By Kate Monkhouse
Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) works with refugees and other forcibly displaced people, promoting their rights and providing a range of direct services. In London, JRS UK runs a weekly day centre at its base in Wapping, where each week up to 120 refugees come for lunch, some practical help and to share the joys and sadness of life in this country.
In carrying out its activities JRS UK works in partnership with like-minded organisations, such as English PEN, a free speech and literature charity that campaigns to defend and promote free expression. English PEN’s trainers have run several creative writing workshops at JRS over the last year, with clearly positive results. In 2012 participants had their poems and prose published in “Big Writing for a Small World”. They also presented at the Joy of Speaking event in London in 2013.
Louise Zanré, Director of JRS UK articulates why Jesuit Refugee Service has enjoyed hosting creative writing workshops, “It is very important for us to work in partnership, in particularly with English PEN, so that the refugees that we support have access to activities and opportunities that they might not have, including space for self development and growth, and also to feel normal. We are grateful that English PEN want to work with us in this way.”
Philip Cowell, Head of Programmes at English PEN, explains, “We saw the participants in these workshops flourish through their creative writing, under the guidance of poet Malika Booker. We know it can be so unsettling travelling to the UK. Our workshops don’t heal that, but they do give participants a chance to explore their new lives through free expression. More than anything, though, we aim for a safe, fun and uplifting setting for people to feel relaxed and confident – and JRS and Malika certainly helped our participants with that.”
‘Naz’, took part in the third round of creative writing workshops offering by English PEN at JRS’s Wapping centre. He wrote two contrasting pieces, one with a memory from back home and one expressing his sense of being in the UK. He shares his writing experience.
Tell me about how you got involved with creative writing workshops with English PEN.
When I came, I was very excited and motivated. The trainer told us how do to this, it is just about being creative, so I wrote my first poem on that day. She gave us poems to read from other writers and she gave us time to think about writing ourselves. Even though I had never written a poem in my life that is how I did mine. She was really good to push us how to write something.
What was the experience like for you?
After the training, I can see anything is possible, I can train to do anything in life! Even though English is not my language, I felt this is something that I can do.
How is it writing in a different language to your mother tongue?
To write a poem it is all about being creative first, so when you have creativity you can use any language to express what you want to say. That is what inspired me to write. Even though I have many difficulties since living in this country with speaking and writing English, when it is creative writing I can express myself.
What did you learn about writing?
To express my feelings about my situation through words, rather letting them stay inside me and causing depression. By writing it is like I am taking it out and putting on paper through words it is better than just not saying anything.
What inspires you in your writing?
The way the trainer was, she was the one who inspired me. There was a woman who came here to speak to the group who had been an asylum seeker in the same situation. She had been a medical doctor and gave each one of us a copy of the book she herself had written. She gave us a boost that we can do it as she is now a full time writer. That kind of thing also motivated me.
Is there anything else you want to say about the poems you write?
The poem I wrote is about expressing the life of a refused asylum seeker in this country. The second poem you see is about remembering when I was young and my mother and so on. I don’t know what else I can say, read the poems!
I remember when my mother was waking me up
In the morning for bath.
The water was so cold,
She kept saying she ain’t got money
To heat the water
Every drop of the water on my body
Causing drops of tears, I remember.
In the morning bathing was a hell.
7 o’clock in the morning after bath
She dressed me up and served me breakfast
The school was miles away
And I had no money to pay for my bus ticket.
In the morning walking to school was a hell.
A long sandy road in the noon
Full of hot sand, I remember.
My feet got burnt
When walking back home from school.
However the drop of rain can be heard
And puts a smile on my face as I can walk
Without feeling the heat of the sun in the noon.
Each journey entails a hundred possibilities.
I have been thinking all my life
To make my way to this land,
Many of us called the rich land.
But when I reached
This so-called rich land,
I t’s like a white storm,
The whole land is so cold
With no home, no shelter.
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