The kindness of strangers: some reflections on exile and refugees

Dear Readers

welcome to a guest post from Ruth Eversley who gave this talk at the International Women’s day  event at the Working Class Movement library earlier  this month

Some of what you read here may not be strictly accurate. I am slightly uncomfortable about claiming to be able to recall the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I only recently found out that the story I have been entertaining friends with for years about how my father met his second wife might be completely untrue. So my personal story, like all family stories is a mix of misleadings, myths and memories.

Last October, I joined in the Feminista Lobby of the House of Commons. We had been asked to choose one of five issues important to women
• Ending violence against women and girls
• Childcare for all
• Women’s abortion rights
• The stereotyping, objectification and sexualisation of women in the media
• The ensuring of justice for women seeking asylum.

feminista 2

Like most of you here, I would probably have found it extremely difficult to prioritise any one of these above the others. Except for the fact that since I retired I have been volunteering at a project for destitute asylum seekers and I have been incensed by their treatment in this country – if any group is more stigmatised as outsiders in the UK in 2013, I would be surprised.

While we were walking across to the Houses of Parliament, I got talking to the woman next to me. It took two minutes to establish that we were both called Ruth, we had both chosen the issue of asylum seekers, and that we were both daughters of German Jewish refugees. There was an instant understanding between us.

Second generation of survivors of the Holocaust are sometimes called ‘memorial candles’; for some, that means keeping the story alive, for others, like me, it seemed unimportant, a bit of interesting family history. But as I get older, I find myself thinking about it more and more and wondering what it means and what my responsibilities are. I haven’t found any great clarity of thought yet, but I don’t think it is so difficult to understand why the plight of today’s refugees and asylum seekers might resonate.

My siblings and I were brought up as Quakers – in their time the Religious Society of Friends were outsiders themselves, persecuted and imprisoned for their beliefs, barely tolerated by some within the Christian community; they are still a tiny minority but are always there in the vanguard of movements for social justice from fair trade to gay marriage. But even in the safe environs of the delightful Bournville Junior Mixed Infants School, in the centre of the Quaker-founded Cadbury’s village in Birmingham in the 1950s, I used to lock myself in the outside toilets at playtime while the little boys re-enacted the World War Two outside, killing off those unfortunate enough to be designated Germans. Many years later, I was teaching the Thomas Hardy poem ‘The Man I Killed’ and confronted again the absurdity that my grandfathers were on opposite sides in the First World War. If it wasn’t for the fact that not a single member of either family ever showed any sporting prowess whatsoever, I would add to my mythology the possibility that they had played football together during that famous Christmas Day truce.

In the early eighties, as a naive and idealistic newly-qualified teacher, I was in charge of the sixth-form general studies programme, which meant booking speakers. It was an election year, and (despite my university indoctrination of no platform for fascists) I thought it would be a good idea to invite speakers from all the political parties standing in Canterbury. And that meant including someone from a long-forgotten party called something like the English People’s Party for Folk who Fear Foreigners. Their candidate turned up – a lovely little old woman, and proceeded to convince a few spotty youths that there was nothing wrong with foreigners as long as they stayed where they belonged. Her line was that if you go somewhere you don’t belong, you will be unhappy and then you will start behaving badly. So if all foreigners went back where they came from, all conflicts would stop and the world would be a better place.

There are so many flaws in that argument that it is almost impossible to start – but I was left temporarily speechless. Apart from the fact that as chair, I wasn’t supposed to have an opinion, a sort of tortuous logic whispered in my head Well, you’re not really English – your dad was German, you don’t belong here, so if you argue with her you’re being disruptive and are proving her point!

I’m not sure why, but as a family we never sat down and talked specifically about my father’s family’s experience; we sort of absorbed it by osmosis. It wasn’t a forbidden topic but our focus was always on the future and our education. And it was that emphasis on education which probably explains how they came here in the first place. My great-aunt, Hedwig, had met Quakers working for the Friends’ Ambulance Unit in the First World War and had been so impressed by them that she arranged for her nephews, Hans and Ernst, to attend the Quaker boarding school Leighton Park near Reading, in the 1930s.

the Frank family

the Frank family

Their father, my grandfather, was called Otto. He was one of two Ottos born in Frankfurt in the 1890s. Both went to the Goethe Gymnasium, a highly rated secondary school, and both went on to do well in business. In the 30s, by now married and with two children, two daughters for one, two sons for the other, they saw the blazing writing on the wall and made their move, the one family to Amsterdam, the other to London. You probably know what happened to the Amsterdam family. Initially the business thrived but after a couple of years the family had to go into hiding in an attic where they were kept alive through the extraordinary efforts of their colleagues and friends but they were eventually betrayed and taken to the camps. There, his wife, Edith, and his two daughters, Margot and Anne died. As a child I was obsessed with Anne’s story and (much as I adored my own mother, coincidentally also named Edith) had a little fantasy that had Anne lived, she would have married my father – and my mother would have been Anne Frank. Serious bragging rights, there.

