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Why This Book?
Simply - because my mother offered it to me as something I might enjoy. She's read it recently herself. Her reasons for suggesting I read it would no doubt be connected to my deep interest in Africa, and Kenya in particular. I don't know whether she knew I'd been considering joining a humanitarian trip to Ethiopia this January, but felt I should turn it down largely because of her poor health - quite ironic.
I wasn't in a rush to read it initially. The cover had rather a bleak , grayscale picture of a figure I took to be male walking away from the viewer, down a pathway with what appeared to be open land on either side. It didn't grab my attention at all. I've got out of the habit of reading fiction lately and for a few days I didn't even read what it said on the back cover. That did pique my interest a little. I knew of Benjamin Zephaniah as a poet and had seen him on the T.V. programme 'Question Time' recently, when I felt he was one of a few who spoke good sense! I'd also heard that he now lived in my home county, Lincolnshire, [for some of his time at least] as he had been interviewed on our local radio station. You may have heard of the issues around immigration here, especially in Boston and Spalding. So I started to read.
The Opening Chapters
'Ethiopia' is extremely brief - no more than a single page- but full of drama. Soldiers burst in on a sleeping family. They scream questions at the father: 'Are you Ethiopian or Eritrean?' to which he replies 'I am an African'. They call the father 'traitor', the mother 'the enemy' and the only child, Alem, 'mongrel' and leave with words to the father 'Leave Ethiopia or die.' I found this opening gripping, and turned to 'Eritrea' to find out if they did leave. To my surprise, this chapter, entitled 'Eritrea' was a kind of mirror image, repeated word for word with the first one except that the soldiers this time address the mother, and so on. I was a bit slow to understand - the father is Ethiopian, the mother is Eritrean, and the child therefore belongs to both and neither. The message is clear - they are all in danger if they don't leave.
No dates, time frames and explanations are given at the opening of the book, but I cast my mind back to a conflict I'm ashamed to say I only recalled dimly. The Eritrean-Ethiopian War took place between 1998 and late 2000 and border conflicts still arise. This war itself had been preceded by Eritrea's War Of Independence from Ethiopia [1961-1991] and the Ethiopian Civil War [1974-1991].
Chapter One proper enjoys the title 'Welcome To The Weather'. It describes Alem's arrival in England, with his father. Alem is constantly reminded by his father to use his English rather than his Amharic dialect. We see his reaction to encountering an official with ginger hair for the first time - 'what was wrong with him?' I thought they were going to be stopped through customs, but they survive a thorough customs check and are on their way as holidaymakers to a hotel. It's a bit puzzling to learn that the holiday is only 4 days, though. Next day they go sightseeing in London where Alem enjoys Italian food, a theme which recurs throughout the story.
I feel the opening chapters were scene setters for the main story - Alem in England. So many issues are addressed in this book that I hardly know where to start. I decided to précis the main characters as the best approach, hopefully without giving too much away.
Alem's father, from the Amhar tribe. His relationship with Alem is central to much of the story. He comes across as a man who is intelligent and courageous. Alem tells us his father speaks 6 languages. In the opening chapters he is clearly troubled as well as determined to give Alem a happy time. On the morning of the third day [I think] he has disappeared. It transpires that he has returned to his homeland, to be with his wife. They believe Alem, of mixed descent, is in the greatest danger and it is safer for him to be in England. He writes to Alem frequently and returns to England later in the story. The love between father and son is evident.
Someone we never meet. She worked as a clerk in a court in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, then in Harar in Ethiopia. This was where the trouble for the family started. They tried to live in both Ethiopia and Eritrea but they always had problems, including experiencing violence. That was when Mr. Kelo decided Alem needed a holiday - just after his 14th birthday.
One of the women who stands by Alem throughout the story. She has witnessed the war first hand: I think she was herself a refugee. She and Pamela are from The Refugee Council. She explains to him many of the procedures they have to go through in order for him to stay in England.
