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Book Review: Refugee Tales

David Herd & Anna Pincus (Eds.)

Comma Press 2019

ISBN 1912697114

EDL: Teaching English as a Detention Language

‘You, me and those who came before’*

By Elizabeth Bekes**

Refugee Week 2019 was celebrated in the third week of June and less than a month later the third collection of Refugee Tales was published by Comma Press. Just like the previous two volumes, the book contains the retellings of the lives and loves of refugees and asylum seekers who have been affected by indefinite detention in the United Kingdom.

Some of the tales are recounted by the refugees themselves, others have been rendered by authors like Monica Ali, Jonathan Skinner, Abdulrazak Gurnah and Lytton Smith. Many of the stories depict lives that have been stuck in limbo; others describe the resilience of those who managed to win their case and are now helping other people. ‘Limbo’ is a Roman Catholic theological term (limbus means ‘edge’ or ‘border’) and is the holding place between heaven and hell where the soul resides until judgment. For the refugees whose stories we read, the holding place is a detention centre, and judgement may only come after a period that seems like an eternity: months or even years.

The refugees and asylum seekers telling their stories in the book live on the ‘edge’ and not because they have been looking for adventure. They come from war zones, failed states, fleeing perilous tribal and ethnic conflicts and political persecution. They carry the signs of torture on their bodies and the trauma of loss and tragic deaths in their minds. And in the “hostile environment” that has been created in the UK since 2012, their stories, by default, are not believed.

So what has all this got to do with ELT?

Among the nineteen stories there is one, “The Teacher’s Tale”, which is told by Emma Parsons from the perspective of an English teacher who teaches English to a refugee detained under the UK immigration system. Have you ever looked for a meaningful piece of extensive reading that can help the acquisition of vocabulary and enhance motivation through positive affective benefits? You’ve got it. So rather than providing you with an account of the other eighteen harrowing stories (that are also worth reading in their own right), let’s just look at this one in a little more detail.

The tale alternates between the English teacher sending emails (in italics) to a close relative and running a mental monologue talking to the refugee (represented by normal script, in inverted commas below). The first four lines set the scene:

Your card for X arrived safely. Thanks. I saw him this morning. I was hoping this email would describe a happy day with him. But no. He’s now frightened and lonely and back in a detention centre costing the taxpayer as much as it cost us to keep mum in the care home.

Not that taxing grammatically speaking, is it? Perhaps the terms ‘detention centre’ and ‘taxpayer’ need to be explained alongside why the verb ‘hope’ here is in the progressive form: used to express the speaker’s particular interest or concern, highlighting ‘nowness’ and making it more immediate.

And then a monologue in the teacher’s mind recalling the events of the same day; we learn that X had received a letter from the Home Office saying that they decided to deport him and his embassy was already preparing the travel documents. The next email on that cold November day describes to the relative how X was re-detained as the authorities were getting the travel papers for his deportation ready:

I could tell he was trying not to cry. It was awful. I left messages on his solicitor’s voicemail and stormed back to the reporting office and pleaded with one of the guards to find out if I could at least get his keys so that I could go and get his belongings and take them to him later in the detention centre. I waited. And waited. Waiting is a synonym for the whole bloody system. His keys were finally handed over, but I wasn’t allowed to see him.

X is taken back to the detention centre near Gatwick airport, and the teacher goes there every Tuesday after school for an hour of English. To teach ‘English for Detainees’. Mind you, the place is not called a detention centre. It’s called an Immigration Removal Centre and is run by a private security firm. And mind the fine difference: X is not yet a ‘deportee’, he is still a ‘detainee’.

X is not allowed his smartphone, it’s replaced by one without a camera and without Internet access. We learn that he used to attend adult literacy lessons at a college in East London. There wasn’t a good English language course available, but at this stage it is immaterial. The teacher and her mentee have got something more urgent to do:

“Now all we have time for is another kind of English altogether, not Adult Literacy, not ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), not EFL (English as a Foreign Language), not EAL (English as an Additional Language); the English we are forced to work on is EDL (English as a Detention Language) and it’s no fun.”

EDL in this context is a new subset of English for Specific Purposes (ESP), and probably many of the 25 thousand people detained at the end of December 2018 would be well advised to take a course in it. First and foremost, it helps you understand legalese, and this is the point where your extensive reading skills are truly tested and you, as a teacher, begin to doubt if it was a good idea at all to set this piece of reading for your students. ‘Appellant’, ‘respondent’, ‘alleges’, purports’, ‘opportunistic’, ‘not credible’ – and the whole unfathomable structure of dashes, dots, colons, brackets, initials, acronyms and abbreviations.

It then transpires that the Home Office has decided that X’s claims are ‘clearly unfounded’. The gist of the document is that there are no good new reasons for claiming asylum and no evidence…But there is evidence. Not that it is talked about much. It is too painful to remember.

So now, onto English for Medical Purposes and working on the language of a doctor’s report that will support a fresh claim for asylum. The doctor found X ‘credible’ and she still does. The word ‘torture’ does not need to be explained, but there are others: ‘flashback’, ‘deterioration of mental health’, ‘isolation’, ‘anxiety’, post-traumatic stress disorder’. Rated as five-diamond words under normal circumstances…

Will the detainee become a deportee?

It’s a race against time now. The fresh claim still hasn’t been lodged and he’s just received a letter headed Removal Directions. He’s due to be deported in six days. A flight has been booked.

The fresh claim is eventually put together in time, and the statements of support from people who have been helping X through his ordeal contain a different kind of vocabulary: ‘integrity’, ‘modest’, ‘dignified’. Words that the English teacher is really pleased to go over with him.

Hoping for a happy end? Six months have gone by with X still in detention.

His fresh claim was rejected. I can’t believe it. He was remarkably stoical about it. But the good news is that the solicitor managed to get the deportation order revoked. We are going to try and get him out on bail again. … It’s worth a try. He talked a lot about God today. … It clearly helps him so much. He talked about retaining the freedom he feels inside. He said ‘I have freedom in my heart. Because God lives, I can face tomorrow.’

And there we have to leave it. In limbo.

Refugee Tales III was edited by Anna Pincus and David Herd, in partnership with their charity Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG), and was publishes in July 2019 by Comma Press. Proceeds from this book go to Kent Refugee Help and GDWG.

Refugee Tales III is the third book in a series of collections. Volumes I, II and III are available to buy from retailers and directly from the Comma Press website:


*The theme of this year’s Refugee Week

**Former political refugee from Hungary, who claimed and was granted asylum in the UK in 1988

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