|Still from Majid Adin's video for Elton John's Rocket Man (Majid Adin/Stephen McNally). Courtesy ES.|
It was dark, cramped and nobody could hear him even if he shouted. Iranian artist Majid Adin, 39, is describing how he made it out of the Calais “Jungle” refugee camp and into the UK, locked in a fridge on the back of a van.
“There were three other people in the fridge with me so I couldn’t even raise my arm,” he says. “And we couldn’t see anything in the darkness. I was thinking I will die, and in a painful way. But it wasn’t the first time; I’d tried to leave the Jungle at least 50 times before and been caught. The smugglers often lock you in a fridge.”
This time he was in there for 12 hours. “We had no idea where we were. I only knew that we had crossed the border because the man in the fridge with me had a phone, a bad Nokia, and the time changed from 11.30am to 10.30am, so we were in a different country.”
This was in 2016. Since then Adin has been granted British citizenship and is settled in a one-bedroom flat in Finchley. He has even started working as an artist again, something he stopped when he had to leave Iran. His work is on display at House of Illustration’s latest exhibition, Journeys Drawn: Illustration from the Refugee Crisis.
Adin is exhibiting an animation he did for Elton John’s Rocket Man, drawing on his own journey to the UK. His mother, in Iran, didn’t know who Elton was. “She was more impressed that a picture I did of her in the Jungle made it into a book,” he says.
Adin grew up in Mashad, a conservative city in north-east Iran. His family are Shi’ite Muslims; his father was a shoemaker, his mother a housewife and he has two brothers and three sisters. “I always liked the cinema — silent movies, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and European cinema, Fellini — and I liked fine art, so I studied animation.” He did an MA in art in Tehran. “There was a conservative atmosphere, lots of censorship of the art books — you wondered if the covered up bits of pictures were part of the art. It’s so exciting now being in a country with freedom of expression.”
After graduating he set up a blog, where he shared political cartoons. “They were not serious cartoons,” says Adin. “One was about Joseph in the Bible. People loved him and he was a very handsome man. So I did a cartoon about him being in a fashion shoot.”
Despite the blog being under a pseudonym, the police found out about it. They came to his house, took his computer and destroyed his art. He spent five months in prison, not knowing what would happen to him.
“The first month was very difficult,” he says. “I was in a cell around three metres wide with 20 other prisoners, political prisoners. You don’t know what is happening. I was worried about my parents — my father had lung cancer and I had a bad feeling that I had done a bad thing and added to their stress. I was close to suicide.”
When he was released they took his passport and he couldn’t find work. He didn’t know when his trial would be, only that he could be sentenced to a minimum of five years.
He doesn’t have nightmares about Calais or the fridge but about that time in limbo, waiting to find out his fate. “I wake up in the middle of the night thinking the judge sentences me.”
It was a chance encounter that got Adin out. He met a stranger in a taxi who told him about his friend making £500 a day taking people to the Turkish border and out of the country. Adin took the man’s phone number.
His need to escape eclipsed any risk. “I never imagined that leaving was possible,” he says. “Anything was better than the situation I was in. I was broken, I had nothing left to lose.”
The next week he packed one bag, withdrew €4,000 and dialled the number. He didn’t tell anyone he was leaving — he often travelled for work so wouldn’t be missed at first and didn’t want to cause more stress.
When he made it to Turkey, he shared a room with 30 people. It was cold and he hadn’t brought any winter clothes. They got a coach to Istanbul and then a boat to Greece.
“The smugglers, Iraqi Kurds, put too many people on the boat and it capsized. But luckily we were near the shore and were rescued.” From there, he made it to the Jungle in Calais, where he stayed for six months.He broke his glasses in the Jungle in a fight. “For two months I couldn’t see but a volunteer with Médecins sans Frontières called Pierre got me new ones. People say this journey is difficult but I met brilliant, generous people. They were kind without expectation, just genuinely wanting to help.”
It was in the Jungle that he started drawing again, at the Good Chance theatre set up by British playwrights Joe Robertson and Joe Murphy. “I went in looking for shoes,” he says. “There were artists there, avant garde music — it was like university.”
When he eventually made it to England he was sent to a hostel in Derby and given an allowance of £5 a day. “I like Derby. But I knew if I wanted to return to art I had to be in London, although the only people I knew here were Joe and Joe.”
He’s happy here, making friends who have co-opted him into new hobbies — he’s agreed to do stand-up comedy although he says he is not a comic.
What he really wants is a creative job. “I don’t have the skills for anything else.”
What does he make of those who want to close borders, and stop accepting people like him? “Like Trump? I don’t know about political and economic solutions but if you make a world around you and say this is my house, I am safe, I don’t have any problems if it doesn’t work. Right or wrong, it is not possible in the world we live in. All of us are passengers of one boat.
Journeys Drawn: Illustration from the Refugee Crisis is at House of Illustration, until March 10