Asylum and Exile by Bidisha

12th Feb 2015

Asylum and Exile by Bidisha
Know anyone who thinks refugees and asylum seekers are a homogenous blob of scroungers and terrorists? Make them read Bidisha’s latest book.

For the benefit of readers who aren’t experts on this topic, it’s worth starting with a clarification of the difference between asylum seekers, refugees and migrants:

Asylum seeker: any person who is waiting for the outcome of a claim for asylum (for the attention of the right-wing press: claiming asylum is never illegal).

Refugee: a person who is outside their country of nationality and unwilling / unable to use that country for protection “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted.” In UK terminology “refugee” generally means someone who’s had a successful asylum claim.

Migrant: someone who choses to move country for work or family reasons.

In Asylum and Exile: the hidden voices of London kick-ass author and journalist Bidisha documents her experience as a teacher of all three groups in two separate London locations, adding some eloquent critique of the UK asylum system along the way.

It’s a little book, but in its 150-odd pages it manages to be wide in scope yet intimate; funny, warm, sad and horrifying.

The stars of Bidisha’s narrative are from countries as diverse as Cameroon, Uganda, Iran, Hungary, Kosovo, Malawi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Syria and Sudan, and to lump them together as “refugees and migrants” is to ignore the individual personalities Bidisha is at pains to evidence. The only reason they’re together in her classes is because the majority have sought sanctuary from war, genocide, torture, religious persecution and gender-related atrocities.

‘You’ve been raped by soldiers, why would you tell that to a man from the Home Office on your first meeting? But she tells him on their sixth meeting and he uses the delay to say she made it up.’ Bidisha doesn’t patronise her subject by pretending that survivors of such horrors are automatically nice people. One woman in her classes, Jeanne, is abrasive and generally disliked by her classmates; while one of the men is over-familiar and makes the women uncomfortable. However, in the first class Bidisha is understandably outraged to learn that several of them have been in detention, and that they live hand-to-mouth in temporary accommodation.

In the research she undertakes (and references), she learns that asylum seekers are subject to a system that sets them up to fail; the vast majority of asylum claims in the UK are ultimately turned down because stories are simply not believed. As Bidisha says, “You’ve been raped by soldiers, why would you tell that to a man from the Home Office on your first meeting? But she tells him on their sixth meeting and he uses the delay to say she made it up.” To make matters worse, asylum seekers cannot work while they wait for decisions, and the boredom is destructive.

One of the most satisfying elements of the book is Bidisha’s refusal to pretend she was perfect. She made embarrassing mistakes, like trying to gift books to a student when all her class members were destitute, or asking insecurely-housed students where they lived, but by taking readers through her learning experience she makes her story seem relatable.

She generally knows better than to pry, though. “[T]he worst thing you can do,” she says, “is go in as a sort of emotional tourist wanting to soak up and be thrilled by other people’s stories,” so we get snippets of back stories.

We find out that Kafele probably had links with the Malawian army, Gloria was raped by rebels and disowned by her husband, and that a young Japanese man fled to the UK after leaving a long letter telling his parents he’s gay. Beatrice Tibahurira, a star of the book whose life story deservedly gets its own chapters, is from Uganda but we never get to the heart of her story, and one of the most affecting passages comes from a Hungarian woman called Tünde, who writes a poem about her unnamed brother’s “37 Dreams”:

“31. To stop the dictatorship.
32. To stop the dictatorship.
33. To stop the dictatorship.
34. To stop the dictatorship.
35. To stop the dictatorship.
36. To stop the dictatorship.
37. To stop the dictatorship.

My brother was 37 when he died in the dictatorship.”

After her launch event at Asia House, Bidisha told For Books’ Sake that teaching refugee / asylum seeker classes got scarier the longer she did it: “As I grew to learn more about what my students had been through in their home countries and what they were now living through every single day, I realised how serious and important the work we were doing together was.”

Throughout the book the students laugh, take the piss out of Bidisha and joke with each other, but they also write painful stories and talk openly about being destitute. She knew her classes had to be something students wanted to come to, and it was a great responsibility.

“They were coming to the workshops, after long bus journeys which used up £2 of their daily £6 or £7 budget – a huge proportion – and for no tangible gain. I wasn’t running literacy classes or anything like that… It seems to me that I learned much more from them than they did from me.”

That’s probably no bad thing. Asylum and Exile is a 4 star read, with an additional star because it’s so fundamentally important. Anyone who is even considering a job in politics or the media should be obliged to read it and learn from Bidisha’s students.