Lucy Popescu

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Posts Tagged ‘refugees’


Posted by lucypopescu on July 15, 2017

Asylum seekers continue to be stigmatized in the media, so it is refreshing to see more books being published that give refugees a voice. We need to change the negative propaganda surrounding those forced to flee war, poverty or intolerance. A Hope More Powerful than the Sea poignantly illuminates some of the reasons why our fellow humans embark on such perilous journeys to reach Europe.

Melissa Fleming, the Chief Spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, brings to life the harrowing tale of Doaa Al Zamel, a Syrian refugee. In clear, accessible prose, Fleming chronicles Doaa’s happy childhood in Syria, the early months of the uprising, and the brutal crackdown that ensued. When life in the midst of a war zone becomes intolerable, Doaa and her family seek refuge in Egypt.

They are initially welcomed and cared for by local Egyptians, but after President Mohamed Morsi is deposed, resentment towards the refugees grows and Doaa finds herself regularly abused by men on the street. Her fiancé, Bassem, also suffers from an increased hostility towards Syrian refugees. In poor health and unable to bear “a life of limbo in a country where its own citizens were facing a sinking economy, high inflation, and rising food prices”, Doaa finally agrees to accompany Bassem on a treacherous journey across the Mediterranean.

Before they reach Greece, their rusty fishing boat is deliberately rammed by a group of mindless racists. Doaa’s boat capsizes and those on board are flung into the water. Most drown instantly, some die an agonizing death as they are hacked to pieces by the boat’s propellers. Witnessing it all, Doaa keeps afloat with the help of a children’s inflatable ring for four days and nights. She clings on to two baby girls until her rescue, persevering for their sake.

A particularly chilling moment is Doaa’s realization that those onboard had been sold fake life jackets and inadequate flotation aids. Many of Doaa’s group, including her beloved Bassem, die because of this. Out of 500 people, only eleven survive the catastrophe.

One can only hope that by sharing Doaa’s story, her remarkable courage, Fleming will help people better understand why so many are prepared to risk so much in order to reach relative safety.

Originally published by the TLS



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Book Review – Threads: From the refugee crisis

Posted by lucypopescu on June 25, 2017


Calais was once famous for the art of lace-making; now it is better known for the groups of desperate refugees who gather in its port hoping to cross into Britain. In early 2016 the cartoonist and activist Kate Evans (who is also the author of Red Rosa: A graphic biography of Rosa Luxemburg, 2015) volunteered for a brief stint in the refugee camp known as the Jungle. Her new graphic novel Threads depicts the shantytown before it was demolished later that year. A ribbon of lace frames each page, the delicate threads standing in sharp contrast to the refugees’ harsh existence.

Instead of finding sanctuary in Europe, they live in limbo. Evans’s subjects are shunted between camps in Calais and Dunkirk, and she meticulously documents their helplessness, along with their remarkable endurance. Her eyewitness reportage is punctuated with news headlines about the various atrocities fuelling the refugee crisis – the Russian fighter planes bombing Syria and US forces bombing the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, for example. Evans also captures in separate cartoons the political prejudice of Theresa May, Britain’s then Home Secretary, claiming that there is no economic benefit to migration, and France’s Marine Le Pen encouraging distrust of Muslims as she addresses a rally in Calais.

The squalor of the Jungle is evident in Evans’s illustrations. Only twenty-four toilets are provided for 5,000 people, and the water tests positive for faecal contamination. The diversity of the inhabitants is represented by the ramshackle colourfulness of her sketches of them. Attempts to help the refugees, some of whom are unaccompanied children as young as seven, can be chaotic: Evans depicts aid workers trying to distribute children’s clothes, overwhelmed by lines of desperate men. Swimming goggles are dis carded as impractical and, too late, it is recognized that they would have provided a useful defence against tear gas. Evans is quick to note the Kafkaesque decisions of the authorities – on two separate occasions, refugees and aid workers are prevented from bringing fresh bread or dry bedding into the camp.

Evans also shares the pejorative texts she has received condemning her voluntary work. When one text message claims, “These refugees are safe in France where they could claim asylum if they wanted 2 shame they want our benefits too much!”, she responds with a series of stark illustrations (leached of colour, the frames increased in size) showing three refugee men being brutally beaten by unidentified assailants. One victim later remarks, “they were wearing blue suits. Like the ones that the police wear, but with the emblems torn off”.

