Editors’ note: This article is the fifth in a series on books by or about refugees.
Readers should not open this book expecting to find refugee stories told through the voices of refugees.
“Threads From The Refugee Crisis” is a book illustrated and written by a graphic artist and activist who volunteered at the Calais jungle refugee camp on and off between 2015 and 2016.
Her name is Kate Evans, and the book is told entirely from her perspective—the reader learns almost no significant or meaningful details about the refugees she encounters. Their plight is often expressed by Evans herself, which to me seemed like a missed opportunity to give a platform to a group of people desperately in need of one.
For example, in one scene Evans is handing out oranges to rain-sodden Kurdish refugees. The conditions they live in become all too much for her, and she breaks into tears.
This is a technique that at times frustrated me and made me wonder if Evans wasn’t exploiting the refugees, albeit in a well-meaning way. It made me ponder the notion that she might be inadvertently using their stories and struggles to make herself look caring and generous.
That’s a question I put to Evans, and her reply made me think again, even if it didn’t totally change my opinion.
“I didn’t go as a cartoonist,” she said. “I went as a volunteer, so I didn’t have prior consent to use their stories.”
“Lots of people do journalistic accounts, but I didn’t do that because I think it’s exploitative. That people are living in these conditions is itself newsworthy, and I don’t need to dredge up their story and ask them if their sister has been raped etc.”
Evans is an immensely passionate and well-informed person, and it wasn’t long after speaking with her that I realized she was not a refugee tourist—a worry I harbored after reading a scene in the book in which she jokes about Instagramming her food at a restaurant in the jungle and writing a review of it on TripAdvisor. “It doesn’t help to add sadness to an already sad story,” she says. “There is almost always comedy in the direst of situations.”
And she’s right. To say that anyone writing about refugees mustn’t introduce humor to their work is unfair.
The book is peppered with images of a cellphone with trolling texts that criticize both refugees and “do-gooders” like Evans. Some of the messages were actually sent to Evans; others she collected from online comments. But they’re all real. Someone somewhere thought those thoughts and sent them.
To someone who never reads online comments, they serve as a sobering reminder of how many deny humanity to the refugees they observe. “These cute refugee babies grow into vile adults who want to destroy our country,” reads one of them.
But for me, the most meaningful part of the book was not the hateful texts or the lack of refugee perspectives, but a realization of how quickly we forget the bad things that happen to refugees.
The narrative of the book follows events that we’ve all undoubtedly watched on the news—like the clearing of the camp, the police brutality and the routine people-smuggling.
It forces you to recollect how you thought and felt at the time: outraged and even tearful. It’s a sobering reminder, because you also recall how quickly you got on with your everyday life. You paused to watch the footage and felt sad, but you ultimately carried on. Nothing changed.