By Christine O’Gara

I volunteered at one of the Hastings Literary Festival events recently – the Kino 24th September – at which a panel discussed refugees in Britain and promoted the book Refugee Tales. One of the contributors, Bidisha, spoke about the endless form-filing involved and how refugees are set up to fail, often missing deadlines for paperwork as they are moved on to a new address while the paperwork needed sits unopened at their old address. 

She read us M’s tale from the book. M declared himself not wanted even in his own country much less anywhere else. M’s forte was his skill with languages, translating for fellow refugees when needed and being told by hotel staff, at least, how he would be missed whenever he was moved on. 

Simon Smith read another tale, this time of a man using and improving his cooking skills. And Nadene Ghouri reduced the audience – and herself – to tears, talking about her recent trip to Afghanistan and the backward step that has been taken there. The panel’s chair, David Herd, commented on the many skills refugees bring to this country – yet they are not allowed to use them as working here is forbidden while they wait and move and wait and move.

Nadene Ghouri at the Kino
CREDIT: Caitlin Lock for Hastings Literary Festival

A week later I was in Scarborough visiting friends. After a day out in Whitby, we decided to have a drink at The Grand Hotel before heading back to our B&B. The building was indeed grand, but it wasn’t the sedate place I’d imagined. No piano bar here! Instead, it was a hive of humanity and noise, the huge reception area taken up with groups of adults; and there were children running around excitedly and going up and down the impressive staircase. Bingo was about to start in one of the former ballrooms, and in the bar downstairs, rather than cocktails, it was serving bottomless quantities of tea and coffee from flasks. It was Middle-East-meets-British-coach-trip-holiday. 

We puzzled over this demographic as we had our drinks. Then, back upstairs waiting for our taxi, a group of girls aged six or seven, some veiled, ran in and out of the main door. One of them, in a pink tracksuit, came over and stared up at me and said in accented English, her face serious, “Your back is open.” 

“What?” I said, puzzled as to what she meant and why she was talking to me. “Your bag,” she repeated pointing to my shoulder. “Is open.” 

[The girl] smiled back, her face lighting up. It was a beautiful moment.

“Oh!” I let out in surprise, shifting my small rucksack off my shoulder and zipping it up. “Thank you!” She moved away and I caught her eye as she rejoined her friends. I smiled and gave her a thumbs up. She smiled back, her face lighting up. It was a beautiful moment.

Afterwards in a taxi, the friendly driver told us how The Grand is no longer ‘grand’: how it had gone downhill and currently housed a lot of refugees from Afghanistan; how we should have gone to The Palm Court Hotel next door. I listened as I silently disagreed, thinking of the sweet girl in pink. 

I wondered how long she’d been here and about her parents – what skills had they brought to this country that they weren’t being allowed to use? When would they be moved on? What forms are they filling in? I keep thinking about that Afghan girl. I’m glad I met her. I hope she blossoms here in Britain, and I hope our blinkered government allows her parents to blossom too.

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