagreed with about pretty much everything else were right about the wall.
Clearly, built with the deliberate intention to trap people in a place they might not want to be, the wall was heinous – not just a bad idea, but morally wrong. As such, it was the most obscene symbol of the broader case against the eastern bloc. The fact their governments would not allow residents to travel to the west was prima facie evidence of their lack of freedom: they were understood to be like open prisons.
Not long after the wall came down, this entire logic went into reverse. As country after country shed its Stalinist overlords and went into free-market freefall, the case for their peoples’ right to leave was eclipsed by the fear that they might actually come. In the west their “freedom” was welcomed; their presence was not. While they were demolishing the wall, we were building a fortress. Politics kept them in. For more than a decade, before they gained admission to the European Union, economics would keep them out.
“A map of the world that does not include utopia is not worth even glancing at,” wrote Oscar Wilde. “For it leaves out the one country at which humanity is always landing. And when humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail.”
The map of my utopian world has no borders. I believe in the free movement of people. As a principle, I think we should all be able to roam the planet and live, love and create where we wish. I could squander the rest of this column parrying caveats and concerns regarding everything from security to wages. But it is the last in a series on utopian thinking: that demands imagining beyond what is possible and practical to what is desirable. So why dream small? Martin Luther King could have climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and called for a 10-point plan for better legislation. But then who would have remembered that?
Benedict Anderson once famously described nation states as “imagined communities”. I’d like to imagine mine without border guards, barbed wire, passport control, walls, fences or barriers. The world would be a better place without them.
Some of this stems from personal history. I am from a travelling people. My parents were born and raised in Barbados, a small island in the Caribbean caught in the crosswinds of colonial ties and postwar labour scarcity. I have 14 aunts and uncles. Along with my parents, nine of them left Barbados for lives in Britain, the US and Canada. I have cousins scattered across the globe. Borders are no friends to diasporas. They privilege form-filling over family. “Do you plan to work while you are here?” the UK immigration officer asked my grandmother when she came to see us one time. “You have cane here?” she asked wryly – she who worked in the canefields her entire life.
Like my granny, though for different reasons, borders have always been a tense issue for me. With those in uniform struggling to match the colour of my face to the crest on my passport, how could it be otherwise? To be black and on the move in the west is to be an object of suspicion. The documents are supposed to speak for themselves; but somehow there was always more explaining to do. And these personal objections are intimately connected to a more sweeping philosophical and political opposition.
Borders exist, by definition, to separate us from others. The primary two issues then become which “other” that will be, and on what basis we should be separated. As such they are both arbitrary and definite. Arbitrary because they could be anywhere and often move – just look at how Europe’s borders have changed over the past century. Definite, because wherever they are we have to deal with them, and because the process that determines who is allowed to move where and why is exercised with extreme prejudice.
America’s 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the White Australia Policy – a series of measures lasting 70 years – or Britain’s Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962 are among the more crude filters. But while the “othering” changes with time – the shift from race to religion as grounds for suspicion over a generation has been breathtaking – the fact of it remains the same. Some people won’t be welcome, not because of what they have done but because of who they are, even if the groups of people in question may change.
This has long been true and long been a problem. Recently, however, it has been compounded by the fact that even as borders have become tougher for people, they have all but been lifted for capital. Money can travel the globe virtually without restriction, in search of regulations that are weaker and labour that is cheaper.
When it does, it often displaces people: sucking investment and resources from one place at the flick of a switch; shutting down factories and shifting them to the other side of the world; or introducing automation that renders some professions obsolete. But those who find their lives turned upside down by the free movement of capital are often prevented from moving country and looking for work. People should have at least the same rights – or more, since humans are more valuable than money.
Sadly, that is not a principle that underpins the system we live in. The rich can buy themselves citizenship in about 20 countries, cash down. Meanwhile, desperate people are turned away at borders all the time. Others are incarcerated for having the audacity to cross borders we have created, to escape wars we have started, environmental chaos we have contributed to, or poverty we have helped create. Others die trying.
It is a fact, rarely stated but generally acknowledged and accepted, that the global poor should not be allowed to travel. That’s most of the world. As such, from the refugee camp in Calais to the rickety vessels on the Mediterranean, from Trump’s wall to the Berlin wall, the border stands as an ultimate point of confrontation in the broader dystopia we have made possible.
Nation states are a relatively new concept; migration is as old as humanity. Borders seek to regulate and restrict that basic human custom for the distinct purpose of excluding some and privileging others. They discriminate between all people with the express intention of then being able to discriminate against some people. They do not simply set boundaries for countries, but are metaphors for the boundaries of how we might think about other human beings. Immigrants are not the problem. Borders are.
Reproduced by kind permission of the Guardian.
Gary Younge is a British journalist, author and broadcaster. He is editor-at-large for the Guardian newspaper. In November 2019, he was appointed as Professor of Sociology at Manchester University.
Imagine a world in which compassion for others isn’t just a choice, but an obligation
In the past 10 years, as I’ve navigated my twenties and come to understand the world in which I live, a disturbing reality has come to light – that some people seem to view compassion for others as an option, a choice, something from which they can abstain. So many do just this – they choose to turn the other cheek, or, in the case of so many cruel and morally corrupt governments around the world, actively encourage a lack of compassion for others.
These ‘others’ are human beings. People with names, families, lives that they have been forced to leave behind. In acts of sheer desperation they come to the shores of a foreign land, seeking aid, shelter, someone to tell them they are cared for, that they are loved, that they are worthy of having a place to call home.
Yet increasingly, a choice has been made, by those in power, to demonize these people. To use them as a scapegoat, to blame them for governmental greed and failure. Sadly, so many of us fall for this cheap trick...but I choose to hold on to hope.
I hold on to the hope that, with time and the hard work of so many empathic, selfless people, understanding will grow. As the positive impact of caring for each other, from our neighbours to those on the other side of the world, becomes undeniable, I hope we can break down the wall of lies that the selfish and fearful have built between us. I hope we can decide that there is no option other than to care for each other, to look out for one another, to love without prejudice.
I hope you’ll join me in imagining a world in which compassion for others isn’t just a choice, but an obligation.
Himesh Patel is an English actor who most recently starred in Danny Boyle’s film ‘Yesterday’. His writing has appeared in ‘The Good Immigrant’ anthology by Nikesh Shukla.
Embracing vulnerability as a force vital to human connection
If my life had a theme, it would be shaming myself into silence. I grew up believing that silence protected me, I learned that my voice didn’t need to be heard. Brené Brown defines shame as ‘something about me, that if other people know about it, will mean that I am not worthy of connection.’ When you’ve internalised a lot of shame, it takes a lot of work to understand and untangle it, to seek human connection and believe you are deserving of it. To believe I am deserving of connection is a constant work in progress. I have a lot of shame; I even feel ashamed about being born (but that’s a whole other essay). Often when I feel uncomfortable about an interaction, I’d have to talk it through with a friend who is unrelated to the situation, have them validate my feelings before I felt comfortable having the conversation of why I felt uncomfortable. Often, I wouldn’t get that far.
In ‘The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action’, Audre Lorde asks “What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?” When I first read that essay, I began to understand the power in using my voice, in fighting to be heard instead of swallowing silence. In 2019, I led a writing workshop at the Friends Meeting House in Manchester, exploring the Quaker Values. I chose Truth and Integrity as stimulus for my workshop. ‘Quakers try to live according to the deepest truth we know. This means speaking the truth at all times, including to people in positions of power. As we are guided by integrity, so we expect to see it in public life.’ The concept of telling the truth all the time stood out to me because I had spent my life holding back the most uncomfortable truths, choosing silence and people pleasing over speaking truth to power.
