2018-19: Experiences of exile: Refugees and Migration


Craig Aitchison


Samir grabbed a box and set off down the stairs. I grumbled to hear of the broken lift but Samir made light of it, hurrying down steps and bounding back up, two at a time, talking all the way, not a hint of Bosnian in his East London accent.

‘Do you like football, man? I’m an Arsenal fan.’ He held the badge on his shirt and for

a moment I thought he was going to kiss it. ‘Ian Wright,’ he said and lifted his top in mock celebration.

I laughed, ‘What about Dennis Bergkamp? Genius.’

‘Yeah, man. That’s what I’m talking about!’ He slapped his hands together then grabbed another bag.

It didn’t take long to load the lorry; they didn’t have much.

I was working for a charity, repatriating refugees. Samir’s family, and several others who’d escaped from the conflict to live in the UK, would travel by bus while I drove the truck to Bosnia. We’d take the belongings they’d gathered after six years in London, so they had something to start again. They stood by the side of the road under a flickering streetlight, waving as we drove off.

Seventeen hundred miles later we met them again. Days of driving, nights trying to sleep in the cab, a day and a half waiting near the border, minefields on either side of the road.. Then a slow drive up a narrow, cratered road to a remote hillside. A new house stood by a fresh ruin.

As soon as the truck parked the whole family were there, surrounding us, shaking hands. Coffee was offered. Samir hugged me. He wore his Arsenal shirt, black jeans, white trainers now tarnished with dust.

‘How you doing man?’

‘I’m good. It’s been a long drive.’


There is silence for a second. I have no football news; it is all happening far away.

‘Come and see my donkey, man.’


‘Yeah man. I’ve got a donkey. Come on.’

Samir led me past the ruins of the old house.

‘Bombed to shit, man. Boom.’ Samir gestured an explosion with his hands, jumping into the air a little. ‘But we’ve got a new one. Right next door,’ he laughed.

Round the side of the house, tied by a rope, stood an old grey donkey which lifted its head as we approached.

Samir spread his arms wide. ‘My donkey.’

The donkey chewed grass.

‘It’s been here. All the time we were in London. Still here. They bombed the house but the donkey’s still here.’


‘Yeah man, he’s a survivor.’ Samir patted its side. ‘And he’s mine.’


‘Yeah man. I ride him to school. Four miles.’

Samir pointed off into the distance; a dirt track, another ruin in the distance, a scrap of trees. We stood side by side for a minute squinting into the Balkan sun. The donkey lowered his head and tugged up some more grass to chew.


Ragged Point, Barbados

Debbie Bayne

‘…the boat’s phantom crew was made up of the desiccated

corpses of 11 young men…’ The Guardian, May 2006.


They set out from Senegal, a shoal

of dreams in a fragile white ship, clambering

over tumbled mountains of water, lured

by tales of distant, fish-filled seas.


Did they laugh, eat, talk as their eyes yearned

past the wet horizon? Did they share promises

of friendship? Imagine full, silvery nets,

prosperity and the solid sight of land?


They arrived, an unseeing cargo

in a tiny, once white boat.

Unlooked for, without welcome, swept,

four months, three thousand miles from home.


Did they speak, pray, weep as the salt-heavy

air drew precious moisture from their flesh?

Did they share the last of their water?

Imagine full, silvery rain, and eating Ceebu Jen?


Which of them was the first to die?

And which the last? Did their souls fly

one by one, shearwaters sleeping on the wing,

until the wind plucked them bare?


No Reason

Tineke Bryson  

African violets stay alive in my keeping. Other plants in my window die, but not the African violets.

‘Is it really flowering?’ Jo, my Scottish friend, says wonderingly. ‘I can never seem to keep mine alive.’

Ah, that’s why she gave this one to me: to save its life. It looked none too healthy when I peeked in the bag she handed over. But it’s doing well now. Put out five buds which opened this week. The small petals float like miracle clouds in dry season, the ones you watch all day, longing.

