The Dancer’s Tale

This Refugee Week, we are delighted to post an extract of the forthcoming work, Refugee Tales III, which explores – through writing and poetry – the experiences of those who variously experience detention in the UK. Refugee Tales is an outreach project of Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, and is inspired by the work of the Group, which has supported individuals in detention over the last 25 years. The approach of Refugee Tales resonates with our own project’s use of writing and poetry to trace and centralise narratives that resist diverse forms of structural and epistemic violence. For more on our approach to poetry and creative writing, visit our project’s Creative Archive.

Introduction to Refugee Tales III

“With nationalism and the far right on the rise across Europe and North America, there has never been a more important moment to face up to what we, in Britain, are doing to those who seek sanctuary. Still the UK detains people indefinitely under immigration rules. Bail hearings go unrecorded, people are picked up without notice, individuals feel abandoned in detention centres with no way of knowing when they will be released.

In Refugee Tales III, we read the stories of people who have been through this process, many of whom have yet to see their cases resolved and who live in fear that at any moment they might be detained again. Poets, novelists and writers have once again collaborated with people who have experienced detention, their tales appearing alongside first-hand accounts by people who themselves have been detained. What we hear in these stories are the realities of the hostile environment, the human costs of a system that disregards rights, that denies freedoms and suspends lives.”

Refugee Tales III is the third instalment in a series edited by Anna Pincus & David Herd, and will be published on the 4th July by Comma Press to coincide with the Refugee Tales Walk 2019. The collection is available to preorder here, and all profits go to the Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group and Kent Help for Refugees. @refugeetales @commapress” 

 

The Dancer’s Tale

as told to

Lisa Appignanesi

I know it’s you before we meet. Even though the appointed entrance hall is vast and tiered and crowded with people whose movements, as they approach and leave the security desks, I watch from my perch at the corner café.

Yet you don’t look like a refugee. You are calm. You are erect and perfectly poised as you balance on a stool near a window. I must be wrong, I tell myself. I scan the hall once more.

I have come early to observe from a distance. There is plenty of time to interrogate my own perceptions. What do I actually think a refugee looks like?

Harrowing images of women and babies on sinking boats leap into my mind; a tattered, angry mass at the Jungle in Calais; children behind barbed wire fences; clamouring groups in tented cities.

I realise that with all my good intentions, I inhabit a realm of stereotype created by news images, mostly depicting groups in situations of terror – all that compounded with the extract of Emma Lazarus’ 1883 poem on the Statue of Liberty:

 

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore…

 

Masses, yes, but no individualised image of a refugee comes into my mind. A visual and literary rhetoric that conjures up hordes has usurped the place of the person.

Yet my whole family were refugees from a war-torn Europe that turned stereotypes and labels into killing decrees. It is specific features I remember them by, not a group designation. I know their faces better than my own, just as I know individual attributes, say, of the German/Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno, who fled Nazi race laws to find a home in America; – or of Voltaire and Rousseau who took refuge from silencing tyrannies in Britain.

Refugees are a multiplicity of individuals, ordinary and extraordinary, wrenched by circumstance from homes that have become uninhabitable, tossed about in the endless paperwork that nation states engender – ever more so in the age of the computer that proliferates quantifiable categories but has little place for the complexities of the human heart.

My musings have taken me away from you. I glance your way again, not wanting to be too obvious. What is it about you that makes me think it is you I am here to meet? You sit tall, straight, very still, with a sculptural poise. Your hands are in your lap. They move only occasionally in graceful gestures I can’t read from my distance. Your head is held high beneath a dark bristling crown of hair. Your youth is evident in your features. Your dark eyes are older, eloquent.

I realise it is because I have been told you are a dancer that I have singled you out. In my mind, the designation ‘dancer’ trumps any received image of ‘refugee’.

It is time. I move towards the information desk, take out my phone and punch out the number I have been given. I see the man you are with pick up his. I smile. Across the room you do, too. We have both, I will learn in a few minutes, recognised each other from our professional habits: writers, you tell me, observe. We give ourselves away just as much as dancers do by their poise. This, I feel, is a better use of identities, than the others we sometimes adopt.

When we have reached the space where we will talk and have set the recorder in train, you begin to tell me your story. Your English is good. Very soon this pleasant room with its bustle of others disappears and we are in the north of Sri Lanka where your childhood unfurled. It was a fulfilled childhood until the ongoing civil war came too close. You had everything. A sister who was three years older, a loving mother who looked after you both and taught you how to be strong as well as how to share your feelings and hold on to your opinions.

You don’t remember meeting your father until you were about ten. Threats had forced him outside the district the civil war had shunted you to in search of safety. You were in town. He worked for the government with small groups of Tamils elsewhere. He was Catholic, your mother Hindu. Ever present, ever ready to listen to anything you wanted to confide, and ever in your eyes utterly heroic, she so arranged things that you didn’t even really miss your absent father. In fact, you didn’t even really know the country was at war.

