Lucy Popescu introduces a new collection of writing: A Country to Call Home
People have moved across land and sea for thousands of years whether in search of food or to trade. Over time, the reasons for migration have evolved. War, cultural or religious persecution, drought and famine are just some of the reasons people flee their native lands to reach safety. Then and now. The survival instinct is strong in us all. It is part of life. Just imagine if you were forced to leave your home, family and friends, to learn new customs, eat different food, adapt to a harsh climate, speak a foreign language. You’re on your own. There may not be a school willing to take you or, if there is, you are told that you are not allowed to study. You live in cramped quarters and have limited food. Or you don’t have accommodation, have to sleep rough and beg for food. People shout at you in a language you don’t understand and offer little in the way of sympathy. You would be desperate to return home, to everything that is familiar, as soon as you possibly could.
Over half of the world’s refugees are children. Many arrive on our shores utterly alone. Some don’t make it. Remember that image of Alan Kurdi, the small Syrian boy, just a toddler? His tiny body, face down, washed up on a Turkish beach? The photograph was reproduced worldwide and helped temper the negative media for a short while. It was this image that made me think of putting together an anthology that explores the reality for child refugees and unaccompanied young adults making these harrowing journeys in search of safety. Some of our finest children’s writers have contributed stories, poems and flash fiction exploring the reasons people have to flee their homelands, the risks they take travelling in the backs of lorries, the terrifying sea voyages they endure, their arrival and assimilation in a new country, and the harsh confinement of some young asylum seekers in camps and detention centres. Many contributions expose prejudice; others celebrate the incredible fortitude of child refugees, their hopes and aspirations.
Many of the contributors to A Country to Call Home portray experiences that are so different from their own lives. When we start to consider what it must be like to flee our home and arrive in another country, without friends or family, we can better sympathise with those people for whom this is a reality. They are just like us, but circumstances in their own country have proved intolerable. Empathy engenders change. If we can’t put ourselves in others’ shoes, and extend the hand of friendship to all those struggling to find somewhere safe to call home, we lead narrower lives. We are richer for recognising and celebrating our similarities and our differences. The image of Alan Kurdi changed hearts and minds and I hope this book will too.
A Country To Call Home, edited by Lucy Popescu, includes stories, flash fiction, poetry and original artwork from some of our finest children’s writers: Hassan Abulrazzak, David Almond, Moniza Alvi, Sita Brahmachari, Brian Conaghan, Kit de Waal, Miriam Halahmy, Peter Kalu, Judith Kerr, Patrice Lawrence, Michael Morpurgo, Anna Perera, Bali Rai, Chris Riddell, S. F. Said and Jon Walter. Cover illustration by Haymanot Tesfa.
Lucy Popescu is a writer, editor and critic with a background in human rights. She was director of English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee from 1991 to 2006 and co-edited the PEN anthology, Another Sky. Her book The Good Tourist is about ethical travel and human rights. She volunteers with Freedom from Torture as a creative writing mentor working with refugees. In 2016 she published A Country of Refuge with Unbound. Lucy passionately believes in the power of fiction to promote empathy. She lives in London and is available for interviews, features and events.
Extract from A Country To Call Home
Did You See Me?
by Kit de Waal
For Alan Kurdi, the boy on the shore
Did you see me in Kobane, running through the square? Did you hear my father’s shout? We were laughing, my brother and I, and my father came lumbering after us, his arms outstretched. ‘You’re too far away! I cannot catch you!’ And did you hear my mother’s laugh, see her hands clasped together and the something in her eyes she kept only for us?
Did you see us at the end of the day, lying in the shade with our bellies full, did you see me dreaming? If you had touched me then, I would have been warm and damp, soft under your hand.
My father brought home a puppy only weeks before. It ran into the street and under a car and our tears, my brother’s and mine, made salty tracks on our faces. ‘It was quick,’ my mother said. ‘He is sleeping now.’ But I wanted him to stay, wanted his yellow fur and his black eyes, his rough tongue, his need of me.
You didn’t see when the bricks fell and crushed my mother’s skull. But we watched my father rub the dust into his hair, his beard, tear his clothes, raise his arms to heaven. He dressed us in our warmest clothes, took bread for the journey, and we had to run to keep up. We waited in the camp, sat at midnight on the hard stones of the beach. Waited again while my father tore crusts for our supper.
On the boat, I felt his arms outstretched around me, mile after mile, even when the sea was angry, mile after mile. Did you see me when the waves bounced me up and away? Did you hear me shout? Did you see me running in the water? ‘I cannot catch you!’ he wept.
And when you touched me on the beach, I was cold and wet under your hand, the sand in my mouth, the salty sea in my belly.
You only saw me then.
Illustration by Chris Riddell