Also from the Refugee Council, she often does the note-taking while Mariam does the talking. These two ladies quickly gain Alem's trust.
14 years old at the start of the story, he immediately comes across as a polite, well-mannered boy who loves his parents, wants to go back home but understands why it's not safe to do so in the first place. He is highly motivated to learn and do well, aiming to be an architect when he's an adult. We follow his progress: first to a disastrous placement in a Children's Home, then to foster parents, where he is far happier and enjoys school.
Alem's social worker, who sees him through the various legal processes from his initial screening to his hearings.
The Fitzgerald Family
Mother and father are originally from Ireland. They've fostered refugee youngsters before and are very supportive of Alem at each stage of his tragic journey. Ruth, the daughter, initially seems resentful, but Alem seems to win her over.
The barrister who represents Alem and Mr. Kelo.
There are other characters who have cameo roles: bullies in school, friends, disturbed children in the Home, and so on. Alem encounters a wide range of individuals and each, to me, seem to evidence his good character.
Alem's case seems to be progressing well until disaster strikes and his father reappears to bring the terrible news that his mother has died - evidently brutally executed. Alem hears for the first time how his mother died when he's in court with his father, and almost faints. Everyone is shocked when their appeal for asylum is turned down. Nicholas instantly lodges an appeal. The situation is now grave. Alem cannot stay in foster care as his father is there to look after him, but the accommodation is awful and they have little to live on. However, a group of their friends, shocked by this injustice, mount a movement to support the Kelos. I'll leave the story there, but it has a few more ups and downs before its conclusion.
I must clarify that this is about refugees, not the wider subject of immigration. It's still a hot political potato with the Syrian issue so prominent in the news today. Some of the procedures and organisations involved may seem a little dated but the issues are still there. Clearly our small islands cannot accommodate every deserving refugee, yet I personally feel ashamed when I hear of people returned home to horrific situations. In Kenya, helping in a school, I was moved by the high respect our nation was still held in, despite the Mau Mau history. I was also made aware of how deeply tribal divisions can run and the unrest they can cause. I'll say I'm proud of some aspects our nation's humanitarian values but ashamed of others and leave it at that, I think, as I am no political animal.
This is a book that is suitable for older children to read - indeed, during my background research I came across a very detailed study pack for school Year 8, so ages 12-13 I think. Issues relevant to teenagers are addressed, such as bullying, motivation to study, smoking and so on. The violence is there but not described in such a way that it would cause distress, rather it's the implications that haunt you. It doesn't play on your emotions but tells Alem's story in a matter-of-fact way, in keeping with his character which is almost stoic.I find it skilfully done.
Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah was born in Handsworth, Birmingham in 1958 of mixed Jamaican and Barbadian parentage. A Rastafarian and a vegan, he describes himself as 'profoundly anti-empire' having turned down an OBE in 2003. He is renowned as a playwright and musician as well as a poet and author - not bad for a dyslexic who couldn't read and write until the age of 13! He has plenty to say - check out his website:
He says of 'Refugee Boy':
"I would like to know that anyone who reads the book would think before they accuse refugees of looking for a free ride. We all want to live in peace, we all want the best for our families. The Celts, the Angles, the Saxons, the Jamaicans are all refugees of one sort or another. What kind of a refugee are you? And what are you scared of?"
It's only just over a decade since a ceasefire was signed, yet the conflict had disappeared from my conscious memory, like Rwanda and so many more before it. The story does seem a little dated purely because it is, but it was a well-written, challenging and uncomfortable read for me at times. I'm glad my mother gave it to me, and glad I did read it eventually. 5 stars.
If you are sympathetic to these issues you may be interested in the work of the Refugee Council:
Refugee Boy © Benjamin Zephaniah, 1981
Published as a Bloomsbury paperback original, price £5.99
Currently available on Amazon for £4.99 [free super-saver delivery applies] and Kindle for £3.60