A shout out to men of fighting age

‘They’re men of fighting age!’ scream the headlines, conjuring up images of threatening brutes. Aggressive rhetoric and hyperbole have coloured the migration debate in the UK throughout 2016, targeting young, male refugees in particular. British MP David Davies claims refugees are not ‘averse to lying about their ages’, and should undergo dental checks, sparking a vicious campaign against ‘hulking’ teenagers being reunited with their families. Young men living in the Calais Jungle have been painted as ticking time bombs by the tabloid press, creating an aura of fear and ignoring the majority who crave peace and a fresh start. I spent two weeks in Calais volunteering at the Ashram Kitchen, serving food alongside the Jungle’s men of fighting age:

‘Keep it’, says Marwan, ‘keep it!’ I stand shivering as my taxi approaches. ‘Honestly Marwan, I don’t need it, really, please take it back.’
‘Keep it!’ he insists. There is no persuading him. We hug goodbye, me wrapped up in his winter jacket, him in a jumper in the cold. I stop feeling guilty. It seems appropriate that Marwan, who refuses to stand in food lines, prefers to keep me warm than keep his jacket.

‘Would you like to see my church?’ asks Michael. He doesn’t mind that I’ve stopped believing. Through the mud, tents and burnt-out structures we walk towards a cross that marks his oasis. I take off my boots and step inside. A woman and her child stand before the Virgin Mary. I watch the Ethiopian men kneel down, their bellies and arms flat on the ground in devotion.

‘This photo was taken in Afghanistan,’ says Zabi, ‘When I was a mummy’s boy’. I step back from the makeshift sink and compare the boy in a traditional long shirt to the tracksuited young man in front of me. The endearing expression is exactly the same. ‘You’re still a mummy’s boy Zabi’, I reply. ‘You’re just living in a different country!’ He beams and we resume washing up together.

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‘I refused to fight so Assad’s men put me in prison. When I was there they hurt me every day’, recalls Hassan. ‘My uncle was able to bribe the officials. When they let me out I fled Syria straight away. Now I worry all the time for my family.’

‘Ladies first!’ says the man from Sudan, laughing and pouring my tea. ‘We are in Europe after all. In Africa the man comes first!’ We sit for a while together, sipping tea and eating biscuits. Unlike the younger men I meet, he has decided to ask for asylum in France and has started to learn the language.

‘You have to try this,’ says Wassim, handing me a chilli-flavoured crisp dipped in Philadelphia. ‘In Syria we would fill a huge bowl with crisps, invite all our friends round and watch movies. Those days were the best!’
‘Every Syrian has a plan’, he tells me. ‘Marwan’s is to reach his brother in London.’ Their group includes two pharmacists, an engineer and an English teacher. ‘Not bad, for a bunch of migrants!’ says Wassim with a wry smile.

I remember blushing at Wassim’s use of Prime Minister David Cameron’s words, said at the beginning of this year. Yet ‘bunch of migrants’ is quite benign in comparison to the rhetoric we hear as 2016 draws to a close. Rhetoric that questions the very legitimacy of the right to asylum.

The Calais camp I visited is no more, but what is the future of the people who lived there? People whose strength is characterised as a threat to society not a potential for success. Yet a man of fighting age is also a man of studying age. A man of working age. A man at an age in which he can still learn a language and adapt to the rhythm of a new society. These stories – those of the real men of fighting age – are stories we must tell.

Do they know about Eritrea?

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Eritreans are given pizza by volunteers from Baobab Experience in Tiburtina Station

‘Signora, your ID please.’ I hand my passport to the policeman.
‘Can I ask why?’ I say, politely.
‘We like to monitor the people who come to this street,’ he replies, noting down my name.
‘What happened to the refugees who slept here?’ I ask.
‘I don’t know. I’m just here to watch the street.’

My passport retrieved, I walk away from the Baobab Centre where volunteers once fed and clothed migrants from the Horn of Africa. Since the police eviction in September new arrivals are left to sleep on the street, or not at all. Along the ancient Via Tiburtina I stop to talk to a young group gathered around a cluster of trees.

Bereket, a tall young man with a gentle face, asks me: ‘What do they think of Eritrea in Europe? Do they know?’

I pause to think. Do we know boys and girls are forced into the military and cannot leave? Do we know that in Eritrea people ‘disappear’? Do we know about mass surveillance and a network of spies so wide some people are afraid to talk with their neighbours? Do we know that innocent people languish in prison with no justice system to help? ‘No’, I say, ‘I guess they don’t really.’

‘On the boat to Italy my life was a question mark’, says Bereket, smiling shyly. The decision to cross the Mediterranean is hard for us Europeans to fathom. Debesay, an animated 26 year-old, tries to explain: ‘When you arrive in Libya you have the fire in front of you and the fire behind you’. We know what happens in the Med, but little of the other great sea these young men have had to cross – the Sahara.

Debesay points to his side: ‘What are these called? Kidneys?’ I nod, confused. ‘When I fled to Sudan I was afraid they would take mine’. He looks me in the eye and tells me how people get lost and starve to death in the desert. Others simply fall off crowded smuggler trucks and are left for dead. ‘Everyone in my car survived’, continues Debesay, ‘But 55 Somalis in our convoy died. We Eritreans are careful with the food we bring, but the Somalis just take mangoes!’

