Anthology project aims to rewrite refugee narrative

Syrian families arrive in Toronto Pearson airport in 2015. Photo: Domnic Santiago/Flickr

Utopia, translated literally, means "no place," according to Canadian writer Karen Connelly, who has landed at Berlin's 18th International Literature Festival directly from Lesvos, Greece, her other home. It's a fitting statement concerning the subject matter of the panel she is sitting on. (The word was coined by Sir Thomas More in 1516 as the title of a book -- it's a marriage of the Greek for "ou" (not) and "topos" (a place). Its meaning is an ideal place that does not exist).

Connelly, a human rights activist whose 11 books of poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction include three books that have explored the stories of Burmese dissidents, political prisoners and refugees, was one of four writers launching a preview of the anthology Refugees Worldwide II.

"The problems of the world can be overwhelming, but many people do care," proclaimed Connelly, whose life path has taken her into many places of conflict. Her 2005 novel The Lizard Cage (set in a solitary confinement cell in Burma) captured Britain's Orange Broadband New Novelist's Prize and was shortlisted for the Kiriyama Prize in the U.S. The Toronto-based writer has travelled extensively in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, including living on the Thai-Burmese border on and off over the years.

"I understand sometimes, it is a refuge to look away."

The anthology's first edition was launched in 2017 -- cofounded by the festival's director Ulrich Schreiber along with editor Luisa Donnerberg and translator Lucy Curzon -- as an attempt to draw away the refugee narrative from Eurocentricism. This second edition will be published in 2019 by Ragpicker Press in English and Wagenbach Verlag in German.

You can purchase the first edition, which came out in September 2017.

"We actually need to look...but that's a hard thing," said Connelly, who has also worked with refugee groups on Lesvos where thousands of Syrians have landed (in 2017, it was 50 per day according to the local government and surged to 200 each day this spring). The Moria refugee camp on the island holds 7,000 people -- it's at 300 per cent capacity.  

"We need to teach compassion but how do we enact it? 'How to close the space that separates us?' to quote John Berger."

The presentation in Berlin emphasized how the stories in the collection concern all types of refugees so there is no one prevailing story arc and in this way, all the stories touch our lives. Colombian writer Melba Escobar De Nogales read from her story about Venezuelans trying to escape the economic downfall of their country, as well as fellow Colombians who have found themselves without homes after living next door for decades. Jordanian-Palestinian author Ibrahim Nasrallah read an excerpt concerning his childhood memories of life before he had to leave Palestine.

Connelly said she thought carefully about what she needed to put to paper.

"I didn't want to use my experience of sponsorship," admitted the writer, who banded together with a group of friends to sponsor a Syrian-Bedouin family, a couple with four children from ages two to 11, in Toronto. "I wasn't taking notes while it was happening because I didn't want to take advantage of the situation."

'How we make human contact'

In the end, she decided to tell the world about Canada's sponsorship program and the country's own fraught history with migration and colonialization through her experience with the family. "In Your Hands" focuses on beginnings with the family while weaving in the Canadian media response, the country's own refugee history and the ways in which our national story, sometimes partial myth, has been told and retold.

"I wanted to show how we make human contact right from the first day," she told the audience. "Also, they are a Bedouin family and illiterate, so I wanted to explore the idea of language learning."

Connelly spoke of hypocrisy on everyone's part -- including herself. She revealed she had to get over her own "Western concepts of what they were supposed to be."

"You can have this 'Helper Syndrome' where you have prejudices and concepts of the people you are assisting," she said.

Connelly disclosed, in a separate interview with rabble.ca, that her group had been frustrated over the refugee husband's reluctance to take on any of the jobs they had been trying to get him. Jassim (names have been changed in the story) was insistent that he should get a car and the group -- comprised of eight and all living downtown with no vehicles -- reminded him about the cost of insurance and gas, and the difficulties of car ownership in a metropolis like Toronto.

"Eighteen months later, they're doing really well," reports Connelly. "They've found another place downtown and Jassim got another bigger vehicle -- a van. He recovers old furniture and metals and stuff and resells them."

It became a lesson for the so-called "helpers."

"They are so resourceful. They know who they are -- what they need," she said, shrugging her shoulders. "The family will be fine. The children are already so beautiful and brilliant."

"In Your Hands" is a compact reportage that is both wide and deep, delving into Canadian history (the Vietnamese refugees of the 1980s), the country's brutal colonial past and present (such as missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls), the tragedy that struck a Burmese friend attempting to get his wife and children to Canada and the reasons why she doesn't use the word "refugee" which "sucks power and agency from the vulnerable person."

During the panel's discussion, the questions were posed: Why bother to write about this? What can a compilation like this do?

"The pathology of the bystander has infected the world," noted Connelly. "You have to do what you can."

In her piece, Connelly writes of messages she gets through email or Facebook from people all over the world:

"Will you help me?

I will try."

At the end of the panel's presentation, Nasrallah evoked his own thoughts on why he writes about himself as well as about the struggles and experiences of others in places such as the Saudi Arabian desert.

"I write therefore I am," he said through an interpreter. "You must understand the suffering of others in order to understand your own."

June Chua is a Berlin-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for rabble.ca.

Photo: Domnic Santiago/Flickr

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