The Refugee Council is committed to promoting a more positive image of asylum seekers and refugees; in this project the poet worked with different refugee groups in Brixton and Leeds. These included women's groups at the day centre, Kosovan refugees at the reception centre in Leeds, working with more advanced English classes in the Council's Training and Employment Section, and working with the older residents of Agnew House. Poetry written out of this project was featured during Refugee Week 1999, read on BBC Radio Four, and published in the Council's magazine In Exile.
Chrissie Gittins's first adult poetry collection is Armature (Arc, 2003); her children's poetry collections are Now You See Me, Now You ... (Rabbit Hole, 2002) and I Don't Want an Avocado for an Uncle (Rabbit Hole, 2006). Her first short story collection is Family Connections (Salt Publishing, 2007). Chrissie also writes plays for BBCR4, and her website is www.chrissiegittins.co.uk. [Updated 2006]
September - December 1999
Last Saturday evening saw, for me, the culmination of this placement. The Corinthian Chamber Orchestra had offered to play their Christmas concert at St. James's Piccadilly in aid of the Refugee Council. For ten minutes after the interval, between a Mozart Piano Concerto and a Motet, a poetry reading was scheduled. A group of five of us sat in a row of chairs between the front pew and the violins. After being introduced by the Chair of the Refugee Council we got up one by one to read - Francia from Equador, Sayah from Iraq, a tutor who read a poem on behalf of a Turkish woman, Genc who had been my translator when I visited a Kosovan reception centre in Leeds, and myself.
The poems had come from workshops, conversations and tape recordings with people who use four of the services which the Refugee Council provides. One of these was the Women's Group at the One Stop Service which meets on a Tuesday. The workshop was translated simultaneously into Portuguese, Spanish, Farsi and French - by the women themselves, by volunteers and by Refugee Council translators. The women bring their children along and sometimes the only way to ensure quietness if a piece was being read was for a mother to breastfeed her child. We looked at the identities, cultures, and relationships which had been left behind, and tried to find ways, through writing, of bearing witness to the past.
During Refugee Week in November the BBC World Service picked up on a press release about the project and I was asked to go to Bush House to do an 'illustrated interview' for their weekend Spotlight programme. The edited piece included two poems which came from the Women's Group and one that I had written about a woman who lives at the Refugee Council home for the elderly in Golders Green.
Obviously much of the material which was being drawn on to write poems is very raw, especially for the women in the Women's Group who are recently arrived. When I played the tape of the World Service programme in my last session with the Women's Group a woman from Angola broke down when she heard me reading her poem. She had read the poem, given permission for it to be used, we had talked about it that morning. But none of this was enough to prepare her. It made me realize that she couldn't have known what it was going to mean to have her poem read on the radio.
The two groups I worked with at the Training and Education Service were attending English classes. These were the only classroom-based-sitting-around-a-table groups in the project. 'Why are we writing poems when we can't speak English', one woman asked. She made a similar comment after having read her poem at St. James's.
The only way to work at the Leeds reception centre for Kosovan refugees I felt was with a tape recorder. It was home for them and I wanted to fit in with their comings and goings and domestic routines. This was the most devastating part of the project. These men and women were welcoming and kind to me and very much wanted me to hear their stories. But what stories. I was in shock the day after getting home, but not at all sorry I had gone.
The BBC World Service programme is going to be used as a teaching aid by tutors in the Training and Education Service. The poems are going to be made into posters in house to display around the various buildings of the Refugee Council. And if funds are raised the poems will also be published in a pamphlet for the Refugee Council to sell.
- Chrissie Gittins
Return to top