Police brutality is seen as shamelessly open. Evans’s illustrations convey the terrifying spectacle of rows of riot police and bulldozers, and the fear of the Jungle’s inhabitants as they are tear-gassed. The author learns of one fifteen-year-old boy whose skull has been fractured, and a pregnant woman who has been slapped by police. Again and again, her narrative emphasizes the desperation of people trying to reach safety, and she includes some haunting snapshots explaining why they have fled their native countries, ranging from torture and rape to sustained persecution for being gay. The appalling threads of these people’s lives coalesce to form a bigger picture with an underlying message: we need to treat our fellow humans with care and respect, for inhumanity breeds inhumanity.

A mother herself, Kate Evans depicts her young subjects with remarkable tenderness. We’re not told about a child’s boredom, fear or meltdown – we see it. Their lives are on hold and many are battling despair. Back in Britain, the author depicts herself watching the demolition of the Jungle on her phone and remarks: “It’s more than some people’s homes that are being destroyed. It’s their minds”. Her book ends on a chilling note: after the eviction, 129 lone children disappeared from the camps. As Threads makes clear, one child is too many; 129 is a humanitarian catastrophe.

Originally published by the TLS

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Film Review – Lost in Lebanon

Posted by lucypopescu on May 28, 2017


This heart breaking film  by Sophia and Georgia Scott follows four Syrian refugees as they struggle to rebuild their lives in Lebanon. Syria’s neighbour has had to cope with a massive influx of refugees – Lebanon’s population is 4.4 million and 1.5 million Syrians have flooded into the country since the beginning of the conflict. Lost in Lebanon was shot in Beirut and on the Syrian border between 2014 and 2016. During this time, Lebanon was forced to restrict its open door policy for Syrian refugees and imposed various visa restrictions aimed at discouraging Syrians from entering or staying. As the film makes clear, the result has been devastating for many refugees who have nowhere else to go and fear for their lives if they are forcibly returned to Syria.

Sheikh Abdo manages a refugee camp just five kilometres from the Syrian border. Abdo takes his responsibilities seriously and works tirelessly for his fellow refugees. Nemr is a 19-year-old high-school student who fled forced military recruitment: “My destiny would have been to become a killer or a victim.” He volunteers in the camp’s school but dreams of a better future. Reem is a former architect who now helps in the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut. As a refugee she is not supposed to work but spends her time trying to help those worse off than herself. Mwafak is a 26-year-old artist, also based in Beirut. Mwafak never stops giggling, but then we realise his humour is a defence mechanism, a means of survival, he is laughing at his own plight. He is proud; not wanting to be labelled a refugee he refuses to register with the UNRHC until he is forced to. Mwafak is driven by his imagination, his need to create art, and his talent. He also volunteers, teaching art to children in another refugee camp.

All four show similar commitment to the health and education of Syrian children, however rudimentary. They recognise the importance of educating the next generation and that their homeland will need to be rebuilt with love and creativity rather than hate and violence. They exhibit extraordinary resilience in the face of unimaginable hardship but the relentless fear of deportation impacts on them all with devastating consequences. Both Nemr and Mwafak consider attempting the perilous journey by sea. Nemr ponders why anyone would want to risk their lives and concludes “they’re willing to drown just to live as humans.” Lost in Lebanon contains many such shocking soundbites. At a meeting organised by Reem, one man remarks on the hell they find themselves in: “We can’t go back to Syria, we can’t renew our residency, we can’t leave by boat. Why don’t they just exterminate us and be done with it.”

If you have ever wondered what life is like for a refugee then see this film. No one should have to endure this degree of psychological torture and the West needs to demonstrate compassion rather than prejudice or indifference. Sophia Scott’s beautiful cinematography opens in a long dark tunnel with blinding light at the end and the joyous sound of children playing, calling out the name of their homeland; it ends in the same tunnel but the camera is travelling in the opposite direction with the light receding. Birds also feature; just as they are free to travel over land and sea, refugees are not. The refusal of these men, women and children to give up offers a ray of hope. A remarkable and humane film that never strikes a false note.

