Tag Archives: refugee tales

Leaving to Remain: the Refugee Tales

I hardly know where to begin or what to say.

This past week I walked, with some days as many as 120 people, 60 miles from Canterbury to London, passing through Faversham, Rochester, Gravesend and Dartford. We were former detainees (refugees and asylum seekers) from various parts of Africa, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, China and Nepal. We were the supporters and friends of those former detainees. And we were people trying to understand a world of tightening borders, increasing precarity, and hostile environments.


This was the Refugee Tales. The point was to be pilgrims together. To eat sleep and walk together day after day, sharing stories—stories of imprisonment, torture, slavery and escape—stories of survival, loss, persistence, and love. The stories are vessels, magic bags we put all the pain into and lightly sling on our backs, so we step softly, and the road, no matter how long hard or hot, is travelled in joy—collectively—by a community that knows it contains multitudes, can bear much together.

I’m shown a piece of paper—a form the ex-detainee must carry at all times, as he or she awaits an uncertain fate—imprisonment once again, deportation, or—possibly, occasionally—leave to remain. It informs you that this is “a person liable to be detained.” Liable. At any time. It takes its place amongst the history of such markers—brands on skin, yellow badges. It creates a category—the liable to be detained—that in our increasingly militarized states, in which a constant cut is being made between lives that matter and lives that do not—seems potentially limitless. Who, now, is not liable to be detained?

We know who is not. The white skinned, for the most part. The wealthy. But the ground is shifting quickly beneath our feet. The liable-to-be-out-of-work, the liable-to-be-impoverished, are turned by governments and media against the liable to be detained. Thus Brexit. Thus all the Trumps that are the swirling vortices of desperation and despair. The Refugee Tales project sets up its nightly camp, walks by day across this very territory that is being split—embodies a spirit that will not be split apart, turned one against another.


One night as I made ready to bed down in a church hall with several dozen men, I stood talking to two of my companions. One, an Eritrean, told of his escape from military service, the desperate crossing of the Sahara, imprisonment and slave labour in Libya to “pay” for his “safe” passage. The terrible crossing of the Mediterranean months later, and his detention in the UK after he finally arrived there. “Eight months detained,” he said, “no sleep. Pills. No sleep. I come here—sleep well. No pills. Sleep. Here—I have brothers.” To be this gorgeous, strong, and joy-filled man’s brother—just for a week to be his brother—is all that I could wish for.

Of course, after this week I return to my home and family and “normal” life; he does not. There is no immediate way around this difference. From different sides, we must chip away at this border—at all borders. We must lift and carry each other’s stories forward. Stories and poems will not dissolve borders, but them may help us find a path across, help others find the path across, or lead us to the point at which we can and will stand up to those imposing borders, and collectively, with our hands, pull them down.


Perhaps there is something of a paradox here, in the relationship between story and border. That the border is just a story in the end (the story that says we do not have enough, and that the other from without will take away the little we have, if we do not resist them), and that another story might unmake the border (the other is our guest and sharing with them means they will share with us and we will all grow stronger together). Leave to remain—another paradox at the heart of this issue. And another story. Everywhere in this world, throughout history, human beings have been leaving (where they were) in order to remain (alive). In our brief lives, it’s all we can do—leaving to remain a little longer together.

At the core of the Refugee Tales is a group of some of the most powerful, persistent, and generous women I have ever encountered. They are of all ages, though “mature” is perhaps the best word for most of them. They see the world for what it is, they feel its suffering deeply, and they act, warmly, firmly, without hesitation. They are the leaders of the Refugee Tales. Where could you possibly find women so consistently and unfathomably strong, I wondered? Everywhere, it turns out. Everywhere in social movements, women do the real work of holding borders open, of welcoming hosts, of pointing the way down the path. I want to name some of them here. I cannot remember them all, will not get all their names right, but want to name them here, haphazardly, because they are the movement, and this short note is just a dedication to them:

Anna and Avril and Chris and Christina and Rachael and Josephine and Sal and Nicky and Pi and Lucy and Sarah and Marieke and Thandu and Ufuoma and Patience and Alice and Jes and so many more.


why are there
country and

I mean—the rural
the spaces any of us
might strike out across
at any moment

Despite the countries
we may be nationed
in or from
and despite cities

If we walk far enough
we still find the
country if not
any countries

You see it is
the way boundaries
beget desires
to be unbound

That I am speaking of
in Kent—that greeny flower
that is no nation
but a pathway

For shared walking
escape across which
we strike out again
to be unbound we

All would be unbound
at the very moment
we tie ourselves one
to another once again