A moving documentary of the story of Maurice Nwokeji from Biafra
As I watch a group of orphans in Aleppo on my TV screen appealing to the world to save them Maurice’s words ring in my ears. “But no. it’s happening now. There are kids like me in Syria, in Somalia. We haven’t learnt anything.”
Maurice knows what it is like to experience war, to be continually bombed and to scavenge for food. He was caught up in the Nigerian Civil War, better known as the Biafran War between 1967 and 1970. Ugwumpiti, the title Maurice chose for his film, is the word the children invented for the mixture of corn flour, powdered milk and water that the Red Cross provided, ‘the most beautiful food that has ever been.’ Thousands of children queued each day from morning till night, some of them dying in the line. One day Maurice won the singing competition held for the children so was able, with his younger brother, to lick the remains out of the massive oil drum.
Maurice’s story of how he survived the war, how his parents, in the UK, eventually tracked him down and arranged for him and his brother to join them in Hackney, is peppered with surprising, often amusing anecdotes. He talks about how he and his brother got knocked down by a taxi as they were not used to traffic; how they stole food from the fridge at night and stuffed it under their mattresses because they could not believe they would have food the next day; how they stuffed chocolate under the car seat because they did not want to tell their parents that it tasted too sweet. “I much preferred roasted rat,” Maurice laughed.
For the film Maurice returned to the house he lived in as a child in Hackney, “This is my England’ and he returned to Benthall Juniors where he went to school. An assembly of children were spellbound as Maurice told his story about coming, “to this very school” and as he sang several of the music tracks, inspired by his childhood, that are featured in the film.
Ugwumpiti, was recently launched at the Child Migrant Stories event at the V&A Museum of Childhood, part of the Being Human Festival. There was a great response.
‘Maurice’s heart told the story well.’
People readily linked Maurice’s experience with what is happening today.
‘Then is now. Does our society really care? And is that reflected in government policy?”
Do tell others about Ugwumpiti. Why not arrange a screening alongside a Q&A with Maurice and others. Or better still invite his band, One Jah, to give a live performance of some of the music featured in the film inspired by his childhood.
Child Migrant Stories was in demand during Refugee Week. We started off on Sunday 19th June with a screening of the film, Child Migrant Stories – Voices Past and Present in the Festival Hall on the South Bank. There was a great atmosphere with dance, music and poetry performances from people with a refugee background.
Amnesty, under the banner, What have they ever done for us? invited visitors to chart the journeys of well known people who have contributed to our social, cultural and political life.
Passing Tides, the story of Linh Vu who as a young girl escaped Vietnam by boat with her father, was shown throughout the week at the V&A Museum of Childhood. After several weeks preparation Hackney Museum launched an ambitious two-hour programme with primary school children based on four of the Child Migrant Stories. Almost 200 children participated in these workshops.
At the beginning of one workshop Josie, the museum educator, asked,“How many of you were born abroad?” Four hands shot up.“How many of you have parents or grandparents who were born abroad?”A forest of hands – all but 3 or 4 children had parents or grandparents born abroad.
I watched the introductory film, Child Migrant Stories – Voices Past and Present with one school group. They were transfixed and then plied me with questions.“How did you find people to be interviewed,” asked a bright spark of a girl.“I’ve lived and worked in East London for over 40 years,” I replied. “So I knew some of the people already.”
How I found people to be interviewed was, of course, more complicated. I followed up people who I knew from when I was running a training clothing workshop with Bangladeshi clothing workers in Spitalfields in the early 1980s. I contacted Mr. Vu who I knew when he first arrived in Hackney as one of the Vietnamese ‘boat people.’ At the time I was working as a community education worker with Hackney Adult Education and helped Mr. Vu find premises for English and mother tongue classes. Some of the people I interviewed run businesses in Hackney. Argun, from Cyrpus, has sold me stationery for years. Eylem, from Turkey, has served me coffee and Turkish breakfast. Local community organisations and neighbours, too, have helped to put me in touch with people.
After the film the children divided into four groups. They looked through a replica of the photo album that Argun saved from his bombed out house in Cyprus at the age of 12 and discussed what they would save if they had to escape in a hurry.
They fingered a huge multi-coloured African cloth similar to the one that Claudine used to carry her young brother through the forest to the Congo during the Rwandan civil war.
