If all the doors are closing, how do you open them? That’s the question that’s been troubling me all summer. How do you keep working for tolerance when the tide of opinion has shifted against cosmopolitanism, when a society has become terrified of difference?
Last spring I had an email from a woman called Anna, who asked me if I’d like to be involved with Refugee Tales, a project that works to bring about an end to the indefinite detention of refugees in Britain. We’ll pair you with a former detainee, she said. He’ll tell you his story, and then you’ll write it up.
I met R in the foyer of King’s College. Spring in the air, the Thames running under the cool green shade of plane trees at the bottom of the street. R looked sick, but said he wanted to go ahead with our conversation.
As a boy, he’d been involved in student protests against corrupt elections in his country. Everyone had been arrested. The booking policeman happened to recognise his name, which was the same as a relative in a position of power. Leaning close, he told R that he was going to be transferred to a secret prison, and that if he went there he would never come out alive.
Two days later, everyone was loaded into black jeeps. R’s swerved away from the convoy and took him to a hotel. His relative was there. “I am not sending you to France,” he said. “I’m going to send you to a country where they have human rights.”
R and I were sitting opposite each other in a windowless room, on plastic chairs; a kind of interrogation chamber. I hated asking him to tell me his story because I knew he had told it and told it and told it, that he had recited this repertoire of facts, that in some way he had vanished behind them.
At first things were good for him in England. A flat in London, money from the government, a college course, a degree. And then a mistake, a stupid error of judgment. He bought a plasma television from an acquaintance. The next thing he knew, the police were at his door. He was arrested, he was sentenced for receiving stolen goods. He went to prison, he served his time, he was released.
Outside the prison, UK border guards were waiting for him. While he was inside, the law had changed. If you were sentenced for more than a year, you were automatically a subject for deportation.
Now the nightmare began. He was held, in a detention centre, for almost a year more, and when he was released the outside world, too, had become a prison. He had to wear a tag and keep to a curfew; he had to report to the border authority three times a week. He couldn’t work. A return train ticket to the place where he had to report was £24.
He went back to the detention centre yet again. He was crying as he told me what it was like to serve an indefinite sentence, time with no end in sight. “Miss, your dog couldn’t endure it,” he said. His case went to trial 17 times over the course of three years. On the 18th time, the judge was kind.”
He was released but, after 20 years in Britain, is still not at liberty. He is depressed, he doesn’t like to be around people, feels afraid of them. Sometimes he hears voices that tell him to kill himself.
Sometimes he thinks he’s dreaming, that nothing is very real. He still can’t work, still has to report in every week, still doesn’t have indefinite leave to remain. Soon, he told me, that might change. Almost there, I said, and he said bitterly: “It’s not about ‘almost there’, it’s half of my age. Two decades and a half.”
I felt sick with shame when he said that. Shame at my country, shame at the squandering, the theft of time and talent. Shame: the signature sensation of this summer.
Two months later, I caught the train from St Pancras, rattling over the marshes of Kent. The Refugee Tales project had organised a walk from Canterbury to London, a pilgrimage straight out of Chaucer. Each night a writer came to join them, to tell the stories of people who exist in silence, behind the locked doors of detention centres.
It was 10 days after the referendum. I stopped for a drink on Faversham high street. A red-faced man, already drunk, was looking at the event programme on his iPhone. “A right bunch of lefties,” he said. “Shami Chakrabarti, that bitch.”
I arrived at the Assembly Rooms in a state of despair. Who’s going to come, who’s going to care about the treatment of refugees in this climate, when we’ve already slammed the doors.
But people did come. People came who’d been walking all day. Old people, teenagers, former detainees. Suddenly, the room was full; suddenly I was in another Britain: a Britain of patchworked banners and communal pots of dahl and rice; a Britain cheerfully, earnestly invested in being kind.
I read R’s story. At the end I talked about how ashamed I was of my country, and how haunted I was by the question of what R might have done with his life. Anna was sitting opposite me, in the front row, and this tough, dogged, indefatigable woman was sobbing.
I started to feel hope again that evening. Right now it seems as if everyone in the world is at loggerheads, breaking down into smaller and smaller units, on a relentless crusade for some kind of impossible, insane purity. I find it terrifying, this dream of inhabiting a world populated by people exactly like you.
It doesn’t have to be like that. We could stop being so lethally afraid of strangers, so dangerous in our self‑protection.
This is why stories are such a stealthy force. In telling someone’s story, you make them real, just as in forcing someone to stay silent you destroy them. And in making people real you have to make space for them, to acknowledge their presence in the world. R, for example, twisting his baseball cap in his hands, saying: “I was sent to a country with human rights.”
Olivia Laing’s latest book is The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (Canongate)
Continue your reading here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jul/24/refugees-tales-detainees-in-britain-shame
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