This year, four GDWG volunteers have been lucky enough to obtain permission to assist Jasmine in the Arts and Crafts room in Tinsley. Lucky enough, because it is a very special experience. Going into Tinsley House in itself is an interesting experience, having a small sense of how it functions; what some of the corridors feel like beyond the metal gates; meeting the staff in a different context.
And Jasmine herself is an inspirational person: she has an almost magical ability to be everywhere at once in the most delicate way. She is able to create calm and to make the men feel respected and acknowledged. She has exactly the right tone, strong and yet light, no matter how stressed or anxious the men might be. Clearly she brings peace and moments of contentment to the detainees who choose to spend an hour or two in the Arts and Crafts room, working on the projects which Jasmine facilitates. Even her name is accessible to men from many different cultures, and it’s delightful to hear the range of ways they pronounce it when they call her.
I’ve spent three afternoons in the room so far. The men who’ve attended have come from Russia, Serbia, Albania. Algeria, Bangladesh, Jamaica, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Pakistan. Jasmine introduces herself and me to each man who enters. Some are fluent English speakers, others not. All have extraordinary stories to tell of resourcefulness, humour, endurance, resilience, survival.
Without exception they conduct themselves with the utmost dignity and respect. Jasmine whisks about the room, multi-tasking supremely as she holds in her head the particular needs of each man: Anton needs help filling in a graph; Amin cannot proceed until he has black beads: only black will do! Abdul has tangled up the warp threads of his little loom and is heartbroken, until he reassures himself by saying to me: I will ask Jasmine. Jasmine always has a good idea. And indeed she always does!
In the background, men who are clearly gifted artists work with quiet concentration on impressive projects: landscape oil painting; sculpture; creating kathakali-type masks. Surprisingly, each of these men tells me that he never made anything before attending these classes: he was too busy working; or escaping from something. All the more extraordinary therefore that, presented with facilities and time, they create work of real skill and beauty.
Sometimes men come in to mend their possessions: a broken shoe; prayer beads with a broken string; a pair of torn trousers. Everyone uses needles, scissors, mosaic cutters. It can be very moving seeing how the men help one another, explaining complex processes and solving problems together. The men make mosaic picture frames, or mirrors, sometimes calling upon their memories of Islamic patterns to create colour and beauty. For Chinese New Year they made exquisite paper cuts; at present they have an option to make masks; always they enjoy making bracelets and necklaces or prayer beads; using frames to thread the brightly coloured beads, or looms to weave intricate patterns on elastic threads. Jasmine organises competitions with small prizes, and some of the men run with this, creating really beautiful work.
It can be easy to feel a little useless, faced with Jasmine’s dexterity and skill and her ability to swiftly problem-solve and manage. However, she is generous and inclusive, and I’ve learnt many manual skills from watching her and learning how to explain things to the men.
When I asked Jasmine what we volunteers are bringing to her classroom, she told me that she enjoys having another woman in the room; another person in ordinary clothes rather than a uniform. She says that we give the men confidence and encouragement, and that we can explain things to them in different ways, so that they are able to translate processes into their own languages, perform them, and pass them on. She said an extra pair of hands and ears can create space for the men to relax and have a little fun as they get in touch with their creativity. As an older woman, I was touched by the number of times some of the very young detainees called out “Mummy” to me when they asked for help, because of course many of them have not seen their mothers for a long time, and may not know whether they will ever see them again.
Sometimes as I looked around the room I could imagine the diverse landscapes these men have walked along, and the gruelling roads they have taken, to find succour and a better life. I wonder where their stories will take them next, and I hope it will be to a good place, with minimal suffering, as we all continue to move beneath the same sky, threading the beads of our days.
This article first appeared in the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group magazine.