A little while back I spent a weekend sorting out my old room at home. It was an intensely satisfying (if arduous) process – books being moved from one shelf to another, magazines stacked into boxes, arts materials carefully arranged to be accessible. I tidied out a suitcase’s worth of clippings and images ripped from magazines, and ordered all my notebooks. It was wonderful.
In the midst of this sifting and shifting, I found something lodged under a pile of vintage Vogues – a large, slightly tatty notebook. It was spiral bound with a faded brown cover. Inside it were sketches - some very special sketches, in fact, that I’d forgotten about. This notebook had belonged to my Great-Aunt Eva (my paternal grandma’s sister), and the drawings inside – all elegant lines and gorgeous designs – had been done in Dublin when she was about 18. The previous year she had fled Czechoslovakia (as it then was) with the rest of her family – the Communist coup d’etat meaning that it was no longer safe for my great-grandfather to remain in the country; his life was in danger. They skied over the border disguised as tourists. Their escape was not a choice. It was a necessity.
Ireland was one of the countries that, thankfully, would take them in. They arrived there with very little (having to share my grandma’s school knickers between all three women, for example) but were thrifty and ingenious and quickly established a social life. Eva enrolled on a design course at one of the design houses, which is where these sketches were produced, and she also modeled for them. It seemed like, despite the trauma of losing a home, country, community, business and all personal belongings in one fell swoop, this family had a chance to establish a new life for themselves. There was possibility. Then Eva was diagnosed with leukemia. She was afforded passage into England to be treated at the Essex Children’s Hospital, but nothing could be done. She died the following year, aged 19 – younger than I am now.
These sketches are one of very few belongings of hers that have been passed down to me. These, and a set of rings – one hers, and one my grandma’s – which are small, gold bows (pictured below). I find it entirely extraordinary that this young woman, a woman I never met, still lives on in the hand-drawn, inked outlines of dresses and coats and underwear that now sit in my room. They’re bloody great designs too.
I have been thinking a lot about her, and my grandma, and their family in recent weeks. They were political refugees – the kinds of people that the Daily Mail would be likely to froth at the mouth over today (especially because, shock horror, they were foreigners that came over to this country and used our precious health services for their dying daughter!!) The kinds of people who, if it happened to them now, might also face vitriol from many people - because apparently if you are desperate enough to leave your home country and all you hold dear, to face extreme danger in the escape, to crave the standard of safety and personal security that we take as prerequisite, then you are a ‘parasite’ or a ‘scrounger’ or a ‘swarm.’ Not a human being searching to regain your sense of humanity or to secure the safety of your family. Not an individual who has seen traumatizing, terrifying things. No – a ‘pest’, something dehumanized and reduced to the mass of your body and the space you take up.
Of course what I’m referring to here is the current ongoing refugee crisis, partly centered in Calais but also spread across the rest of Europe and beyond. Much like a growing number of publications, I refuse to call it a migrant crisis. People do not cheerfully just decide to up sticks and leave a country for better opportunities elsewhere if that country is torn apart by war. Ongoing events in various countries have led to the biggest movement of people since WWII. That in itself is appalling. You know what else is appalling? The lack of empathy in so many quarters – not least the bile-filled tabloids who have the audacity to do an about-turn only at the point where there are (entirely devastating) pictures of a dead child to publish.
As various people have pointed out though, empathy is easy on an individual basis. Case in point - Cecil the Lion got waaaaay more sympathy and outpouring of anger than the many, many black men and women who have been killed by the police in America this year. How messed up and back to front is that? It’s the same principle with the refugee crisis. It’s easy to feel the galling punch of a single individual’s loss and fear. Harder to extend that to thousands upon thousands of losses and fears. That was why it was easy to talk about my Great-Aunt Eva just now. Her story is personal. I know enough details to flesh it out and turn it into a compelling story. There is a dramatic narrative arc, a singular tragedy, a set of events both extraordinary and devastating in the retelling. But they were just one family who fled their country during the 1940s. Countless others did too – all with their own heritages and experiences and perspectives as well. All equally valid. Same as today.
Right now though, we need to be extending that empathy far and wide. Despite the often overwhelming feelings that currently hit on opening a newspaper or checking Twitter, there are lots of practical ways we can help. This list from The Independent is a brilliant place to start, and kind of covers everything from great charities to grassroots groups asking for donations and goods they will be taking to Calais and elsewhere. Also have a read of this piece in The Pool talking about what Dawn O'Porter has been doing (and how you can get involved), sign this petition and this one, and then have a read of this poem by Warsan Shire. As she says there, in a line now picked up by many different news outlets, 'you have to understand/ that no one puts their children in a boat/ unless the water is safer than the land.'
(My grandma and her sister's rings - Eva's was the one with the extra stones edged along each side of the bow)