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?

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis