The Counterweight

Yestderday I had a phone conversation with the MD of a documentary production company. He asked me an interesting question about my time in France, when I was an interpreter for refugees. He asked me whether I believed them.

And he made the point, which has always been in my mind but I have never quite articulated before, that whether or not their stories are completely true, almost all asylum seekers come from a life that we in the UK would consider ‘torture’ if we were forced to live it ourselves. Irrespective of whether they are in greater personal danger than those around them in their home country, it should be recognised that we have a very different threshold for what we’ll accept as a standard of living for other people compared with ourselves.

The conversation reminded me of this article, which I wrote during my time in France.

The Counterweight

I have changed names for confidentiality.

The honourably shabby building where all the NGOs are housed is close to the centre of town, a budget 1km from the bustling high street.  Walking through the entrance on this frosty January morning, I wonder how those fleeing their homeland and new to the city and language ever find their way here.

“They ask around,” Isabelle, the director, has told me.  “They kip on the street for a few days, meet people who know what’s what.” Like every morning, I start to think there must be a better way.  But a first glimpse of today’s queue sets me to task.

I fling my bag in the cabinet, toss my jacket at the closest hook and head for the waiting room, greeting colleagues along the way with a cheery bonjour.

Several young Georgians and Armenians are clustered around the “front desk”: a small graffiti-covered table in the corridor with one dodgy leg.  Their faces light up with a mixture of lust and gratitude as I approach.  Why did I put on a skirt this morning?

Most of these men have spent the last few weeks in the back of trucks or on park benches: cold, hungry and lost.  The sight of a young well-kept girl makes them feel alive again.  Unfortunately for me I am the only staff member of this demographic.

As the sole Russian-speaking volunteer, I am the direct bearer of all their news, good and bad.  This makes me, in their eyes, an angel: a word that echoes behind me in Russian – ang-yell! – wherever I go in this building.  It reverberates incessantly around my head as I try to get on with my day’s work.

Alexander Beridze is carving out a path in my direction amongst the chaos.

“Greetings and best wishes for your health on this icy day!” he calls in Russian, shaking my hand.

I know Alexander’s life history word for word because I translated it into French for his asylum application.  He trained as a lawyer in Tbilisi but could never practise his trade there because of hatred towards Ossetians.  When rockets started falling in the summer of 2008, he fled:  a third war, he decided, was just too much.

Reaching Poland, he bribed the border guards for entry.  They kept his money and threw him out anyway, saying that if he ever came back, he would go to prison.  Hitching a ride in the back of a truck, he arrived in France dishevelled and penniless.

It is not for us to question what we are told by our clients.  All the mistrust and interrogation is kindly undertaken by government authorities, who appear to overlook the matching need for advocacy and compassion.  At the Centre, the scepticism is replaced with unconditional respect, warmth and support.  This place is the counterweight.

“Well, Siobhan!” I hear Isabelle’s assertive tone and quick step behind me.  “What are we going to do with him?  His time ran out in the Christian block and he’s just refused winter lodgings!  Says he doesn’t want to share with Armenians.  So he’s on the street!”

Alexander knows from her expression what she is saying.

“I just want to be treated with respect,” he chips in.  “These people might have all sorts of infections!  Would you want to share a room with seven people ridden with disease?”  I relay this in French to Isabelle, who rolls her eyes.  She looks completely exasperated.

Bigotry does not exist in Alexander’s world: for him, you either speak out about your feelings or you hide them.  The Western struggle to avoid giving offence is, in his view, elaborate self-deception.  The doctrine of tolerance is simply not within his realm of thought.

I hear someone calling in Russian from the busy waiting room.

“Hey, beautiful girl!  Can I get some help reading this letter?”

Picking my way through the field of anxious women and bored, fidgety children, I reach the young Armenian, flick my eyes over his letter and tell him his bank account is now open.  His small dark eyes soften.

“You are so kind,” he says with a sigh, as though I had created the bank myself for his benefit.

A stir runs through the room.  Anthony, the sole paid employee of the organisation, more dishevelled than anyone due to minute pay and excessive overtime, has walked in.  The rustle of paper can be heard as people jump in the administrator’s path with their documents and queries.

