Words and deeds: Caroline Moorehead on her work with refugees in Cairo

Caroline Moorehead

Filed under: Non-fiction

Caroline Moorehead explains how her biographies of two women led her to work with refugees in Cairo.

In 1980, after I had been working for The Times for just over a year, I was asked to write a short column every Friday about a prisoner of conscience: a man, woman or even child in jail somewhere in the world of account of their politics, race or religion.  The phrase was then much in vogue, having been coined after Peter Benenson wrote an article in the Observer, calling on the world not to abandon the ‘forgotten prisoners’ locked away in jails and psychiatric hospitals around the world,  particularly in the USSR and the Eastern Bloc countries.

Amnesty International, born out of this campaign, was by 1980 a very successful organisation, its members writing letters to the jailers on behalf of these scattered and unfairly imprisoned people, and securing unhoped-for numbers of releases. And because I was so taken by this notion, that ordinary people could actually achieve things if they banded together, and if they cared enough to bother, I started the column, and, week by week, grew more fascinated by the subject of human rights.  It proved the start of an engrossing strand of work, which over the next 25 years took in a more general column on human rights for the Independent, a human rights mission to the USSR, articles for papers and magazines, and a ten-year annual series of short documentaries for BBC television; eventually even a book, based on the wartime archives of the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross.

Even so, though I kept writing, and grew ever more involved in the subject of persecution and torture, and particularly how and why people survive apparently unsurvivable experiences,  I never actually did anything: I visited no refugee camps, I did no actual campaigning, I went to none of the places I wrote about.  The stories that came my way week after week appalled and touched me;  but they remained stories.

And then, early in 2001, needing a break from other things, wondering where to go and what to do, I realised that a definite feeling of unease had been slowly building up over the years, something to do with having derived so much interest and work from the lives of others, and yet having given nothing back.  Two of the biographies I had written were about women with a strong sense of duty, Iris Origo and Martha Gellhorn, both of whom wrote, with passion, about the causes they adopted: Origo about anti-fascism and poverty in Italy in the 1930s and during World War Two, Gellhorn about the casualties of the American Depression and the civilian victims of the Spanish Civil War – and later about the children orphaned by American napalm in Vietnam.

To write, it was obvious to both of them, was necessary, but it was never sufficient.  Each experienced an added sense of herself in the acting, and each was changed by what she did – as a person, but also as a writer, the intensity of these new feelings and commitments shaping not only the way she wrote but her perception of the world about her and her own place in it.  It made them different people; and different, more humane writers, altered by coming upon another range and dimension within themselves. A feeling that I had been exploitative began to nag at me.  How could I sit back, year after year, and do nothing? The excellent Refugee Study Centre in Oxford was founded in the 1980s by an American professor called Barbara Harrell-Bond, an energetic and driven woman with an obsession that the world is neglecting its refugees, and a determination to improve their conditions, through campaigning, education and research.

In 2000, Barbara was appointed to the American University in Cairo as Emeritus Professor of Refugee Studies.  I wrote to ask her if she knew of a refugee camp where I could go and work.  She told me to come to Cairo, where there was much to be done.  I went and found that, though there was no camp, she was right: and the little I did has proved an excellent thing in my life. Cairo is a crossroads for Africa’s wandering refugees.  It is here that come Sudanese and Ethiopians, Eritreans and Sierra Leoneans, Liberians and Guineans.  They come because they can, because Egypt operates an open-door policy, because the UN High Commission for Refugees has its headquarters for the region there, and because they believe that they will find safety, while they negotiate new futures in the West.  Most are young single men, driven from their own countries by war, famine, the massacre of their families, torture, political and religious differences and fear;  but there are families too, and single women with small children whose husbands are political prisoners at home, and children, sole survivors of large murdered families or former child soldiers now alone and adrift.

But Egypt, while generous in spirit, is chaotic in practice.  Though permitted to enter the country, the asylum seekers may not work; nor may their children go to school, or receive any medical treatment.  Faced by numbers now estimated at possibly a million destitute and desperate people, UNHCR struggles to find solutions, either by arranging for them to be resettled abroad as acknowledged refugees under the 1951 Convention, or by rejecting their case and hoping that they will return to their own countries.

In practice, very few do so.  They are too frightened, and they have no money with which to travel.  Simply leaving, surviving, took all the energy, optimism and courage they possessed. And every year, the numbers of these people grow, so that Cairo today has a vast, unregulated, hungry, frantic population of asylum-seekers, many caught in a limbo, unable either to advance or to retreat.

