Forest of Dean & Wye Valley


In R.Richardson, Reviews on February 21, 2011 at 1:40 pm

by Benjamin Zephaniah

(Pub. Bloomsbury £5.99p ISBN 0-7475-5086-7)

Most people, if they have heard of Benjamin Zephaniah, think of him as a poet. And, indeed, he has had many of his collections of poems published since 1980. He has also, however, written five novels and it was one of these, Refugee Boy, that I came across recently.

It is the moving story of a 14-year-old boy of a mixed Ethiopean/Eritrean family, caught up in the war that broke out between those two countries in May 1998. The boy, Alem, is brought to England by his father, who then returns home believing that his action will secure the safety of his son.


We follow Alem through the complicated procedures of social workers, a children’s home, foster parents and, crucially, the application to be allowed to stay in the UK. Alem is a thoughtful and stoical boy, and the story is told simply and directly. But we feel his pain when he is subjected to bullying and racism as he tries to fit in with his new life. Fortunately his foster parents are patient and understanding as they tread the difficult path between guiding him and giving him his own space.

Eventually Alem’s father arrives back in England, with the news that his mother has been killed. Father and son submit a joint application to stay in this country. It is rejected, prompt

ing a swelling of support for them from the local community. Sadly, before their appeal is heard, Alem’s father is shot dead – probably by an Ethiopean or Eritrean group. Subsequently Alem is given leave to remain in the UK and the book ends on a positive note.

“If good can come from bad, I’ll make it,” says Alem.


It’s a sentiment that no doubt comes from the heart for the author. Benjamin Zephaniah, I discovered, had a difficult childhood. His family was from Jamaica and he was born in Handsworth, where he spent some time in an approved school and was barely literate when he left. Coming to London at the age of 20, he joined a workers’ co-operative in Stratford and embarked on his career as a poet. He is a left wing activist and regards Tony Benn as his mentor. Much of Zephaniah’s work is with disadvantaged youngsters, and to them he can speak with an authoritative voice.

Although Refugee Boy turns out well for our protagonist, Alem, it reminds us of the many whose cases are rejected and who are sent back to face an uncertain future in their country of origin. Although the Ethiopian/Eritrean war officially ended in 2000, there are still tensions, and border disputes rumble on.


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