Refugee – Elena

Jenny and the Cowley Club
I want to tell you about my teacher. Her name is Jenny and she came into my life like a miracle. When I first met her I was with another teacher, but that teacher was only around for a short time, as she had to return to Canada to nurse her mother. She was a good teacher, but Jenny had a lot more experience of teaching people with problems like mine.

I have dyslexia and I am embarrassed by it. When I was little, dyslexia wasn’t recognised in my country; they just thought I was stupid and slow. No one knew I had learning difficulties.

When I first came to the Cowley Club I was very quiet and I was embarrassed when everybody paid attention to me and asked me questions. Nowadays I talk too much!

When my first teacher left I was very sad. I didn’t know who could teach me. I had one teacher after another, but none of them had any experience of people with problems like mine and they didn’t know how to help me. The next time I came to the Cowley Club, I saw Jenny teaching a Chinese girl. I could see how patient she was. I asked her to be my teacher and, when she said yes, I cried. I was so happy, but I worried all summer in case she decided not to teach me. I worried that maybe she would want to teach other people instead. Jenny has changed my life . She’s really special. I trust her; I can say things to Jenny that I can’t say to anyone else. She is very clever and she was very quick to understand what I needed. I’m very lucky.

Meeting Six Dinner Sid
Jenny chose a book for me – Six Dinner Sid. She also gave me a tape of the story and a list of the words I had to learn – lots of words. She taught me letter by letter. Some words I found very difficult . I found them hard to pronounce and I would mixthem up; I told her my doctor was coming to sleep with me -I meant my daughter!

When she first showed me the book I was not very interested. She told me to go home and listen to the tape. I wanted to learn. I didn’t want to be stupid any more. I would try and learn things, but then I would forget. I’d learn again and forget again. It took a very long time. Then one day I did remember. I came to the Cowley Club and said to Jenny, ‘I’ll tell you a story.’

‘Six Dinner Sid is very naughty and he is very clever, cleverer than me, cleverer than Jenny. He has six different homes. Every day he eats dinner in one house and then in a second house. Other days he goes to a third house and then another. .. every day he eats different dinners: fish, meat, lamb, chicken and stew. He has different names – one I remember is Scaramouche. I can’t remember the others. He sleeps in different houses and everybody loves him.’

‘One day he has a cold and his family take him to the vet and the vet gives him medicine. Then the other families take him to the vet. Six times he goes to the vet. He has six medicines, six different names and six dinners. The doctor is clever and notices that Sid is naughty. People have paid six bills and the vet tells them what Sid has done. The families are surprised and they are not happy because Sid has been naughty.’
“Then, I think he goes to other homes in another street and starts again. Here he eats too much. Look, that’s him! He’s washing his bottom. Here he’s getting into a house. Look, look, fat – six dinners! They all love him because they think he is theirs.’

Six Dinner Sid is a special book. I have some books in Spanish but I don’t really read them because they are difficult and I get bored. I don’t really understand them and I put them aside.

When my children were little and we were living in our home in Southampton, I couldn’t tell them stories in English. When they got bigger they were able help me, but by then I had no time as I had to look after my son who was ill.

I grew up in Chile. At school the nuns used to hit me and punish me for being too slow. The other children all seemed to learn much more quickly. I could draw well and I could sing too – I could sing the highest notes. In other lessons we were separated, but in singing we were put together. The nuns made me sing because I had a nice voice but they gave priority to the richest children. I was in the choir, but then they took me out. Maybe the nun was embarrassed because I was the only one in the choir who was poor. After that I was only allowed to watch. There were piano, guitar and violin lessons for the rich girls only and the rich children were chosen to sing even if they had bad voices.

The school was divided by a high concrete wall that separated the rich from the poor children. The poor children weren’t able to pay for their schooling and the nuns and the teachers treated them badly. In my country, the government didn’t give opportunities to poor children.

They gave the best to the rich children. The rich children had uniforms; the poor had white overalls. We were not allowed to communicate because we were separated everywhere: in the church, in the dining room, in the toilets and in the playground. Every day we had beans and the rich children had special meals; they had meat; they had fruit and ice cream; they had everything.

From Chile to England
I was pregnant when the UN moved my husband to Peru. He escaped leaving the children and me behind. My new baby was due in a few days. When my baby was bom he was very thin. There was only food for the rich. We followed my husband to Peru some time later. In the summer of 1974, the UN arranged a plane for all the exiles. We were really, really scared. We were almost crazy when we arrived. From Heathrow we went to the university in Southampton. We got a little help but not much. In September, when the students came back, the university moved us out. We went to a house and were totally abandoned. The rooms were damp and there was only one kitchen, two toilets and one bathroom for five families. This was the place we had to live in for the first year after our arrival from Chile.

