Modern tales

REFUGE: Ben Okri is one of the writers giving a voice to stories that are too often unheard in Refugee Tales.
REFUGE: Ben Okri is one of the writers giving a voice to stories that are too often unheard in Refugee Tales.
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Last week saw the publication of a book which I hope will change the world – or at least begin to.

My hope may be naive but it is sincere. Manchester-based Comma Press, who specialise in short fiction, published the second collection of Refugee Tales which tells the real-life stories of those who have come to our shores seeking asylum and refuge.

Refugee Tales is an outreach project of the charity Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group which works with men held in immigration detention near Gatwick Airport and invites established writers – such as Jackie Kay, Ali Smith, Marina Lewyczka, Ben Okri among many others – to tell the stories of some of the detainees. It has organised walks with refugees, mirroring those described in The Canterbury Tales, and has taken Chaucer’s epic poem of journeying and storytelling as a model.

Its purpose is to raise awareness of the shameful fact that the UK is the only country in Europe which allows indefinite detention of refugees and asylum seekers. The group activively campaigns for an end to this.

I was lucky enough to meet some of those involved in Refugee Tales when I chaired an event to discuss it at Bradford Literature Festival a couple of weeks ago. Writers Ian Duhig, Inua Ellams and Avaes Mohammad all wrote stories for the project. Each spoke passionately about their experience of listening to someone’s story and their sense of reponsibility in retelling it.

Stories such as The Detainee’s Tale, The Abandoned Person’s Tale, The Witness’s Tale, The Student’s Tale demonstrate the many, varied and equally valid reasons why someone would undertake a terrifying, often life-threatening, journey to another country.

The project seeks to give voice to stories that are too often unheard; to validate and dignify those experiences and aims to humanise those who have been demonised by certain elements of our society and press. Some of their stories are heart-breaking, some are uplifting. Many have been through horrific, traumatic experiences in their own countries only to find themselves incarcerated indefinitely in the very place they seek refuge. What that does to a person’s spirit and dignity does not bear thinking about.

Behind every statistic is a human being – a brother, a son, a mother, a husband, a friend, a lover – whose lives all have worth and purpose, who feel, love and suffer just like everyone else.

Let’s hope that through this project, and through the telling of these stories, some change may begin to happen – it is long overdue.