Series 3 No.11 - Frontiers

the very act of writing is, as I have often seen, an act of self-healing.

Ahmed and I are sitting in a therapy room in a unique purpose-built treatment centre in London for people who have suffered extreme human rights abuses. We are engaged in a sort of translation, though the man who wrote the original is also, for the most part, the translator.

This is the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, and it is Ahmed’s story of persecution and survival that is being translated. It is part of the care that he has been offered: to become part of the Medical Foundation’s Write-to-Life group, a small group of torture survivors who have opted to use writing to help them come to terms with their experiences.

The Medical Foundation offers therapeutic support and practical assistance to thousands of men, women and children who have been forced to flee countries across the world where they were psychologically and physically tortured.

But the experiences that these men and women in the group write about don’t necessarily relate to the abuses they suffered. Writing about their parents or their childhood or daily life in their home-country or about their refugee experience in the UK can also be wonderfully restoring for the writer. Indeed, the very act of writing is, as I have often seen, an act of self-healing.

This afternoon we have an hour together. Sometimes we achieve rather little. We spend too long discussing the problems over the road at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium; or we have broken off continually for Ahmed to clear up my misconceptions about what life is like for a Kurd in Eastern Turkey.

When we are going well, it is really he who is making the running: telling me in his uncertain English what he has written, explaining further and thereby remembering more of what needs to be said, and constantly checking that the English I have been suggesting does indeed express him. What we are not doing is translating from his Turkish into my English. Also what we are not doing is translating from his learned English into my academic English. It would be only too easy to conceal the stops and starts of Ahmed’s story and present it fluent and unremarkable. However, as I see it, my task is to help him with his story in such a way that it remains his own. Ahmed’s experience is far removed from the experience of most English readers, and the language must be unfamiliar if it is to do the experience justice.

Doing Ahmed’s experience justice is what we are about, and the justice must be a sort of restorative justice: an act of survival for an experience that once left him helpless and hurt.

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