At the end of January 2001, together with a writer friend, Lyndall Passerini, I arrived in Cairo.  It so happened that it was that day that 57 Liberians, who had managed to reach Cairo, all survivors of massacres of their families by Charles Taylor’s men,  came to call on Barbara, having heard of her work with refugees.  All but two were young men, aged between 14 and 26.  Among them there were child soldiers and students, teachers and drivers.  One was a lawyer, another a customs official.  All were without papers.  They lived on the streets, in Cairo’s vast and dusty slums, under cars and inside mosques. They were penniless, hungry and had very little hope for the future.  Most had been wandering, alone, for several years. Neither Lyndall nor I knew anything about Liberia, beyond its flag of convenience;  we knew very little about Africa generally.  When we collected them the first day, to take them back to our flat, they refused to walk next to us, but insisted on staying behind us, a long, straggling line of young Liberians, who stopped whenever we stopped, and made us feel like Stanley and Livingstone.

But over the next five weeks, for four or five hours at a time, we listened to their stories, heard them describe the atrocities they had witnessed, the parents and brothers and sisters they had lost, the indignities and torture each had suffered, and we wrote out their testimonies and helped them prepare the case that they would put to UNHCR when the day came for the interview that could win them refugee status and permission to remain in the West.  Soon, we became convinced that testimonies of this kind, told safely, often for the first time after years of suppression and self doubt, have benefits far beyond those of acting as passports to a better future.  The young Liberians visibly changed; they became more assured, more open; and they made friends with each other.  And in the process, Lyndall and I became experts on Liberia, testing each other on the names of rebel commanders, the villages where the worst of the massacres had taken place, the geography of Monrovia, until we felt we could have appeared onMastermind.

And after the Liberians, who came back to see us again and again with details they had forgotten or been too ashamed to describe on earlier meetings, came Sudanese and Sierra Leoneans. We learnt about Africa’s wars, about the many variations of torture of which man is capable, about fear and loneliness and survival.  Later, with Barbara and a group of young lawyers, we helped start a legal-advice centre in the centre of Cairo, where trainee volunteer lawyers from Egypt and many western countries now advise and prepare asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa and beyond on their applications for refugee status, the experience incidentally proving an excellent training for young lawyers bound for humanitarian and human-rights law.

Since asylum seekers regularly wait three and even four years to hear whether they have been accepted by UNHCR,  time in which they have nothing to do and time most feel is being tragically lost in their lives, we also returned to London to raise money to fund and help set up four educational projects – a study centre for the 57 young Liberians, desperate to continue their broken schooling; a nursery school for 85 Sudanese children between the ages of four weeks and four years, out on the edges of Cairo at Arba-y-nos, so that their mothers can look for illegal work as maids; home teaching for primary-aged Somali children; and evening classes in English for Sudanese adults.  The Cairo Refugee Fund, as we have called it, pays some emergency medical expenses and rents, and has recently branched out to fund, on a loan system, a sewing co-operative of older Sudanese women, too old to cope with the heavy physical work demanded of maids in Cairo.  We talk, now, of transferring some of this work to southern Italy, where Berlusconi’s government is introducing ever tougher measures against the boat people – many of them from the African countries we have got to know in Cairo – washed up every day on the shores of Sicily.   In the wake of Cairo, I now work as an occasional volunteer at the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, taking testimonies much as I took them in Cairo.

A minuscule drop, in a vast ocean: there are said to be some 40 to 50 million refugees today, adrift around the world, far from their own homes, all with their own stories of misery and endurance. No sense of duty done, then, in the Iris Origo or Martha Gellhorn meaning of the word; but unfailing interest, involvement, and, certainly, huge pleasure when things go right – the Cairo Liberians are to be resettled in the States – and a feeling of immense good fortune at not being merely a spectator to what is perhaps the world’s most pressing problem in the early 21st century. And, perhaps inevitably, I am now writing a book, about refugees in the modern world, and what they endure and how they survive, based on travels over the last 18 months among asylum seekers in Afghanistan, Guinea, Sicily, Beirut, the USA and Finland : a better kind of book I hope, back to my first days as a reporter, but with the difference that I have now seen and listened, while before I only recorded.

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Caroline Moorehead 1993