Learn about asylum seekers’ experiences at Charleston’s short story festival

Patience Agbabi. Picture by Lyndon Douglas
Patience Agbabi. Picture by Lyndon Douglas
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The idyllic setting of Charleston may seem a far cry from the Kafka-esque fate of hundreds of asylum seekers living three to a cell with no idea when they will be set free.

But the Gatwick detention centre is only a few miles up country housing human beings who believe they have become invisible to the rest of the UK under Britain’s policy of indefinite immigration detention.

Their story will be told during the Small Wonder short story festival at Charleston on October 1 when Anna Pincus, senior case worker at the centre for the past 10 years, and an outreach co-ordinator for its welfare group, will introduce two of the writers who have contributed to Refugee Tales.

Anna is the co-founder and co-ordinator of the book, which has become a modern Canterbury Tales. It took 18 months to set up the project before a group of well known writers was able to interview former detainees about their experiences. Their accounts were given anonymously but each graphically illustrates their situation. Renowned poet Patience Agbabi will read from The Refugee’s Tale. Writer and TV director Dragan Todorovic will present The Migrant’s Tale.

To publicise the detainees’ plight, Anna from the Gatwick Detainees’ Welfare Group and co-organiser David Herd from the University of Kent, set up a series of walks last summer – from Dover to the detention centre at Crawley. Supporters took part and, like the pilgrims in Chaucer’s tale, stopped at points en route to tell the detainees’ stories. Refugee Tales, published by Comma Press, was the result. A second walk took place this summer from Canterbury to Westminster. A second book of refugee tales is planned.

“People in this country often don’t realise what is happening in our detention centres,” says Anna. “The detainees wanted their story to be heard, as long as we could promise them anonymity.”

Award-winning writer Ali Smith, patron of the Refugee Tales project, said of the book: “The telling of stories is an ancient form that will tell us everything we need to know about the contemporary world.”

Former director of Liberty Shami Chakrabarti said this was a way to re-humanise some of the most demonised people on the planet.

At Gatwick there is a team of 70 volunteers visiting inmates every week. So, perhaps for a while at least, they do not feel that the world has forgotten them.

Refugee Tales is at Charleston at 12pm on October 1. The day’s programme includes the BBC National Short Story Award, Sleuths with Sophie Hannah and John Simenon, Donald Sturrock on his biography of Roald Dahl and the Literary Death Match from New York.

Visit www.charleston.org.uk/smallwonder. For tickets call 01273 709709.

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