Talking it over

A Place for Us
BBC Radio 4

A beautifully simple documentary heard from three of the 1,277 teenagers currently seeking refugee status in the UK. Hassan, an Iraqi, spoke about the couple of weeks following his arrival spent sitting in an east London hostel watching television and not comprehending a word. He recalled the days immediately before, in Iraq, handcuffed in the back of a car with a bag over his head. All the time his voice was markedly light and gentle, the only indicator that these memories were killing him the one sigh – held for a long time – as though he was suddenly faced with all this life and was trying very hard to refocus his camera.

An aid worker spoke about the unimaginable journeys some of these children have made: strapped under lorries or stuffed into industrial fridges, seven at a time, most dying of thirst or suffocation. Her voice, too, was light and unassuming, going from one horror story to another like a practiced commuter calmly folding the newspaper into ten-inch lengths. And the programme proceeded like this: no narrator as such, no bullyingly nailed-home statistics, no self-pity (or indeed any kind of pity), merely a low-level tenderness for the thousands lost on the way.

At an English class at Dost, a London centre for young refugees and migrants, the names of innocuous places were heard being repeated for correct pronunciation: “Barking”, “Croydon”, “Amersham”, articulated over and over again in a hotchpotch of accents, creating a brilliant sound constellation. When someone got the giggles over the word “courgette” you noticed how much laughter can have a foreign accent. Faryad from Afghanistan began telling a story about his (now likely dead) mother – the widow of a Taliban fighter – did all she could to get him out of the country and away from the insurgency. He stumbled over the phrase “I left” several times – trouble, ostensibly, with the tense.

You could just hear someone in the background (almost imperceptibly, the sound was barely there but it was persistent) mouthing the right inflection to him. This was exceptionally visual radio: the boy in front of a producer with a microphone – and to the side, a teacher encouraging him to ignore his shyness, his waves of guilt and bathos, and to merely put one syllable in front of the other, for now.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What is Israel thinking?