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Creative writing at Campsfield

Jennifer Allsopp
17 June 2008

‘I love spring fruits.'

‘Yeah me too, but I miss fresh fruit here, and plantain!'

‘What's plantain?'

‘Ah, OK, you're in for a treat - see here, just left of the Co-op, up the street outside Salvation Army, the best plantain you'll get outside Jamaica, innit. Tell her I sent you.'

The man winks up at me, marking a thick X on the map which he has penned of Bletchley Town Centre. It sits next to a poem we have written together, juxtaposing our different visions of spring to reveal an assortment of diverse experiences and creative minds. We are three Oxford University students and four detainees in Campsfield House from Turkey, Nigeria, Pakistan and Jamaica, and this is our shared experience of spring:

Harvest time: grass, small plants, leaves and shoots come alive on branches.
The air is filled with the aroma of new chances.
Chances distilled into murmurs and rusting.
Umbrellas and rainbows, on the earth and in the sky.
Humming bees sting.
Giraffes, buffalos and cattle wake,
Kites running and starting the circle again.

This was my first experience working with asylum seekers and I had certainly not expected to get tips on vegetable shopping back home. Sitting there in a box-like mobile classroom discussing everything from the cost of local buses to tribal conflict and political corruption I suddenly realised how little I knew about the huge range of struggles which asylum seekers face, both in the countries they have fled and here in the UK.

Before arriving in Oxford I had never even heard of Campsfield, and despite the campaigning of several local groups, most residents still have no idea it is there, (it is extremely disheartening that it is only now plans are underway to construct a new detention centre in Bicester that this topic has reached the public eye). Like many other people, I thus approached Campsfield as a kind of limbo; it was easy to forget that the people inside were part of our community, and I saw their lives as different to mine.

But my visits were decisive; they enabled me to see policy through the eyes of individual people, people whose lives were often just like mine - the biology student nervous about exams, the language enthusiast frustrated by the poor English teaching, the Persian poet. I made many friends and I felt their frustration. It turned out that the Jamaican man beside me had been living destitute for years on the very same streets on which I played as a child. Perhaps I passed him several years ago on my way to school, back when he had a name instead of a number and when to me a refugee was still an abstract notion.

Before I became involved with Student Action for Refugees (STAR) two years ago I knew what an asylum seeker was - an advantage over many of my peers who still cannot effectively distinguish between a refugee and an economic migrant - yet my ignorance lay in my narrow and generalised understanding of the term itself. I think that even amongst the most knowledgeable people, the generic ‘other' often risks becoming the generic ‘asylum seeker', and this is why in addition to defining asylum in contrast with other forms of migration, we also need to reflect the diversity of those within the category itself; we need to stress that before asylum seekers are part of a system they are individual people.

The slogan for this year's Refugee Week is Different Pasts, Shared Future and it is my hope that as well as providing an opportunity to learn more about the experiences of individuals who have sought sanctuary in the UK, this week will be a chance to celebrate the collective experiences which we have shared within our local communities.

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