Life in Chile was very difficult. England was very peaceful in comparison. We couldn’t believe how green and pretty it was, like the South of Chile. We really missed our homeland and our culture. It was very painful leaving and not knowing when we’d see it again. It took nearly ten years to get used to it. I miss having the extended family around – we were very close. It was very different to here. I don’t know what it is like now.

The voluntary group that arranged social security for the children also arranged for all the men to be taught English at the university. My husband’s first job was working on the construction of a new hospital. This job lasted for a year. He then went and stayed in Reading while he studied SociaI Sciences to help him earn a better living for the family. We got a lovely house in Southampton with four bedrooms, a kitchen, a dining room and a tremendous garden. But there was no family, no grandparents. At Christmas there was no one but me, my husband and the children. Neighbours had lots of other people around. We talked to the neighbours only when we hung out the washing. When my children got bigger they made friends – mostly with other migrants – Moroccans and Indians.

We compensated with animals. We had a dog, three cats, some tropical fish, two canaries and two parakeets, one blue and one white. We also kept stick insects in a tank. Sometimes the stick insects would escape and end up all over the house. We had a pond in the garden. It started off small and grew bigger. It had lots of fish, and frogs, toads and newts came and made their homes in it.

I really like the chips in England – we couldn’t get them in Chile. The children would run to the table and put salt and vinegar on – lovely! Sausages too and baked beans and bacon – wonderful! Eggs too. I cooked our food; I cooked canela, paella, valencian rice, tortilla, chickpeas, lentil casserole, empanados (pasties), but after the children went to school, they didn’t want to eat it – it had to be the same as school dinner – pie and chips, etc.

When we were in Southampton I worked in the house. I looked after the children and the house, and I did the cooking. For me the life of a mother was to be there when my husband and my children came home. I had no communication except in Spanish. My role was to be beneath my husband and I was very isolated. I had no friends to go to the park and have a drink with. I also had to look after my son. He got moved to Kent when he became violent. Now I see my son roughly once or twice a month. In August they’re having a holiday in a caravan.

First time Brighton
My daughter came here to Brighton to study at university while we were still in Southampton. Through the university, my ex-husband found a family for her to live with. At home I used to cook and do everything for her and in Brighton she needed someone to look after her.

The first time I visited Brighton was when we brought my daughter to stay with the family. They were Polish and really lovely. They showed us round Brighton. It was very nice – the beach, the sea, and the aquarium. I saw a shark, rays and big crabs. We didn’t have anything like it in Chile or even in Southampton, not where you could see them from underneath. After our tour of Brighton we went back and had food. I started to cry when I had to leave for Southampton.

Moving to Brighton
My husband left me. I really missed my daughter and I moved to Brighton in 1995 when my daughter was still at university. My ex-husband worked as a social worker looking after the paperwork for mentally handicapped. He got her a council flat. When I left the house in Southampton he left a note about the fish. The animals came with me till I went to Dubai for three months and I had to give them away.

After she finished her studies, my daughter went on to work in an office. She got bored with it. She ended up having to wear glasses after working so much on the computer and she claimed compensation from the company.

She had an interview with Emirate Airlines. There were over one hundred girls applying and my daughter got the job. They wanted her because she’s clever. She left meand never came back. Children are naughty! Like Sid!

The Tree of Death
I went to the Cornerstone in Hove where I painted and learnt English. The teacher put paintings up on the wall and mine disappeared! When the teacher gave people their paintings to take home, my three were gone. The teacher said she didn’t know whether they had been thrown away or not. I was very sad because it was very personal work; work that came from inside me.

One of my paintings was called The River of Blood and another one I called The Tree of Death. In that one I painted a tree and the faces of people running – these people died behind the trees, they have been mutilated or raped. There are children there too. It’s a real tree, a very big tree with long branches; it’s in the Parke Causinio in the capital, where lots of rapes and mutilations happened. There were bodies in the street and strewn all over the place. In the painting I put crosses – little pieces of wood – where I could. I have lots more pictures. But now I come to school and I learn. I want to forget and I want to be better at English. I throw every picture in the dustbin now. I want to shame Pinochet, but he hasn’t seen them.
My ex-husband went back to the park about five years ago. He says they’ve changed the name of the park, pulled up all the trees and put up straw huts where people can eat and relax – amusement places like Brighton Pier.

Now I live in the flat alone. Everyone’s left me now. I have two sons, one is ill and the other is in the army and lives in Colchester with his wife and my grandson. My daughter lives in Dubai. One day I’d like to have all the family back together again; but it’s a dream. My family is here at the Cowley Club now. I’d like to say one last thing – I’m really grateful to Jenny my special star – for being so patient with me.