‘You who live safe in your warm houses, you who find, returning in the evening, hot food and friendly faces, consider if this is a man…’
These opening lines of the Primo Levi poem that prefaces his book If This Is A Man, came into my head as I
prepared to go on the platform at Wilton’s Music Hall after the premiere performance of On A Clear Day You Can See Dover. For here we were, 300 of us, sitting on chairs, not a patch of ashphalt, enclosed by four walls and a ceiling, not exposed to the wind or the rain, with food and drink to hand, to be eaten with dignity, not to speak of pleasure. All a far cry from the conditions of the 300 or so young men and boys I had witnessed crouching in the rain, as they ate their food handouts, before walking off into the night to find somewhere to sleep at the mercy both of the elements and the notorious French riot police.
The incongruity of this elegant setting, a place built for music and laughter, and the warm reception given to their desperate stories, struck me most forcibly when I listened to Lily Boillet, sitting next to me on the platform. As a French activist, she had come straight from the asylum frontline . Her organisation, Terre d’Errance (World of Wandering) supports an encampment of migrants, a floating population of about 25 people, currently mosly from Eritrea, all intent on reaching the Promised Land of Great Britain. I had visited this ‘ camp’ near her village, just south of Calais, a cluster of makeshift tents on the side of a field, and heard the hopes and dreams of some of its traumatised inhabitants. And now their voices and Lily’s along with other ‘noble’ French people who are defying their governments edicts to withhold help and shelter from refugees and migrants, were being heard.
It was a moving culmination of my trips to Calais and the surrounding countryside, an act of vindication and witness. But just hours before the performance one of the people I had interviewed called me from Campsfield Removal Centre near Oxford, to tell me he was about to be deported back to Greece, the first European country he had arrived in after a tortuous journey from his native Iran. He had hung under the chassis of a lorry for four hours in his bid to get to the UK, for which privilege he had he paid a smuggler 1300 euros. And now, for the second time since his arrival here, he was being threatened with removal, despite strong evidence of his torture and imprisonment as an opposition activist in Iran. A mass e-mail to all the audience members the next day urging them to send letters of appeal to the the British government and British Airways, met with a strong response and at the eleventh hour his deportation was stopped by a judge.
A small victory for human rights – a drop in the vast ocean of injustice meted out against refugees and asylum seekers, but one that iceandfire are proud to have contributed to. Electronic media such as OneWorld and Open Democracy both included this postscript in their accounts of the evening, adding their voices to the outcry. Which brings me back to the Primo Levi poem. In just six lines he sketches in the inhumanity he and others suffered in the Nazi concentration camps. But telling the story to his readers is not enough, in addition he urges them to ‘Meditate that this came about.’
‘I commend these words to you / Carve them in your hearts / At home, in the streets/ Going to bed, rising / Repeat them to your children.’
This is the imperative that drives me to communicate these stories . It is at the heart of our work at iceandfire. And when audiences respond in the powerful way that so many of them did that night, there is a chink of hope that ‘bearing witness’ can have some effect.
By Sonja Linden, Founding Artistic Director, iceandfire