Tag Archives: Sudan

What is the City but the People? Manchester, Children’s Literature, and the World

Last week I took my MA students to Manchester.  Officially, they are on a course I designed called Race, Literature and the Archive—but students don’t come on Summer Abroad Courses just for extra library time (shock horror).  Many of them were particularly interested in Manchester because of the recent terrorist attack on the Manchester Arena during the Ariana Grande concert in which 22 (mostly young) people were killed.  We had discussed the diversity in Manchester prior to coming to England, and they wanted to know how the city was handling the attack.  I have, of course, been to Manchester several times, and knew exactly how Manchester would be handling it—but I was pleased to see signs all over the city advertising the Manchester International Festival (currently in progress).  They said, simply, What is the City but the People?

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This sign was everywhere in the city–and sometimes it even mentioned the International Festival that it was advertising . . . 

This sign was a perfect introduction for my students before we went to the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre.  I’ve mentioned the centre in previous blogs; it was set up to honor the school boy, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah, who was murdered by a classmate in 1986 on the school playground.  The classmate then went on to brag that he had killed “a Paki”.  Ullah was not Pakistani, but Bangladeshi; however, he had been known in the school for defending Pakistani classmates when they were being bullied for their ethnic origins.  Jackie Ould, the director of the education arm of the AIU Centre, talked with my students about the tragedy of Ullah’s death, but also about the positive ways that the community (local and global) came together after the murder.  The legacy of Ullah if he had lived we will never know, but the legacy of his death is described in a booklet which anyone can download: http://www.racearchive.org.uk/legacy-ahmed-iqbal-ullah-2/.  For me, the most important part of the legacy has been the Race Relations Centre, as it not only provided research support for my forthcoming book (Children’s Publishing and Black Britain, 1965-2015, appearing from Palgrave Macmillan in a few weeks) but also introduced me to the projects that Ould initiates with school children of Manchester.

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This booklet is downloadable from the AIU Centre website.

These book projects have ranged from biographies of Black and Asian Britons to folktales of the places where Manchester’s immigrants have come.  While early folktales came from Afro-Caribbean, Indian, Pakistani, Roma or Travellers, the most recent two came from communities who represent newer waves of immigration to Manchester, the Somalis and the Sudanese.  Both countries suffered under civil wars in the 1990s and 2000s, and the UK opened its doors to migrants and refugees fleeing from violence.  England has the largest Somali immigrant population in Europe.  Refugees from South Sudan are the third largest asylum-seeking group in the world.  Nonetheless, they represent a tiny proportion of the population of Britain.  According to the Red Cross, “There are an estimated 118,995 refugees living in the UK. That’s just 0.18 per cent of the total population (65.1 million people)” (http://www.redcross.org.uk/What-we-do/Refugee-support/Refugee-facts-and-figures) – hardly the “swarm” of people that the anti-immigration groups (and tabloids) like to suggest.  Like other immigrants to Britain, they suffer discrimination and racism, even when they don’t struggle to find work that suits their qualifications or decent housing.

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Folktales may seem distant from the present, but interacting with the past the way these schoolchildren did can also make sense of the current moment.

It may seem that folktales, set in the distant past, have little to do with the struggles of refugee groups in Britain today.  But Ould’s folktale projects do important work.  First, the two recent folktales immediately align these immigrant groups with positive attributes just by virtue of their titles: the Somali story is entitled The Clever Princess and the Sudanese story is The Kindly Ghost.  The main characters in these stories not only help others, they also are active in achieving their own destiny.  Both protagonists are beset by problems that they overcome through their strength and quick thinking.  They learn that kindness toward bullies is not worth it, and that persistence is needed to win out over despair.  These are all useful lessons for immigrants—but importantly, they are also useful lessons for everyone.  The book projects that Ould and the school children produce are not done exclusively (or sometimes even at all) by members of those immigrant communities.  In fact, part of the point for Ould is that school children learn about each other.  This includes learning about their similarities as well as their differences: by retelling folktales, school children learn how folktales have universal ideas, common characters, settings and plots.  Characters journey seeking wisdom and happiness all over the world.

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Jackie Ould, education director at the AIU Centre, helps students interact with Manchester’s history through the Archives+ project in the Central Library.

After her presentation on the origins of the centre, Ould took us upstairs in the central library to show us the Archives+ project (http://www.archivesplus.org/), where through digitization of documents and central displays, ordinary library users can unlock the secrets of the archives to learn about the history of Manchester.  My students immediately started looking through the artifacts that told about the various waves of immigration to the city.  They learned about the Sikh struggles to be allowed to legally wear turbans at their jobs or on motorcycles; they found out more about Ahmed Iqbal Ullah’s Bangladeshi community; they looked at pictures of the Afro-Caribbean community at Moss Side.  Being able to interact with the material—just like the Manchester school children who retold and illustrated the folktales—encouraged them to dig deeper, find out more, be aware of the different people that made up this city.  The Archives+ project, like the folktale project, promotes the idea that everyone’s story matters, and that stories of the city are for everyone.  Manchester is not alone in this; it may take more digging, but most cities have histories worth uncovering, and it would be worth examining the treasures of your local archives.  Because, at the end of the day, what is the city but the people?