‘How do you do it?’ says Jo. ‘How often do you water them?’

I shrug, smile. Distract her with talk of rain. No Scot can resist talking about rain. Because I don’t do anything. I don’t water them by the calendar. I have never changed their soil, re-potted them. There isn’t any reason they live and bloom for me. The window I can offer them is draughty. And in winter, the tenement across the way blocks the sun. So you see there’s no reason the African violets in my keeping do so well.

‘Have you made any Scottish friends yet?’ Jo asks. Besides herself, she means. Because she’s very busy, Jo is. She doesn’t really have time for this cup of tea.

How many potted African violets are binned each year in Scotland? It takes resilience to live here. I know. I’m alive, aren’t I? I’m not for this latitude myself. No. Nigeria is amicable with the equator.

‘I’ve met some students. At the university.’

‘But have you met any ordinary people?’

‘What is that supposed to mean?’

Are African violets ordinary? Some are endangered. That is easier to believe than that a German ‘discovered’ the African violet. Did he really think he was the first human to come upon an African violet? Maybe he just thought he was the first one to care. That would be worse. Either way, he dug it up and took it.

‘Well, it’s lucky I had an African violet in need of a new home,’ Jo says. ‘Perfect.’

‘How, perfect?’ But too late, I realise she has swallowed my comma. I watch it slide down her oesophagus with her sip of tea. In my language, we indicate a question by ending on a drop to a lower tone. I think about telling Jo this. It tends to entertain.

‘African violets come from East Africa,’ I comment, finally. Pause. But she doesn’t catch on.

'You understand each other,’ she says. She doesn’t meet my eyes. But she lays a tentative hand on my arm.

‘You know they don’t grow just because I’m African. I’m not from Tanzania.’

Jo squeezes my arm.

A beam of sun splashes over the roof across the way. Two minutes is all this sunbeam will last. I’ve timed it. We each move closer to the window, closer to the violets, tilt our chins into the light.


You and I

Molly Griffiths

We are born within 4 minutes of each other and come into the world screaming. Thousands of miles away, and yet in this time frame we are only rooms apart. I, wrapped in white terry towel and you in yellow, the nurse tells our parents, ‘it’s a boy!’ And our parents share tears and smiles. Our first days are the same, sleep, milk and warm, we are the most important things in our world. Nobody is loved more than us. You smile first, and I laugh three days later. Somehow, I think I hear it.

We’ve been here 156 days, and I say ‘mama’. I’m picked out of my highchair and whirled around the kitchen. You copy me 18 days later and have the same dance down the hallway. Soon after you say ‘baba’ and I ‘dada’, he is proud.

Our first steps are both on linoleum, we begin our long march of the earth in the kitchen. This is the greatest distance between us, I beat you to it by six and a half weeks. I was the first to roll as well, and you sat watching me two oceans away. My mother’s hair is brown, and your mother’s hair is black. We like grabbing it and pulling. It hurts her, but she smiles anyway, and taps us on the nose.

We run too fast now, you fall down 3 steps in the park, and I off my grandmother’s porch. It is the worst moment of our lives thus far, we cry as though our hearts are broken – for the first time, our worlds have bad things. 504 days after we arrive, I am no longer the only one here. I have a sister, she is very small and very loud. You are still alone.

My father takes me to watch the fireworks on November 5th, I cling to his coat as my sky fills with gold and blue. The sky is raining fire for you as well, and you watch out the window.

We move house, for my family needs more space. I don’t want to share a room with my sister. You are moving too, because you still have fireworks. You leave your things behind, I take mine with me.

It’s our second birthday. I get a playpen, it is blue and soft to touch. The mesh is white, and I can lean back against it as I play with my music book. Under your fingers, sharp barbs prick, and your mother tugs you away. There’s a man on the other side, dressed like your toy soldiers. You’re still moving house, and you have no birthday candles.

