Millions of people were displaced by war and famine. They travelled by boat, below deck, overcrowded, having to use their whole savings to make the trip. Some died making the crossing. Others arrived in strange lands where they didn’t speak the language with nothing but the clothes they stood up in.
I could be talking about the current refugee crisis, but I’m not. It is where the novel I am writing at the moment begins. It’s the 1840s and the people are leaving failed revolution in France and Germany and the potato famine in Ireland. During the period 1840 to 1860 over 4 million refugees from Europe made their way to America alone. Many others died or ended up in other countries. Those who arrived in America overwhelmed the East coast. Many slept on the streets or in shanty towns. There were tens of thousands of children on the streets of New York during that period. My novel follows the life of one of the boys who arrived an orphan. His parents already weakened by famine, died during the long crossing and were cast overboard.
The fact that I feel so close to this issue through my writing makes me feel all the more sick to see the terrible, tragic pictures of those seeking refuge now. It also makes me all the more angry when people around me put up barriers or dismiss them as ‘migrants’ who should be sent home. Never was the adage ‘There but for the grace of God…’ more true. We think we are immune to problems that could lead to this sort of situation, but history proves that is not the case. Not one of us knows what the future holds. Maybe not tomorrow, but even another 150 years down the line it could be your children’s children’s children who face tragedy and need to fall back on the compassion of strangers.
If nothing else it is pushing me back to trying to complete my novel with renewed vigour and determination and when I see pictures I don’t just think of those that need our help now, but of Daniel Flynn and Tom and Molly Reilly whose lives are so completely in my hands.
If you are in the UK and reading this post, please, if you have not already done so, sign this petition to ask our Government to take action to help NOW. https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/105991