Jackie Kay, using poetry to help female asylum seekers

THE plight of women asylum-seekers struck a chord with writer Jackie Kay, and now she is using her poems to support the Scottish Refugee Council’s campaign to end destitution.

YOU flee an arranged marriage, you escape from a country where you’ve been tortured for your beliefs or sexuality, your family has been ripped apart by war or you’ve fled with your child to protect them from genital mutilation. Seeking asylum, you arrive in a country that trumpets its health service, education and respect for the rights of the individual. But they don’t believe your story and you’re refused asylum, denied benefits, accommodation and the right to work. You can’t go home – you’ve spent your life savings getting here and it’s a sea of red tape getting the documents. You can’t speak the language. You’re forced to beg or rely on the charity of others for shelter, clothing, food and water. You’re destitute.

This is Scotland today and the reality facing hundreds of asylum-seekers who have ended up here. In response, the Scottish Refugee Council, a charity providing advice and information to those seeking asylum and refugees living in Scotland, is running a campaign to end destitution and the limbo in which so many find themselves.

Hide Ad

The Stop Destitution campaign is being co-ordinated jointly between the Scottish Refugee Council and Refugee Survival Trust, a small charity that offers essential grants for those seeking asylum who find themselves destitute, last year giving out 688 grants to 844 individuals in desperate need.

As well as calling for the UK immigration minister to change a policy that deliberately makes people destitute when their claims are refused, it demands proper support until asylum-seekers are granted protection or can return to their homeland safely, the right to work for those in the UK for more than six months and a better system to improve decision-making on asylum claims.

Now the poet, playwright and author Jackie Kay has thrown her weight behind the Stop Destitution campaign by writing three poems inspired by asylum-seekers she met in Glasgow and who told her their stories.

Kay is keen to point out that women are particularly affected by destitution and vulnerable to exploitation, and their plight struck a chord with her as a writer who has always championed the underdog. “You take the side of the person who’s forced into life in the dark, into the shadows,” she says.

“Destitution faced by asylum-seekers is a very important issue, but a hidden issue, and it’s close to my heart. The way a country treats its immigrants says a lot about that country. It stirs memories because for a lot of the time I was growing up, I was treated like someone who didn’t belong.”

Born in Edinburgh in 1961, the child of a Nigerian father and Scottish mother, she was put up for adoption as a baby and raised by a white couple, Jim and Helen Kay, in Bishopbriggs. It was a happy childhood where Kay thrived and was exposed to the power of both protest and the pen, growing up in a well-read, politicised household and going to classes at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Her father worked full-time for the Communist Party, her mother was secretary of the Scottish Peace Committee and young Jackie joined her parents and brother on marches and at benefits, and joined in writing letters and postcards to African National Congress prisoners in South Africa. “My mum used to say, ‘it’s not just Nelson Mandela, you know,’ so we wrote hundreds, and we went to Chilean solidarity benefit nights, poem and pint nights, Burns suppers, marched.

Hide Ad

“I had well-read parents; culture and nurture makes a massive difference. I would not have been a reader and writer if I’d been brought up in an orphanage or possibly with my birth mother,” she says.

And the 51-year-old writer has passed on her passion for politics to her son Matthew, 24, a film-maker whose 2012 documentary Over the Wall follows a football team through Egypt and Israel to become the first UK team to play in Palestine.

Hide Ad

One of the recurring themes of Kay’s award-winning writing is the experience of being an outsider, often in terms of race, something she felt growing up in Glasgow as a mixed-race child. “Some of the time I was treated like someone from somewhere else entirely, so I can identify with the asylum-seekers on a personal level.

“It doesn’t happen to me so much now, as I live in Manchester, but people will still ask me where I’m from in Glasgow,” she says. “I say, ‘I’m from here,’” she laughs and goes on to tell how her nascent career as an actress was stopped in its tracks at an audition when she was told, “You’re very good, dear, you’re just the wrong colour.”

Kay immediately began to write plays instead – her first was for four black women and her career as a writer was born.

After studying English at Stirling University, Kay’s first book of poems, the partially autobiographical The Adoption Papers, was published in 1991 and won the Saltire Society Scottish First Book Award. Prize-wining fiction, short stories and poetry have flowed ever since, and she is now professor of creative writing at Newcastle University.