They admired the drawings that Linh drew of her escape from Vietnam with her father. The fishing boat that took them out to the South China Sea; the British boat that rescued Linh, her father and fellow passengers when they had run our of food and a storm was brewing; the porthole through which Linh spied the Thai pirates lurking on the horizon.
The children rewrote and performed the words of Henry’s moving song, There isn’t any place safe to live for the refugees. Henry, a musician, poet and artist, escaped the civil war in El Salvador at the age of 17.
I felt sad that Henry was not there to see how children were inspired by his song featured in our introductory film. Henry died just a few weeks after I interviewed him. But I was glad that his daughter, Gabriela, who has inherited her father’s artistic talent, would see how his father is inspiring another generation.
At the beginning of the workshop the children wrote in faint pen what they already knew about refugees. At the end they wrote in darker pen what they had learnt. The results were impressive.
It is a joy to see how Child Migrant Stories is being used so effectively as a learning resource. Hackney Museum staff found that the introductory film, in particular, resonated with children’s lives: “Children have been able to compare the stories on the screen to their own family’s journey, and have been so excited to see places that they recognise on the big screen.”
This is what one child, aged 11, thought about her experience at the museum. “We’re here happily living our lives with our play stations and mobile phones. I’ve got everything handed to me on a plate, but not everyone has that and it’s important to remember that during Refugee Week.”
A year 6 teacher from Mossbourne Parkside Academy remarked, “Refugee Week is more relevant now than it has ever been. It’s vital for children to know what it means …and the workshop at the museum helps them to see the ‘refugee’ as a person with a story and not a number, statistic or news story.”
Linh encouraged her daughter’s school to show Passing Tides during Refugee Week. This is how a Year 2 teacher from Lauriston School responded,“Poplar Class watched it and were enthralled. We had a great discussion about why people end up being refugees, and where they come from and where they go to, and what people can do to help. We thought Linh’s drawings were amazing!”
Refugee Week ended with a screening of Passing Tides at the Rio cinema before the film Fire at Sea, set on and around the Italian island of Lampedusa. It was wonderful to see Linh’s beautiful drawings on the big screen. The double bill was a success. Both films featured moving stories of people risking their lives at sea in search of safety but they differed too. Linh, who escaped Vietnam with her father by fishing boat, told her story in her own words. In Fire at Sea the migrants’ harrowing lives, and indeed deaths, are almost a backdrop to the story of a young boy from Lampedusa.
After the films Mitch, my fellow filmmaker, and myself joined Dr Anna Arnone, who has studied migration in relation to Lampedusa, in a question and answer session. People were surprised to hear that Lampedusa, besides being the arrival point for many migrants and the place where many have drowned offshore, is also a popular tourist destination.
We got some lovely feedback about the event, “I thought the film (Passing Tides) was brilliant – the story so cleverly told and illustrated with very evocative art and photographs. I actually cried and I think the combination of the harrowing details told in such a matter of fact way and the blending of domestic and international news throughout was just right. My friend thought Fire at Sea was quite wonderful and they both gave us the basis of a night’s discussion over supper.”
Another visitor was inspired to read in the credits that the film was shot on IPhone 6s. Our only regret about the Rio screening was that Linh could not join us. She was trampling about in the mud at Glastonbury.
We would like to thank all our partners for offering us the opportunity to share Child Migrant Stories – the Rio, the South Bank, the V&A Museum of Childhood and Hackney Museum. There are already plans to work with some of them in the future, “In the coming months and years, we’d love to continue to explore more of the stories and design ways of making them accessible to the children of Hackney.” Hackney Museum
But we also believe the website and films are of international appeal. Passing Tides had over 8,000 viewings on YouTube within a week – from Hackney to Ho Chi Minh City, from Sydney to San Francisco.
With the recent report showing that the 6 richest countries have only taken 9% of the world’s refugees we know there is no room for complacency.
We are very excited to launch the film about the migration of Linh Vu, aged 7 from Vietnam to the UK. I first interviewed Linh for Child Migrant Stories in late 2013 and early 2014. In our third interview she drew the boat in which she escaped with her father, remarking that she had drawn the sails bigger than they really were. It was as if she wished the journey had been safer than it was. She also spoke about her experience of living in the refugee camp on Thorney Island on the south coast where her Dad acted as an interpreter and senior social worker for the other Vietnamese. The school Linh attended outside the camp had welcomed her warmly and she made many English friends there. Even then I thought how wonderful it would be to encourage Linh to illustrate more of her perilous journey and to visit Thorney Island with her.