I believe strongly in people choosing their narratives, how they are seen by the world. I use specific words to explain my identity: Queer, Black, Zimbabwean, Agender. I understand that there are members of the LGBT+ community who do not feel comfortable reclaiming the word ‘Queer’ and I suppose my aversion to the word ‘Refugee’ is somewhat similar. I didn’t choose it as a label that I identify with, I don’t see the word and feel any sort of affinity to it – the way I did when I first saw the word Agender and what it meant. Refugee was a label that was given to me by the government after a childhood of uncertainty and confusion, I associated it with having to prove that I was good enough to be approved as a refugee, after my family had spent most of my life not being refugee enough. Me who had grown up here and sounded a lot like the people interviewing me was viewed as less suspicious applying for leave to remain alone because I seemed assimilated enough. Sometimes people would assume I was a British Citizen because of how English I sound. I wouldn’t always correct them, because I was ashamed of having to explain why even though I’ve lived here so long, I still don’t have a British Passport.
Throughout my life, I omitted this fact about myself from friends and loved ones. I went to my immigration interview when I was eighteen years old and I didn’t talk to any of my friends about it. I told nobody about the hours of questions I had to answer about how I knew I was a lesbian and justify why Zimbabwe is not my home. In my adult life as a Queer performance artist, I naturally haven’t made a habit of spending time in circles where stating the fact that I have Indefinite Leave to Remain in the United Kingdom as a refugee would be met with negativity or judgement, yet for most of my life I was still afraid of people knowing the truth about my immigration status. I always felt awkward when beginning a new job, having to show my Biometric Residence Permit which states the R word and what terms I am allowed to work. This is how shame works inside of us, we hold back our truths for fear of judgement or rejection. When I was a child, immigration status was not discussed openly with me by adults, but I understood it to be something to be ashamed of. I had a memory of being woken up by the UK Border Police when I was about twelve years old and I knew my story wasn’t like everyone else’s. Instead of sharing the things that made me different, shame told me I had to keep them hidden. When that happened, I didn’t tell any of my friends at school about it, I didn’t want to draw even more attention to how different I am to everyone around me, all I wanted was to fit in. A woman had ended up in Yarl’s Wood because I had opened a door and even though I had no idea about detention centres, I knew something terrible had happened and wished I had slept through their banging and shouting. Silence is a breeding ground for shame to fester and grow.
If I didn’t speak the memory or the thing that made me different into existence, then I was protecting myself and making it easier to go about my days, or so I thought. Compartmentalising in this way is how I processed uncomfortable realisations and traumatic events, I’d put the memory in a box, shove the box at the very back of my mind and hoped that if I pretended to be normal enough, then the hurt couldn’t touch me. Omitting sometimes meant I told flat out lies in order to feel some form of acceptable.
I started to share the truth about my immigration status only two years ago with friends, and then a year ago I started writing about it beyond the single line in a poem I’d written in 2016 where I said ‘I can never go back to the place I was born’ and assumed everyone who heard it would understand that statement was about the terms and conditions of being a refugee. As a writer and performer, I make creative work about my own experiences, but poetry made it easier to hide truth behind metaphor and imagination. A few years ago, I asked performance artist Keisha Thompson about how she handles people knowing the truth about her life as she tends to make solo work about herself, I was really in awe of the brutal honesty in her solo show ‘Man on the Moon’. I remember telling her I could never get on stage and tell people the truth, I feared the kind of vulnerability that comes with being that honest.
My first solo show (aptly named ‘as british as a watermelon’) started off with me trying to work out my frustrations with the Citizenship process but accidentally became an exploration of the tyrannies I was swallowing and trying to forget in order to survive. The script turned into truths that I was previously ashamed to be known about myself for fear I would be treated or seen as other. I found a catharsis in sharing my shame, of course the world didn’t end because people knew the truth about who I am, and in fact, I felt such relief in finally using words to be honest. When I got off the stage after my first work in progress performance of the show, I felt like my life had finally begun, I had stopped hiding.
Since vulnerability lives in all of us, let’s imagine it as a friend who brings us closer to our fellow human, instead of focusing on the fear of judgement and isolation that leads to shame. Vulnerability is at the core of humanity, and humanity is Ubuntu: I am because you are. The South African proverb ‘umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’ explains that the spirit of humanity is togetherness. Speaking our truths, particularly the ones that even thinking of turns your stomach into a ball of tight knots often leads to relief and to receiving support and kindness. Being alive means, we are going to feel ashamed, we all feel vulnerable and afraid of being unworthy at some point in life and we have to affirm that we are enough. I try my best to take Lorde and Brown’s advice (which once felt like a radical and new concept) and tell myself that I am enough, simply by being. Overcoming the fear that I am not is constant work because I spent a long time believing I am not. I still find myself choosing silence and have to remind myself, ‘I choose to hold back this truth because I am afraid that speaking it could lead to isolation. If I try to ignore the uncomfortable truths about myself, I will still feel that shame, the feeling will continue to sit in my body and I will eventually have to face it in order to feel released. If this thing about me that I am afraid of is made known, it will not change anything about how I deserve to be treated by my peers, being honest will bring me closer to the people around me.’
Say it with me, imagine you believe it:
Vulnerability is humanity.
I am a human; I am worthy of love.
I deserve to speak my truth.
My voice is worthy of being heard.
Using my voice allows me to connect with others.
I am worthy of human connection.
Mandla Rae is a writer, programmer, facilitator and theatre maker.
How bees changed my life as a refugee
Ryad Alsous had to leave his 500 beehives behind when he fled Syria over fears for his safety. Now, relocated in Huddersfield, Ryad has been able to gain a new lease of life with a beehive gifted to him and he is able to give other refugees a token of hope by teaching them how to keep their own beehives, whilst helping to build the colonies of Britain’s black bees.
In 2015 I was born again in this life; I was born again in this country. I kept a lot of bees in Syria. For 40 years I was a beekeeper and I owned 500 hives and produced 10,000 kilos of honey and dealt with tonnes of honey as commerce, exporting honey out of Syria.
When the war happened in Syria, I decided to move to the UK after my life became very dangerous there. I had to leave quickly before disaster happened. Unfortunately I lost all my hives and all my colonies died. They were either burnt or stolen or destroyed, and not just my bees; 86% of bee colonies were destroyed in Syria and died because of the war. This is because bees need to be moved from place to place to survive. During the war there was no transportation no communication, no movement.
At the moment of leaving my home in Syria, I took just two things with me. One of these was my old bee smoker. I decided to take this to serve as some kind of evidence between me and my Syrian life. As I left my home, I made a promise to myself in that moment to continue my life with bees.
I arrived in the UK with a lot of questions and a lot of dreams. As I made the journey from the airport to my new home, all the time I was thinking: is the weather suitable for bees? Can I find beekeepers or bees in this country?
After two years in the UK I connected with my first beekeeper and joined the Beekeeping Association where I found community and friends and started my beekeeping life again. Beekeeping makes me happy, it is something I have to do every day. If there is a day where I don’t do it I feel something is lost in that day. Today we run a project called the Buzz Project where we work with refugees and job seekers, offering them one free hive and the opportunity to start their lives again. It gives them the same opportunity I had to create a future: to plan as I planned before, and to dream as I dreamed before.
Avoid the headlines. Read the headlines. Read some Melvin Dixon. Remember this crisis is nothing like the last one which was nothing like the one before that or the one before that. Honour the specifics. Honour only your sleeping schedule. Change the subject. Change your clothes. Check your emails. Check your balance. Sharpen your rage. Boycott sugar. Stretch. Stop eulogizing the elders and actually call them for once. Downward dog. Rearrange the wide rooms of your orchestrated futures. Abandon the religion of task management. Like always, it will be easier to harm those closest to you. Try to be more imaginative with your cruelty. Better yet, share your grief. There’s more than enough to go around. Don’t replace sheep with the arithmetic of ambulance sirens. Like any poet worth their salt, think about the moon. Don’t write about it, though. This is not a time for poems which is exactly why it is a time for poems. Lose track of your inadequacies. Pass both time and blame under the table. Broadcast your apologies. Leave a blood-red handprint on your front door. Paint your nails with what’s left. Sign the petition. Send the form. Befriend yourself. Learn the undertones of your favourite body lotion. Study the shape of a faded scar. This, like the chipped mug, is your territory. Make a playlist for no-one in particular. Live open-mouthed and open-ended. Invent new and increasingly desperate ways to use your hands. Clap. Cry. Light a rag.