But the other Otto and his wife Dela, made it to London where they found a support system, re-built their family, made friends and stayed until their deaths many years later. They never lost their accents – my sister Judith and I once prayed for the ground to open beneath our feet while Grandma Eberstadt explained in her loud, strongly-accented voice exactly what was going on in the painting we were viewing in the National Galley. It was ‘The circumcision of the infant Jesus’. Total mortification. Their older son was interned as an enemy alien for a while but then joined the Pioneer Corps. He and his brother became naturalised British citizens, made good lives in England, one as an academic, the other as a businessman, and their children’s grandchildren with their multi-cultural German-English-Irish-Jewish-Catholic-Anglican heritage are just starting their education. The in-between generations have produced academics, social workers, teachers, entrepreneurs and business people, all making their contribution to the country which took them in. You could almost believe the Home Office Guide for New Residents when it claims that there is no place in British society for extremism and intolerance.

But of course, you would be wrong. Nowadays outsiders, asylum-seekers and refugees are, like the Franks and the Eberstadts, still too often dependant on the kindness of strangers. The prejudice and misinformation peddled by politicians and press turn desperate people into monsters and thieves, confused with economic migrants, demonised as benefit scroungers, isolated by poverty and stigmatised as criminals.

Stop for a moment and ask yourself, what is an asylum seeker?
We all have our own stereotypes, so don’t be embarrassed. Close your eyes and think of an asylum seeker. Is your image male or female? Young or old? Well-dressed or shabby? What colour is their skin? Where are they living? What are they living on? What did they do before they came here? Why are they here? What on earth would tempt them to leave home for the ordeal of disbelief, detention and destitution which awaits them here? How many of them do you think there are? What country are they from? (and are you surprised that Afghanistan, Iraq, Sierra Leone, Myanmar, the Palestinian Territories and South Sudan head the list?)

Now replace your image with the faces of :
the artist, Mona Hartoum and Alex Wek, the supermodel. How about Gloria Estefan, Olivia Newton John, Marlene Dietrich, Rachel Weisz.

when hitler stole pink rabbit

You might be familiar with the work of Judith Kerr, who wrote the wonderful children’s book When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and most of you will have heard of Isabel Allende, Anna Freud and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. All of them either refugees or the daughters of refugees who have each in their own way enriched our lives because they were given a chance to escape persecution and start again. They don’t meet the stereotype so beloved by the Daily Mail.

And Britain hardly leads the world in accepting refugees, not even in Europe, let alone the rest of the world – we fall well behind Germany and Italy, let alone Chad, Jordan, Kenya, and Iran. The UN reckon that over 43 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced by conflict by the end of 2010, the highest number in the past 15 years. Eighty percent of the world’s refugees are in … developing countries … and sometimes, it seems the loudest objections to refugees and asylum seekers come from regions that do not shoulder the biggest burden of accepting and hosting refugees. Recent figures claim that there are already over 1 million refugees from the war in Syria – most of them are in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan. Of the three million Afghan refugees, Iran has taken over a million. In the UK, we have seen maybe 23,000.

The numbers quoted are huge and they are all going in the wrong direction. The statistics show more people are fleeing their homes because of conflict. At the same time, fewer refugees and internally displaced people are returning home than in past years, and fewer still are finding places of resettlement in third countries.

Just to clear up any misunderstanding of what the words mean:
A refugee is a person who is outside their country of origin or habitual residence because they have suffered (or fear) persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or because they are a member of a persecuted ‘social group’. She or he may be referred to as an ‘asylum seeker’ until recognized by the state where they make a claim.

Someone like Marjorie, perhaps. In Uganda she was active in opposition politics at a grassroots level: working in her village, helping women to know their rights and teaching them reading and writing. She was imprisoned twice. She was tortured, she was raped, she was burnt with cigarettes. She was cut with razors and subjected to electric shocks.

Eventually she escaped and came to England. She was refused asylum. It took 6 years to fight her case through the courts until she was finally given leave to remain. The anxiety and the fear she endured throughout those years were terrible. It was scary but she says she just wanted to be able to breathe fresh air again.

Or Herlinde – when she came here she thought she would be safe, but she wasn’t. In total, she spent nearly three years in destitution. That means that she was not allowed to work but also she was not allowed to claim benefits and she was not given anywhere to live.

Women like Herlinde with nowhere to go, may spend their nights in shelters. Sometimes those shelters are full, and women are forced to spend the night on the streets. Women have been raped on the streets because they are sleeping rough. Some women go to the airport to sleep. Or they take a night bus, going around and around the streets of our major cities. Some women become prostitutes to survive.

They will tell you, being destitute affects your whole wellbeing; your mind, body and soul. You can’t plan your life. You feel useless and down. Symptoms of anxiety, depression, guilt and shame are common – social isolation and poverty have a devastating effect on your mental health, along with the hostility you encounter, the racism and the fear of deportation.

Eventually Herlinde was given leave to remain but she still finds it hard to accept how her life has turned out. She feels sad all the time knowing all those years have been lost. Living like a beggar was never meant to be her life.

