Monday, 13 March 2017

With the Refugees: Leicester Refugees Meet MA Creative Writers

By Alexandros Plasatis

They were having their free meal at City of Sanctuary as they always do on Wednesdays. I was going from table to table to remind them about our creative writing workshop. Some were playing ping-pong, one was having a head massage, they were chatting, asking where they can go to learn English, in one corner others were picking up donated clothes and cans of beans or just staring. There were about eighty people there, in the refugee centre, and I was asked to go along to the workshop with ten. Up at the University of Leicester, MA students were waiting for us.

‘You coming for the writing workshop today, Mohammed?’

‘What writing, my teacher?’

‘At the uni, my good child…’

‘Ah, at the uni… My teacher, you look like Mr Bean.’

‘I know. After the workshop we’re going for a meal out in a real restaurant.’

‘OK, I coming.’

I moved to the next table, explained what the workshop was about. ‘…and then after the restaurant we are going to see teacher Jess. She runs a poetry thing called “Find the Right Words.”’ I moved to another table, explained, told them that it was going to be a long but fun day out, and they took the piss because I got too stressed, and we laughed. And with Maggie, a tireless volunteer at City of Sanctuary, we gathered fifteen refugees and asylum seekers, and started to make our way up New Walk. On the way to the uni, three guys were telling me how they made their way from their far away countries to the UK. 

 ‘I came in the back of a lorry, in the fridge.’

 ‘What cargo was in the fridge?’


 ‘My lorry was a chocolate fridge.’

 ‘Ah now that’s nice … How many of you were in the fridge?’

 ‘Twenty-five. Sometimes we had to stay inside for a whole day.’

 ‘Sorry to ask this, but I always wondered, when you wanted to go to the toilet, what did you do?’

 ‘We had a Coca-Cola bottle. We passed it around.’ 

 ‘And if you wanted to do the other thing?’

 ‘You don’t do the other thing.’

 ‘My lorry wasn’t a fridge. It was open. It carried logs.’

 We reached the university building, Maurice Shock. Corinne Fowler was there, she welcomed us and we made it to the classroom. Ten MA students were ready to deliver a creative writing workshop to the refugees. Sonia and Kassie had already come down to the City of Sanctuary once to get a feeling of the place and meet the refugees. Azra and Lauren had emailed me to ask what type of exercises they should be doing. And I work in the same building with Will. He works in the café and sometimes brings me the leftover sausage rolls:

 ‘Here, Alex, take these six sausage rolls and tell me, we’re thinking of doing this and this and this and this exercise with the refugees. What do you think?’ 

 ‘Oh man that’s very kind of you.’

 ‘You like them?’

 ‘They are lovely. Well, now this exercise sound good… yiam yiam yiam ah oh ah…’

Now, enough with that waffling on. I was asked by Jonathan Taylor to write a piece about my experience of the writing workshop delivered by his MA students. All right, Jonathan, I’ll tell you what I remember. I remember that your students were kind to the refugees; I remember how worried they were to make the refugees feel welcome. They were thoughtful – did you know they brought their own biscuits and crisps and drinks for the refugees? I saw tiredness in their faces, it was the good, sweet type of tiredness, it’s the tiredness that I see in people when they worry and care. Those who led the workshop worried about what the refugees would think of them, they saw them as they really are, equals, humans who, like you and me, can judge. The rest of your students who sat by the refugees helped and cared, they tried to explain what this and that exercise was about, and when the refugees with their poor English didn’t understand, your students didn’t give up, they tried again. And the refugees enjoyed it, they told me so later, they said, ‘We really liked it, Mr Bean, are we going there again?’ 

Job done, back to waffling now. The workshop finished and we left. We had some time to kill until the restaurant. We went to the university library, I showed them around, they found the big old books, they opened them, turned their pages carefully. We had more time to kill. It was raining heavily outside and we went to the library café. Maggie bought us coffee and tea, then we went to see Corinne again, in the Charles Wilson building. She had invited us to her salsa dance class. We danced, even I danced, but we had to go again, and the rain still came down hard. We took the bus to town, another bus to Narborough Road, had our dinner in a Turkish restaurant. We talked and ate, took photos and laughed, and the person who sat next to me, an Afghan bloke, said that this was the best meal he had for years:

‘Thank you, Alex. I feel like I’m with my family.’

‘Don’t thank me, I’m not paying for this.’

‘Who’s paying?’

‘No-one is paying. Get ready to grab your coat. We’re doing a runner.’

‘A runner?’

‘Can you help, Fatima?’

 ‘Which one is Fatima?’

 ‘The pregnant one. I’ll carry Aisha’s baby.’

 ‘No problem.’

 ‘No, actually, I'm joking, it’s Writing East Midlands that pays.’

 ‘Who are they?’

‘They are Aimee and Henderson and Heather and some other people that I don’t know.’

‘Tell them I thank them.’

Did you hear, Aimee, Henderson and Heather and some other people that I don’t know? That Afghan bloke wants to thank you.

We left again, went to the Western Pub, Upstairs at the Western, we saw Jess Green. She was the Lead Writer on the writing project with the refugees and asylum seekers, Write Here: Sanctuary. The place was packed, many people read their stuff, and so did two of our people, two refugees, after crossing country after country hiding for months inside lorries, they stood up there, in a small pub in Leicester, they stood up to read their poetry.

In the links below, you can read some poems and an article by Malka, an asylum seeker from Iraq.

Letter to Santa

I’m Human

Letter to Trump

Everybody’s Reading article

About the writer
Alexandros Plasatis is an ethnographer who writes fiction in English, his second language. In 2014 he was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing. His stories have or are due to appear in Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud, Unthology, Crystal Voices, blÆkk and Total Cant, and his academic article on how to undertake ethnography and turn it into fiction will be published in the next volume of Short Fiction in Theory and Practice. He lives in Leicester and is a volunteer at City of Sanctuary, where he aims to find and develop new creative writing talent within the refugee and asylum seeker community.

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