In celebration of ordinary lives – Shining a light on refugee children’s experience

Say the word ‘refugee’ to yourself. Without thinking, what images and notions enter your mind?

Now, think about it.

The last Saturday of Refugee Week 2010 was an important day in the lives of four refugee children and their families – a celebration of childhood regained.

We have told their stories in a series of books for children, the Refugee Diaries. At the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, these children’s lives were celebrated. This was a marker for them and all those who have supported and cheered them on – a day to celebrate the longed-for ordinariness of their lives.

My wife, Annemarie Young, and I took this proposal to the publishers Frances Lincoln for two reasons. We wanted to present these children as just that, children. Admittedly, children who through force of circumstance had been caught up in whatever horrors led them to flee their own countries. And make no mistake, all these children fled the threat of brutality and possible death at home, and hardship on the road to hoped-for freedom, on a scale we can only imagine.

And we were driven by our belief in the need to counter the negative stereotypes, misinformation and all too often hysterical and cheap politicisation, so prevalent in parts of the media.

Refugees turn up on our doorstep because they are desperate. They come for a life without persecution. And for the lives and futures of their children. They do what we would do. Can you imagine, even for one moment, what it is like for a mother to grab her only child and head out into the night with nothing except the clothes on her back? And what it feels like to have, ‘We’ll be back for you’ ringing in her ears, delivered by the men who were dragging her husband off? I can’t, but this was the reality for Mohammed’s mother. They come with the thinnest hope. They come begging for refuge. They come because there is nowhere else to go.

Refugees throw themselves on our mercy and we all too often find ourselves lacking. We share a humanity and this needs to be manifest in our response to them. Locking them up, along with their children all too often, denying them basic rights, vilifying them and frequently sending them back to god knows what, is not our humanity manifest. This is not a political problem, it is a human one. It is attendant on us, who so often chide and lecture other governments on human rights, to put our marker down. If we do not do this, how seriously are those ‘other’ regimes round the world likely to take our humanist finger wagging?

Preserving and presenting their stories has been our way of shining a light on the dignity and worth of these children, a dignity that their histories might have denied them.

People ask me how I ‘did’ the children’s voices so well. And how I presented the horrors visited on them in such a ‘low key’ way. The truth of the matter is that the children did it. How this happened was my journey. Hand in hand with the children, we told their stories. All I had to do was become invisible, to be a conduit for them. It is sometimes a writer’s job to take the ‘I’ out of the process.

It was their voices I wanted to transcribe onto the page. The recordings and notes – phrases marked, the unsaids, the listening and re-listening – all informed the process. But it was their voices that moved the hand that wrote the words that told the story. This was the aim of the Refugee Diaries. Read these stories and if you are moved, if you have a different notion of what it is to be a refugee, or even of what it is to be a child, then they have been successful.

Hats off to the four children, Gervelie, Mohammed, Hamzat and Meltem (in absentia) who had a wonderful day in the spotlight, but spare a thought for the ones who did not, or will not make it to celebrate the glorious ordinariness of life.

Anthony Robinson, Cambridge, 21 July 2010

Author of the Refugee Diaries series for children, published by Frances Lincoln: Gervelie’s Journey, Mohammed’s Journey, Hamzat’s Journey. Meltem’s Journey is published on 10 August.

By Anthony Robinson