Sunday, 27 July 2014

The language of exile in "Leave to Remain"

I was privileged to attend a screening on Friday of Leave to Remain, followed by a Q&A session with producers and stars of the film. This is a moving and important film about the experience of unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the UK and of the challenges and moral dilemmas they face. The focus of the film is primarily on the issue of story-telling: how stories come to be created and remembered, and the consequences of their being or not being believed. For many unaccompanied asylum-seeking children their stories are literally all they bring from their native land. They frequently have no family, no possessions, no papers and no cultural context, so the stories of their childhood, the traumas they have faced and their journey to the UK are their only currency and all they have to define themselves. Yet this is a currency that is treated with contempt and suspicion by the officials with whom they have to deal.

In the film Lunar House, the UK Border Agency headquarters in Croydon, is a looming grey monolith packed with menace, and hardly surprisingly. Within its walls truthful answers to fundamental questions like 'How old are you?' or 'Where do you come from?' are simply ignored. When one of the central characters says in dari that he comes from Nuristan the interpreter adds for the benefit of the interviewer, "But he may well be from Pakistan." When he says he is 15 the interviewer begins an intrusively personal yet cruelly casual series of questions about pubic hair and wisdom teeth. At one point the interviewer asks his colleague how tall he thinks the boy is and writes down the answer. He neither asks the boy nor actually measures him.

Some stories are believed of course, but it is clear in the film that truthfullness is not the key factor in such belief. When the English teacher/care-worker of the children lies in court about one of them no one so much as questions his account. When, at the beginning of the film, one of the central characters gives a moving but fictitious account of his experiences in Afghanistan his audience of middle class do-gooders is moved to tears. And for the other central character, lost and alone in an alien land, it is the rediscovery of his own stories that brings him back to life. In the Q&A after the film the (non-professional) actor who plays this character told of how the motivation for a central scene in which he catches and rides on a sheep came from a story his older brother used to tell him from before the family arrived in the UK.

In this post though I want to focus on another issue that this film explores- one that has fascinated me since I first came across unaccompanied refugee children early on in my teaching career. This is the question of how unaccompanied refugee children come to develop their own language of social interaction in a new land.

Some time ago I heard a radio programme (which I cannot now track down) about the development of a particular creole language in the Caribbean in the 17th or 18th century. Children of slaves were taken from their parents at a very early age and effectively imprisoned in large "convent schools." The explicit purpose was to remove them from the (presumably pernicious) social context of language, ethnicity and culture into which they had been born, so "saving" them from eternal damnation. Yet they were given no new context. No effort was made to teach them language and they were left pretty much to their own devices socially, being treated simply as mute and compliant servants. What these children did was to develop a creole of their own, stringing together whatever words and snippets they overheard into an entire language. This became their only language, as they had no memory of the language of their parents, and over a surprisingly short period of time it developed into a properly sophisticated language of its own, with the complexity of a tongue developed over hundreds of generations.

And this is precisely what happens to unaccompanied refugee children, only it is not the literal language they have to create from new (we are marginally more enlightened now, and at least help them learn English) but the language of social interaction and inter-personal relationships. Like the Caribbean slave children they have been utterly ripped away from their native cultural and family context and placed in a new 'family' alongside other adolescents with whom they have little in common. In the group of teenagers in the film there are individuals from every war-torn region on the globe. Outsiders may see such groups as principally "asylum seekers" but what similarities really are there between Afghanistan and Angola? The teacher of the group clearly feels relieved for Abdul that there is at least one other afghani boy in the group, but Abdul is hazari and Omar pashtun. They may both speak dari but they have little else in common.

What is more their new context is one in which the accepted rules of social interaction no longer apply. Truth has no currency in this new world: tell the truth and you will be automatically disbelieved; tell a big lie and you may well get away with it. Adults in this new world are almost invariably hostile and threatening. The officials in Lunar House and the lawyers in Omar's immigration status review hearing are rude, contemptuous and uncaring and there is only one adult in the film- the teacher- who treats the children with anything like respect.

Superficially these children may appear to be living the same sort of life as those whose immigration status is not in question but appearances can be deceptive. In one scene they all dress up in fancy dress (or those who have more than one set of clothes do) to go out to watch the Diwali fireworks. Aside from Abdul's initial terror at the sounds of the explosions they have a nice night out- another group of teenagers loudly enjoying themselves without any adult escort. Yet the mood changes rapidly and dramatically when they see police outside the overground station. This is not because they have been up to no good- they have no drugs or weapons, have not been drinking and have caused no trouble- but because they have brown skins and no valid papers. And sure enough one is arrested, handcuffed and taken away, presumably to Yarl's Wood or one of the other charmingly named immigration removal centres.

So what do these teenagers do, ripped from their cultural context and placed together to make a new life between themselves? They do what the Caribbean slave children did: they begin to develop their own language. They work out modes of interaction and ways of communicating friendship, mutual supportiveness and compassion. So on the issue of truth and lies they seem to accept that some lies (like the specific area you came from) are entirely socially acceptable because they are simply weapons in the battle with the immigration service, whilst others are forbidden because they corrode some fundamental sense of who one is.

Some of their invented language of social interaction is a little bizarre: when Zizidi is devastated because her leave to remain has been refused Abdul seeks to comfort her by stealing an entire lamb carcass and attempting to roast it in a small domestic oven. Much is hidden from the outside world and the film reminds us that we will never truly understand the languages these children have had to work out for themselves. When Abdul first arrives he speaks no English and Omar translates for the benefit of the teacher. However we the audience (unlike the teacher) have the benefit of subtitles and know that actually Omar is not translating accurately at all. There is a strange battle going on here of which the teacher (well meaning as he is) guesses nothing.

I have had experience myself of this impenetrability: when you think you understand the social language by which unaccompanied refugee children live their lives but suddenly realise that you understand nothing at all. There was in my school a boy who had escaped one of the conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa. He had been well supported and integrated into the school and now seemed happy, well adjusted, sociable and popular. And then one day he severely wounded his best friend with a Stanley knife. He was only messing around and had no intention of hurting anyone but what struck me was his reaction afterwards. He immediately said sorry to his friend, but was then apparently completely baffled that despite this people were shocked by what he had done. I had to exclude him permanently and in the hearing, when asked if he wanted to speak, he simply said, "But I said sorry. I thought that would make it alright."

In the last line of the film Abdul says (in dari) "I didn't know it would be so difficult." For me it is not just the pressures and perils of living on the edge that makes life difficult for these children. It is the fact that, alone and unsupported, they have to develop an entirely new language of social interaction to make sense of their new lives.

No comments:

Post a Comment