breach, by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes, is the first title in the Peirene Now! series, commissioned works of new fiction which engage with the political issues of the day. Set in the Calais refugee camp known as The Jungle, the eight short stories in this collection explore the current refugee crisis in Europe. As Popoola says:
“These are stories of complex characters with dreams and fears, lives that started long before they found themselves in Calais.”
The stories offer insight into the lives of the residents of The Jungle and their relationships with family back home. They look at the feared people smugglers so essential to the refugees’ journey, and at the people in France and the UK who fear the refugees impact on their neatly ordered world.
The collection opens with ‘Counting Down’, a story of waiting, of strangers who become friends yet are never really close. The residents of The Jungle are not one homogenous mass. They come from many countries, bound only by their desperation to reach the UK. At any moment their loyalty can turn.
‘The Terrier’ looks at the refugees through the eyes of a French local who offers to accommodate two young Syrians in exchange for payment from the City Council. Although she sympathises with the youngsters plight there is a lack of trust, on both sides. The refugees are lonely in this house so return to the camp for friendship despite the squalor. The landlady hides her involvement from friends who complain of the refugees proximity and the trouble they bring.
‘Extending a Hand’ tells the story of two young Ethiopian women. They are grateful for the dry clothes handed out by volunteers yet resent that they are a position that requires such help.
“No one makes trousers for your shape. The pair you picked yesterday aren’t the loose-fitting ones volunteers think are suitable […] Why people think they know what’s best for you when they are not you, you don’t understand […] Dignity involves choosing your own outfits, at least”
The women have not told their families back home about conditions in the camp, pretending that all is well and they have jobs. Now demands are being made to send their earnings home, and there is only one way that a women in this camp can earn.
‘Paradise’ offers the camp from the perspective of the volunteers who hand out tents, sleeping bags and donated clothes. They feel good about helping, perhaps not recognising how they are often despised by the refugees. What they do not want though is to become too involved, as happens when Marjorie brings her teenage niece along to help. Marjorie is forced to recognise the hypocracy of her situation and this makes her angry. The refugees also do not wish for too close an involvement. When the volunteers leave to go home and the refugees cannot, this causes pain.
‘Ghosts’ looks at the precarious and often violent world of the people smugglers. It helps explain why there is so little trust in the camp, why people are reluctant to engage and tell their stories.
‘Lineage’ simmers with the resentments felt by those forced to stay calm when their lives have been blown apart. The Jungle is not one big happy family. It is populated by mud and desperation.
‘Oranges in the River’ tells of the constant battle to escape, to find a way to get to the UK by whatever means. However risky the endeavour, this is why The Jungle exists.
‘Expect Me’ is set in the UK. Alghali has made it across the channel and is studying hard to learn English and accounting. He visits Mr Dishman, an elderly local, to improve his ability to converse in this new language that, when his papers come through, he may find work. Mr Dishman talks of Europe being overrun. Alghali believes there is no other way for him to move forward with his life. He is mourning the death of a young friend who died trying to make it to England. He is blamed for a terrorist attack.
Even after reading these stories I pondered why the refugees chose the UK as their destination. It is understandable why they flee but not why other supposedly safe countries are rejected. Perhaps it is the language, the fact that some had learned English before. Perhaps it is because when they ring home they do not admit how bad things are. They make it sound as though they have jobs and safety, thereby encouraging the next set of refugees to follow in their wake.
The authors have produced poignant, challenging stories that facilitate an empathy that is often missing when these issues are discussed. If the human tide is to be slowed then the causes need to be addressed.
Through fiction, tales like these can help to bridge the gap in understanding between cultures. This is an important but also a satisfying read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.