I mentor refugees and asylum seekers helping them to write about their experiences. Some use the fortnightly writing workshops we organise as a sanctuary, while they wait to learn whether they will be allowed to stay in the UK. Others use the opportunity to escape in their imagination.
Many refugees I’ve met have been so traumatised they’ve lost their voices. They can write down feelings and ideas but when it comes to reading out loud, they clam up. Some can only whisper, others become tongue-tied, finding it impossible to express the words they’ve written on the page. Several are just overwhelmed by grief. Writing helps them to regain trust, build their confidence, and find their voices again. It’s wonderful to see this happen and hear them reading from their work in front of an audience.
I wanted to explore this in A Country to Call Home, so my contribution, ‘Finding a Voice’, is about a young Iranian refugee who struggles to communicate with her writing group. Words, the ability to articulate thoughts, to communicate with others is considered an integral part of daily life – we take it for granted. But what if, like my character Yara, you have lost your family, witnessed unspeakable horror, endured a terrifying journey in the search for a safe haven? Let’s not forget that over half the world’s refugees are children and unaccompanied minors.
When we start to consider what it must be like to flee our home and arrive in another country, without friends or family, we can better sympathise with those people for whom this is a reality. They are just like us, but circumstances in their own country have proved intolerable. Yara is grieving the loss of her home and family and strives to find her voice again. She also has to assimilate in a strange country and learn a new language, dealing with such idiosyncrasies as “mince pies”, which contain no meat, and “Leave to Remain”, the permission to stay in the UK that every asylum seeker longs for.
It’s now widely believed that people who read fiction are better able to develop empathy and understand others. Songs and stories can also help alleviate feelings of isolation and it is a song from home, shared with another, that ultimately helps Yara.
In these uncertain times caused by Coronavirus we are experiencing the same sense of alienation as that of asylum seekers, living alone, not allowed to travel or work, waiting to be released from their state of limbo. I hope that we come out of this with more empathy and that the contributions to A Country to Call Home, will encourage readers to show their support for young refugees and asylum seekers, and extend the hand of friendship to all those struggling to find somewhere safe to call home.
Empathy engenders change. If we cannot put ourselves in others’ shoes, we lead narrower lives. We are richer for recognising and celebrating our similarities and our difference.
Please join #EmpathyDay, share your #ReadforEmpathy recommendations and don’t forget to tag @EmpathyLabUK.