Refugees take steps and tell stories as part of a walking community
Socialising and connecting through Refugee Tales’ walks is a lifeline for Mohamed, a 37-year old refugee from Darfur in Sudan, and for the many others like him who have experienced isolation and confinement while in detention in the UK. Because the UK has no maximum time limit on immigration detention, those detained do not know how long they will be inside and when they will be freed.
The annual trek has been taking place since 2015, when members of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group undertook an awareness-raising nine-day walk from the Kent coast to a pair of detention centres at Gatwick Airport, in solidarity with people who have been detained.
This July, more than 300 people took part in the five-day walk from Crawley, near Gatwick, to the South Coast, through the picturesque English countryside. Refugee Tales also organises shorter monthly walks, building community among those who have experienced detention and their friends and supporters.
“It takes my stress away and makes me feel better,” says Mohamed, who took part in his first walk in 2019. “They’re like my big family here in the UK.” When Mohamed fled Darfur as a child in 2003, he became separated from his family. Walking and talking with new and old friends helps him to cope with the loss. “Especially for people like me who don’t have any family members or anyone around, it's stressful sometimes. You need to go out and meet people and talk to them, for a little bit of relief.”
Telling stories and amplifying the voices of refugees who have been detained is another important element of Refugee Tales. It began organically, says David, Professor of Poetry at the University of Kent and co-organiser of Refugee Tales. What began as informal storytelling after a long day’s walk has become a four-volume anthology of short stories, inspired by the model of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Some of the stories are written by people seeking sanctuary or who have been detained, some told to other writers, and others penned by allies and friends. “We don't just take a person's story from them and then have no more contact. The community continues. Everyone keeps coming back,” says David, who co-edits the books.
Emma keeps coming back and has become a close friend of Mohamed. She recognises the significance of the community that the walks create. “Walking accelerates human connection,” she says. “You cut through that superficial small talk and get to know someone quite quickly, whoever it is. And it’s an equaliser because we're all huffing and puffing out there, together.” Emma also authored one of the published Tales, which recounts her experience teaching English to a refugee who was detained in the UK.
Ahead of the day’s hike, participants mingle, drink coffee, and stretch their legs. Mohamed catches up with his friend Osman, an Eritrean refugee, also formerly detained, who recounted his harrowing and powerful personal story the night before. “Many people were shocked,” reflects Mohamed. “It was really emotional.”
The nightly storytelling often features tales of hardship, endurance, and resilience, and afterwards the mood is leavened by musical performances and joyful dancing. Set against accounts that may include violence, torture, abuse and loss of loved ones, the joyful music and dancing may seem incongruous, notes David, but it is a catharsis for those who have survived painful and traumatic experiences.
The effects of indefinite detention on the self-esteem, confidence, and mental health of those who have experienced it make the Refugee Tales network crucial, providing those who have experienced detention with a space to talk and be heard. And there are benefits for those who listen too, says Anna, David’s co-editor on the book series and co-organiser of the project. “I have gained more from Mohamed than Mohamed has from me,” she says.