Immigration prejudices tackled by Golders Green author

AT A time when British youngsters are increasingly concerned about immigration, it seems timely to publish a teen adventure about asylum seekers.

A poll released last month showed nearly half of 16 to 24-year-olds believe immigration will damage the economic recovery.

Golders Green poet and author Miriam Halahmy hopes her novel Hidden (Meadowside Fiction, �6.99) will put the case for those who flee terror states under fear of torture.

“I hope it helps to open people’s minds to people coming into this country. Current attitudes are such that in some playgrounds, anyone with a brown skin is called Taliban.

“Some children don’t come from homes where these things are challenged, but the book challenges ideas of how we receive and perceive the other in our society, whether it’s someone with a different religion, colour or a disability.

“It’s getting people to think about how we look at another person. You don’t have to like everybody but at least be prepared to treat them equally until you see what they are like.”

Hidden follows the fortunes of Samir, a bullied Iraqi teen, who arrived in England at the age of 10 after his parents were killed by Saddam Hussein. He and heroine Alix stumble across an Iraqi torture victim, tossed from a trafficker’s boat onto a beach on England’s south coast.

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Fearing he will be deported, they hide him from the authorities – with dangerous consequences.

Halahmy, who worked for 25 years as a special needs teacher, fell into writing for children when she wrote a story helping children to understand their cancer diagnosis.

“I hadn’t written for children before but it was like a tap turning on. Then I contributed to an anthology of stories of child asylum seekers and a story came into my head about a boy who arrives as an unaccompanied child and writes a diary to understand what happens to him.”

Halahmy has now developed the character of Samir for Hidden, which is set on Hayling Island where her parents lived for 25 years.

“I was walking there on the beach one day and I got the idea: ‘What if there were a couple of kids who saw some poor soul being dumped by a people smuggler and hid him?’

“It’s about what happens when events on the world stage land on your doorstep and how that splices with everyday life.”

Halahmy has worked with child and adult asylum seekers as a volunteer for Helen Bamber’s Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture and understands the loneliness of displaced people who often wait years for their case to be decided.

Through Samir’s story, young readers can appreciate the consequences of living under a totalitarian regime where your parents can just disappear and of facing racism, prejudice and physical attacks at school.

“I wanted to show that asylum seekers have perfectly valid lives. They come from somewhere, not just a place with bombs but somewhere they went shopping with their mum and did all the things ordinary English kids do.”

Halahmy chose Samir’s nationality because she has been married to an Iraqi for 30 years.

“I thought if I was going to give some sense of where this asylum seeker came from then Iraq is the one culture I know something about.

“My husband’s family is Jewish but with a strong sense of their Arabic culture and I have heard much about what it was like before the country’s Jewish community was exiled in 1949-1950.”

Alix herself is a troubled soul, with a depressive mother and an absent dad who has run off with another woman.

“She’s a flawed character, an ordinary girl with a strong sense of injustice, whose parents have taken their eye off the ball for a brief period and left her with too much on her plate. She’s impetuous but has to challenge her own prejudices during the story – to rethink what she thinks about things.”

Mohammed, the asylum seeker, arrives badly beaten because he has worked for the British military and suffered reprisals as the troops pulled out.

“I wanted to show there are people who arrive in this country in the most dreadful state. He’s an ordinary guy, a university student who welcomed the British, became an interpreter, then things went wrong for him.”

Halahmy, whose own family came to England fleeing 19th century anti-Jewish pogroms, sets the book in a mostly white, quite deprived community, where Alix and Samir encounter everything from vicious bigotry to heroic kindness.

“I have set the book in a place that exists – I have written it out of a love for Hayling Island – and I hope I show that, wherever you are, there will be a range of people on the spectrum. We can’t just be smug about living in multi-cultural London or living somewhere you never meet anyone from a different culture – we are all affected by our internal prejudices.

“The more you learn about something, the more you can have a viewpoint. That’s what an entertaining book, with good characters, can do for young people who are making their minds up about what they think about the world. There’s no point in giving them a lecture, it has to be a great read.”

The mum-of-two is now working on two more books in the series, which explore the lives of two peripheral characters from Hidden, one a snobbish bully, the other a girl from a dysfunctional criminal family.