A Country of Refuge

A Country of Refuge (Unbound Books) is a poignant, thought-provoking and timely anthology of writing on asylum seekers from some of Britain and Ireland’s most influential voices.

Compiled and edited by human rights activist and writer Lucy Popescu, this powerful collection of short fiction, memoir, poetry and essays explores what it really means to be a refugee: to flee from conflict, poverty and terror; to have to leave your home and family behind; and to undertake a perilous journey, only to arrive on less than welcoming shores.

These writings are a testament to the strength of the human spirit. The contributors articulate simple truths about migration that will challenge the way we think about and act towards the dispossessed and those forced to seek a safe place to call home.

A powerful, and frequently harrowing, collection … I read it with fascination’ Penelope Lively

A beautiful insight into the painful individuality of the refugee’ Jon Snow

'Full of powerful writing. Many of the best contributions come from writers who are refugees, or second-generation refugees, themselves … Again and again, these writers argue for empathy.Samantha Ellis, TLS

'A first-class collection of essays and poems, stories and memoirs. Addictively readable, they are strong, angry, compassionate and enlightening.Sue Gaisford, The Tablet


from the TLS

Lucy Popescu’s A Country of Refuge is a collection of both fiction and non-fiction about refugees. A moving essay by Joan Smith about Anne Frank’s father’s attempts to seek asylum, comparing it to the story of Aylan (Alan) Kurdi, a victim of “the same depressingly bureaucratic response to refugees fleeing fascist regimes”, proves that empathy is not the preserve of fiction. Not every contribution earns its place. An excerpt from Rose Tremain’s story “The Beauty of the Dawn Shift” is not nearly as powerful as the whole original. It is also a little unclear why two pieces (neither new) by William Boyd about Ken Saro-Wiwa have been included, since Saro-Wiwa was never a refugee. But this book is full of powerful writing. Many of the best contributions come from writers who are refugees, or second-generation refugees, themselves. Hassan Abdulrazzak describes an encounter with an RSPCA inspector who refuses to allow his Iraqi family a dog, and his realization that “it was going to be a long, hard struggle to learn all the rules of my new homeland”; Katharine Quarmby tenderly describes her mother’s induction into the mysteries of The Archers.

Amanda Craig’s fine satire “Metamorphosis 2” riffs on Kafka to imagine a celebrity called Katie F waking up to find she has turned into a “giant cockroach” who hisses her vile xenophobia while safe within her massive carapace, comforted by the fact that “it wasn’t as if she were fat, or tattooed or a foreigner”. Sebastian Barry’s “Fragment of a Journal, Author Unknown” follows one of the tens of thousands of people who fled Ireland during the Famine, risking their lives to cross the Atlantic in “coffin ships”. Like today’s refugees, dehumanized as a “swarm” by David Cameron, Barry’s protagonist knows he is not wanted:

Our sin was that we were poor and therefore nothing. Our sin was that we were too many in the eyes of government and that it would be a blessing on the country if we were to perish. In this way we were described as a plague on our country and nothing more than vermin and rats.

Again and again, these writers argue for empathy. A. L. Kennedy imagines two tourists watching refugees inside an enclosure, like animals in a zoo; “we came for a bit of a show and some action”, says one. “And they’re hungry, aren’t they? It’s like they’re starving. All that grabbing.” Courttia Newland imagines what would happen if British citizens had to flee. “I hadn’t expected that many people to be that afraid” says a man who is trying to save his family. It is a striking, devastating piece of writing that never patronizes the reader nor the refugees who have inspired it.

The Tablet

Review by Sue Gaisford


Towards the end of this magnificent anthology comes the piece that made this hardened reviewer weep. Only six pages long, Marina Lewycka’s “A Hard-Luck Story” is written in the voice of Colin, a man who’s not had much luck. He has finally got a job, working at a deportation centre, when a woman insists on his listening to her story.

She is a doctor whose husband, an academic, has been “disappeared”, and she is about to be deported. Her experience is all too familiar. She managed to get to Libya and was put on an overcrowded boat, whose captain abandoned his passengers. Their boat capsized, and her small son was drowned. She saved her daughter, along with the tiny baby belonging to a woman she’d earlier noticed, who had also drowned. Rescued by people she described as Angels, she eventually got to England. Idly, Colin wonders why this had been where she had wanted to go. “I learn England is a good country,” she explains. But, raped and robbed, she had been dumped in a field, and now had nothing at all apart from the two little children.

Throughout her account, Colin adds his own comments: “Well, anybody can say that,” and, “It’s bloody hard work trying to keep you lot under control … don’t expect no sympathy from me.” When the moment arrives for her to be deported, she is injected with a sedative, and slumps to the floor. Colin hands the baby to the little girl. “That’s a nice touch, Colin,” says his supervisor. “It’s better if they go quietly.” “No more trouble from you, lady,” thinks Colin.

Lucy Popescu works closely with refugees, and has heard many such stories. Some of our finest writers have contributed to this book and the result is a first-class collection of essays and poems, stories and memoirs. Addictively readable, they are strong, angry, compassionate and enlightening.  Some are surreal: in Amanda Craig’s “Metamorphosis 2”, Katie F is transformed from airhead celebrity into a cockroach and meets a truly sinister fate, while in “Inappropriate Staring”, A. L. Kennedy seems to imagine a conversation among visitors to the monkey house – or are they actually casually watching a crowd of refugees? Elsewhere, Ruth Padel writes factually about Sangatte, Sebastian Barry about the coffin ships taking survivors of the Irish Famine to America, William Boyd about the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa and Nick Barley about his forebears, who found refuge here after the Hungarian uprising.

Though all so different, themes emerge, particularly the suffering of children. Kate Clanchy writes from the viewpoint of a teacher, whose refugee pupil, Shakila, describes running from a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, while Roma Tearne gives a harrowing account of the death of a small boy who did not get away in time. Joan Smith draws a parallel between Otto Frank, the father of Anne and the only one of his family to survive the Holocaust, and a Syrian Kurdish barber named Abdullah Kurdi, also fleeing with his family from a brutal dictatorship, only to see them all die. He is the father of the little boy, Aylan, photographed so pitifully washed up on the shore of Kos. Both men had relatives longing to take them in, and were thwarted, largely, by bureaucratic red tape. Such is still, far too often, the fate of the persecuted. Elaine Feinstein’s grandfather, fleeing from Odessa a century ago, had seen England as “the country of fair play”. If only that were still true.