Race, belonging, isolation and fear are constants in her work, and her debut 2002 short story collection, Why Don’t You Stop Talking, has a story highlighting the racist treatment of the first Jamaicans to arrive in Britain on board the liner Windrush in 1957, a skilled generation of migrants who had looked to their ‘mother country’ as home but were disabused when they arrived.

For Kay, attitudes have not changed enough, and women are even more unfairly treated. “We have a country where asylum claimants are being denied – 68 per cent are refused, but 26 per cent of those make it on appeal. It’s higher for women, and that’s rising. Women get refused more often than men, are less believed and their credibility questioned.

Hide Ad

“That must be the hardest thing. If you left a country because you’re in danger or about to be forced into marriage, because of persecution, war or fear of genital mutilation, then, after all you have been through, you are not believed. You’re questioned for eight hours by the Home Office and made destitute. It’s a huge moral outrage. And now David Cameron is talking about stopping asylum-seekers using the NHS. It’s ridiculous.

“When I met the women in Glasgow, I hadn’t read the statistics or heard their stories, because I wanted to hear it from them, go in with my eyes and ears open and make them feel really listened to for their own stories. It’s important because they haven’t been believed. It’s a writer’s job to listen. You’re a modern-day witness and some of your job is to see what’s going on in your own time.”

Hide Ad

Kay believed the women’s stories and her empathy is channelled into the written word. “I didn’t know if I would write a poem or stories but the moment I heard their voices it had to be poems. They capture their voices, they’re short and punchy and have a point, a political purpose. They’re also good to read out, as these are going to be in the Scottish Parliament. Also, you can put in powerful, intense images.”

Kay is a strong believer in the power of the written word, believing that writing a poem that moves the reader can make a difference. “Auden said, ‘Poetry makes nothing happen,’ but your wish as a poet is that it should make something happen. I believe in the power of words, and for me my words are actions, so the two are not mutually exclusive. It’s a way of making a contribution. For me, it’s the same as marching,” she says.

As for the women Kay has met, one has been granted asylum and the other two are still in limbo. Their voices may be silent and their identities hidden for their own protection, but Kay is determined their stories will be heard. “I hope it will make other people think about what it’s like to be destitute, and empathise. A writer’s main job is to put themself in someone’s shoes and hope the reader will do that too.”

“When you come to seek sanctuary in a country, it’s that country’s duty to give that. We exist in a world community, not just a single community or country. We have to think what it means to provide sanctuary. And there’s an extra dimension to it because they’re female, they’re less likely to be believed and more likely to be exploited.

“I’m writing a novel called Bystander now, about the things people witness and do nothing about. That’s why I agreed to meet the asylum-seekers. I couldn’t stand by and say, ‘No, I’m writing a book.’ There are more important things than writing a novel. Things like people’s basic human rights. These women’s basic human rights.”


You were found in the snow in Glasgow

Outside the entrance to Central Station.

Your journey took you from an Ethiopian prison

To the forests in France where luck and chance

Showed you not all white men are like the men

In Roots – a film you watched once.

The people smugglers didn’t treat you like Kizzy

Or Kunta Kinte, brought you food and water by day,

Offered you shelter in a tent, and it was sanctuary.

And you breathed deep the forest air, freely.

But when you were sent here, Glasgow,

In the dead winter: below zero, no place to go,

You rode the buses to keep warm: X4M, Toryglen,

Castlemilk, Croftfoot, Carbrain, Easterhouse

Moodiesburn, Red Road flats, Springburn,

No public fund, no benefit, no home, no sanctum,

No haven, no safe port, no support,

No safety net, no sanctuary, no nothing.

Until a girl found you in the snow, frozen,

And took you under her wing, singing.

Oh… would that the Home Office show

The kindness of that stranger in the winter snow!

Would they grant you asylum, sanctum,

For your twenty-seventh birthday?

On March 8th, two thousand and thirteen,

You could become, not another figure, sum, unseen,

Another woman sent home to danger, dumb, afraid,

At the mercy of strangers, no crib, no bed,

All worry: next meal, getting fed, fetching up dead.

And at last, this winter, you might lay down your

sweet head.

Twitter: @JanetChristie2

• www.stopdestitution.org.uk | www.scottishrefugeecouncil.org.uk