For the first time, when we are 781 days old, I see you. I am watching the TV with my mother and father, sitting between them, you are on the news. Your father carries you from a boat, and mine says ‘who would put their child in such danger?’

My mother nods, because we are not the same, you and I.


This bird has flown

Lesley McKay

Liverpool knows the ebb and tide

of migration, immigration,

recognises the 3:4 syncopation.

A rhythm that drives.

A beat for lovers to feel alive.

The pulse to the Beatles’s

this bird has flown -

then why

when over 34,000 didn’t make the shore,

Liverpool looked and tore

The List down,

where blank lines claim the unknown

lost under waves with a 3:4 heartbeat.

 A rhythm we cannot ignore.



Lesley McKay

I step from the land that morphed, defined me.

Placed words in my mouth; words shaped by family

Tread a path that leads further from ancestors;

diminishes me.

Fold clothes sewn by a mother.

Place them within a memory; one that must never be opened.

Harshen vowels for new ears.

Hush lullabies my children crave.

To accept sanctuary, protect my family,

this I must do.

Become a shadow, smile at those who mock.

Accept that I will never be accepted.

I, who give up everything.



Theresa Moerman Ib

Aan zee, aan de woeste zee, in de nacht                             By the sea, by the rough sea, in the night

stond ik                                                                                       I stood

de borst vol weemoed, het hoofd vol twijfel                      the chest full of melancholy, the head full of  doubts

en met dorstige lippen vraag ik de golven:                          and with thirsty lips I ask the waves:


O, verlos mij van de raadsel van het                                     Oh, deliver me from the riddle of life

leven dat ondoorgrondelijk schijnt                                       that seems incomprehensible

waarover al menig mensenhart zich brak                            about which many people’s hearts broke

vertwijfeld en vol argwaan                                                     despairing and full of suspicion


Hoofden onder druk en zwarte twijfel                                 Heads under pressure and black doubt

arm, denkend mensenhoofd                                                 poor, thinking human head

zeg me: wat betekent dit                                                        tell me: what does this mean

o, woeste zee, zeg mij                                                             oh, wild sea, tell me


Het bulderen van de golven, get geruis                               The roaring of the waves, the noise

van helmgras, het overtrekken van de                                 of marram grass, the tracing of the clouds

wolken het blinken van de schelpen                                    the gleaming of the shells

gaven mij het antwoord: verzwaard                                     gave me the answer: weighted


This poem was written in Dutch by my late father in 1965.Due to a limited understanding of his native tongue, I used an online translation tool to help decipher the work. The automatic translation is presented here unedited; it mirrors my fractured experience of attempting to read the original poem. I’m interested in how language can emerge as a liminal space between first and second generation immigrants. When understanding is challenged, one is still compelled to create meaning, but the blanks must be filled with something beyond words.


This is Home Now

Deepti Prakash Padinjare Veetil

I wondered if the child understood, as he took his mother’s hand nodding solemnly as she said ‘This is home now’, that the phrase would haunt him. Even as he grew out of his childhood, fully integrated into this country, his past fading into nightmares this phrase would settle onto his shoulders. He would wake up slightly disturbed from the nightmares and his parents would soothe him with ‘you are safe. This is home now’, until it’d lose all meaning. He’d grow into a football playing teenager who’d only slightly understand the harshness of the word immigrant. After all, this was home now wasn’t it?

I wondered when he’d feel it in his bones, a desperate sort of restlessness, to leave and be someone else. Away from parents who’d sometimes look at him with wistful eyes, willing him to be someone else, maybe a little more like them but he can’t because this is home now. He’d hear the stories of how he came to be here and he’d be shocked at how sometimes the gratitude in him didn’t make an appearance. And he’d imagine if he went back to the rubble of ‘home’, at least the first one he knew, he’d find the ghost of a little boy he barely remembered. Maybe that one would’ve grown up without missing something.