 

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Taking a Red Pencil to the Executive Order on Immigration and Refugees

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Not wanted–Pinkney’s novel depicts a girl fleeing from conflict who only wants an education.

“Sec. 5.  Realignment of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for Fiscal Year 2017.  (a)  The Secretary of State shall suspend the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days.  During the 120-day period, the Secretary of State, in conjunction with the Secretary of Homeland Security and in consultation with the Director of National Intelligence, shall review the USRAP application and adjudication process to determine what additional procedures should be taken to ensure that those approved for refugee admission do not pose a threat to the security and welfare of the United States, and shall implement such additional procedures.”

“Deteriorating conditions in certain countries due to war, strife, disaster, and civil unrest increase the likelihood that terrorists will use any means possible to enter the United States.  The United States must be vigilant during the visa-issuance process to ensure that those approved for admission do not intend to harm Americans and that they have no ties to terrorism.”

“The United States cannot, and should not, admit those who do not support the Constitution, or those who would place violent ideologies over American law.  In addition, the United States should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including “honor” killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own) or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation.”

–from the Executive Order on Immigration issued 27 January 2017 (full text of the order can be found here: http://www.npr.org/2017/01/31/512439121/trumps-executive-order-on-immigration-annotated).

There have been numerous lists published this week on blogs and on various social media sites about children’s literature dealing with migration and refugees. It is an issue of our times, as countries of the global south experience many of the after-effects of colonialism, racism, and global economic inequity and people leave their homeland both to escape war and violence and to seek a more economically-stable life. This past week that issue came into even sharper focus when the US president issued an executive order on immigration. The order has been referred to as a “Muslim ban” because the seven countries where visas have been halted are all predominantly Muslim countries, and the only exceptions made in the order are for “persecuted religious minorities” in these countries. There are many aspects of this that can be discussed, and I can’t discuss them all, so I just want to focus on one of the seven countries, and a children’s novel that offers red pencil correctives to some of the implications in that order.

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Devils on horsebacks: the Janjaweed who burn Amira’s village to the ground.

Andrea Davis Pinkney’s and Shane Evans’s The Red Pencil (Hachette, 2014) is set in one of the seven countries whose nationals can neither immigrate nor even visit the US, Sudan. Sudan is not only primarily Muslim, it has been wracked by civil war, and more than 2.5 million people have been displaced from their homes. The executive order says that, in places like Sudan, people become more desperate to get to the US, and will use “any means necessary” to do so. But Pinkney’s novel paints a very different picture. Amira, the twelve-year-old main character, is only vaguely cognizant that a place like the US exists (she sees “pink people” with “teethy mouths/ speaking English” on a “flicker box” in the camp [Red Pencil 162]). She never mentions wanting to go there, even after she arrives in the armed-guarded displaced persons camp. She longs only for her lost home, destroyed by “torches/Flames hurled to the roofs./ Our livestock pen alight with fire” (112) when the Janjaweed militia raided and burned her village to the ground. Knowing she cannot return there, however, does not mean she thinks of getting to America by any means necessary. The only other place she thinks about going is school.

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Amira uses her pencil to tell the truth about becoming a refugee.

School for Amira has been a dream because girls are not encouraged to get an education in Sudan. She is not taught how to read or write until she has lost everything else and is in the refugee camp. When she is given a red pencil by a Sudan Relief worker, she does not know how to use it. She feels trapped by lined paper in the same way she feels trapped by the barbed wire fences surrounding the camp, but she learns how to ignore those lines and create something beautiful or something truthful. “the pencil’s music./ It plays on paper,/ shows me highs,/ lows,/ in-betweens” (210). Amira draws angry pictures of the “wicked helicopter . . . spitting big bullets” (208) and of the Janjaweed, “devils on horseback” (59), but she never speaks of revenge. For Amira, the Janjaweed are like the dust storms that ruin the crops, and how can you revenge yourself against nature? Amira’s only possible response is a creative one, and the red pencil she is given by an American organization allows her “soul’s bird [to] wake” (208) and, eventually, to fly.

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Will refugees be able to fly free in more than their imagination? “What else is possible? I am.”

But even if her soul’s bird yearned to fly to freedom in America, she could not do so. She is not someone who might “engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including “honor” killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own) or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation”. She is a child, not a potential terrorist, who has never held a weapon and only wants to learn, and create. She is the victim of war, not the perpetrator. A month ago, a real girl like Amira still would not have been allowed to come to the US as a refugee, because she is still in Sudan and to be designated as a refugee by the UN you need to be relocated to an intermediate country. Less than one percent of the world’s refugees are ever resettled, because the process of resettlement has been made extremely arduous by countries wanting to protect their borders and put their nationals first.  Now, however, the executive order will prevent Sudanese from even that much hope, until and unless someone else’s red pencil strikes through the refugee ban. Fiction such as Pinkney and Evans’s The Red Pencil allows us to humanize an experience not one of us would choose.