Saturday, 3 October 2015

Middle-class Syrian refugees start back at square one...

My feature for Al Jazeera about Syria's scattered middle class: a banker, a business student and an archaeologist talk about their lives as refugees.

Monday, 21 September 2015

British grassroots efforts to help refugees

Halal pot noodles, waterproofs, organic tomato puree: Londoners join the effort to help refugees on the continent. Recent feature for Al Jazeera. Here's how you can support one of the grassroots organisations - through crowdfunding.

'Where else should I live?' The refugees housed at Dachau

My feature for the Guardian on the refugees housed in the "herb garden" at Dachau, a former Nazi slave-labour plantation in the grounds of the concentration camp. It's one of those stories that will stay with me for a long time. Some of the people I spoke to want the site to be a memorial and exhibition space; others say the space is needed as social housing. But the interview that touched me most was with Ashkan, a young Afghan man who lives at Dachau, and his girlfriend, Dania.

While the German officials around them were trying to find a balance between commemorating past wrongs and addressing present needs, Ashkan and Dania were caught in their own, personal struggle to reconcile the past with the present. A timely reminder that a refugee's journey doesn't end when she steps off the train in Germany.

Monday, 14 September 2015

7 months pregnant... and on the run

Kamal, 2 months old

My piece for AlJazeera on the refugee mothers who risk it all to take their babies to safety:

"It’s better to walk for 15 days than to be killed by a bomb."

I spent a few hours with them last week in Munich. First at the station, then at their emergency shelter, then in a vast, dark industrial park as the group of fourteen adults, two infants and a toddler tried to figure out what to do next. They'd banded together along the route, forming a sort of baby trek as they were the slowest and weakest on the trail. The two young mothers were still breastfeeding their infants, 2 months and 3 months old respectively...

I asked them how they even washed the babies along the way, you can read the reply in the piece.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

The Syrians who've made a new life in the West

"I always say, Germany is my mother and my father. When I came here, Germany gave me food, it gave me somewhere to sleep."

Another story I wrote for the Indie out of Munich - the Syrian refugee who is trying to reunite his family, train by train.

Monday, 7 September 2015

The children who never cry

I'm in Munich to report on the refugee crisis - tens of thousands are pouring into the central station here, Syrian Kurds, Syrian Arabs, Iraqi Kurds, Afghans... fleeing ISIS, Assad, the Taliban...

Five percent of these exhausted new arrivals are babies.

On Saturday night, a refugee baby was born in Munich. The mother went into labour as soon as she arrived at the emergency shelter.

The relief worker who told me this concluded with these haunting words:

"One thing I've noticed about these refugee children: they never cry."

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Stranger (and sadder) than fiction: the Mediterranean crisis

A few weeks ago, I went rock climbing with some friends. One of the people in the group, a woman I hadn't met before, asked me what I did for a living, and I replied that I was a writer. I can usually answer the questions that follow in my sleep: Yes, two novels. No, you probably won't have heard of me...

I don't really like talking about my novels anyway; I guess writers as a whole tend to be introverts, preferring to observe and write about others rather than explaining ourselves. But for some reason, that afternoon I found myself talking about my first novel, 'The Registrar's Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages', which opens with a Kurdish boy's journey from Turkey to Germany via Italy.

I told her something that has been on my mind for a while, but that I haven't talked to anyone about, not even close friends. It's the fact that today's reality so closely mirrors certain scenes in the book, even though the book came out four years ago, and describes events that happened in the 1990s. In all those years, nothing has changed. If anything, things are worse.

In the opening scene of the Registrar, Selim, the Kurdish boy, is on a boat full of other refugees. The boat sinks, and he swims to safety. But Evin, a little girl who was also on the boat, doesn't make it. She drowns, and they bury her on the beach, digging a makeshift grave with her hands.

This week, there has been an outcry over shocking images of a drowned Syrian boy near the Turkish resort of Bodrum. One of the photos shows a Turkish police officer tenderly carrying the boy across the beach, with a terse, clenched expression on his face. He is not looking at the little boy in his arms, as if that's the only way he can hold himself together long enough to complete his task.

Judging from my Facebook feed, this news story has jolted many people into action - I've seen petitions, donations, calls for the UK to accept more refugees. But as terrible as the images are, the crisis is of course not new. The human tragedy in the Mediterranean is not new. Italy's rescue efforts improved the situation for a while, but even then, there were reports of drowned Kurdish, Syrian and other refugees, just not as many as now.

So when I was talking to the woman at the climbing centre, I was telling her that this is so incredibly difficult to accept, the fact that nothing has changed since I wrote the book. It's not as if I was naively expecting that writing about boat people was going to end all the world's wars, fix every rusty boat, give every refugee a home. That would be ridiculously stupid, vain and self-absorbed, even for a writer. But I do think that when someone writes about a terrible thing, and what they write is published, even to modest sales, and is reviewed and so on, they somehow think it will in some way make a tiny difference. Or maybe it's not even that. Maybe it's more abstract, a feeling that once you express something in a book, it is less likely to happen again in real life. There's an element of wishful, or perhaps magical, thinking. Like taking an umbrella with you to lessen the chance of rain.

The novelist David Grossman, for example, wrote 'To the End of the Land', a heartbreaking book about an Israeli woman whose son is in the military, while in real life, Grossman's own son was serving in the military. Grossman has said in interviews that facing up to the worst things that might happen, and then working those fears into a story, gave him the feeling that he was somehow protecting his son. But we all know magical thinking does not work. Tragically, in real life, Grossman's son was killed by an anti-tank missile fired by Hizbollah. The pen is not mightier than the sword. It's not very mighty at all.

I've always argued that the novelist's commitment is to art, to the story and to the reader, not to a cause. Novels written as a manifesto tend to be preachy, unconvincing and tone-deaf. But seeing just how utterly irrelevant my novel about Kurdish refugees was in the greater scheme of things, does make me question its value. Worse, it makes me wonder why we write and read ficton about real-life tragedies at all. For the thrill? As a safe way of sort-of empathising with the world's grief, while doing nothing about it? I haven't answered these questions for myself. Neither have I figured out whether there is some way to lift literature out of this sad insignificance.

For now, I'll do what all those other people on Facebook seem to be doing: sign a petition, make a donation, call for the UK to accept more refugees.