Note: It is a little difficult for me to write this entry, chiefly because I’m unsure where my boundaries lie in terms of confidentiality and written experience. There were no explicit arrangements for confidentiality and it was an ‘informal’ talk. Regardless, I have tried to remain vague about scenarios and have used no names.
The morose – but enlightening – visit to the Peace House has been haunting me for a quite a while. I suppose it is the removal of the ‘glass pane’ that cleanly separated me from looking at them squarely in the eye and hearing their stories from their mouths. When they spoke, it was unscripted and rough yet jarringly eloquent, constructed in a way that can only be achieved by first-hand experience.
It remains as a frame-by-frame scene in my mind, really. I contacted the Peace House a few days ago to inquire about my Undergraduate Research Scholarship Scheme research with asylum seekers and refugees, and I was invited to speak to a few of them yesterday. Peace House is one of the few shelters available to asylum seekers in search of a place to sleep, and many of them leave promptly at 8AM in the morning to search for jobs or other opportunities in Coventry.
I remember hands that were clutched on the table, and fleshy arms with angry scars that told stories. It was as if someone had hit me on the head and said “you know, you’re an outsider. What do you know?” The direct (almost clinical) honesty towards some questions we asked was surprising, yet the immediate silence for others clearly highlighted the empathetic gap between us. We were on the outside looking in, and it was inevitable that we were questions that had already been asked before. I think we could have been likened to sponges; all we could do was sit and listen.
In some cases, I didn’t know how to act. They must have seen all the responses already, and I had no intention of responding with dripping pity. Sometimes I didn’t know which questions would be morally permissible to ask, even though protocol had been drilled in my head over and over again. The thought crossed my mind: how could we possibly chronicle human suffering on a research paper?
We sat on a table with three other men, and there was a loud awkwardness that permeated it all. It was easier to speak about intense experiences than to fashion a restrictive response to fit our questions. One man spoke of being a political asylum seeker: if I return, my death is certain, he explained pragmatically, ask a child and the consequence is obvious even to them. Another man professed to us, with watery eyes and succinct determination, that he wanted to go back to a “normal life”. I noticed a dark-haired woman sitting at the back who soundlessly watched me, her cheek resting on her hand as she studied our conversations. This particular woman, I find out later, speaks not a word of English and has only recently escaped devastating conditions. Finding jobs and housing is an almost impossible prospect for her. Her position is undeniably and excruciatingly vulnerable.
We had soon exhausted our questions, and we promised that we would return to conduct formal interviews. With that, they slowly left until it was just us with our empty cups of tea.
“Don’t go bleeding heart on me,” my research partner retorted.
It was less to do with that; I was a little doubtful. It was the prospect of trying to handle and illustrate something I could not totally understand. In addition, I was now puzzling as to how we could possibly venture on constructing questionnaires and interviews, now that we had to take into account differences in geography and fluency in English. Coventry was fortunate to have entire clinics that were dedicated to the homeless (asylum seekers and refused asylum seekers alike), yet this caused the almost paradoxical scenario of refugees ending up with poorer healthcare than their counterparts who had not yet achieved refugee status.
I understand myself in a way that I am not immune to seeing these problems laid out blatantly before me, even though it has been an ubitquitous topic throughout my reading and research. It is clear that working with refugees in the long term is potentially one of the more emotionally difficult tasks. I vehemently despise human loneliness and the frustration of being prejudiced against, especially the way it has been entrenched within history. The huge disparity between those who are fortunate and those who are oppressed needs to be bridged by anyone who understands that true global progress entails assisting those who have slipped through the cracks of equality.
I am glad that even though the law will deny refused asylum seekers the right to NHS healthcare, it is one of those laws that most health authorities choose to ignore. In any case, I am optimistic that publishing the findings of the research will bring more attention towards people who have long been regarded as outcasts of society, even only if it is very minute. It’s all about the butterfly effect, right?