So what goes wrong? Most refugees are escaping some form of ethnic or political persecution. But for women this is frequently accompanied by gender-based persecution. This includes rape and sexual violence, forced marriage, female genital mutilation and forced prostitution. Gender-related persecution is not adequately understood by the UKBA and this leads to them doubting the credibility of applicants’ accounts for no good reason. The instability this causes for women who are already highly vulnerable, and the impact on their mental and physical health, is enormous.
This attitude, this appalling ‘culture of disbelief’ is all-pervasive within the UKBA. And then information about the conditions for women from their home countries is either not available or isn’t adequately used to inform decisions on many women’s claims.

In research conducted by Asylum Aid nine out of ten women’s cases are initially refused, the majority because the women are not believed. The fact that nearly half of these decisions are overturned if the women manage to appeal their cases tells you how inefficient the system is. Not surprisingly, under the present regime, women seeking asylum are affected by a desperate lack of legal representation. The new funding plans for legal aid for asylum cases discourages legal representatives from taking the most complex cases to appeal.

The impacts of refusal on individual women are severe – in one recent study, of those women refused asylum, 25% had been detained, 67% were made destitute, and more than half had contemplated suicide.

Adding insult to injury – literally – is the incompetence of the UKBA – you’ve probably seen the stories of the 100,000 unopened items of post in 150 boxes left in a room in Liverpool which included recorded delivery letters some of them probably related to the 147,000 outstanding ‘legacy cases’ which have left people in limbo for an average of 7 years, (which means some applications have been ignored for at least ten years)

While I was gathering my thoughts for this event, I stumbled on story after story concerning asylum-seekers and their treatment in the UK. A Radio 4 play about a gay Iranian facing deportation, a mother who slept on the floor of a mosque for five months, surviving on handouts and, possibly the worst of all, a newspaper story about a Sri Lankan woman in her 40s tortured and raped by security services after being forcibly returned to Sri Lanka on a specially chartered UKBA flight.

But I also read a review for Glasgow Girls, a play based on the activities of a group of Drumchapel High School students who prevented the deportation of a fellow student by co-opting teachers, lawyers, and even the residents of the tower block where the girl’s family lived who set up an early-warning system in case anyone from the Home Office was spotted.

Glasgow Girls

Glasgow Girls

And I met Rebecca, who as a child had escaped Somalia for a refugee camp in Kenya, now a mother of two, at university studying jewellery design and with leave to remain (despite not knowing that for over a year, because the Home Office had lost track of her).

So there are success stories – and behind those stories is an over-stretched network of charities, self-help groups, churches, temples and mosques, and individuals, the odd politician and journalist who, for whatever reason, recognise that these apparent outsiders could and should be our neighbours, friends and family.

Half the people recognised as refugees by the UNHCR are women. Of those who make it to the UK, maybe 24% are women. By the time they get as far as towns like Oldham, the percentages are even lower, maybe under 10%. Most of the time, we don’t hear their voices, we don’t know enough about their stories. This lack of information and understanding feeds into a fear of the unknown, an unease which can lead, as we know only too well to intolerance, disbelief and maltreatment which shames us as a society which prides itself on its tolerance and respect for human rights.

As a retired English teacher, I remember the autumn term I spent with a lively class of teenagers when, by serendipity or synchronicity, we found ourselves studying witches in Macbeth, witches in The Crucible for English Literature, witches among the many supernatural forces in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and even Sabrina the Teenage Witch for Media Studies. It was also the time of year when their younger brothers and sisters were roaming the streets trick-or-treating for Halloween.

If the women we once condemned as witches can now be celebrated as wise women, herbalists and healers – heroines and even super-heroines in some cases – we can and should work to stop the demonisation of those women who have come to the UK for support and justice. The women who come to our project are amazing – what has happened to them and their families, what they have gone through to get here, the prejudice and ill-treatment they endure now they are here can sometimes seem unbearable. But these are stories you should believe.

The Oldham Unity Destitution Project supports 60+ refugees each week providing food and support. They welcome donations for more information contact

oldham-unity 2

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About lipstick socialist

I am an activist and writer. My interests include women, class, culture and history. From an Irish in Britain background I am a republican and socialist. All my life I have been involved in community and trade union politics and I believe it is only through grass roots politics that we will get a better society. This is reflected in my writing, in my book Northern ReSisters Conversations with Radical Women and my involvement in the Mary Quaile Club. .If you want to contact me please use my gmail which is lipsticksocialist636
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2 Responses to The kindness of strangers: some reflections on exile and refugees

  1. Barbara Dresner says:

    A brilliant and stirring article and great to see it with images after hearing Ruth deliver the speech live.

    Have contacted Stewart to see if I can be of any support in Oldham.

    Also fascinating to note just how many descendants of refugees to the UK get involved with supporting today’s asylum seekers..perhaps we could make more of that,particularly since many of us also woek in the public services?

    Let’s unite and fight!!

  2. G L O'Neill. says:

    What an enlightening and thoroughly impassioned article. Thank you so much for sharing this. I happened to come across this while searching desperately for contact details for the lovely Ms. Eversley. I have wanted to send you a letter (as we had discussed so many years ago) but you do not work there any more and I did not want such an important letter to never arrive in your hands (apologies for the double negative) I am going to send an email to the address above and hope you will hear word of my attempt to contact. It has been a long time and I have much to share.

    With hope and love

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