Writer and former child refugee Yovanka Paquete Perdigao retraces her own journey from Guinea-Bissau to London via Dakar and Lisbon, finding solace and empowerment throughout in her love of literature.

Part of the PEN Atlas #RefugeesWelcome series.

It all began one day after my first week of school. I ran into the kitchen with a notebook scribbled with a newfound knowledge. I remember the wide smiles my grandparents gave me; my grandfather held my notebook high and my grandma clapped with joy. I was six and I knew how to write. I could write beautifully, they said, prompting me to declare ‘I am going to be a writer!’ – followed by more beaming smiles of pride. It was just that, a simple moment in a kitchen of black and white tiles overcrowded with old appliances in 1998 Lisbon.

War came knocking on our doors that summer. No one told me what it was but I knew it drove adults to behave like children. They would hammer pillows into the windows and hide underneath beds and inside closets when big bang sounds came from outside. Its loud noise drove vicious dogs to act like mice, crying and scurrying away as they felt it coming closer. After it hit, somehow, someone, somewhere did not live to see another day. We were trapped until the day I was handed a white flag and we walked with all of our belongings to the port. The way to the airport was a no-man zone so the only escape was through the sea. As we queued up in a long line to a military boat meant to rescue us, showers of bombs fell upon us. I remember vividly the terror that engulfed everyone as the boat was forced to move to avoid the bombing. Eventually we managed to get on board: the beginning of a long trip from Bissau to Dakar then finally to Lisbon.

Four years later I turned ten and, for the first time in years, I was living under the same roof as my two parents and sister in Ivory Coast. We lived in a huge house with a garden soon joined by a labrador. Both me and my sister were chauffeured to one of the best French schools in West Africa with sparkling white and blue uniforms. Gone were the days of hand me downs, the used toys, the long walks to get to school, the bullying, the missing tuition fees. It seemed like we had been given a second chance at life. But that was only a peaceful mirage. That same year I saw war for a second time, and was once again uprooted to Portugal.

In Lisbon as the only black child in my school, I was shunned for being different. The constant mockeries and insults drove me to the library. It was the beginning of one of my life’s biggest passions: reading. Every break was religiously spent reading books; it didn’t matter the author, the title, or content. I disappeared into the pages of my books until the closing school bell. Away from books, I had to face the reality that war had left a gaping hole in me, separated again from my parents and yearning for a place to call home.

It was Latin American literature that helped me cope through my own childhood traumas and growing pains. Somehow I found myself in the writers; Colombian Gabriel García Márquez, and the Chilean Isabel Allende. Their stories, infused with magical surrealism, dysfunctional families, and historical turbulences, became my story. In Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, I saw the passion and magic of the Buendia family reflected in the endurance and strength of my own family. As such, I became Márquez’s Melquíades chronicling the adventures, the magic, the insanity, and beauty of my kin. In Allende’s The House of Spirits, I was the aloof Clara silenced by my own fears until I found my voice through writing.

It would then take another move from Senegal to London for university, where, during my first year, unfamiliar with bonfire night, I was awakened in the middle of the night by the haunting explosion of fireworks, and forced to hide in my closet from the memories of the war. Assaulted by early memories, I would find in Mozambican writer Mia Couto’s Sleepwalking Land the reassurance that, indeed, war was of a perverse and bizarre nature, but possible to exorcise through writing.

Today, I still remember the lives that could have been but instead ended with the sharp arrival of dancing guns. Those that did not succumb to the violence of war disappeared in its fumes. I am still searching for them, trying to re-invent and redraw lives, and to create new endings to our stories, so that they will never be forgotten.

Read Yovanka’s poem ‘The Icebreaker‘ on Brittle Paper.

#RefugeesWelcome: this piece is part one of five in a PEN Atlas series responding to the refugee crisis. Read the other pieces in the series.

Good Chance, a theatre dome established in the Calais ‘Jungle’ from October 2015 to March 2016, has erected a solidarity dome at London’s Southbank Centre, with events and workshops running throughout this week. Find out more here.

Illustration © Roberto Sitta/CreativeConnection, 2016.