Momtaza Mehri is a poet, essayist & independent researcher. Her latest pamphlet, ‘Doing the Most with the Least’, was published by Goldsmiths Press in 2019.
(first published in the Guardian Long Reads)
How a Korean sport made an Iranian girl more American
When she arrived in the US as a 10-year-old refugee, Dina Nayeri found it hard to fit in. But that all changed when she hatched a plan to get into Harvard – by becoming a taekwondo champion.
When I was 13, three years after arriving in the US with my mother and brother, I devised a plan to get into the Ivy League. I was a refugee kid with no money and I lived in Oklahoma, where university means Tulsa or Stillwater or, if you’re smart, somewhere in Texas. My mother, who had been a doctor in Iran, was now a single parent working in a factory. My father, who was a dental surgeon, had stayed in Iran and rarely sent money. Our sponsors, conservative Reaganite Christians who thought public assistance was a slippery slope to a lifetime of sloth, discouraged us from applying for temporary relief. It took all our energy just to continue living, working and studying. I didn’t have tutors or advisers. No one was bribing coaches or hiring consultants on my behalf. But I did have a vague notion that I needed more than good grades and test scores – I needed to transform into someone the books called “a high achiever”.
Information was hard to come by at first. It was the 1990s, so whatever I knew about Harvard and Yale I got from 80s movies set in a muted and stylised 1950s for the super-rich. My adolescence was all Dead Poets Society and School Ties, so fantasising about getting into a top university meant that I imagined myself as a well-heeled white boy from a good family (with brief interludes to go dancing in Nazi Germany a la Swing Kids. Basically, wherever Robert Sean Leonard went, I was there.)
One day, in my first or second year in the US, as I sat in Edmond public library reading Judy Blume to beef up my English, I spotted a book lying open near the YA fiction rotary display. It was an old edition of a college admissions book, complete with rankings, statistics, test score minimums and advice on activities and essays. The name at the top of the list, Harvard, was the only one any Iranian would recognise, so it took about three minutes for getting admitted there to become my entire life’s purpose. The book told me that if I wanted to get into the best universities, I couldn’t just be gifted at maths or writing. I would have to win medals and trophies. I would have to be sporty, arty or a genius at something. A national championship wouldn’t hurt.
I admit the notion that sport trophies got you into university in America struck me as bizarre for exactly one second before I gave myself up to it, incorporating it into my fantasy life the way a buzzing alarm clock gets incorporated into dreams. I was raised in the extreme academic tradition of Iranian medical households – to get into Tehran University, my parents had beaten thousands of their peers in a daunting exam called the Konkour. Still, this was the US and, so far, everything had been weird – iced tea and fruited yoghurt, ground meat in crunchy shells made of the same material as snack chips, people in commercials grinning about anal disease and heavy-flow periods, a fitness show called Sit and Be Fit – I had learned to suspend disbelief and just roll with stuff.
I decided to give it a try. I could be sporty. Why not? When we were asylum seekers, my mother had taught me to swim in the scorching Emirati sun. And back in Iran, she had done horse-riding and tennis. But then the revolution happened, and her sporty body was draped and forgotten. Banned from public exercise, she took to pounding her ass against walls to get that chic, saddle-flattened effect of the late 70s. Sometimes I joined her. (It didn’t work, because our asses, like the rest of our bodies, were Iranian.)
I wanted to try swimming or tennis, but in Oklahoma those sports were the province of rich girls with private coaches. Every one of them was four inches taller than me, with fat blonde ponytails that slapped you as you tried to get past and thighs that could strangle a small goat. Then, my best friend, a fellow book nerd, mentioned that she had joined a martial arts club that had no other girls from our school. The absence of those girls was an unspoken preference in our misfit circle – so I agreed to visit.
Taekwondo is a Korean martial art focused on strong legs and cardiovascular fitness. Unlike karate – a calmer, more physically balanced combat style – in taekwondo, you do a lot of jumping around and kicking. It is a perfect sport for teenage girls, and yet there were almost none in this dojang, probably because all the glory came from bloodying and being bloodied – and you could really mess up your face.
It was a strange place: a Protestant fighting school called Kicking Christian Soldiers (KCS) run by Kerry, a white man with a Navy Seal body, and his scary Thai girlfriend, Cheri. She was KCS’s first selling point: those blond bitches had nothing on this lady. Her thighs were torpedoes.
And here was the second selling point: I learned that they handed out trophies by age, belt and weight, almost every weekend at local competitions that led up to statewide, then national contests. That meant I could starve myself into a lower category, beat up a bunch of scrawny green belts and write my ticket to Harvard – a totally logical way of becoming a doctor or professor or supreme court justice.
I had just one little problem: as it happened, while I was busy fantasising about being a mid-century prep-school boy, my mother had met another Iranian immigrant and quietly married him. So now this guy lived with us. My new stepfather, Rahim, a conservative Christian immigrant, was on my back about everything, all the time. He also happened to have a third-degree black belt in taekwondo (which just meant he was a deadlier, more experienced blackbelt), and because of that, he was also deep into local Korean culture.
This strikes me as an insane coincidence now, but it didn’t then. It was just an irritating obstacle. He would never let me join. Not in a million years. “It’s not a sport for girls,” he said, the first time I brought it up. “Daniel can join. You can find something else.” My brother, Daniel, was also mildly interested in the sport, as he was in most sports, but he was less intense about it than I was; his entire future didn’t depend on a plan that would take years and most likely fail.
Meanwhile, Rahim marinated Korean beef bulgogi and sealed another jar of his own special kimchi. His obsession with all things Korean made sense if you followed the loneliness trail: I found taekwondo because I was desperate to get into Harvard, where I was sure friendship and love awaited me. Rahim came to taekwondo because, some 15 years earlier, having left his family in Iran for the blindingly homogenous American south, he spent every meal alone until he found the Korean community of Oklahoma City. He had arrived at 19 or 20, slept outside the admissions office of one of the state universities until they offered him a place and, as a way to meet other immigrants and keep fit, he had enrolled in a taekwondo class.
Soon, he fell in love with the food, the sport, the ritual, even the sounds of Korean conversation and music. He loved to cook Iranian food and he began offering his dishes to his new friends, learning their cuisine, and combining recipes. Korean ribs on fluffy, buttery basmati rice, a staple of my childhood, was his masterwork because, as Rahim used to say – a cigarette dangling from his lips – basmati is always better (except under sushi, which he summarily rejected, but acknowledged as a reason for sticky rice to continue existing).
Despite his devotion to taekwondo and the role it had played in creating his new identity, Rahim refused to relent on the issue of my joining. I called my father in Iran for help convincing my mother. I explained that it was necessary for college and that he must foot the bills, a monthly cost equivalent to six or seven impacted wisdom teeth. (My father, the dental surgeon, calculated all costs according to root canals and caps and fillings.)
“Why are you going to sport college?” he said. “Go to medical school! You can’t make a living on sport degree!”
“This is for the best university, Baba!” I whined. “Trust me! I know this system.”
“It makes no sense, Dina joon. A real college won’t make you learn fighting to be a doctor.”
“Believe me, it’s a real thing.”
Baba never sent the money but, in the end, I convinced my mother with a two-pronged argument about self-defense and sexism. Weren’t she and Rahim converted Christians? Wasn’t their struggle in Iran all about equality, the veil and fighting the oppression of women? Also, didn’t they know how many rapists hang out in the US? I should learn to injure the rapists.
I signed up for three classes a week.
Until I found taekwondo, assimilation had been a constant struggle. The summer we arrived in Oklahoma, my mother enrolled us in a church etiquette class. The instructor was so cloying, and her rules so obvious and patronising, that I raised my hand and asked if it was OK to lick our plate after a meal. My mother giggled. The teacher assumed this is what we do in Iran.
As for American pleasures, they were many, but they came with a price. My first bottle of conditioner was a marvel; I kept it away from everyone else’s bath things. And yet I missed those hours with my mother or grandmother, sitting still as they brushed tangles out of my hair in our big Iranian hamam.