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Book Review – Migrant Women’s Voices: Talking About Life and Work in the UK Since 1945

Posted by lucypopescu on June 17, 2016

Migrant Women's VoicesSince 6 April 2016 all skilled workers from outside the EU who have been living in Britain for less than 10 years need to earn at least £35,000 a year to settle permanently here, even if they have lived here for years contributing to the UK culture and economy. Some jobs, such as nurses, are exempt. Under the new rules those who have come to work in Britain from outside the EU will be deported after five years if they fail to show they are earning more than £35,000.According to the Independent, which set up a campaign protesting against the measures, these people need a work sponsor, are not entitled to receive public funds, have to pay a health surcharge to access the NHS and must also put up a sizeable fee – sometimes in excess of £1,000 – to have their visas extended by a year.

This hard-line approach is in stark contrast to 1945, when Britain was crying out for migrant labour. It’s also remarkable considering our current dependence on increased spending within the economy and the benefit of migrant labour to the government’s budget. Today’s anti-migrant rhetoric makes Linda McDowell’s exploration of female migration since the end of World War II particularly timely. And, as McDowell observes, ‘immigration and making a living are at the top of many people’s concerns about their own lives and those of their children.’

Migrant Women’s Voices pays testament to the numerous female migrants who contributed to the post-war reconstruction effort and joined the British workforce beyond those austere times. McDowell charts how Britain was transformed into a multi-cultural society following changes in migration patterns from the post-war and post imperial recruits to those fleeing conflict zones and others employed in specific jobs, such as nurses and unskilled workers in the textile industry. In the 40s and 50s many female migrants came here because British-born women left the labour market, encouraged to return to their ‘traditional’ role as wives and mothers and because ‘an alternative labour force’ was required for the jobs they left. However, as McDowell points out: Many people have little ‘idea of the percentage of the UK population that was born abroad (about 13 percent in 2015) and often over estimate it.’

Focusing on 74 women born outside the UK who came here to work, McDowell’s stated aim is ‘to provide a rich and vivid source though which to counter conventional narratives of post-war change as well as to record for posterity individual stories that are in danger of being forgotten.’ The narratives are based on oral histories from face-to-face interviews with migrant women (collected between 1992 and 2012) who talk about their experiences and work in the UK. McDowell chooses to leave their accounts in full which makes for some hard reading at times. Many of the pieces would have benefitted from light editing to remove repetition or for further clarification. For instance, Harshini (born in the Punjab and brought up in Nairobi) describes being accepted for work at the large Ford plant in Dagenham:

At interview, they test me on the machining, machine test. Then they talk ‘why you applied, why you come here, why you work in Ford?’ Then I say ‘I need the money for my children, that’s why I apply. I like to work over here.’ That’s the things we talked, generally talk this, yeah, then they say ‘you take your test in machining.’ When I went on machine, they test me on machine.

The women describe their often difficult journeys here, their struggles to make a new life, the minutiae of their everyday work in hospitals, care homes, factories and hotels, as well as the pressures of working in banks and universities. Furthermore, as the accounts illustrate ‘people of colour and in-migrants, including people from the new European Union member countries, are [often] constructed as the Other, different from the norm, still strangers and sometimes, not always, visibly different and subjected to unequal treatment.’

The level of racism suffered over the decades remains shocking. In the 1960s and 70s post-colonial migrants would often find signs in windows of rooms to rent that read ‘no Irish, no blacks, no dogs.’ Ellen was born in Hong Kong in 1962 and came to the UK at the end of the 1970s. She was employed in the family fast food business and often had to put up with people calling her ‘chinky.’ Nadia, a Polish woman in her thirties, began work as a bus driver in 2007:

I’ve been called ‘fucking Polish bitch’ many times, many times… So many times I was called bitch. I was called stupid Polish bitch or bloody foreigner or that stuff that is not pleasant. It’s quite sad when you try to do your job properly and you do everything correct and suddenly they just come and attack you and without any reason.

McDowell covers many decades and the variety of work that has, over the years, been available to female migrant workers. Some like Victoria (Singaporean Chinese) took advantage of the employment boom in the computing industry early in the millennium. The employment of migrants to write code became known as ‘bodyshopping.’ One wonders if Victoria would make the new income threshold today. Romanian-born Ani came to the UK in 1993 on a one month visiting scholarship at a university. Later she applied for a doctorate and funded her studies by working as a research assistant in the engineering science department at Oxford, before getting work on a research project. She is now a departmental lecturer. Shami, from India started a doctorate at Oxford in 1988 but found herself having to challenge various conventions. She now works as a community educator and continues to deal with ‘patronising attitudes and racist assumptions.’

Caveats aside, McDowell’s project is admirable, her research thorough and the testimonies amply demonstrate “the huge commitment made to Britain, to its economy and to its population by ‘ordinary’ women … who made the decision to move across national borders and make a life elsewhere.’

Originally published by Review 31

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Film Review – The Crossing & At Home in the World

Posted by lucypopescu on March 17, 2016


London Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2016:

Migration is one of the major themes explored at the 20th Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London.



The Crossing (George Kurian)

Photojournalist and filmmaker George Kurian’s absorbing documentary, The Crossing (2015) follows the fortunes of a small group of Syrian refugees who leave Egypt for Europe in an old fishing boat. They are rescued from the sea by sailors aboard an oil tanker who convey them to Genoa. However, their relief and elation swiftly evaporate as they are overwhelmed by the level of bureaucracy that confronts them. They find themselves dispersed to various refugee camps and hostels where they have to wait long, lonely months before being granted asylum in Italy, Norway, Sweden, Germany and Belgium.

Kurian’s subjects are all articulate Syrians hoping to work in their European sanctuaries. Rami films their sea journey and arrival in Italy. His friend Nabil is a classically trained oud player and Angela is a TV journalist hoping to reunite with her husband Najib in Paris. As Rami observes early on, they are not pursuing “a better life” but want “just to have a life”.  The Crossing is an affecting study of those fleeing conflict. Kurian reminds us that hopes and dreams don’t diminish when people are forced to leave their homeland, and illuminates some of the harshest problems faced by refugees while trying to build a new life in a foreign world.


At Home in the World (Andreas Koefoed)

At Home in the World


Many of those forced to seek sanctuary in Europe are children. Andreas Koefoed’s At Home in the World (2015) focuses on the lives of five young asylum seekers trying to settle in Denmark. The children are from various countries, including Chechnya and Afghanistan, and are cared for and educated by a group of dedicated teachers at a Red Cross School for refugees. Dorte and her colleagues try to prepare their charges for life in a regular Danish school. Unfortunately some of the pupils are living in limbo, unsure if they will be deported or granted leave to remain. Magomed, for instance, is allowed to stay but a question mark remains over his father’s application casting a dark cloud over his life. He is painfully aware that his father will be killed or imprisoned if he is returned to Chechnya.

Time and again images of refugee children elicit the most sympathy in today’s media and Koefoed capitalises on this. One cannot help be moved by the plight of these kids; their confusion, anger and despair. Some have forgotten how to be children. But there’s also hope as we watch them master Danish, make cakes, play football and learn how to smile again. Interspersed with the schoolroom scenes are shots of dark woodland reminding us of the perils of the unknown – the forests of fairy tales are traditionally a place of initiation and potential horrors and have a strong association with the unconsciousness (Koefoed underlines the point when Dorte retells the story of Hansel and Gretel).

In the film’s final credits we learn that the school’s funding has been cut. At Home in the World serves to underline the urgent need for governments to spend time and money helping to assimilate traumatised children who may have witnessed unspeakable horrors on their journey to safety and continue to live in uncertainty.

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Book Review – The Lightless Sky

Posted by lucypopescu on November 11, 2015

The Lightless SkyOne of Gulwali Passarlay’s proudest moments was carrying the Olympic Torch during its tour of Britain in 2012. He had arrived here five years earlier as an Afghan refugee, a traumatised teenager who had  endured the most horrific hardship as he travelled across Europe to be re-united with his brother. Recalling Fabio Geda’s international bestseller, In the Sea There Are Crocodiles, Passarlay offers a similarly gripping account of a life-threatening journey to freedom.

In 2006, fearing for their safety, his mother arranged for Gulwali and his brother, Hazrat, to leave their rural village and seek sanctuary in the West. Gulwali was just 12 years old, Hazrat 13. Having been suspected of hiding weapons for the Taliban, his father and grandfather were  killed in a shoot-out with US troops. Gulwali and Hazrat were then hounded by the Taliban who wanted them to become freedom fighters and the Americans who wanted them as spies. Their mother paid a smuggler from Kabul $8,000 to get the boys as far as Italy. Then, at Peshawar airport, before their journey had really begun, the brothers were separated and Gulwali’s quest became twofold – to find a safe place for himself, and to locate his brother.

