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Voluntary work is an inspiration for campaigning poet Kate Adams
Thursday 28 June 2012
Voluntary work is an inspiration for campaigning poet Kate Adams
KATE Adams, 57, started campaigning for disabled rights after chronic fatigue syndrome ME left her wheelchair-bound for eight years.
When she moved to a Victorian terrace in Whitstable, so the sea air could aid her health, she turned her attention to helping refugees.
She has written poems and started a novel about her experiences.
You suffer from ME.
I thought I had flu in 1989 when I was a social worker in Hackney. Then I caught one bug after another. Doctors don't really understand what it is but it affects my muscles, brain and immune system. When I first got it I was really depressed. I moved to Whitstable in 1998 because I wanted to get out of London to somewhere a bit cleaner. The ME has improved since I moved here. I was using an electric wheelchair all the time in London.
I don't use a wheelchair at the moment but I can't walk far. I was medically retired from work in 1990.
What is it like being in a wheelchair?
I decided to live my life as a disabled person; I didn't think I would ever get better. I had been a union rep as a social worker and my parents, both Labour Party members, had strong social consciences. But when I became ill I really understood what it was like to become marginalised in society and not be able to fully partake. With campaign group Incapacity Action I was part of a parliamentary select committee on disability allowances in the mid-1990s.
How do you feel when people say benefit claimants are scroungers?
It offends me. I don't want to be ill. I don't want to have hand-outs. I never thought it would happen to me. I remember telling a boyfriend I would always be able to work because social work was my trade. I didn't ever think I would be in a position where I couldn't do my job.
I carried on helping people as a volunteer because that's what I'm good at. But I don't feel I could go into an office and deal with the daily demands. I had a relapse in 2009.
You started supporting refugees and asylum seekers when you moved to Kent.
I started working with immigration detainees. I understood what it was like to be a prisoner in my own home, to stand at the front door, look down the road and know I couldn't walk to the nearest shop. Detainees often feel forgotten and so do people with ME. About 10 years ago my dad and I joined a group campaigning for detainees' rights and the Kent branch of the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees, which visited people in Dover Detention Centre.
What did you do during visits?
The first person I visited was an Algerian man in his 20s. He was sent back to Paris because he had passed through France on his way to England. My dad and I went over there and found him sleeping rough at a fairground. It was really sad.
You volunteer with Kent Refugee Help.
A lot of the people we work with are facing deportation because they've committed an offence. Receiving a 12-month or longer sentence now means automatic deportation. However, the authorities often have trouble getting people's travel documents, if they don't have a passport for example, and people are sometimes detained for a very long time. I help the case worker and we offer advice about applying for asylum, contacting families, health and other issues.
Any memorable cases?
We helped reunite a Nigerian family who had been separated by detention and visited them in hospital shortly after their second child was born, which was really nice. I helped on the case of a 19-year-old student from Canterbury who was facing deportation to Afghanistan. We had to prove it would be dangerous for him to return. One of his friends sent us a "Wanted" poster with his face on from Afghanistan and eventually lawyer Catherine Carpenter helped him win his case. It was a fantastic feeling.
Volunteering with refuges inspired you to become a poet.
I was inspired by another Algerian man I was helping who became mute. He just stopped speaking and wasn't eating or drinking. When I finally saw him he was so disturbed he was just running around the visitor room. It disturbed me so much I started writing about it. I never considered myself a poet until then. I have helped Chilham poet Hubert Moore with poetry and story workshops he ran for young refugees. We kept the subject matter light so it didn't stir up painful memories. They loved it.
Your poems have been published.
I had some poems published in an online magazine called Conversation Quarterly and then the publishers decided they wanted to produce a book of my poems. The Cheering Rain is out now and contains 33 poems. Most are about refugees but I also wrote about a trip to Morocco. Even though the people there are really poor they are living their lives with dignity and not suffering the humiliation of being detained and having to ask for help. It was great to see.
You're working on a novel.
I've only just started but it will have an immigration centre as the backdrop and will discuss how you don't have to be under lock and key to be a prisoner. It is about several people finding their own paths through connections with someone in a detention centre.
You are also an artist.
I did a degree in fine art at Kingston Polytechnic but by the time I finished I was more interested in human rights than being an artist. I still paint, and I took part in the East Kent Open Houses exhibition last year. When I first got ill I won a prize at a Disability Arts in London competition for a painting I did on holiday in Yorkshire called Ponies and Dark Hills.
Your work with refugees influences your poetry but not your art.
I think you have to be a good draftsperson to be able to capture people well in drawings and that's something I felt I struggled with. I find it easier to do with writing.
I was born in Cardiff and had lived in Bristol and London by the age of eight. My father Eric moved to Whitstable when my mum Beryl died and lived there for another six years. I have an adopted sister.
First record you bought?
I don't drive.
Three dream dinner party guests, dead or alive?
My parents and Martin Luther King, a great campaigner for civil rights.
Have you ever seen a ghost?
I hear strange noises in my attic sometimes but I've never seen a ghost. An Algerian friend, who believes in spirits, told me he'd seen the ghost of an old woman in my house. It scared the life out of me!
The above originally appeared here.
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