Exiled Writers living in Britain - festival
Tomorrow in London is a literary festival celebrating the work of exiled writers - people who have fled their homelands due to persecution for what they write, for campaigning for human rights, for their political beliefs etc.
Many are Muslims from all over the world: http://exiledwriters.co.uk/writers.shtml
A collection of poetry and prose by exiled writers, plus magazines: http://exiledwriters.co.uk/publ.shtml
Exiled Writers Ink Literary Festival - 30 June 2007:
Stanhope House, Stanhope Place, W2
7pm, £5 / £3 members
Exiled Writers Ink, by Rebecca Taylor
(article from 'Time Out' magazine, July 2001)
The list of countries from which the group's members have come reads like a roll call of twentieth century political hotspots such as Iran, Somalia, and Chile. Most members were once published writers, academics and journalists but have been unable to pick up their careers in the UK...
While most refugees who arrive in the UK suffer from feelings of marginalisation, for writers, who have made communication their stock-in-trade, the experience is doubly isolating. Many of them enter the country unable to communicate in English, and few have the contacts or resources for publishing their work...
Such opportunities are crucial for writers who are seeking to find a new audience, but they also pose a problem for many artists unwilling to be labelled by the term 'refugee.' "The term 'refugee writing,' has some negative overtones that imply victimhood," says Ghias Aljundi, a writer from Syria, who arrived in Britain two years ago.
Aljundi was imprisoned and tortured in a Damascan jail for five years following his work for a Syrian human rights magazine. His right hand was severely damaged as a result of the torture and although he can use his left hand for writing it is difficult to type his work. Following an operation on his hand in May he hopes to regain use of his limb. "I'm trying to be a normal human being. I'm not just a refugee. I'm trying to build a life here," he says.
Contrary to popular opinion, according to a recent Refugee Council survey, an exceptionally large proportion of asylum seekers entering the UK are highly qualified, many with degrees and post graduate and professional qualifications. More than 90 percent speak two languages. In fact, the skills levels of many refugees far exceed that of the general British population.
Despite this, refugees face huge difficulties finding jobs. Langer says that in her experience, employers regard them with suspicion, particularly as few can provide them with references. "I remember the case of a respected Bosnian gynaecologist, who was forced to embark on a catering course after months of being turned down for jobs in the medical profession."
In fact there are thousands of refugee doctors, nurses and teachers desperate to contribute to our public services. There are others who would make valuable contributions to the private sector and business, yet they cannot access training courses, gain work experience or get their qualifications recognised.
"It's not just the lack of opportunities that are disheartening, but the inability to break through people's conceptions of what being a refugee is," says poet Amna Dumpor, who left Bosnia eight years ago. Before the war she was a radio presenter. Now she works for the mail order section of a London interiors store. "People don't realize the feelings of inferiority we experience," she says, "In Bosnia I could get good work easily, I had security and a good lifestyle, but here I was reduced to living off social security. It's so humiliating. You want to shake people and tell them that you have good qualifications and a good background and remind them you are a human being."
According to a recent Council of Europe survey of prejudice across the continent, racism against asylum seekers is "particularly acute" in Britain. The report specifically criticises the British media and government for xenophobic and intolerant attitudes.
Inflammatory statements from various MPs in the run up to the recent general election did little to alleviate the problem, peddling the image of asylum seekers as a financial drain rather than people who can contribute a new culture, language and perspective to our society. It seems clear that until we appreciate and cultivate this contribution, our idea of Britain as a tolerant and democratic nation will continue to look like a sham.