Award-winning British poet Caroline Smith (at far right in photo) made Red Bank Regional a special stop on her book tour for “The Immigration Handbook.”  She was invited to the school by RBR alumnus Rik van Hemmen (at left), and joined for the occasion by students Bella Scheider (Union Beech), Jack Davis (Little Silver), and Tamia Waddy (Red Bank).

Press release from Red Bank Regional High School

At its September 27 board meeting, the  Award-winning British Poet Caroline Smith came to the United States recently on a tour to promote her latest work The Immigration Handbook — and along the way, she did a dear friend a favor and came to talk to his alma mater, Red Bank Regional High School.

RBR alumnus Rik van Hemmen told the assembled students, which included Creative Writing, International Baccalaureate and English AP classes as well as English Language Learners, of his own experiences coming to this school and country as an immigrant back in the 1970s.

Caroline Smith (fourth from left in photo) discusses her art and experiences with Luke Pearlberg (Brielle), Jay Izzo (Little Silver), RBR ELL teacher Rose Powers, and RBR English teacher Cassandra Dorn.

He referred to his friend’s book as “extremely important” and hoped that RBR students would help pass its message on to their generation with on-line reviews of the book. The students were provided with complimentary autographed copies to do so.

Originally trained in the art of sculpture, Caroline Smith transferred those skills over the years to the written word, through the layers and nuance of poetry. Ms. Smith has been published in many poetry journals, given readings at high-profile forums and won numerous awards for her work. The Immigration Handbook has been shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for new work in poetry.

“Lots of people migrate to another country full of dreams and some are successful, but that is not what we see in my employment,” said Smith, whose day job is as a parliamentary district immigration case worker in London.

“People migrate for so many different reasons, and on my desk I see so many of the world’s problems.”

Her work is unique in that it does not focus on the perilous journey or dire circumstances that immigrants experience to get to a major western country, but what happens to them when they arrive. London, in particular, is an extremely diverse city with a majority minority population, consisting of people from all walks of life and representing all corners of the globe.

She, as other members of the bureaucracy that these immigrants must encounter to achieve legal status, are often frustrated by the maelstrom in which they find themselves. She, therefore, tells stories devoid of emotion or commentary, and from the viewpoints of the people trapped in this system. These include the case worker, the immigration lawyers, the judges as well as the immigrants.

In her job, she has written many letters recommending immigrants for legal status or explaining their circumstances; over 50,000 letters she estimates.  This compilation of personal history comprises her work.

One of her pieces is just a reprint of a redacted letter from the Home Office stating, “I refer to your client’s application which has been outstanding since 12 December 2006.”  The date of the letter was 21 September 2015.

She notes how the government can be so unforgiving, where one women’s momentary lapse in judgement in shoplifting a small item resulted in her entire family being denied legal status and deported.

Another work entitled “Teenager” states, “They told him he was 19 and no longer a child and would be deported with 46 pounds. They asked him which airport he wanted to go back to but he didn’t know what ones there were. He’d left when he was seven.”

There were some positive stories too, of immigrants helping immigrants. “It is amazing,” the poet states, “It strikes us that the poorest people with nothing can help people that have nothing.”

When discussing the current negative climate that surrounds immigration, she declined to comment on America’s experience, but stated that things have become very difficult in the UK, as exemplified by British citizens wearing arm bands stating, “Go Home.”

“The poems she read were a beautiful act of empathy,” commented RBR English teacher Andrew Forrest. “Her bravery is an attempt to give that person a voice. That is what great literature is about — giving voice to the voiceless.”

The Immigration Handbook is published by Seren, and can be ordered online here.