When I secured money to make films based on some of the child migrant stories I shared some of these ideas with Linh. She responded positively. She was about to visit Vietnam during the Easter holidays, after many years away, and so was able to take images of her home town including of a full size statue of Jesus lying on a bed of popcorn. She had begun to think that she had imagined this – but there it was for her, her husband and her seven year old daughter forty years later.
Linh began to draw other images, often surreal – of the British ship on the horizon that she mistook for an iceberg with fairy lights; of shrimp paste morphing into the Eiffel Tower. We made a memorable trip to Thorney Island with her father, Thanh Vu M.B.E., who used to bellow down the loudspeaker at the Vietnamese residents for cooking in their rooms – they wanted to spice up the bland offerings they were served in the refectory.
The film is a testimony to Linh’s artistic skill, delicacy and thoughtful reflections of not only her own experiences but of how they relate to those of child migrants today.
We have already screened the film on the Floating Cinema on Regents Canal last Saturday followed by a question and answer session where children as young as seven plied Linh with searching questions – why did she leave, what did it feel like on the boat, what was it like to arrive in Hackney and why did there need to be a war? Linh’s daughter had a more personal question. What was the name of her teenage boyfriends that her father disapproved of as they were English, not Vietnamese? The barge rocked withlaughter.
Tina Puryear, who has helped Linh’s father write his autobiography, read out a moving passage of the reunion of Linh and her father with Linh’s mother and siblings five years later. We were able to screen the film again at the launch of Linh’s father’s autobiography on Monday night in a Vietnamese restaurant in Hackney run by Linh’s brother. Immediately Hackney Museum vowed to use the film in their education programme with schools during Refugee Week and Student Action for Refugees wish to use the ‘incredible film’ in UK wide activities.
Some of the comments on Linh’s film made on Saturday June 4th 2016 on the Floating Cinema:
“It was very moving and with parallels with today’s refugee crisis.”
“Warm, beautifully told, powerful drawings.”
“Powerful impact of the subject matter, technical brilliance, beautifully edited.”
“Reminds us how fragile the politics of identity truly are. It gives me great pride to be around a diverse community of people and ideas.”
“Shows us a terrible reality of human survival. With the current situation it opened my eyes.”
“It was a wonderfully told human story.”
“Fascinating seeing such a personal account of a momentous journey.”
“Personal, authentic, intimate.”
“Very moving and humbling.”
‘The excerpt from the book was brilliant.”
“Lively discussion with children asking relevant questions.”
There were many ideas of how to take the project forward – more films, a road show, take it to schools, to local groups, to areas that are less diverse. But more ambitious aims too.
“Funding is all! I feel this needs to be seen by certain, ‘People of Influence’, also on a bigger screen.”
“Use these beautiful stories to lobby and make it relevant in our society/government’s position towards situation of refugees’ ordeal today.”
With many thanks to Linh and her family who have helped bring this beautiful film to fruition and to Mitchell Harris for his unfailing talent and commitment.
Also thank you to the Floating Cinema for hosting our films on the Regent’s Canal and to the staff of Thorney Island and Southbourne Junior School for allowing us to film there.
Henry loved the city he was born in. “In those days it was a beautiful place. You can sleep in the street and people will look after you.”
He lived with his family in a, “wonderful happy house.” It was so big that they created a roller-skating ring in the front room.
Opposite the house was a Catholic church where, from a young age, Henry learnt to play the organ. “The church was my playground. One day I heard a knock at the door and it was the verger. And he said, ‘Look, we have a funeral so can you play the bells as well?’ “
Henry was artistic. He made puppets and wooden toys and was a self-taught pianist, impressing his cousins who lived in the capital with his rendering of Beethoven’s Fur Elise.
Then civil war erupted. “14 families owned the whole country. Any rebellion was suppressed by heavy attacks. Óscar Romero, the Archbishop, actually asked the government, ‘In the name of God, I order you to stop killing your own people.’ D’Aubuisson gave the order to kill Óscar Romero.
“I remember people saying, ‘If they don’t respect the man of God, who is going to respect us?’ I began to see my friends being killed. One lost his life because he saw somebody being kidnapped. On my birthday, about 200 yards from where I was standing, there was a gunshot and this guy fell. My friends were calling, ‘Henry, come back inside before you get shot.’ I couldn’t move. The other guy finished all the bullets and the body jumped every time. I don’t celebrate my birthday now.
