The Art of Justice: Lessons from a Refugee Family

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I have no idea what to expect. So I buy two identical sets of coloured pencils. Two notebooks. I tuck a range of books and worksheets into an overlarge canvas bag. I get on the tube at Bank, off at Canning Town, where I catch a bus that travels the length of Barking Road. It is London, early summer 2011. I’m going to meet my students.

Outside the cramped brick council house, I pause and ruffle my hair. I shift my bag, check the time. I’m stalling. I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m studying philosophy and public policy, not teaching. Much less the kind of teaching I am about to face. I have only taught university students. Not children who are falling through the cracks in just about every system, from health to housing to education.

I press the buzzer and wait. Soon, a girl with clouds of black hair opens the door. “My brother’s not home yet,” she says cheerily, leading me up the narrow staircase to a room with a low couch and a mattress pushed against the wall.

“That’s ok,” I tell her. “What’s your name?”

“Victoria.”

She brings me a cup of water and shows me page after page of drawings her brother, Justin, has done, mostly of animals. From her rough-and-tumble English I learn that Justin has recently visited the zoo, that she likes karate, and that she hates school. This last revelation doesn’t come as much of a surprise. You’d hate school too if you were bullied for being different.

Spirit the Horse, by Justin

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Victoria and Justin are Roma, a migratory people who originated in India, then fanned out across Asia Minor and Europe. In every new place, they managed to carve out a niche, whether as musicians, tradesmen, handymen, or labourers. In every new place they also encountered rejection and oppression, including slavery, deportation, and, during WWII, attempted extermination.

Victoria’s parents sought asylum in the UK from Poland, where hate crimes exploded after the fall of Communism. But the UK proved a less than welcoming host. The family had to move at least once or twice a year due to housing shortages and short-hold leases. The children were constantly shifting schools and fighting for places in over-full classrooms. Add to the mix racist bureaucrats, unthinking landlords, and bullying schoolmates – and you have a recipe for exclusion and heartache.

I spend one afternoon a week with Victoria and Justin. We practice reading and writing and a little ‘rithmetic. But mostly we read stories and draw pictures. They talk, and I listen. Victoria tells me of a dream she had: her mother was in danger, and she swooped in, superhero-style, to help.

Later I hear the real story. Her mother, Zofia, was being yelled at over the phone by a housing official. But Zofia doesn’t speak English, so she handed the phone to the one family member who does: ten year-old Victoria. After listening to the abuse for a few moments, Victoria asked, “Why are you shouting at me? I’m just a kid.”

A creative moment

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Zofia is ill, and it’s up to Victoria to translate during doctor’s appointments. When she accompanies her mother to the housing office, racist comments aren’t lost on her. I wonder what she thought when a functionary said to her mother, “You should go back to your country.”

And what country would that be?

Victoria and Justin were born in London. Zofia even votes in mayoral elections. She came to the UK to protect her children from hate. To give them every immigrant’s hope for a better life. But before that better life is reachable, it seems like every generation of new arrivals must be either assimilated or “kept in their place.”

There is now a great push toward Roma “inclusion” and “integration”, with new frameworks being hammered out in many European countries to address inequalities of health, employment, and education. But the inequalities remain, as does great skepticism on behalf of many Romani individuals about the means and ends of such inclusion. What’s the motive? Is inclusion benefiting the Roma – or the politicians? It’s a valid question.

Justin, the artist-explorer

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Victoria understands about inequality. But I’m not sure if she relates it to herself. Instead, she brings me a box she’s made out of paper and tape. “This is to put money in,” she says. And I think that maybe it’s her version of a piggy-bank. But then she says, “It’s to give to the children in Africa who don’t have clean water.”

Perhaps she saw one of those ads on TV soliciting funds for Africa’s needy. Whatever the origins of her generosity, I am floored. This is a child with no books and very few toys. To practice her English, she took the only thing with writing in the house – a TV manual – and copied out words like “power source” and “cable” in the margins. Her perseverance gives me hope. When I see her again, months later, she tells me she “loves school.”

The media snaps up tales of “baby stealing” panics and Gypsy crime, feeding stereotypes and misperceptions. But the real stories lie in the wisdom and heartbreak people share in their unguarded moments. The real stories are the ones Justin and Victoria are building for themselves – moving beyond tired narratives of “minority” and “disadvantage” through the strength of their imaginations.

Victoria among the flowers

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Victoria loves flowers. She paints me a rose, a tree of life. One afternoon, with coloured paper strewn all over the bed, she carefully tapes together a mosaic blossom. When it’s finished, she holds it up proudly. I had just read her Mary Oliver’s poem “The Sunflowers”.

“That’s gorgeous!” I exclaim. “What kind of flower is it?”

Victoria pauses for a moment. Then, with certainty –

“It’s a fireflower,” she says, her face shining deep.

Victoria and Justin with their creations

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