Reporting straight from the heart

The Copenhagen Post  23-29 June 2006

For many, life in a refugee centre can be soul destroying. For journalist Dina Yafasova, maintaining her professional identity helped her to survive

By Jane Graham                                                                                                              

One of the first impressions of Dina Yafasova is of a woman who loves colour. From the splash of red lipstick to the boldness of her bright blue jacket, there is clearly no place for sad Scandinavian greys and austere browns in Ms. Yafasova’s wardrobe.

There wasn’t much colour to Yafasova’s first year in Denmark. In September 2001, Dina Yafasova, a successful journalist and foreign correspondent in the post-Soviet nation Uzbekistan, arrived at Sandholm refugee centre north-west of Copenhagen after fleeing from persecution in her homeland and claiming refugee status in Denmark.

While nobody expects five star hotel treatments at such centres, Ms. Yafasova was shocked by what she found there: small, overcrowded rooms in a series of barracks surrounded by barbed wire, where traumatised people sat and waited in group isolation, their mental scars left to fester untreated. Sandholm, like most of the country’s refugee centres, is run by charitable institution the Red Cross.

She remained at Sandholm for almost six months. And while this was a rare and amazing opportunity as a journalist, it was also a depressing culmination to the ordeal which had brought her there.

When The Copenhagen Post queried Yafasova on the correct terminology for Sandholm, she was quite clear on the matter.

‘I would call it a camp, because that is what it is. The Red Cross prefers to call it and places like it refugee centres; in reality they’re camps.’  

Yafasova has now found her life turned upside down again, though this time in a positive way. With the publication of a book, ‘Diary from Sandholm’ in March, the journalist has gone from refugee to expert, invited for national interviews and television debates. The book chronicles her journey from Uzbekistan to Sandholm and then to state-aided (and generally substandard) housing.

When Yafasova finally left Sandholm, she took with her a huge stack of notes she had produced about the place. It started in journal-form for her own therapeutic benefit, the purpose of which was not clear to her at the time.

Afterwards, Yafasova was offered a series of articles through an old agent she knew from her time working internationally as a Central Asian correspondent.

‘It was only then I realised this was far too much material for a few short articles,’ she recollects. ‘So I gave up on the idea.’

Ms. Yafasova is a member of International Media Support, which promotes journalism in areas with restricted freedom of speech. Whilst at one of IMS’ meetings, she was approached by a member of the foreign ministry, who introduced her to a writer, Bo Lidegaard with a view to producing something about her experiences. He in turn introduced her to a publisher at Gyldendal.

‘So I went to see the editor and I told her a little of my story, to which she replied, ‘the other side must be heard.’ I remember that very clearly,’ says Yafasova.

Writing the book meant finding a translator competent in translating the work from Russian into Danish, a language Yafasova was not ready to write in. When questioned if she ever felt worried about her book becoming ‘lost in translation’, Yafasova shakes her head without hesitation.

‘I knew him before I came to Sandholm and I trust him completely. When I gave him the rough draft it was actually incomplete, and he was a great help in finishing it. I was confident that he would keep my language as true as it could be to the original Russian.’

One thing that struck Yafasova about the response from the book was how little the informed Dane knew about refugee centres.

‘What you have to remember about Sandholm is that it wasn’t born yesterday. It’s been here for 20 years. I just thought people would be more familiar with it.’

Apparently not, as ‘Diary from Sandholm’ has sparked a volatile debate about the silent underclass of asylum seekers living on our doorsteps. And while most of the response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive, the official Red Cross response was to go on the defensive in what it perceived as a comparison of Sandholm to a concentration camp.

‘There’s nowhere in the book which says this,’ says Yafasova. ‘What I can only think they are referring to is one paragraph where I talk about the grey curtains there, with their black vertical striping and compare it to the concentration camp uniforms.

‘People from ex-Soviet countries are very conscious of these reminders. We even adopted plain uniforms in our prisons to get away from this striped pattern. Besides, I used some metaphorical language. It’s what writers do.’

When asked if she has seen theatre company Mungo Park’s play ‘Sandholm’, Yafasova nods, though her opinions of it are mixed; pleased about the subject matter, she feels some of the descriptions of the place are inaccurate.

‘I had a problem with all the movement,’ she explains. ‘I know when people make theatre that movement is important as a theatrical device, but all that moving and noise was all wrong. In reality, Sandholm is as silent as a cemetery. People only come out of their rooms for interviews about their case or to eat in the cafeteria. But it’s usually very quiet - the suffering becomes internal rather than external. That’s what’s so odd about the place.’

If her journalistic identity kept her going whilst at Sandholm, others fare less well. Many wait years to hear whether their asylum application has been approved, after which institutionalism makes a rejection hard to act upon.

‘You find those who get rejected sooner rather than later can respond more easily to the news,’ says Yafasova. ‘They still have the ability to move themselves. After a few years, people are so depressed they no longer have the willpower to react.’

Interviewet er trykt med tilladelse fra The Copenhagen Post