Friday, 15 January 2016

Writing about asylum seeking children

I have been writing about the experiences of asylum-seeking children for ten years and have read many heart breaking stories. I started with an educational resource commissioned by the Refugee Council entitled, Global Communities.  "I came back from Sunday School," writes Sado, 8, from Somalia, "and I remember seeing that our living room as well as our kitchen had collapsed. Then I saw tanks in front of our house and they began firing. It was terrible."

Giving a voice to the voiceless has been an important part of my drive to write and also to work with asylum seekers helping them to write their stories down. "Go and open the door," writes Noor, 15, "I see my country, I see the building where my family and friends live."
One boy said, "This has been the best day of my life," after he had read out a piece about his homeland, Iraq. At last his voice and his feelings had been heard and acknowledged.

I have always felt that is is huge responsibility to write fiction about the experience of being an asylum seeker. But the desire to show the human side of ordinary people, as opposed to statistics and anonymity, has been the impetus to keep me writing. In fiction I can weave my research into fictional lives to make the experience as authentic as possible while also creating three-dimensional characters my readers can believe in.

After the educational resource came a short story which lead to the writing of my first Y.A. novel, HIDDEN. Two teenagers save a drowning asylum seeker and hide him to save him from being deported. The novel was published in 2011, well before the current refugee crisis. One of my teens, Samir, is also an asylum seeker from Iraq. I was very keen to show that life in Iraq is not only defined by bombs and bullets. Samir talks longingly about his life back home when he helped his mother shop in the markets and played football in the street with his friends. Over the past year there has been a rising interest in HIDDEN again. It will be published in America ( Holiday House, autumn 2016) and has been optioned for the UK stage.

I have just completed a new story, Yasmin's Journey, about a Syrian girl running away from the war, (Ransom Books, October 2016). The book is for teen girls with low reading ages so my limit was 5000 words. Quite a challenge to cover so much ground in so few words!
In researching the book I came across some very sad  stories such as the three year old boy who cried until he was sick because he was separated from his family. Tears rolled down my face as I read this story. Fortunately a charity reunited the child with his parents.

As a writer I think it is fine to feel the pain and sorrow of people who are fleeing for their lives if I am to write an authentic and effective story. But Yasmin, 15, wears jeans and talks about her group of friends on What's App who call themselves The Fun Girls. If I make my book too serious and sad, who will want to read it?

My next book, The Emergency Zoo, (May 2016, Alma Books) is set just before the outbreak of WW2. It is the untold story of the culling of 750,000 pets - a pretty mind-boggling story on its own. But in my research I came across a story about two Jewish sisters from Germany,coming on the Kindertransport, who were desperate not to leave their dog behind. I therefore created a Jewish brother and sister from Frankfurt who become part of  a group of children who save their pets. 10,000 Jewish children came as unaccompanied asylum-seeking children from the Continent before the outbreak of war and mostly their families perished.

It is a sad fact that many of the children who arrive alone in the UK every week, fleeing war and devastation, will never see their families again. It is essential that we find the strength and imagination to write authentic stories which reflect their terrible experiences and give hope that they will be able to build new lives here with us in the UK.


Sue Purkiss said...

Lovely piece, Miriam. I'm so glad that Hidden is doing so well.

I have one of those 5000 worders to do too...

Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this post, Miriam!

Penny Dolan said...

Excellent and worthwhile post! Thanks for saying all this, Miriam.

Lynne Benton said...

Very well said, Miriam. I really believe that it is fiction that brings home the awfulness of war, terrorism and its aftermath, not least being forced to seek asylum in a different country. While a newspaper report can shock, in a work of fiction we begin to understand how the characters think and feel, and what motivates them to do what they do. These are the stories that stick in the mind long after the book is finished.

Anne Booth said...

What a lovely post. And I can't wait to read your new books.