'These poems are very moving and it's hard to do justice to the way Caroline Smith conveys the anxieties, hopes and disappointments experienced by immigrants. She never allows the reader to forget that behind the refugee statistics there are suffering human beings; very often the victims of a seemingly insensitive and overstretched bureaucracy.' – Lord Alf Dubs
Lord Alf Dubs was formerly a Director of the Refugee Council and Chair of Liberty. He was one of 669 Jewish children saved from the Nazis on the Kinderstransport.
The strikingly moving poems in Caroline Smith’s The Immigration Handbook are the fruit of the author’s career as an Immigration Caseworker for one of the most diverse inner-city areas in London. Her characters are careful composites of people she’s observed. They step vividly off the page, as if out of the headlines and we meet them: such as the battered Russian boxer in hiding; such as Dr. Khan, ‘who has been walking to Hounslow each week for seven years to sign his name’; such as the nurse who, denied citizenship for a petty crime, kills herself, as she believes this is the only way her children might be allowed to stay in the UK.
Interspersed with these sometimes harrowing stories, there are quieter poems where the contrast between first and third worlds pricks the conscience as with the Brazilian cleaner, Esta Cunha de Silva, in ‘Domestic Worker’ who picks rhubarb in an English garden while remembering the sounds of chainsaws in the Amazon, and with ‘Mr. Giang’, who speaks ‘sixty-two Vietnamese bird languages’ but ‘hasn’t yet mastered English.’ All through this book the dramatic emotions of the immigrants, veering between hope and despair, are conveyed with simple descriptions of their circumstances and of their feelings, in beautifully clear, expressive language: ‘Before poverty and disenchantment had/seared his unsuspecting heart, he had talked/ to her of the water, the longing and/waiting…’ (from ‘Nursery Tales’).
Amid these human and lyrical moments the cold language of the bureaucrats runs like an icy stream. We also hear from the judges, social workers, immigration officers and caseworkers who must enforce, often with brutal detachment, but just as often with reluctance and empathy, the laws of the state. Smith artfully lifts and reconstructs Border Agency reports of detention raids on frail, failed asylum seekers. She reveals heartless adjudications where hopeful citizens, often clearly victims of trauma, are dismissed in the third person, as ‘applicants’. Occasionally, there are moments of humour, of joy, the e-mail address changed to reflect a success, the comical mis-spellings of those learning English, the friendships that arise due to shared difficulties.
Written over a period of years, as layered and infused with experience as the documents she discusses: letters folded and refolded, creased with time, Caroline Smith’s poems are a moving record of global people movement, the story of our time.