The Student’s Tale, as told to Helen Macdonald

The H is for Hawk author’s contribution to the Chaucer-inspired Refugee Tales Part II

Helen Macdonald, right, with is Refugee Tales worker Avril

Helen Macdonald, right, with is Refugee Tales worker Avril


There’s a window and the rattle of a taxi and grapes on the table, black ones, sweet ones, and the taxi is also black and there’s a woman inside it, a charity volunteer who befriended you when you were in detention, and she’s leaning to pay the driver and through the dust and bloom of the glass I see you standing on the pavement next to the open taxi door and your back is turned towards me so all I can see are your shoulders hunched in a blue denim jacket. They’re set in a line that speaks of concern, not for yourself, but for the woman who is paying the fare. I wave through the window and you turn and see me and smile hello.

This is a borrowed house that we’re talking in. It’s not my home.

We sit at the table and I don’t know where to begin.

I don’t know anything about you.

It is hard to ask questions.

You want me to ask questions, because you say it is easier to answer questions than tell your story. I don’t want to ask you questions, because I think of all the questions you must have been asked before. But you want me to ask you questions, and so I begin with: when did you get here? And you write, in careful numerals, 12, 2016. December. And I ask more questions, and you answer them, and when the English words won’t come, you translate using your phone, and this takes some time, and the sun slaps its flat gold light upon the table and the bowl of grapes and the teapot, all these quiet domestic things, as I wait to know what you might mean. Here are the words you look up while we talk: Apostate. Bigoted. Depraved. Hide.

You are a student of epidemiology. Epidemiologists study the mode of transmission of disease, the way it runs through populations from person to person. You tell me that back in your country you used to meet with your friends in a restaurant at night so you could talk of Christianity and read the Bible. There were Christian signs in the restaurant. You knew that you might be arrested for doing this. Secrecy is paramount. But faith is also faith.

This is what happens when you are denounced as an apostate. The authorities speak of you as if you were one of the agents of disease that you have studied. At prayers one Friday they denounce you, by name, in five regions, two cities and three villages.

They said that a woman at your university had depraved you, by which they meant she had encouraged you to become a Christian. They said that you had changed your religion. And that now you possess this faith, you spread it to other men.

They see your belief as a contagious disease. They want to isolate it, contain it, and like all such malevolent metaphors that equate morality with health, the cure is always extinguishment. You know what happens to apostates, to those who have changed their religion, in your country. Even I know what happens. I am holding my breath just thinking of it.

When the intelligence services came looking for you at your grandmother’s home she called you and told you that these men were your friends even though they spoke the wrong language for the region and they were wearing distinctive clothes that made it obvious, really, who they were, and why they were there, but she was old and you couldn’t blame her for expecting friendship when what was offered was its scorched obverse. Your uncle knew better. He told you to flee. Your life is in danger, he said. Truth. So you fled. You left everything.

You drove from city to city and in a city more distant, met two friends of your uncle. They told you they could take you to ----- with others by car. And once you were there, you wondered where you should go. Your uncle said, the UK is good, and he offered to pay the smuggling agents to get you here. The car unloaded you all in an unkempt garden and you all had to hide there until the middle of the night when the truck came, and you got in.

Days in the darkness inside a lorry on its way north. A freezer truck. How many people were in there with you, I ask? And you laugh, and say, ten? I don’t know. It was dark! And I laugh too, a little ashamed, and wonder why I want to press you for these little details. None of us want to know what this is like. We don’t want to know how it feels to not eat or drink or sleep for five days and nights, to be sustained in terror and darkness merely through the hope that there is light the other side. None of us want to know what it feels like to be threatened with a knife, as you were threatened. To be held at gunpoint by people you have paid to bring you to safety.

You say, it was the worst feeling. Then you say it again. The worst feeling.

Several times, you tell me, I see my death.

Then you say it again. I see my death.

The hardest things, I realize, you are saying them all twice.

And what I am thinking, as you say sorry into the silence while you wait to be able to once again speak, is this. I think of how scientists have only just found out how our brains make memories. They used to think that we record a short term memory, then archive it later, move it to a different part of the brain to store it long term. But now they’ve discovered that the brain always records two tracks at once. That it is always taping two stories in parallel. Short term memories, long term memories, two tracks of running recollection, memory doubled. Always doubled.

Which makes everything that ever happens to us happen twice.

Which makes us always beings split in two.

You are an epidemiologist. You are a refugee.

You are also an asylum seeker who has seen detention centre inmates cut themselves with razors, lash out in violence, numb themselves with spice.