“In 1980, my dad said to me, ‘I have to recruit you into the Army. The guerrillas are not going to kill you because they’re all your friends but the Army will.’ So at the age of 16 he enrol me, not as a soldier, but as a musician. In fact, the sergeant ban the musicians to lend me an instrument as he wanted me to read music. ‘If you lend an instrument to Henry, I put you in jail.’
“One soldier said, ‘You’re so lucky you’re in the Army because we cannot touch you now.’ I began to like the power as I was bullied at school but I was afraid of it too. Soldiers said to me, ‘Henry if you need to get rid of anybody just let us know and we’ll get rid of them.’ And the other side said, ‘Henry, why don’t you join the guerrillas? You’ll be okay there.” But I said, ‘No, I don’t want to risk my family.’ It was very scary.
“The guerrillas never actually hurt anyone. They used bombs only to frighten, to attack certain places. The guerrillas took over most of the churches. There were two reasons why the Army couldn’t touch a guerrilla. One is, if you’re in a church and two, if you wrap yourself with the national flag they cannot shoot you.
“My brother (brother in law) was kidnapped because he was a Head of the University. Anything that was education was a danger for the government. He came to England in 1979. In 1980 my sister came to be reunited with him. When my brother-in-law found out I was in the army, he didn’t want me to be brainwash, so I came to England through Human Right Campaign.
“Napo and Omar, my friends, were the only ones that knew. When they drop me at the bus stop, they started crying, and we knew then that was it. The plane from El Salvador to Miami was fine but when I saw the jumbo jet that was going to bring me to London I thought, how is that thing going to stay up there? I didn’t go to toilet. I remember being on a train and you look down the hole and you see the railways. So that’s why I didn’t want to go to toilet just in case I fall down the hole.
I arrive at 7 o’clock in the morning and all I could say is, ‘I’m coming to study music.’ And they (immigration officers) said to me, ‘but music college is very expensive.’ I say, ‘Yeah, I got $25.’ ‘That doesn’t even cover you if you walk from the airport to London,’ They photocopy every paper I have. And then they said, ‘So you coming to us for a political asylum? Your sister is outside with the Human Right Campaign. Why didn’t you say that when you arrived?’ I wouldn’t trust anybody. I wouldn’t say anything that will cause a threat to my life.
“I arrive around September or November and it is snow, snow and snow. For me it was so funny because it’s a Slush Puppy land. I wanted to put a flavour on it and finish it all up.
“It was a Latin American music festival and they said, ‘we have a singer from El Salvador’. My sister pushed me on stage and that was the first time I perform in England.
I started singing other people’s songs but then I need to express what I feel. Performing took me all over England. I was invited to the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool. I arrive in the taxi. And someone said, ‘Who the hell is he?’ And all the cameras started taking pictures just in case.
It wasn’t until I came to England that I started seeing documentaries, films and photographs, testimonies. Then my eyes were open. We thought it was normal you know, you just cope with life as it comes. Sometimes I had nightmares and, my dad said to me, ‘Why you don’t sleep?’ and I say, ‘it’s just all these memories come back. It’s like changing all the channels of a television, all this imagines come back.’
“After ten years I went back to El Salvador and did a concert in the National Theatre to raise funds for the orphans. They took me to the Central Park in front of the Cathedral and I saw this whole row of chairs from people from the Government and the Army band. And I thought, ‘They going to lynch me or what?’ ‘No,’ they said, ‘We are here to honour you.’ And they present me with two diplomas for all the work I have done for refugees and El Salvador.
“I went to the house. It was full of cobwebs. A sad house. A haunted house. I sat where I used to sit on a little wall. I was wearing white trousers, a white top. A bus stopped right in the middle of the road and everyone came out. ‘You gave us such a fright,’ said the bus driver, ‘ because suddenly we see this haunted house and you sitting outside wearing all white.’ Someone said I’d been kidnapped and killed during the war.
“When I came to England I said, ‘This is my home. I’m not going back.’ Hackney is everything for me. Everything is Hackney. El Salvador is just a dream that I left behind. I can always go back and dream again, but Hackney is my home.
You can hear Henry and excerpts from his story on Soundcloud: