Lucy Popescu

freedom to write, review, travel…

Posts Tagged ‘The Jungle’

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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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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