At first you were sent to a convent school and then in the fifth grade to a boys’ school. You were very young when you started to dance. Your older sister had lessons and she learned by practicing with you. She needed someone to teach and, in this case, you were all too willing to comply.

One day, while you were at school, a bomb blast rocked the building. You hid under the table. All of you did. The blasts continued. Then your mother appeared and shepherded you through streets filled with tumult and rubble and the dark green and black of army uniforms. Everyone was shouting amidst the noise of blasts. You could feel rage and fear in the streets. And you, too, as you were rushed first towards your sister’s school and then home by your brave mother, were frightened. The war which had only been a rumour was now everywhere and also inside you.

Huddled at home, you began to listen to the news. There was tension in the family. Your mother thought you might all have to move again. She rang your father for advice. Your grandmother had already lost one son to war. Old stories were retold, though this was the first time you remembered hearing them and feeling their emotional charge. You began to learn about the LTTE – the Liberation Tigers – the struggle for independent Tamil nationhood, the shifts and sways in control between government and Tamil forces in various parts of the northern province. You began to understand that there was an onus on you to protect your land and culture and history.

When a temporary peace was cobbled together, you went back to school. The curriculum was centralised. History was Singhalese history, though everything was taught in Tamil. But the Tigers came to the school and taught you an alternate history, that of the ancient Tamil people. They also said students should aspire to do all kinds of studies, become doctors and lawyers. Martyr days were held, filled with performance. You loved this – the dance and music and storytelling. You wanted to participate. You didn’t at all think of it as a means of fighting against the government, certainly not anything associated with killing. It was a way of communicating Tamil values, and as your grandmother was pleased to note, paying tribute to your uncle.

I stop you and ask what Tamil values are. Tamil, for you, means all the countless ancient stories your grandmother tells, the songs and performances, the language itself with its sounds that are like feelings. When you speak it you are at home. English is a second skin. Now part of you, but still second, like Singhalese too, which you learned on holidays when you went to stay with your father.

By the time you were doing your O and then A levels, you were also travelling the Northern and Eastern province, where most Tamils live, as a performer. Not all children were lucky enough to be able to afford an education, so the performances – the dance, that combined movement, music and storytelling – served as an education in Tamil traditions. Some of your friends joined the Tigers. They asked you to join, but you didn’t.

When your mother found out you were missing classes to perform, she was furious. She slapped you. She didn’t want you involved in politics. You tried to say what you were involved in was art, but she would have none of it. She told you to get your head back into your studies and nothing else.

And then everything changed again. The Tigers had to move out of your area and the Army moved into town. A curfew was instituted. Shops were closed. All activities stopped early. Fear and suspicion permeated the atmosphere. It was 2009 and the war was at its peak. People were disappearing. They never returned. No one could be trusted. There was a terror of informers.

While you waited for your A level results in the hope that they would be good enough to get you out of the war zone to a university in the eastern province, one of your mother’s friends asked if you could do some volunteering work with Handicap International, an NGO that was working in the region together with the UN. You had some English and could translate, and you knew something about first aid.

Every day the UN brought injured people to the Handicap headquarters. The queues started at 6.30 in the morning and by the time you arrived a little later they tailed back for ever. The stories people told were horrendous. There was blood everywhere… missing limbs, contorted faces.

You look away from me. I see that you have begun to play with the ties of your red sweatshirt, winding and winding them, as if you were making rope.

You go on, mumbling over the worst. You remember a tall boy, about your own age and wearing a yellow T-shirt who couldn’t sit his exams, because his injury made it impossible for him to sit. He wanted a special chair. He asked for books.

Your voice wanders off. After a moment you tell me that at the end of this period, you had a breakdown. You wanted to work, you wanted to learn more English, you wanted to help, but you had started to cry unstoppably. You couldn’t eat. You could barely get out of bed, though it was also the site of nightmares. One day when you had gone to sit in the library, your mother had threatening visitors. They described you, described what you were wearing – a particular red T-shirt and jeans. They had their eyes on you, they said. They were watching. You were sent away to hide at an uncle’s for a few days.

On 10th July, it was your sister’s birthday. There was no real celebration, since your father who often came for these birthdays, couldn’t get into town, but your mother was preparing dinner for you all. You were sitting at your computer, when the front gate rattled and shouts erupted. You could see a van on the street in front of the house. Your mother went and told whoever it was to go away.

Then two men burst in. They were wearing masks. Their guns pointed at the three of you. One put his gun to your head and wrestled you to the floor, twisting your arms behind your head.

When you woke up there was a blindfold over your eyes. You could smell rot and dust, hear weeping and pleading voices. Soon you knew the worst. You were in a military camp filled with detainees – the disappeared.

 

Feature Image:  (c) Refugee Tales

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