Anthony has an unrivalled knowledge of asylum legislation.  This includes all the loopholes and tricks for helping his clients in the face of a system that is highly bureaucratic and staunchly unwelcoming.  Less than 10% of initial applicants are accepted throughout the country; about the same proportion of appeals – the second step – are successful.

Anthony’s time is stretched between processing mountains of paperwork, consultations with clients, and devising ever-more innovative methods to enable refugees to stay in the country legally.  After all, once rejected, they hardly ever leave France.  They simply join a sort of sub-human social category, the sans-papiers: a ghostly community whose members have almost no rights at all in the eyes of French law.

I sense urgency in his gait.  He is making a beeline to the corner where I stand, for once asking his clamouring customers to wait a moment.

It is about the Kapanadzes, a couple from Georgia whose house went up in flames in the Russian assault.  Mrs. Kapanadze’s sister burnt to death in the blaze, and Mrs. Kapanadze herself suffered terrible burns.  Both their application and their appeal to the French immigration authority have been rejected due to the fact that Georgia is still on France’s list of “safe” countries.

The only option left is a request for temporary residence on medical grounds.  Mrs. Kapanadze still needs extensive burns treatment, and treatment for clinical depression (from which, incidentally, she had not suffered before the traumatic events in question).  She does not have access to this in Georgia.

The lawyer has a tight schedule and can only fit them in at 12.30: this gives us an hour to explain to the Kapanadzes all that is happening.  We sit down in the meeting room, which we are sharing with Isabelle and another client.

Mrs. Kapanadze, who is short with wide Caucasian eyes and plump cheeks, beams through her sorrowful creased face.  Her husband, wearing his habitual flat cap, engages me with his own set of large eyes and shakes my hand vigorously, saying,

“Fantastic.  You are much needed.  Help us!”

The Kapanadzes eagerly ask me question after question before Anthony even opens his mouth.  I relay them, abridged, to the administrator, who answers them carefully, one by one, before embarking on the information he himself must impart.  Three minutes into our meeting, someone enters the room with a telephone and asks Anthony to step into the corridor.

“Siobhan!” Isabelle whispers from across the table.  “Can I steal you for a moment?”

Soon I am typing into a tiny keyboard a young African’s account, in French, of how and why he has left Togo.

The militants were looking for my father.  When they came to my house, they found that he had already fled.  So they put us all in the kitchen.  Then they raped my sister and my mother in front of me.  Next, one of them took a knife and drove it into my mother’s chest.  As for me, I was taken immediately to prison, where I stayed for three years.

What I actually typed into the computer was a great deal more voluminous.  Isabelle’s role was to probe for the details, so that every single name and location was noted down in the autobiography.

In prison, I myself was raped often and abused physically in other ways.  Everything they did and said was to degrade and humiliate me.  Eventually, an influential man who was an acquaintance of my father managed to secure my release.  He obtained for me a false passport so that I could fly to Europe.

“Good,” I hear Isabelle saying.  “Now, we need to make sure we spell out exactly why you need asylum here in France.  We can’t leave anything to chance.  They need you to put the case yourself – no-one else can do it for you.”

The young man nodded and continued. I waited for his next words.

I have no way of finding out whether my mother, sister and father are still alive. One thing I do know is that if I ever go back to Togo, my true identity will be discovered and I will be killed.

Our task is interrupted as the door swings open and Anthony approaches the table.

“No time any more, folks. It’s straight to the lawyer. I had to deal with something urgent.”

Explaining to the Kapanadzes, I retrieve my coat and bag from the cupboard in the corner and wrap my scarf around my neck.  The Georgians prepare to leave with us, only half informed about what we are leaving for, but content to trust Anthony – after all, they have no other choice.

On the way out of the building we pass Alexander Beridze.  He is smoking a cigarette and looking to the sky, the icy wind slapping colour into his stubble-covered cheeks.

“Best of luck with your day’s task!” he calls after me, having no idea where I am going.

I swivel round to give him a friendly wave before turning back and hurrying off at the heels of my companions.

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