A refugee's tale

Scottish writer Karen Campbell’s latest book, This Is Where I Am, is a massive 464-page work of fiction — but there is no lag in the storyline. And while the pages turn, it does so in an absorbing manner — you cannot race through this book. It is written in the first person singular, so the first few pages take a bit of sorting, since the story is being told from the point of view of the two principal characters. It is clever writing that etches out the two characters just by the way they talk and think. One is a refugee from Somalia, and the other is a Scottish Refugee Council volunteer. One is male, African, tall, young and handsome. The other is petite, middle-aged, and recently widowed.

 Abdi, the Somali refugee in Scotland, is understandably all at sea in a strange land, far removed from the strife-torn Somalia that he fled, or North Eastern Kenya, where he and thousands of others stayed in a rough refugee camp. To confound matters, Abdi has a small daughter, all of four years, who has been in shocked with the horrors she has witnessed in the refugee camp at Kenya, that she has stopped speaking. Deborah is trying to come to terms with the death of her husband, and has joined the Scottish Refugee Council as a volunteer to try and piece her life back together. She is assigned to mentor Abdi, to help him get absorbed as a citizen of Scotland. It is an interesting relationship that builds up between these three wounded birds.

The early pages have some wonderful imagery and interesting usage of Scottish words. Abdi is still trying to learn English, and there are several powerful passages when he tries to make sense of simple English terms like ‘breathing easy.’ Here, he compares the terrified holding of his breath while atop a tree and watching friends being butchered by soldiers, and then, “…when they go, you can ‘breathe easier.’”

The upheaval that a refugee goes through is understandable at an intellectual level. But where Campbell has triumphed is to bring out the emotional connect without describing too many details of the horrors of genocide. Instead, the underplay is deeply disturbing. The racial tensions between the refugee and the residents are brought out succinctly, both in Kenya, where the locals are obviously overburdened with the exodus from neighbouring Somalia, as well as in Scotland, when questions are raised about funding and housing refugees at Government expense, when the Scots could themselves do well with a healthy dose of economic help.

It had never consciously entered my mind that refugees from Africa find sanctuary in the UK — I assumed that they would flee to neighbouring nations in the same continent. That governments have a provision to provide succour and relief to victims of human conflict is uplifting, yet sobering when one realises the enormity of the task. Campbell has used an interesting style of prefacing some chapters with a general note on the physical location, after which the story proceeds.

This style worked effectively in several chapters, bringing out the stark reality through the dry description of the setting. For instance, a chapter on the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya is prefaced with a note that is chilling although it is only talking facts: “…Dadaab is a semi-arid town in northeast Kenya, but is also the collective name for the three refugee camps that surround the town…covering 50 sq km, the camps…developed in 1991, and have since become home to 400,000 refugees…has seen an influx of up to 1,000 refugees a day…growing tension between refugees and locals means that, as the camps are not officially demarcated, disputes over water, land and safety are common… with many people living in the camps for up to 10 years, much of Dadaab’s economy now revolves around provision of services for refugees…” When the story in the refugee camp then follows in the voice of one of the protagonists, the horrors they face comes across vividly. 

The story takes on a note of desperation when Deborah wants to solve Abdi’s problems, and the tale and Deb travel to Kenya and a UNHCR camp. It is here that the story takes on a surreal and slightly wishful tone — not that it is necessarily bad. In fact, the dreamlike tenor adds its own effect, rather like those new wave French films of the 1950s and 60s. While I was personally unhappy with the way the author closed the story, it does not detract from the appalling knowledge gained by sharing the frightening journey of a refugee and his four-year-old daughter. The story will live with you for days, and the despair of people facing oppression during civil war is palpable in many chapters. The skilfully written book makes for an absorbing and sobering read.  

This is where i am
Karen Campbell
Bloomsbury2013, pp 467

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