The government wants to send you back to -----, but that would be dangerous because of people there who know who you are, who have threatened you, who have contacts with the authorities back home. So now you are in a hostel, with four hundred others. You have to sign in once in the morning and once again at night. You are a student, a brother, a son, who manages to speak to your family back home through Telegram, through Whatsapp, and you are also a man who asks the receptionist for help when violence or sickness breaks out in the hostel and watches the receptionist shrug, dismissively, and no help comes. All the things you see between refugees, you tell me, are harmful for brain, for mind, for spirit. You say, of the hostel, in the quietest, gentlest voice, that there, nothing is good, really. Nothing is good. It is a very nasty place. You tell me, twice, that some people have not even any clothes.

In December you’d called the police from the frozen dark inside the lorry. The police opened the doors and took you to a cell, questioned you, detained you for seventy-two hours. And when you requested asylum they moved you to an immigration detention centre. You were there for 80 days. I have heard a lot about the conditions there, this place that is known as a hellhole. So it is a mark of your kindly reticence that all you can say about it is, the situation in detention was very bad.

You are a refugee who has taken deep breaths to sing songs in this detention centre where people are held indefinitely and you are also a man sitting at a sunny dining table laughing out loud at your mistake when you realise that you said your father is literature when what you meant to say was your father is illiterate. You are a man who can laugh at the ridiculousness of mistranslation, and you are also a man who has left a life behind, your father, your little brother, your ailing family members, and every corner of home, and that loss pours from you, silent through the laughter, like a cold current of air that sinks to the floor and fills the room beneath everything light that is spoken here.

You don’t want to talk about yourself, except to give the facts. What you want to talk about are the problems facing the people around you. Your charity volunteer friend tells me that after you saw an advert for Water Aid you asked her to donate what little funds you had to the children who were suffering, because the way the system works, you weren’t allowed to do it yourself. She tells me, though she apologises for speaking because it is not her story, that you have been buying fruit and lentils for the children in the hostel, because the food is so bad, it makes people sick, and you can see the children are malnourished.

You are a man whose eyes are bright with unspilled tears when you tell me of the horror of your journey here. But when you think of the people who have shown you kindness? That is when you break down and cry. You say, of the woman sitting with us, I would maybe have suicide, without her. When I ask you if the people in the city where you live are good to you, you say yes, because if you ask them an address, they will tell you where it is. They will tell you where it is.

I think about all the stories we tell about refugees and how they are always one story or another, never both at once. Tragic stories or threatening stories. Victims or aggressors. Never complicated, always simple, always with clean edges. Easy pigeonholes to fit people who have been forced to take wing.

But a hole is not just a pigeonhole. It’s the space between two things. It’s a hole that’s the gap between a word in -----, or in -----, or in English. It’s the space between past and future, between old lives and new. Between years. When new year came you went to the park in the city where the hostel is, and you sang songs welcoming the new year by the water of the lake. What can a new year mean, when you are young, and all you are able to do is wait.

I want to be useful, you say. I don’t want to spend my time in the hostel, waiting. And then you rub your eyes with one hand and you say, please pray for me. You say, this issue is very distracted my brain, my mind. I want to quickly take a part in this society. And the culture. At the moment I haven’t any certificate, because I am an asylum seeker. And I don’t take a part in helping people because I don’t have any money, I don’t have any device for helping the people, and I think my living is very precious. Precious? You try the word out as a question, as if the word is itself somehow wrong.

I don’t like be spend it by the time, waiting, you say. Because I am young.

You are young. You are a student, an epidemiologist, a Christian, a refugee. You want to help people so much it hurts my heart. You are a man who I drive, after we have talked that afternoon, to the hospital so we can take a photograph of you standing outside the School for Clinical Medicine, because bound up in a sense of your future is this brightness, that you might one day be able to help, to work in medicine here. And you are also a man who tips back his head and laughs when we discover that the School has been closed for rebuilding, and the windows are boarded up and the palings mean we can’t see the building at all. We take pictures anyway. Us in front of the barriers. You alone, you with your companion, you with me. We are all, all of us waiting while the world is rebuilt.

This story is taken from Refugee Tales Part II, published by Comma Press on July 20th, priced £9.99, in which poets and novelists retell the stories of individuals who have direct experience of Britain’s policy of indefinite immigration detention. Presenting their accounts anonymously, as modern day counterparts to the pilgrims’ stories in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the book offers rare, intimate glimpses into otherwise untold suffering. Alongside the book, Refugee Tales lobby politicians, and organise their 5 day solidarity walk from Runnymede to Westminster, where the stories are performed live.

Helen Macdonald is an English writer, naturalist, and an Affiliated Research Scholar at the University of Cambridge Department of History and Philosophy of Science. Her memoir H is for Hawk won the Samuel Johnson Prize and Costa Book of the Year award among other honours

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