Sunday, October 23, 2011

Survival stories

Words on Asylum & Refuge, Saturday 22nd October 2011, 12.30pm, Cross Street Chapel

Words by Richard Jackson.

On the penultimate afternoon, as well as being one of the busiest days of this year’s Manchester Literature Festival, the doors to the Unitarian Chapel - on Cross Street - open to a crowd of festival-goers, all eagerly taking advantage of the book sale that coincides with today’s event. In support of Amnesty International, with 2011 being the 40th anniversary of the Manchester Amnesty group, all the proceeds from this event go to the work of the organisation.

The book sale is just one of the reasons why this afternoon’s gathering is unique amongst others held by the festival. Firstly, it is the surroundings: the circular seating arrangement, in which everyone is facing one another, creates an intimacy that is entirely appropriate for the theme of the afternoon. This, as well as the 30 minutes or so everyone spent buying books beforehand, allowing for conversations to spark – between the audience and today’s speakers alike – produces a comfortable and warm setting, one suitable for an event that stirs as much emotion as this.

After words from the representatives of Amnesty International, we are introduced to those appearing today: Mende Nazer and Caroline Clegg, Segun Lee-French, as well as Aslee and Zofia, representatives of the Manchester-based Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST).

Beginning with Mende Nazer, author of the harrowing memoir Slave and a notable human rights activist, we are introduced to her through Caroline Clegg. Caroline, director of Feelgood Theatre, adapted Mende’s book for the stage. The play premiered at the Lowry theatre, in Salford, late last year. There is clearly great affection between the two ladies, with Caroline expressing how moved she was moved by Mende’s story, “before I finished reading it - through tears, rage and often most of joy and laughter in celebration of Mende’s culture - I just knew I had to do something about what I had read”.

Mende sets the scene and starts with a description of her happy childhood. Growing up within the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, she notes “My childhood was absolutely wonderful. It was just free of responsibility, and it was an amazing childhood - like every child deserves. Everyone who lives in the Nuba Mountains are farmers, and they look after their own animals. Life is very simple and safe, and it’s just amazing.” This though, is a prelude to Mende’s difficult story. One day, in 1994, Mende’s village was attacked and raided, under the Scorched Earth policy by the Arab North Sudanese government. During the destruction of her village, she was caught and taken to Khartoum with a group of other captured children. In the capital, she was sold into slavery, spending the next years of her life in servitude to families in Sudan and London, during which, as Caroline describes: “Mende cooked, cleaned, no day off, no pay, she was beaten, abused, and completely dehumanised. Forced to speak Arabic, she wasn’t allowed to speak her own cultural language. If she was found singing or anything, she was beaten. This became her daily life, still not knowing what happened to her family, not knowing if they survived the raids, what had happened to her friends or anyone.”

Visit the Mende Nazer Foundation.

Such was the emotional weight of Mende’s testimony, and Caroline’s words, the latter half of the event continued with Segun Lee-French uttering: “It’s not often that such people can make you feel like crying, but that really did move me, so I feel a little bit inadequate to follow” - though he shouldn’t. Working for the Manchester group Speakeasy People, Segun is a writer, singer and poet that puts on events that concern human-rights causes. Though only a short performance, he uplifts the audience through interactive poetry readings, as well as singing songs about “championing the underdog” and “the need for equal opportunities for everyone”. Intelligent and well spoken, I would recommend catching a performance of his to all.

Ending the event, are Aslee and Zofia from WAST. WAST, formed in 2005, works for women to have a “safe, mutually understanding and supporting environment, in which to talk about their experiences and trauma in fleeing their home countries, and the issues they are facing under the immigration system in Britain”. Having over 100 members, we learn from Aslee how the women help each other, most still waiting to learn the outcome of their asylum petitions. Following this, a reading is given by Zofia – herself an asylum seeker, currently receiving help from WAST – from their publication Am I Safe Yet. The book contains a selection of experiences from WAST members, and is available to buy now. Please visit the WAST website: it contains important information about WAST, as well as how one can involve themselves and offer help. In particular, it offers information of how to contact Nick Clegg and Theresa May, in regards to ongoing petitions of asylum.

Richard Jackson is a PhD student interested in Central and Eastern European history, literature and culture. His blog, Lemberik, concerns the issues of minority populations in this region and he can be followed on Twitter via @lemberik.

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