Dianna Djokey interviews Majid Dhana about his experience as a migrant and a person of colour dealing with isolation during Covid-19, and the creative opportunities he’s created to speak up for other people through his poetry.
Dianna Djokey: How has Covid impacted upon you?
Majid: The problem I’ve got is isolation. I’m a people person, I like being around people. Before, my life was [performing] my poetry and engaging with people. We [hear] all this talk about Covid and support but [I find] there isn’t actually that much support around.
For me, I’ve been staying indoors and just trying to get into a routine, which is quite hard, with the uncertainty of what’s going to happen. From an arts point of view, I would say it’s made me more creative because I am writing more and I’m able to take the time and see what is going on in the world. You have ‘Black Lives Matter’ and other issues. I have the time now to visualize and analyse everything going on.
It’s made me realize it’s a very angry, sad world that we live in at the moment. So it’s not been easy but it’s got its advantages, it’s been productive [creatively] from my point of view. I know other people are struggling a lot because they don’t see anyone they have no access.
I try and help as much as I can when I can.
Has it helped you to help others, in terms of feeling isolated?
It’s helped me to realize that you’re not the only person going through experiences like this, but I feel sorry for people [who] can’t go to drop-in centres or clubs. I’m not only talking about migrants but [also] people like the homeless and people with mental health [issues].
A lot of [other] people I’ve spoken to are afraid of leaving their house now because it’s been so long. They’re scared to leave their house even though they can. I feel more can be done.
We have the NHS and they’re doing a brilliant job, helping people in the hospitals, but social workers’ and caseworkers’ [services were reduced in lockdown]. There [were] people that rely on the library, the libraries [were] closed [and it] effectively have closed off their world, even though [people] are able to get online and become part of the community [that way].
Are you afraid of leaving your home?
I haven’t been afraid to leave my home but ever since the whole situation with ‘Black Lives Matter’ and with Covid in the forefront, when I leave my home I’m more careful with what I speak about. I’m more careful in the way I approach [topics] and look at things.
I go out for walks and I write but I’m more wary, and understand it’s like a fuse if you say the wrong thing. A lot of people are angry and upset because of what Covid has caused. People aren’t working, they are not being paid, [or] they’ve been laid off.
Many people are angry and there are no answers. So for myself leaving the home, it’s fine. I’m careful what I do. I go to Tesco when it’s quiet. It breaks my heart seeing people that are just being left alone. It’s not only migrants it’s local people.
You mentioned earlier that you’re now more aware of what you’re saying. As a poet do you feel that censors you or how you are able to connect with people?
People that know me know I generally say it as it is. I don’t hold back and sometimes it gets me in trouble, sometimes it doesn’t. Usually I write about my experiences in life but I’m now starting to write for people that can’t speak; making people understand that, on top of Covid we’ve now got [issues relating to] race going on.
It’s a fine line where you’ve got to be careful what you say because it will get you into trouble. I generally look at the audience [and judge], okay maybe that’s not appropriate to say. I think it’s just [about] respecting the people that you are reading to. People need to be [encouraged to] say the truth, [to share] the reality of the life that we’re going through. It’s working your way through that.
I’ve always said it’s not about the adults it’s about the children. It’s not fair on them to grow up in a world like this. We all need to come together, it’s not the time for anger. I get the whole ‘Black Lives Matter’, I’m not white, and I’m not from this country. I get it, I’ve dealt [with] racism.
I’ve walked in shops and I’ve been followed by security. I’ve been like, ‘What are you doing, why are you following me?’ [and been told] ‘I’m not following you?’ I get it [but] I think as a community, we can all come together, we all give a little. I’m a poet, I [give people] writing. In journalism you can teach people, something is going to come out from that.
Out of all of this sadness, you’ll see little flowers just flourishing.
It’s like active service – people going beyond themselves [and] asking what can they do for other people. I think the one thing with Covid is that it’s brought to the forefront – especially at the beginning – a very individualistic mentality. A lot of people are recognizing [now] that we need to be more of a community.
During Covid how has the legal process been for you as a migrant?
My status has now been sorted. People often ask me, ‘Would you change [your experience] if you could?’ I probably wouldn’t because I wouldn’t be the person I am today.
It’s not an easy journey, I’m actually glad those stories are coming up [about] Windrush because you can actually see a tiny snippet of what people are going through. If there are people claiming asylum and refugees are waiting for their papers, let them work, give them status to work, whether it’s in a certain industry, whether it’s in agriculture or manufacturing, while their papers are being processed. That way you’ve got people integrating with the local community: people know how to go and order coffee, they know how to get a bus or call a taxi, they’re meeting people. That’s how you get people integrated within the local community while making an income.
People are not running away because they want to come to UK where there is a lot of money. People are running away from wars, persecution and much more. To physically leave everything that you’ve had and just go to [another country] where you can’t speak the language and to get there and be told, ‘Oh you dirty refugees/immigrants, go home.’
What happened to life and humanity? There’s that saying, ‘No one puts their children on a boat unless the water is safer than the land.’ No one puts his or her children on a boat.
It’s been very hard for some migrants without help. Some people won’t even go and get tested for Covid because they are afraid that their names are going to be taken and they are going to be put in a detention centre. People shouldn’t [have to] feel like that if we are all one and we are all looking out for each other.
You can imagine the numbers of people that got Covid and they haven’t got tested or got help. People from ethnic minorities are more likely to get it than people who are not. Is that the world our kids should be living in? No!
I’ve found that grassroots community groups have been vocal about helping people. What has been your experience with that?
The Red Cross has been reaching out to people. Unfortunately, because of Covid, the drop-in has closed, clients can’t access it, which is a place to get help and get food, that’s all closed. The Red Cross is dealing with the most serious cases. You’ve also got Friends without Borders that are helping people with donations.[and] allocating money to clients, so at least they have something. Then you’ve got people like Journeys Festival (celebrating art made by refugees in the UK].
Why should it only be organizations like this who have been supporting [asylum seekers and refugees]? [They rely] on donations, [on] all our kind hearts. The Red Cross is trying as much as they can but they can only do as much because they are also working from home, same with Friends without Borders, same with the Journey’s Festival. To me the local authority isn’t doing anything [for refugees].
[Editor’s note: Shelter reports that: ‘Asylum seekers awaiting a decision on their status (made by UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) have very limited access to public sector housing and social security support’. Find out more here and about refugee’s experiences in Portsmouth here.]
There is an imbalance and it’s up to us – yourself, me, anyone – to try and bring that balance back. Maybe Covid came to teach the whole world a lesson, to say you are all the same; something that is going to affect everybody.
Maybe people isolating [or staying] at home will ask the question, ‘Who am I?’ [Maybe they will think], ‘Actually I don’t like this about me and I’m going to change that.’ That’s how I see it; maybe that’s why it’s come.
Covid-19 has been a massive test and it’s only just begun.
Read one of Majid’s poems, What Next?
S&C has been awarded funding from the European Journalism Centre Covid-19 Support Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on diverse communities and sectors in Portsmouth:
- voluntary sector, including charities, community groups and social enterprises
- small businesses and self-employed people
- BAME communities
- people with disabilities
We have also been awarded funding from the Public Interest News Foundation Emergency Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on migrants, and asylum seekers and refugees.