In those early years, I was so overcome by gratitude for my freedom, shame at my Iranian-ness and fear of being sent back that I found it impossible to say no to Americans. During a lice epidemic at our school, when a classmate asked to borrow my brush, I was so moved by her gesture of friendship that I relented, then put the brush in a plastic bag and ran home to have my mother disinfect it. We were never comfortable. We kept squirming inside our own skin, trying to find a way to be ourselves while satisfying all the people who wanted us to transform instantly into them.
But I loved taekwondo from the first day. I was comfortable in the dojang, where we all wore the same clothes and smelled like sweat, where no fineries were allowed, cheap and expensive hair was pulled into functional buns, and chit-chat discouraged, where American, Iranian, Mexican, Thai and all other cultures fell aside and we behaved as if we were in Seoul. I loved working up a hard sweat, using my powerful legs, which were so much stronger than my arms.
Now and then, Rahim came 10 minutes early to pick me up from the studio. He stood smoking just behind the glass doors, glaring inside. “Why you’re paired with that man?” he said one night on the ride home.
“What man?” I said.
“That other student; the 40-year-old adult man you’re practising choke-holds with.”
“I’m learning to disarm him,” I said. “There are no women there. What am I supposed to do, disarm a six-year-old girl?”
He let it go for half an hour. He liked Kerry, the instructor, who was robotic and soldier-like, exuding zero sexuality despite his general physical perfection.
Later at home, as my mother was sniffing the bowl of raw chicken dakgalbi (another brightly marinated Korean meat), muttering “what on Earth is this?” and sneaking a spoonful of sugar in, Rahim started up again.
“Show me how you practise the hold on that man,” he said.
“What?” I said. “Leave me alone. I’m going to shower.”
“Show me. Right now.” He was getting into a half-squat, shortening himself so I could get my arm around his neck.
I knew what he was getting at. I swung an arm around, pressing my forearm into his Adam’s Apple, arching to keep my breasts as far from his back as humanly possible – because this was, after all, the only thing he was checking. He twisted my arm quickly around, pinning it to my back. “You shouldn’t be paired with a man,” he said, squeezing my arm until I winced. I hated him in such moments – not only for the aggression, but for not believing in me, for trying to stand in the way of my dreams.
Now and then, as my skills improved, Rahim and I practised kicks in the garage – Rahim’s second home after the kitchen. A huge punching bag hung from the ceiling beside his red Mercury Cougar, the bonnet of which was always propped open. He hugged the bag in place and yelled out instructions as I kicked. Although he was constantly criticising my technique, he saw that I could be good, and he stopped questioning my right to practise.
I began visiting the dojang every day, staying for one class, then two or three at a time. Between classes, during the 10-minute break, I would jump on the Stairmaster in the corner of the room to burn off extra energy. I grew slimmer, harder. After I got my yellow belt, I started competing in small local events. I won a trophy, then another. My thighs became dangerous, like the sporty girls I had admired.
About a year after I started competing, Kerry invited me to join the demo team, a group that performed choreographed fight routines with actual bo staffs (like Donatello in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) during basketball halftime shows and insurance company Christmas parties. We did this unironically, to a fog machine and songs like Total Eclipse of the Heart.
I won more tournaments and advanced to a higher belt. Once or twice, I had my nose bloodied. I didn’t mind – it wasn’t the pretty European nose that I wanted, anyway. On weekends, we ran laps at a local track. I learned to break boards. Kerry showed me how to put together a board-breaking routine that would win medals at tournaments: girls, he told me, hardly ever compete in board-breaking. This was a real chance to clean up. It seemed my incentives were aligned with this strange, quiet man with his buzz cut and his weird Christian ass-kicking morals: the more trophies I won, the better his dojang’s stats. “Try this one,” he said. “First one with your elbow. Then knife-hand right into the second board. Then side kick. Three. Axe kick. Four.”
That routine got me a box full of gold medals. I didn’t hang them. I wrote their names on my resume, a scrap of handwritten paper that I kept in my backpack to type out later. After a while, Kerry started offering me other tips. “Dina, don’t run like that. What’s wrong with you? Lift your feet! … Dina, featherweight won’t be sustainable for you, but it won’t be that hard either. You’d be surprised at how full you can feel on egg whites and baked potatoes.”
When I was 15, Kerry invited me to compete at state, the Oklahoma-wide competition to qualify for nationals. Every day after school, I kicked until my soles bled, until the balls of my feet were shredded. The dojang was covered in a rough carpet – a brutal surface on which to pivot, but Kerry didn’t take excuses. Faster, he yelled, holding a stopwatch. We had a motto that we chanted at the beginning and end of each practice session: Kick first, kick hard, kick fast, kick last!
Some nights I would wake up and cry in my mother’s arms. “I’ll never get into Harvard. I’ll die ordinary and forgotten.”
“You won’t!” she said. “You’re already not ordinary.”
“I’m not Harvard-worthy,” I’d weep. “Look, my knees are a mess.”
She snorted. “Oh God, Dina,” she said in English. “You’re crazy but very proudable! You get in. Please eat something.”
I loved winning at a male sport. I was still angry about so many things – hijab, the Islamic Republic, the fat old church men who made high-school football players feel like gods while they shamed women who dared to want too much. I survived on egg whites and water-packed tuna doused in vinegar and mustard, salted baked potatoes and watery fruit. I had to give up Rahim’s beautiful Korean barbecues – the biggest sacrifice of all.
I became a block of muscle. My thighs stopped touching, my breasts disappeared and I stopped menstruating.
Rahim chided me for my diet. “This isn’t how they do it in Korea,” he said one morning, as he was marinating more meat. (I don’t want to belabour this point, but truly this is my primary image of the man. He was either marinating meat, chain smoking or in the garage at 2am, fixing his car.)
“You’ve never been to Korea,” I said. “So you don’t really know, do you?”
“Athletes need to eat. This Kerry isn’t teaching you the right discipline. Real taekwondo masters eat enough food. They eat meat and vegetables, not egg whites.”
“I’m not trying to be a master. But if you want to get technical, they don’t put their bulgogi on top of a mountain of butter basmati either,” I said.
“Cultures working together makes things better,” he muttered.
“You mean like with colonialism, or how the Arab invasions improved things for us?” I loved goading that man until he blew up.
“Eat something,” he said that day, although it pained him to seem concerned.
“That smell is making me sick,” I said. “I’m going to bed.”
At night I tightened a back brace under my clothes to soothe the ache of my empty stomach and did homework until early morning. I caught up with American history, calculus, chemistry. After my daily five or six hours in the studio, I struggled to keep up straight As, but there was no question of letting the grades drop. Perfect scores were the minimum for Harvard. Meanwhile, Baba still didn’t get it: “Dina joon, go somewhere academic!”
“But Harvard is academic,” I told him. “I don’t know how to explain it. They want to know you can suffer, I guess.” Strangely, that made sense to Baba.
At 15, after winning two medals at state, I decided it was time to compete in nationals in San Antonio – it was in summer and I would be 16 by then. If I won, I would have my trophy and I could move on to becoming someone, somewhere far from this hot, inhospitable place my family had landed.
Six months before nationals, I pinched a spinal nerve. I could hardly walk, and twisting or lifting a leg sent a sharp pain through my body. I signed up for the tournament anyway – I had to. This medal was already a part of my future identity. In college, when my new classmates quizzed one another for the reason they got in, I wouldn’t be “the refugee” or “the Iranian”. I would be the girl who kicked serious ass at a national championship.
I stopped practising, but swam every day. At night, my mother held my feet in her lap as I strengthened my core. I barely ate. My lips turned blue. When I returned to the studio, the pain was bearable.
At the weigh-ins for the nationals in San Antonio, I stripped down to my underwear. Getting into the featherweight category was, in my twisted mind, pretty much a determining factor for Harvard. If I was the lightest in a weight category, no matter how few girls had signed up, I would lose. I didn’t drink water for a day. I shaved my body and had laxatives tucked in my gym bag, just in case. I made it into the lower weight class by 0.01lb.
Daniel had signed up, too. For a 13-year-old boy, winning the nationals was a much tougher prospect – every rich boy in Oklahoma did martial arts. And he had nothing at stake. He ate normal foods, practised an hour or two a day, had friendships and hobbies. At nationals, he completed his fights and waited around with his friends.
Daniel and I weren’t close and moments of sibling kindness were rare. But when I stumbled away from my last fight, having just beaten a fast, angry girl by a single point to secure the gold medal, Daniel rushed to my side with an ice-cream bar – Dove, the most expensive kind. I was bleary with hunger and joy and disbelief. I had done it. I had won an actual gold medal at nationals, the very thing the admissions books said I needed. And here was Daniel holding an ice cream, saying “Congrats sis”. He had spent his own money, and although it looked like poison, I ate it for his sake.
I spent the next hour in the bathroom enduring the violent protests of a body that hadn’t digested fat, sugar or dairy for over a year. I managed to make it to the winner’s block and then went back home. Having accomplished my goal, I quit taekwondo and returned to eating normally. Kerry was dumbstruck – had I lost my passion for the sport?
“What passion?” I said. “I’m not an athlete. This was about Harvard.”
There are people who never question their place in the world. They feel part of their homeland, while newcomers struggle to remake themselves, putting on a mask until they learn. But in that crucial moment, just as I was trying to shed my Iranian-ness, when I might have started to bow down or posture, I was accidentally immersed in Korean culture instead. Somehow, this practice made it easier to become American. Like my classmates, I now had a sport. My body became something familiar to them – toned, sleek. I gained the confidence to get a lifeguard license and a job at a local pool. I found the courage to make friends, to say no to hairbrush borrowers. By ignoring American culture in favour of another during my formative years, I became too occupied elsewhere to care that I was different. Taekwondo made me a fully realised person, with a passion and skill entirely separate from my Iranian roots. And that was vital, not for assimilating, but for becoming who I am, regardless of where I go, or who lives next door.
For years, before and after I quit taekwondo, I toiled in advanced courses. To round out my resume, I volunteered at the food bank, bagging crunchy peanut butter for the poor. I organised a citywide tutoring programme. I worked several jobs. I hardly slept. On quiet Saturdays, I watched Rudy, a movie about a boy with zero chance of playing football for Notre Dame, who nevertheless does.
Sometimes I felt like a fraud, trying for something that wasn’t meant for me. The movies were clear: Harvard was for pretty white boys with money. Even my counsellor didn’t believe I would get there. But of the many things taekwondo taught me, the most vital was that every habit becomes easy with time. Kerry always said that it takes three weeks of hard work to begin transforming into anything you are pretending to be. And if you throw yourself into the practice of it, no one will call you a fraud.
And, in the end, we did assimilate (if that’s what you want to call it) – mostly by accident, and because of the people who loved us. We followed the rules. No family of four logged fewer hours of sleep: a typical midnight found my mother reading health policy textbooks, me doing calculus, Daniel writing poems, Rahim taking out an engine or marinating more bulgogi. I began to imagine that one day I would grow into a person whose past didn’t define her every step. That one day I would have time to care for my body, to mend my bloody feet, to let the calluses on my fingers heal.
Twenty years later, I moved to London and had a daughter of my own. Last Christmas, my partner gave me a strange gift: an hour of practice with a world champion taekwondo coach. Two decades after I had last set foot in a dojang, I was no longer the skinny block of muscle I had been. I now had breasts that bounced, thighs that touched, an authentic Iranian ass that no wall could flatten. I was afraid to try it again. I had been so disciplined in my younger days, but my eyes had been on a different goal. I hadn’t stopped to take joy in being good at something and now my skills were gone.
But, in that hour, my body’s memory astonished me. The joys returned one by one: the sweat, the way I instinctively shouted and grunted with each kick, the popping of my foot against the clap-pad, the satisfying give of the kick-bag. I had spent months fighting stress and tension, the many anxieties of starting again in a new country and of becoming a mother. Three years in this new life and I was still battling. But, in one hour, my body relented and I was 16 again, a displaced oddball trying to remember Korean numbers. It was such a simple and powerful remedy. It’s funny, the stubbornness of the universe: the harder you try to belong to a place, the more it pushes you away, enfolding you only when you look another way.
In the end, I didn’t get into Harvard (not until graduate school, anyway). I got into Princeton instead. I found that I didn’t care. Princeton was the same and was featured in just as many glossy films. I had no loyalty to Harvard; and in fact, my loyalty was transferred instantly and for ever by the simple fact that a great institution had said: “We want you. We had our choice of American students, and you, Dina Nayeri, are one worth having.” How I craved to be claimed. If I couldn’t have a country, I would have something equally indestructible. Princeton would be my home. Academia would be my home. The week after my high school graduation, a surgeon cut me a European nose – I begged Baba for the money. Again, I insisted to his great bafflement that this, too, was necessary for an American education.
I didn’t take up taekwondo in college. Given my history of bloody noses in competition, my new nose came with conditions. It didn’t matter to me. I was American now – I wouldn’t question that again for another decade or more, when I’d grow weary and sceptical of national identity, the many consequences of birth place and time.
One day, before I left for Princeton, Rahim gave me a card. “I’m proud of you,” he wrote. “You’re a real fighter, and I didn’t see that before.” I packed the card away with my childhood keepsakes. I watched the bruises around my nose heal. I dyed my hair chestnut in the bathtub. Sometimes as a reward, I ate secret spoonfuls of cream.
Dina Nayeri’s book ‘The Ungrateful Refugee’ is published by Canongate.
Imagine a world where every woman discovers the superpower within
It took me a long time to find my own personal superpower, but I believe it’s in every woman – and can emerge when you least expect it. I was a child of war; born during Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime and imprisoned aged just four. After escaping a plot to bury us alive, my family and I spent months in hiding, fleeing bombs and bullets at every turn. Even when we finally reached Iran on horseback, my father – who was on Hussein’s hitlist – suffered a near-fatal poisoning. He was flown to the UK by Amnesty International for treatment, but it was a year until we were reunited in London. So there I was aged six: a fresh-faced and bewildered refugee, burying away years of trauma and turmoil deep within.
Unsurprisingly, those layers of supressed pain rose to the surface in early adulthood. After getting engaged at 18, I married the following year and had my son aged 20. Sadly, my marriage was not the blissful union I’d dreamed of, and it was a turbulent and abusive relationship which stripped away my confidence. Though alive on the exterior, I felt hollow and dead inside.
Perhaps inevitably, it took a toll on my health; I developed pre-eclampsia in pregnancy and was later diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease – all while completing my university studies and adjusting to motherhood. Choosing to divorce was riddled with further angst; it wasn’t accepted within Kurdish culture and piled shame on my family. But I knew it was the right outcome, regardless of the threats I received from my husband.
Leaving my marriage was the moment everything changed. Despite being broken and shattered to the core, I felt the inner me rising up. It was an incredible force; my own superpower was telling me I really could change my path, and that a happier, more fulfilled life lay within my grasp. But I also recognised I’d need to channel huge, untapped courage to take ownership of my future.
So that’s exactly what I did. I spent a decade rebuilding my life, unpicking the pieces of past trauma and unravelling the patterns of self-disbelief that had been programmed into me. Slowly, I felt my strength growing, and a new resilience beginning to unfurl. As the feeling grew more powerful, I realised I wanted to share it with other women and girls, and help them uncover hidden strength, too. This is why I established the Lotus Flower, a charity that supports women and girl conflict survivors. Although they have suffered unimaginable ordeals, we provide the tools needed to rebuild their lives. In three years, we’ve positively impacted on 24,000 females, which is remarkable given that I started the charity in my living room, with virtually no money.
More than ever, I want my experience to show that a superpower lies inside every woman and girl. It’s there, just waiting for the moment you finally feel ready to let it work its magic…
Taban Shoresh is the founder of The Lotus Flower, a non-profit for vulnerable women and girls that currently works in Kurdistan, Northern Iraq with survivors of conflict.
An excerpt from ‘Exit West’ by Mohsin Hamid
Neighborhoods fell to the militants in startlingly quick succession, so that Saeed’s mother’s mental map of the place where she had spent her entire life now resembled an old quilt, with patches of government land and patches of militant land. The frayed seams between the patches were the most deadly spaces, and to be avoided at all costs. Her butcher and the man who dyed the fabrics from which she had once made her festive clothes disappeared into such gaps, their places of business shattered and covered in rubble and glass.
People vanished in those days, and for the most part one never knew, at least not for a while, if they were alive or dead. Nadia passed her family’s home once on purpose, not to speak with them, just to see from the outside if they were there and well, but the home she had forsaken looked deserted, with no sign of inhabitants or life. When she visited again it was gone, unrecognizable, the building crushed by the force of a bomb that weighed as much as a compact automobile. Nadia would never be able to determine what had become of them, but she always hoped they had found a way to depart unharmed, abandoning the city to the predations of warriors on both sides who seemed content to flatten it in order to possess it.
She and Saeed were fortunate that their homes remained for a while in government-controlled neighborhoods, and so were spared much of the worst fighting and also the retaliatory air strikes that the army was calling in on localities thought not merely to be occupied but disloyal.
Saeed’s boss had tears in his eyes as he told his employees that he had to shutter his business, apologizing for letting them down, and promising that there would be jobs for them all when things improved and the agency was able to reopen. He was so distraught that it seemed to those collecting their final salaries that they were in fact consoling him. All agreed he was a fine and delicate man, worryingly so, for these were not times for such men.
At Nadia’s office the payroll department stopped giving out paychecks and within days everyone stopped coming. There were no real goodbyes, or at least none that she was part of, and since the security guards were the first to melt away, a sort of calm looting, or payment-in-hardware, began, and people left with what they could carry. Nadia hefted two laptop computers in their carrying cases and her floor’s flat-screen TV, but in the end she did not take the TV because it would have been difficult to load onto her motorcycle, and passed it instead to a somber-faced colleague who thanked her politely.
One’srelationship to windows now changed in the city. A window was the border through which death was possibly most likely to come. Windows could not stop even the most flagging round of ammunition: any spot indoors with a view of the outside was a spot potentially in the crossfire. Moreover the pane of a window could itself become shrapnel so easily, shattered by a nearby blast, and everyone had heard of someone or other who had bled out after being lacerated by shards of flying glass.
Many windows were broken already, and the prudent thing would have been to remove those that remained, but it was winter and the nights were cold, and without gas and electricity, both of which were in increasingly short supply, windows served to take some of the edge off the chill, and so people left them in place.
Saeed and his family rearranged their furniture instead. They placed bookshelves full of books flush against the windows in their bedrooms, blocking the glass from sight but allowing light to creep in around the edges, and they leaned Saeed’s bed over the tall windows in their sitting room, mattress and all, upright, at an angle, so that the bed’s feet rested on the lintel. Saeed slept on three rugs layered on the floor, which he told his parents suited his back.
Nadia taped the inside of her windows with beige packing tape, the sort normally used to seal cardboard boxes, and hammered heavy-duty rubbish bags into place over them, pounding nails into the window frames. When she had had enough electricity to charge her backup battery, she would lounge around and listen to her records in the light of a single bare bulb, the harsh sounds of the fighting muffled somewhat by her music, and she would then glance at her windows and think that they looked a bit like amorphous black works of contemporary art.
The effect doors had on people altered as well. Rumors had begun to circulate of doors that could take you elsewhere, often to places far away, well removed from this death trap of a country. Some people claimed to know people who knew people who had been through such doors. A normal door, they said, could become a special door, and it could happen without warning, to any door at all. Most people thought these rumors to be nonsense, the superstitions of the feeble-minded. But most people began to gaze at their own doors a little differently nonetheless.
Nadia and Saeed, too, discussed these rumors and dismissed them. But every morning, when she woke, Nadia looked over at her front door, and at the doors to her bathroom, her closet, her terrace. Every morning, in his room, Saeed did much the same. All their doors remained simple doors, on/off switches in the flow between two adjacent places, binarily either open or closed, but each of their doors, regarded thus with a twinge of irrational possibility, became partially animate as well, an object with a subtle power to mock, to mock the desires of those who desired to go far away, whispering silently from its door frame that such dreams were the dreams of fools.
Published by arrangement with Riverhead, a member of Penguin Random House. Copyright (c) Mohsin Hamid, 2017.
Mohsin Hamid is an author and journalist. He writes regularly for The New York Times, the Guardian and the New York Review of Books, and is the author of 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist', 'Moth Smoke', 'How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia', 'Discontent and Its Civilisations' and 'Exit West'. Born and mostly raised in Lahore, he has since lived between Lahore, London and New York.
We are all connected
Just before quarantine started, I bought myself a deck of Tarot cards. I had found out that the Chilean film director and author Alejandro Jodorowsky had written a lengthy study of the Tarot, which took him ten years to complete. I looked forward to immersing myself in his always enchanting, insightful, humorous work. So as COVID-19 made us all retreat into our homes for indeterminate periods of time, I thought I’d give myself a reading. What does the future have in store? I asked the deck. I drew Arcanum XXI, The World.
It is a beautiful card, with heavenly symbols standing for purity and realisation. I paraphrase, for brevity, Jodorowsky's interpretation of this card: ‘The World in Tarot is the number twenty-one, the highest numerical value of the Tarot, representing the supreme realisation, the realisation of androgyny; the card is a call to the recognition of the world in its deepest reality, an acceptance of fullness and realisation. It is also the moment when, freed from self-destruction, we begin to glimpse the suffering of the Other and put ourselves at the service of humanity.’
It felt both ironic and poignant to be faced with this potent symbolism for the world, a world currently dunked into an unprecedented form of chaos. And how odd, I thought, that this card carries the highest number, the highest state of existence. Should it not be the reverse, the most basic, the state from which we can begin living?
But get real, I told myself, there are over 70 million people displaced around the world. Fascism and totalitarianism are the rule, in one form or another, in most of the countries at the economic forefront of the world (think US, UK, Brasil, India, China, Russia). The systems that we live in, and which produce this endless supply of ‘world leaders’, were themselves founded on exploitation, slavery, displacement, domination, death; all of these were also forces that built societal privilege, reputation, and wealth, in awe of which we still live today.
The cultural and educational institutions we frequent and revere in the UK were funded and benefitted from the slave trade - think Cambridge and Oxford Universities, the Bank of England, the National Gallery, the Royal Academy, the Tate, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the British Museum. The plantation profits from across the empire became private wealth and political power, as inherited wealth still fuels generations of privilege across upper and middle class Britain. And I repeat, there are more than 70 million people displaced around the world.
In our world of hierarchy and ‘individual empowerment’, which is based on the reverence of wealth, we need the (lesser) Other to strive to assimilate in order to be tolerated. We are taught to see poverty as a result of bad individual choices; we are lead to believe that we can rise out of systemic social injustice ‘on our own’, if we would just get our act together and try harder. We are taught to look vertically, to seek profit from our exchanges.
We claim that immigrants have to assimilate in order to be accepted, but ex-pats can remain monolingual and uninvolved; in the UK, rates for prosecution and sentencing for black people remain three times higher than for white people; ethnic minorities have much higher rates of unemployment. The list of inequalities goes on.
So what of the World? What of our connection? Is it possible to ‘free [ourselves] from self-destruction, [and] begin to glimpse the suffering of the Other and put ourselves at the service of humanity’? We keep on being threatened by difference, we keep driving out the Other from their home, across borders, we maintain the Other lesser, illegal, and we use myriad ways to disconnect from our fellow human beings. How is all this still going on, and what can we do about it? I try to imagine.
In her essay ‘The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House’, Audre Lorde, a woman wise beyond words and a woman whose words are like a balm upon a sorrowing soul, says: ‘Advocating the mere tolerance of difference […] is the grossest reformism. […] Only within [the] interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways of being in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters. Within the interdependence of mutual (nondominant) differences lies that security which enables us to descend into the chaos of knowledge and return with true visions of our future, along with the concomitant power to effect those changes which can bring that future into being. Difference is that raw and powerful connection from which our personal power is forged.’
