Proof that he grew up on a farm, Yashar Ismailoglu’s first memory is of being kicked by a cow.
His second memory is of waking from a dream to discover a snake descending on him from a branch overhead. The snake landed on his shoulder and dragged its cold scales down the length of his arm, all the while Yasher’s body remained paralyzed by lingering sleep Warm welcome.
There must have been points that felt similarly uncomfortable on Yashar’s journey as a young student from Cyprus to Britain in 1972, and then again on the return journey he never took from Britain to Cyprus after war broke out in 1974, leaving him a refugee.
A friend introduced me to Yashar, and I met with him on the occasion of Refugee Week, to talk about his experiences as one of the first Cypriot refugees to Britain. Yashar welcomed me into the Alevi Cultural Centre in Hackney with a sort of warmth and openness that I imagine comes from having had to rely on the kindness of strangers himself.
When Yashar arrived in Britain, he insisted to the Scottish boarder guard that he could speak English. The border guard insisted the same thing to Yashar, but neither could understand the other.
Eventually Yashar convinced the guard to let him through, and he went on to discover some local culinary oddities – for instance, that his new country appeared to have a mere two Turkish restaurants to it’s name. Turning to local cuisine, he struggled with the notion that the headless, beer-battered lump on the plate was actually a fish.
Land of plenty. A long-time community organiser, Yashar admits that one of his initiatives has been far more successful than the others: football. The league he helped found as a “bridge between Cyprus and London” now has thirty-two clubs. At one point it sent twenty-three members of the league to Cyprus, paid for by an enthusiastic community raffle.
Yashar is a poet, and he writes on the impossibility of going home. Years after coming to Britain, Yashar returned to the village of his birth. he found that people of his childhood were gone. “Our fields, rocks, mountains, hills – had all become houses.”
Yashar is cautiously optimistic about the plight of future migrants to Britain. “If you come here and rely on the state you will be starving.” He points out that migrants must rely on kindness and serendipity anyway. It was a famous Turkish musician who covered Yashar’s bus fare to Ankara, and an Irish produce seller who taught him how to supplement his meager wages with leftover fruit and veg from the Ridley Road Market.
Every week is refugee week if you’re a refugee. Yashar writes that home becomes place in one’s mind rather than in geography. “There is always somewhere else,” he says.
Written by Rachel