I know afterwards, he’ll stumble into a confused adulthood. He’ll spend years trying to curb the restlessness, yet he’ll always leave. He’ll be used to it by then, all the places eventually blurring, never staying, leaving little pieces of him behind as he waves goodbye. Because that’s what he did oh so long ago.

He’ll be well into his life before he remembers being ripped from his home, the consequence of unnecessary violence. But by then, he won’t have enough anger left in him. He’ll think of his parents who had to be many things at once without the benefit of his upbringing. They were Immigrants and Refugees, who missed their homeland but had no time to dwell on it. They had to be parents and citizens of another country. They had to bury their longing so that they could live. But he’d seen it bleed out sometimes, when this country became too much for them. And then he’ll wonder how sometimes something can be a blessing and curse at the same time.

I don’t have any answers for him. I don’t think I ever will. So for now, I watch in silence as I see him nodding his head solemnly as his mother says ‘This is home now’.



Alex Prong

A line guided me here. Not necessarily here, but it guided me away, it guided me not-there. I search for it again while I sit on the beach it guided me to. I search for it again but passively now – no longer urgent. It’s dark out. There’s no one else here, only their debris. Napkins and cigarette butts and red and white chequered paper from take-away meals.

My cigarette is flickering and I trace a new line made by ashes as their path leads them into the ocean. Pretending to hear the tssss sound it would make when the speck of fire meets the body of water, I hope it hurts. Fuck. this. ocean. that the line guided me through – over, I guess, not really through. Not swimmable, this ocean.

The line was white. It glowed and vibrated when it was strongest; it was so real to me that I really thought I could touch it; I could put my foot on it, pin it down and say, ‘here it is.’

At first I thought the line was like the lines left behind by sparklers. I could write in the sky with it and take photos. People do that on the beach, so it would make sense. I thought I could pick up a sparkler and write something permanent like ‘it is over.’ At the end of the line would be fireworks and budweisers and probably not gold, but at least, like, gold-plated silver?

I realize my line was a boundary of thought. Not quite a border. I wasn’t supposed to follow it; I was supposed to push it. Run through it screaming with my arms in the air like a finish line, or else cut it with giant scissors like a ribbon at a grand opening.


On Point

Martin Raymond

You don’t know me. But you know my work. Course you do. Everyone knows it. The poster. That poster. The invasion. The marching men. Brown men.  Men. Mainly. Because who’s frightened of women and children? 

It was made in a glass room, filled with light. The idea came fast. Then I sourced the image, picked the type, set the headline, strapline, logo. A thousand options. The art of choosing. And all the time the sun shone into the room as if through water. When it was right I stuck the rough to the glass. Stood back. Invited them in. We nodded, we smiled, we knew it was there. I knew it was there. Done. Call the client.

Easy? Seems that way when you write it down.

Except you couldn’t do it.

I could.

I know the audience. My people. Stockton, Redcar, the ‘Brough, the ‘Pool. My people. Good people. Smart people. Watch them work the variable odds, the trebles. Watch them keep ahead of the repossession, the court order, the food bank. Making something out of nothing. Artists of ashes.

My people, defeated in their civil war. Taking their stand on the lines in eighty-four.  Just batons and horses, not missiles, I give you that. But all that still hurts. Still defeated. Crushed. And nowhere to take it. That’s who it’s for. Not the suits and the Surrey golf clubs, they had their reasons, I expect. Hurt feeds on itself. Have nots and have less. And I helped them change history. Divert the course. For better or worse I showed them where to put that anger and hurt. The marching men, coming for what was left.

The client bought it. Why would they not? The most famous poster ever. I made it. But I can never claim it. Not something for my book, my portfolio, not part of a pitch. Never. It was coincidence, bad timing, bad luck, but it taints a piece of work, a murder. No one wants to own it now. That day, the day she died, the silence in the glass room. Even though we won in the end, even though it’s history, it’s my secret. An image without a home. An orphan.