I realise that I don’t need to imagine that we are all connected - we are all connected, not only with other human beings, but with animals, with plants, with the air, with all of the earth. Nothing in the world passes without connection. Even destruction needs connection in order to happen. But today we need to examine how we are connected, how we understand the workings of our interrelatedness, our interdependence, and most of all, how we contribute to each others’ chains.
We cannot do this alone – true social change can only happen if we address injustice together.
I look at Arcanum XXI and wonder - how do we reach this World where we care for the Other, where we are responsible for ourselves and for humanity?
We must start by facing our privilege and our prejudice. We must look at how each of us participates in perpetuating social division, poverty, sexism, racism, displacement. And once we understand that our wealth and our privilege rests on the suffering of the Other - historically, and today - we can start to embrace and harness our differences, use them as tools for the improvement of our societies, for justice, for the reimagining of the world. For making a fair, kind, gentle society where we will want our children to grow.
Now is the time not simply to imagine. It is the time to act.
Vesna Maric is the author of the best-selling memoir ‘Bluebird’ (Granta, 2009) that charts her arrival in the UK as a teenage refugee from Bosnia in 1992. She lives in London and works as a writer and journalist.
No sudden stillness arrests
the wind the way their spread-winged stasis
turns the air to sunned-on pediments
lifting them up like evidence
that the invisible between us still holds sway,
the future breathing right into our faces lined
with all that comes and goes, circling above us until they
dive around our knees when they sheer off down
the shore-current above the salt marsh,
scissor-tails flexing as they bank and swerve in
slats and panes of light
shattering around each feather's black chevrons
tense in the big whoosh,
the tidal river foaming under the dyke.
You could live your whole life and never
see something like this—you could imagine you were
dead, a stake of sunlight through your heart
but never would you approach this finality of sight:
wing tip to wing tip catching the underdraft,
keeping their distance as a form of equilibrium,
they move like a sixth sense that scans us in the drift
and unworried calculation of millions
of wings sailing trim to the wind as if they steered
the whole continent out into the ocean, hemisphere
to hemisphere netted in their flight,
black eye-masks inquisitorial but really not.
Hunger, dip, flirt-splash. Flies caught
and caught, gulped whole, shat out.
Stunted scrub oak by the shore. Love and continuance
hinted in the way claws clench and unclench.
How clear the tribes of hundreds are,
scattering like shrapnel to regroup in the air,
their twittering unconcerned, knowing just where they are
by knowing just where the others are. Waves flood
the marsh banks and scour clean the reeds
that spring green above the rush of water
scattering fish bones and washing at the dune.
No gape-beaked bird-twin, no fledging form,
no young to be healed or left to die,
no mud nest other than this swooping joy.
This swallow's papery skull, no bigger than my thumb,
weighs less than a feather on my palm.
Tom Sleigh has published ten books of highly acclaimed poetry. His eleventh book, 'The King’s Touch', will appear in 2022 from Graywolf Press. His most recent book of essays is 'The Land Between Two Rivers: Writing In an Age of Refugees'. He is Distinguished Professor at Hunter College, City University of New York.
On the resurrection
An English church yard in early summer. The church porch is covered with white roses. There is much yew and ivy and box, quite clipped. Out on the river, beyond the kissing gate, a packed pleasure craft is pulling away from a jetty. It is a warm and sunny day. And removing the stone lids from their raised graves or brushing the earth from their burial mounds or leaning on their headstones, is a host of figures, some naked, some in white gowns, some in every day clothes. Some look rather baffled. Others appear mildly curious or are serene or are chatting with friends or family members. There is no fervour or ecstasy in The Resurrection in Cookham (1927). The scene is peaceful, pleasing, most familiar. I first became fully aware of Stanley Spencer’s painting, certainly one of the greatest English paintings of the 20th century, at around the same time that Imagine by John Lennon was released.
It was 1971 and I would have been eight years old. To grow up in Cookham, as I did, was to be immersed in Spencer. I joined the church choir in the summer of 1971 and as I ran into choir practice, the first thing I saw, facing the church door, was Spencer’s Last Supper. At the bottom of the High Street, there was the Stanley Spencer gallery, housed in the former Methodist Hall. I went to primary school with Spencer’s grandson, John; my mother knew his daughter, Unity. There were many people in Cookham in those days who had known Spencer well and a number of them featured in his greater paintings. Spencer died in 1959 in a hospital, high above the Thames, on the wooded escarpment that includes the Cliveden Estate. I was born in the same hospital three years later.
I must have seen The Resurrection in reproduction before 1971. But that year, I went for the first time with my parents to the Tate Gallery, now Tate Britain, where the painting hangs. It made an impression on me, as it does on everyone who sees it, though I cannot claim I particularly liked the painting at that point.
I have never liked Imagine. Imagine there’s no heaven. It’s easy if you try.
Quite: far too easy. And having said let’s not imagine heaven, Lennon then does go on to imagine it - his version of heaven on earth at least. In words that are dashed-off, trite; a list of off-the-shelf lefty bromides, with a twist of hippy shit mysticism. Yes, DON’T get me started on how poor this song is. (I hate the tune too).
By contrast, Spencer in The Resurrection asks a much more interesting question: Imagine there is a heaven. And then using the iconography and imagery of canonical religious art, he arrives at a humble place. Heaven is not on a plane of transcendence, but rooted in a sense of homecoming – or if you are lucky, like Spencer – and me – home staying.
Spencer in his letters and his voluminous autobiographical writing often uses the words ‘homely’, ‘cosy’. As he lay dying in Cliveden hospital, the vicar’s wife, Rachel Westropp, read to him from one of his favourite books, The Wind in the Willows, which is also set in Cookham. I picture her reading the episode in which Mole visits his friend the Water Rat in his little home, with a bright fire in the parlour, and an armchair, in which Mole is planted, having been fetched a dressing gown and slippers, and supper is a most cheerful meal, and a most sleepy Mole is then escorted up to the best bedroom, where he soon lays his head on his pillow in great peace and contentment, as his new friend, the River, laps the sill of his window.
One section of The Resurrection is more troubling than the rest. A patch of the churchyard, to the left of the flower covered porch is in shadow, in darkness. Lying in the earth there, as if in a mass grave, are dark figures. As they emerge, they are clearly black-skinned. This part of the painting is generally interpreted as symbolising that all of mankind will share in the promise of the resurrection. It chimes with a later painting called Love Among the Nations (1935) of which Spencer wrote ‘I have longed as usual to establish my union with those aspects of life which I feel are definitely to with me and not cut off by nationality; love breaks down barriers.” Back in The Resurrection, the black figures look, understandably, bewildered, even inconsolable, that heaven has turned out to be an English country churchyard. But I think Spencer can be forgiven, even applauded, for his inclusive instincts, even if he ends up striking a duff note. And perhaps a better title would have been a less universalist one. A Resurrection. This is a vision that settled Spencer’s soul and soothes mine too. Of course, it won’t do for everyone. You might even like Imagine. We won’t fall out over it.
Tim Finch is a leading campaigner and writer on refugee and migrant issues. He is the author of two novels and works as a political journalist for the BBC.
ONJALI Q. RAUF
Imagine a world where the Gods of money and power no longer exist
They say your imagination can take you anywhere. But as much as my imaginings for the future may want to climb aboard a space rocket and head out into space to touch a star or three, my deepest imaginings find themselves still tied firmly to this tiny, fragile, and wondrous planet called ‘Earth’.
Climbing aboard a hoverboard – Marty McFly style! – my imagining swishes and zooms forwards to a new moment in our global history. A moment when the two Gods of modern living, Money and Power, have been well and truly toppled for the foods which fuelled their growth, no longer exist. Gone is the main course, comprised of invisible beings cowering over maps that don’t belong to them, toying with miniature soldiers and a ruler as they divided, felled, and destroyed entire nations to appease their personal God of Power for longer. Gone is the Golden Goblet, filled with endless scrolls scripting out billion-dollar weapons contracts upon which the Gods of Money and Power found their feet. And gone are the side dishes of burnt forests and animals, sacrificed in the name of Big Business, and the staple bread and butter of human trafficking and enslavement which fed and resulted from all the above.