Passarlay vividly evokes the harrowing trek that takes him across Iran and Turkey to Bulgaria, where he is thrown off a moving train then deported back to Iran and imprisoned. He manages to escape, ends up in an overcrowded boat sailing from Turkey to Greece, and narrowly escapes death. Passarlay describes his mixed emotions and the nightmares that he experiences after finding a safe haven in Italy.

On learning that his brother has made it  to England, he heads for Calais. Life in the “Jungle” is recorded in chilling detail. Passarlay sleeps in filthy conditions and relies on charitable food outlets: “The humiliation was hard to bear. Many of the faces I saw spoke of the same thing. In their own countries, these people had power, even the respect of their communities. Here, in the Jungle, we were barely human. We were the beasts that gave this place its name.”

Even after Passarlay arrives in Dover, in the back of a truck transporting bananas, his ordeal is not over. He has to convince the authorities that he is 13 years old. They do not believe him; Denied foster care and the opportunity to go to school, he is sent to live with adult asylum seekers.

The Lightless Sky is a heart-rending read that illuminates the plight of unaccompanied minors forced to leave their homes and loved ones. It is beautifully written (with the help of the journalist Nadene Ghouri) in simple, accessible prose. Rarely does Passarlay display self-pity and his fierce intelligence is apparent throughout. He also sheds light on the nefarious world of the smugglers who treat their human cargo with so little compassion. Describing the contempt of one agent, Passarlay observes sadly: “We were the scum who would make him rich.” His powerful account is a testament to the courage of all those fleeing conflict in search of safety.

Originally published by the Independent on Sunday


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Film review – Leave to Remain

Posted by lucypopescu on October 10, 2015


Leave to RemainBruce Goodison’s impressive feature, Leave to Remain (2013), confronts the issue of teenage asylum seekers struggling to adapt to life in London and dealing with past trauma as they wait for their permanent leave to remain. In Britain, unaccompanied minors are granted temporary asylum and are placed in foster homes or shelters.  But when they reach eighteen, their cases are reassessed and they live in limbo as they await the court’s decision which can take months, or even years. In the opening scene, a caption informs us that only one in ten are finally granted permanent residency.

 Leave to Remain is set in a shelter and community centre for asylum seekers and homeless teens run by “Uncle Nigel” (Toby Jones) who is teacher, mentor and friend to the youngsters. The film opens with Omar (Noof Ousellam), one of the more confident residents, speaking in public about his experiences. He had arrived in the UK from Afghanistan, aged fourteen, and was granted a safe haven. Now considered an adult, he is about to hear if he has leave to remain. When fifteen-year-old Abdul (Zarrien Masieh), a Hazara from the same region arrives, Omar is inexplicably angry. Gradually, it is revealed that Abdul knows something about Omar’s past that could affect his appeal. Meanwhile, Abdul has to prove his age, ethnicity and that his own tragic story is true.  Guinean Zizidi (Yasmin Mwanza) is equally traumatised. Raped when she was twelve years old, forced into marriage, she was beaten and abused by her husband and his friends and fell pregnant three times before she was able to escape. Her case is considered domestic rather than political and she is initially refused asylum.

Leave to Remain is the result of a film academy set up by Goodison and his colleagues which provides industry training for teenage asylum seekers. The script, co-written by Goodison and Charlotte Colbert, is based on real life stories and most of the talented young leads and the crew come from refugee backgrounds. Goodison offers a poignant insight into the lives of young people trying to integrate and understand an alien culture.  Wisely, he shows that their cases are not always clear cut; sometimes lies have to be told in order for them to be believed. Intercut with the refugee stories are the perspectives of social workers, solicitors, doctors as well as some less than sympathetic staff working for the Home Office. The line between documentary and drama is deliberately blurred allowing for a gritty realism and sense of authenticity. It is not all doom and gloom, however, and Goodison injects humour into various scenes. Particularly memorable are a mountain hike and the group’s attempts to stage a Nativity play – many of them are from Muslim backgrounds.  An important and timely addition to the current debate surrounding immigrants and refugees, Leave to Remain educates and entertains on a number of levels.

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