Even the clients denied it then. But that doesn’t matter, because they don’t matter. They’ll just be names, away down the line. Prancing out in front. But I know where people will  look, always. My poster. My image. Up on the billboards for only a day. But that’s all it needed. Just one day.

Where there is discord, let me find you the fight. And where there’s division, I can drive home this wedge.



Sue Roy

I look at your semi-detached house and it is so beautiful. I walk past many houses every day but they are not like your house. I like its warmth and movement. There is change but not insecurity. I see you as you come and go. I’ve watched as you unload shopping from your estate car and carry your many Sainsbury’s bags in. Why do you buy so much when you live alone? Your family visit but they do not know that sometimes you close all the curtains when they leave.

I long to walk up your driveway, to squeeze past your car and climb the three stone steps to your front door. I want to knock and ask if I can come in and be family. I want to feel your welcome. I imagine your smile as you draw me into your home to have coffee and talk about our children, and your grandchildren.

I have questions about your life, I’m not so sure that you have questions about mine. I will tell you anyway. My name is Jana. When I left my home it was rubble. I stopped to pick up a piece of concrete to take with me. I carried it, and my children, all the way to the boat. I still have the stone folded in cloth.

Now I carry life and when this new baby comes maybe you and I will feast and celebrate. We will be good friends by then and you will have told me why you close your curtains. I would like to cook for you. Perhaps I could come into your kitchen and prepare my food? Baba ghanouj – aubergines, garlic and tahini – and kabab bil karaz made with minced lamb and wishna, small and sour black cherries: my husband’s favourite. I can make baklava – crisp pastry sweetened with syrup and sprinkled with pistachios. I cannot tell you the secret ingredient, but my children said I made the best in Aleppo.

Please, you must invite your family. Your son and his wife – yes, I’ve seen them visit – and the children! Of course, always the children must come. I will wear perfume and make-up again. We will eat and sing and laugh.    

Everyone who loved my food is gone.


Khalid’s Journey, Aged 7

Elaine Whiteford

I didn’t cry when mama said

we had to hide

I didn’t cry when papa yelled

and raced outside


I didn’t cry when mama said

we had to run

I didn’t cry when papa screamed

and fired the gun


I didn’t cry when mama said

we had to pray

I didn’t cry when papa wailed

and slipped away


But kitten cat you couldn’t come

My mama said you couldn’t come


Oh, my friend, you couldn’t come

I cried because you couldn’t come


Birds without borders

Sandy Winterbottom

For N.N. (boy, 17) Somalia 21/10/16

The first spring swallow arrives clenched between the jaws of the cat. It is barely alive, gasping, a sharp tongue reaching out from its gaping beak.  The fanned-out feathers of a wing jut out from the cat’s lower jaw. Furious and cursing, I grab her by the scruff of the neck, tearful with anguish at the unfairness of it. All the way from Africa to end in these damn jaws.

Hissing, the cat releases the bird to my hand.  I cup the swallow around his fragile white breast and feel the rapid beat of his heart. He weighs nothing. This traveller of thousands of miles brought in on an April breeze, is lighter than the dry autumn leaves that still litter the ground.

I dissolve some sugar in a small dish of warm water and ease a single drop into his open beak. A long tongue flicks out to drink it down into his red-bibbed throat and his eyes close as he gulps. When they re-open, they are wide and black with terror. I am startled by their intensity.

I lay him down on his side in a small box. He is gasping at the air but he cannot stand – he has no fight left.  I place the box in a dark cupboard and wait, resisting the urge to open it until morning. It seems an odd game to play, this cruel twist on Schrödinger’s.

When I finally look the next day, he is upright and alert, perky even. Out in the garden I lift the lid from the box. He rises swiftly into the crisp air towards a wispy birch nearby. And then I see it. Another, sitting in the tree, waiting, watching patiently. They meet mid-air – encircling, twisting and chattering, sharpened in song and shape against the blue sky. I watch them fly over the house all summer; their sweet conversation filling that empty space between lush meadows and soaring buzzards.