The table has been cleared, smashed and burnt.
Those foods no longer exist.
And without their traditional feasts, the old Gods of Money and Power have starved, shrunk, and crumbled into our Earth.
In their stead, from London to Delhi to Beijing, from Washington to Wellington and all the lands and rivers and seas in between, have risen new pillars. Hundreds, thousands, millions of them. Pillars of pure, brilliant white, rising up like trees; some small and brand new, like tiny seedlings; others as tall as the distance between the earth and the sky. There is no worshipping, no sacrificing at these new alters going on here. No grand feasts or maps or a single divisive ruler is to be seen. These pillars are of a new order, holding up a unified planet which thrives on a revolutionary understanding of Wealth and Success. One which dictates that the richest nations are those with the most peaceful lands, the most deeply happiest of peoples, and the most luscious of forests. Where the biggest deals being made between countries is the sharing and trading of skills and knowledge for the betterment of their societies, and goods gifted by a nature and a population that is now no longer working under duress, constraint or fear.
It’s a beautiful world my imagining has led me to. Turns out a world in which not a single person is having to flee the bombs of war, man-made natural disasters, or the violence of hate which so many secretly profit from, is quite a gorgeous place to be.
Maybe, just maybe, one day, I won’t need to close my eyes and climb on a hover-board to see it…
Onjali Q. Rauf is an English author and founder of the NGOs O's Refugee Aid Team and Making Herstory. Her best-selling début children's novel, 'The Boy at the Back of the Class', draws on her experiences delivering emergency aid convoys for refugee families surviving in Calais and Dunkirk, and was nominated for the Carnegie Medal, whilst winning both the Waterstones and Blue Peter Children's Book awards.
My own life has been like a Pandora’s box. Full of imagination but also the fear of uncertainty.
I already live every day in lockdown and limbo. During this Covid-19 crisis, it is a difficult situation for all of us but we all live in a hope that it will go one day.
I imagine and dream of the things I have lost and want back. Sometimes, imagination is a boundary which again and again, makes me feel unsure of all sorts of things. But it also protects and gives me inspiration to survive in this beautiful world.
I have always dreamt about a lovely, little box which my mother used to have. A Pandora’s box. I want to remember all the different elements of that box but get distracted, distressed and confused by all the situations and dilemmas in my life.
Home is a charming word. I have always tried to live with a sense of home. It is where many find comfort. My imagination seeks out the components of a happy home – hope, joy, security, certainty of what life will look like in the future.
Imagine a Home for Me
My mother was my inspiration and teacher from my childhood. I have learned how to act in times of distress and be kind from my mother.
For me home is a nostalgic place where all human life is settled. Where memories are kept as well as happiness, sadness, joy, relationships, wealth, health, arguments, opinions, love, art and culture.
I imagine the home back where I used to see my mum every day. She used to give me refuge and be there for me. I really didn't have to think about the harsh reality of my life. I was taken care of. Unfortunately, I have lost my home. This is not the home I am living in now. Home Office housing is my home.
I wish my home could be full of love, a partner who would be there for me, a child who will be seeing me all the time. I wish that home was where I could be cooking for my family and eating together, sharing our daily life together and planning everything. I imagine a home where I will be welcomed and given the opportunity to share my joy, happiness, sadness and opinions. Where everyone will love me.
I imagine a home where I will be not judged by my status and income. A home where I will be allowed to bring back my real home memories. Where I can go to the roof and watch the stars and I will be able to find my beloved mum in the shooting stars.
I imagine a home where I could invite my father back to see his grandson and invite my family and friends to have a get together and I would cook. I imagine a home where I will be able to help people like me to feel a home which they have lost. Where someone will pat me on the back and tell me, ‘Go ahead, we are with you.’ I imagine a home which is without a fear of the Home Office.
Imagine the hope of happiness
My mother's last words to me were: ‘Be there for people and help them, something good will happen in return.’ Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic I have been delivering food parcels to those who most need it through ‘Md’s Little Help Food bank’. I want to be there for my community like my mum asked me to be. It is a light of hope for those who are hopeless in this pandemic.
Hope is a resource. That’s what I’ve discovered being in the asylum system for years and years. There is no hope from the government.
I live in uncertainty. I struggle to get daily food and access to the internet. I have to battle with the hostile environment and fear of detention.
I imagine with hope that a new bottle from my pandora box will reveal no more hostility for immigrants or anyone. I imagine and hope for a culture where I will be welcomed and given the chance to integrate. I imagine a place where I will be able to study, finish my law degree and work in my community. I imagine and hope I will have my second half waving me on and telling me: ‘I was looking for you for years and years and I love you and all this is yours, our country and our world’.
Imagine the Uncertainty is no more
The uncertainty of the asylum-seeking process has been associated with a multitude of stresses and poor mental health outcomes. Along with uncertainty, asylum seekers can experience many mixed emotions, including hope, fear, anger, distrust, and relief. Traumatic events, such as being forced to leave one's own country; being trafficked, tortured, or sexually assaulted; and facing death threats; among others, can severely damage an asylum seeker’s own sense of trust and security.
I imagine I could work, that I have the right to work, to contribute to the country of which I always try to say: ‘This is my country’. I imagine no one would be forced to be enslaved like me, that no one would be trafficked and exploited. I imagine I get my basic human rights established. I imagine leading the nation one day and leaving this beautiful world in a certainty of hope that the next generation will survive climate change. I imagine dying knowing that I have done something for my community where everyone will remember me. In desperation, people do all sorts of things, but in distress, we can always choose to be kind, loving and care for each other. Even in the dark and grim days, we have a choice to make. I choose to hold onto my mother’s word: to be there for my people and believe that something good will happen.
Md Mominul Hamid is a Refugee Week Leader and Community advocate. Visit his blog abirking.com
ARTREACH CREATIVE WRITING GROUP
With my Third Eye
I can see the colour of your eyes
I can see my family in Afghanistan.
With my third eye I can see my husband in the window
(I say I love you, my love)
and my grandma singing for me.
I can see God who is everywhere.
With my third eye I can see myself
plaiting my hair behind my head
I can see endless love
for my family,
I can see the untouchable
the unseemable with my third eye.
I can see when I was young
going to school with my siblings
I can see my family in another part
of the world and a better life.
With my third eye I can see
through the darkest night
when there is no light.
I can see hope and a bright future
with my third eye.
– Group Poem
A letter to Sama and Taima
My dear girls,
For you, I imagine a world so different to the one you were born into. For your future, I dream of a world where there is peace, where there is justice. But more than anything, I imagine a world in which you can have hope.
I dream that you will live in a world where all people can live freely and where those who commit horrible crimes are stopped – and are held to account. Where the attacks by Russian and Assad regime forces that have been killing Syrian people for the past 9 years will become a distant, but powerful memory. A world where hope is not destroyed by violence.
For you, I dare to imagine a world without blood in the streets. A world where you do not recognise the sound of an approaching shell. I dream that you do not know what buildings look like before and after they have been hit by airstrikes. And one day, I hope that your own children do not even need to know the meaning of the words “barrel bomb” or “impunity”.
I close my eyes and dream of a world where all people can stand up for their human rights without being so cruelly punished for speaking their truth. This may seem so easy to others to imagine. For people who already have that freedom now, it is not hard to picture such a world. But to me, this is as much of a dream landscape as the one in the fairytales I read to you at bedtime.
I imagine a world where your own stories, the ones you will tell, are not just tales of how you wish to return to Aleppo, but that those hopes will have become a reality. And that our greatest desires for freedom and democracy for Syria, the basic rights that we all fought so hard for, will finally have come true.
More than anything, I dream of a world in which you can understand why, today, your father and I say: “We dared to dream and we will never regret dignity.”
Waad Al-Kateab is an award-winning Syrian journalist, filmmaker and activist. Her documentary, ‘For Sama’, recieved a historic 4 nominations at the 2020 BAFTAs and won Best Documentary. actionforsama.com