English PEN, 'mightier than the sword' promotes literature and human rights, defending the rights of persecuted writers around the world, as well as working with different groups in the UK. Recently PEN has focused some of its energies and funds towards working with refugees and asylum seekers, to support their development as writers. As a writer I can think of nothing more frustrating than being forced into exile, losing my language and my ability to communicate through my pen.
PEN has been running a series of creative writing workshops in the past year for refugees and asylum seekers, as well as migrant workers and I have had the privilege of tutoring some of the groups. Writing in English and not one's mother tongue presents linguistic, practical and emotional issues to the writers. Many of the participants in these workshops and those I have been involved with in other settings, are already published and recognised novelists, poets, journalists and playwrights in their own countries, in their mother-tongue. But now they must start all over again, not only mastering a new language, but trying to engage with the tricky UK publishing industry.
Some of the participants have been persecuted as writers in their own countries and have been forced to flee. This is the background to one particular writer, Stephanie Ndoungo. Stephanie is from Cameroon and her mother-tongue is French. As a law student in her home country she took on journalism to fund her studies. Unfortunately she fell foul of the authorities and was forced to flee. She arrived in England in 2003 and sought asylum. Little did she know it would take almsot 7 years and many weary applications to the Home Office before she would be given refugee status and indefinite leave to remain. Stephanie has not seen her family since she fled Cameroon and only has telephone contact.
I met Stephanie on the Write to Life programme at the Medical Foundation. Stephanie was keen to work on poetry with me. Some of Stephanie's poems have been published in the anthologies of the Write to Life programme, such as the example below. Stephanie has also read her work at book festivals around the country.
In January 2010 Stephanie was invited to attend a training day run by English PEN to develop their work with refugee and asylum seekers attending PEN workshops. I was asked to interview Stephanie and open up her story to the group. Stephanie gave us an extraordinary insight into the experiences of being an asylum seeker in England, arriving with no resources, no support and almost no English. Initially Stephanie could not find a Cameroon community and was supported by a Congolese charity. This meant she could at least use her French but she still felt cut off from her own community. It was very difficult to find others from the Cameroon in London.
Stephanie told us how in those early years her life felt like " a waiting game." Waiting for the post, waiting for her court dates, waiting for another interview. She was expected to tell her story over and over again and had to make sure the details did not change. Time passed, another year in her life and another request for new evidence to corroborate her story. But how could she constantly nag friends and family back home for more and more documents?
Stephanie wrote the poem, MY SOIL, ( see above) when she was feeling homesick for her country, her family and her friends. She had brought so little with her.
Except for these dried seed pods.
Writing poetry opened a door for Stephanie and gave her a chance to express herself in a different way. "Writing poetry about yourself," she says, "is more difficult than journalism. You are not always aware before you write, what is actually on your mind. It is difficult to open your life to others in this way." Writing poetry, attending workshops and sharing writing with others for Stephanie has been " part of the healing process."
Being an asylum seeker is to live a life of very restricted choices. You can't work or even volunteer, you can't do an ESOL course to improve your English, you can't shop where you want. For Stephanie and so many others like her, you move from being an independent professional person to complete dependence on the system. "Being an asylum seeker can become an excuse not do things. Its very difficult to meet people and that's where the workshops were so good, " says Stephanie. "I met my first friend from Cameroon in a workshop."
And then the great day comes when finally you are awarded refugee status. There is no warning. A letter suddenly arrives from the Home Office and your life is turned upside down.
We had a special cake on the Write to Life programme to celebrate and there were many mixed feelings around the room, from those who had already achieved the same status and those still waiting, sometimes for years. But once the initial joy subsides, then a whole new set of problems start. "You have no preparation for getting refugee status," Stephanie says."There is no support system, no funding for education. Now you are faced with a whole new set of choices and its scary."
But Stephanie is a very determined person. She has committed herself to the country which took her in and gave a new chance at life, the country which introduced her to 'Only Fools and Horses, 'Yes Minister' and all the different accents and dialects in the English language which she loves. She has enrolled on a Social Work course and is determined to become a professional worker in London, looking forward to the day when she can buy her own flat and make a home for herself and her four year old son, Trevor.
"What I love about poetry," says Stephanie, " is that you can say so much in so few words."
Our experience of listening to Stephanie's story on our training day has given us new insight into life as an asylum seeker and the deep needs of writers trying to express themselves in their adopted language, dislocated from their home and their country.
The work of English PEN in providing this group the opportunity to develop their writing is an essential part of their work in our time.