In Libya, where Debesay says ‘Human death means nothing’, newcomers risk imprisonment, beatings and torture at the hands of their smugglers. The sea crossing is a continuation of an epic journey, not the start.

As we talk an elderly Roma woman is begging at the entrance of the church across the street. I watch as she beckons to one of the boys and passes him a loaf of bread. ‘This is what it’s come to’, says an Italian volunteer in disbelief. A homeless man tells me he shared out his blankets last night, as ‘They have nothing.’

Debesay starts to sing a soulful Eritrean ballad. The others smile and join in, and one guy keeps the beat, using two empty Peroni bottles as percussion. The tallest of the group steps forward and, pausing to pull up his hood, cuts through the soul with some harsh Tigrinian rap. We dance and clap, but then a van pulls up:

‘You can’t stay here’, the policeman says.
‘Where can they stay?’ I ask.
‘Not here.’

The forgotten war

‘I can tell you’re Afghan’, explained the volunteer, ‘because you have Chinese eyes, like this’, she demonstrated, stretching the skin either side of her eyes with her index fingers. I stared, horrified by this un-PC behaviour, but Ramazan roared with laughter.

Ramazan and I were friends for a week, or maybe ten days. It isn’t long, as friendships go, but I find I think of him often. Ramazan has an infectious smile, eyes that convey both shyness and confidence, a small but strong frame for his 20 years and reddish brown hair. I only wish I knew where he was.

When I think of Afghanistan I think of the most gracious people I’ve ever met. People who shake your hand and then touch their heart. When I first saw Ramazan I felt a wave of joy and relief. We were not in his country, nor in mine, but in a field in the hills of northern Greece in Europe’s fastest-growing refugee camp.

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I had been in Idomeni just a few hours when I learnt that Afghans were often jostled out of food lines. I asked a Greek policeman to protect them and he replied: ‘This is a camp for refugees not Afghans. Show me where they are and I’ll arrest them.’

We decided to bring supplies directly to them. Laden with see-through bags of bread, milk and biscuits I found myself tailed by Syrian children as I strode through the camp looking for Afghans. ‘No Syrians, it’s for Afghans’, said a fellow volunteer – words that no child should ever hear. In Idomeni there was no time to train people in the dos and don’ts of aid distribution, but I learnt my lesson fast. Mortified, I hurried on until I saw the unmistakably Afghan face of Ramazan. ‘Thank Christ for that,’ I breathed a sigh of relief, ‘I’ll drop the food with that guy and make a hasty exit.’

‘This is a camp for refugees not Afghans. Show me where they are and I’ll arrest them.’

Over the next days we brought clothes, food and sanitary kits to Ramazan and his group of friends. We mastered subtle ways to smuggle aid around the camp under the cover of darkness. ‘We like fruit,’ explained the old man in their party, ‘I especially like bananas’.

Ramazan is from Helmand in southern Afghanistan. He saw me simply as myself, yet I could not separate my own identity from my country’s role in the war he was fleeing. My guilt was stoked by his kindness. Europe has grown tired of the Afghan war. ‘I was an interpreter for the British’, said a man in their group, fishing papers out of his tent. ‘The Taliban say I’m a collaborator, if I stayed they would kill me’. How could I tell him this would not guarantee asylum in the UK?

I was becoming nervous at the prospect of saying goodbye to my friend. I went to his tent, ‘Ramazan has gone,’ said a girl, ‘he left this morning.’

Worth marching for

London drizzled as we huddled under Marble Arch. A camera crew approached us and I was shuffled to the front:

Reporter: ‘Do you have a solution to the war in Syria?’
Me: ‘Um, no.’
Reporter: ‘What do you expect this protest to achieve?’
Me (willing my coffee to take effect): ‘I guess I want to show solidarity with the people of Aleppo.’

As someone who does interview prep for a living, I gave myself a 2 out of 10. All week horrific footage from Aleppo had covered our screens, I kicked myself for having nothing more profound or concrete to say. But perhaps there was nothing more profound or concrete to say?

The day before the protest Save the Children reported on the recent use of bunker-busting earthquake bombs:
‘They have a devastating impact on civilian areas, killing and maiming people who thought they would be safer in a basement, and their use in Aleppo constitutes a potential war crime. More than 300 children have been killed or injured in Eastern Aleppo in the past five days.’ This was why we had come.

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An hour later the protest moved off. I marched alongside Hassan. ‘I wake up with a jolt four or five times a night’, he told me. ‘I cannot eat or sleep. All I do is pray for my family in Raqqa.’

Our numbers swelled and, as the sun came out, we raised our placards high. ‘We only want democracy. We only have hypocrisy!’ went the chant as we moved down Park Lane towards Downing Street. As we reached our destination a group of young Syrians with flags draped over their shoulders told us animatedly that they had come all the way from Leeds for the march.

Afterwards we asked Hassan how he felt about the protest. He thought for a moment before answering: ‘Today I am happy because somebody cares about my country.’ Maybe others could tell you how to stop the bloodshed, but we all can make small gestures count. For a moment Hassan was happy, and that was enough for me.

 

– Hassan is not his real name

The barber of Aleppo

‘Take a seat!’ said Mohammad, peering at my eyebrows. The enterprising barber from Aleppo welcomed me to his roadside salon. I had assumed the long queue was for soup, coffee, cigarettes or some such precious commodity. Stationed at the entrance of the refugee camp, Mohammad and his thread took me entirely by surprise.

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I wouldn’t have thought a stylist could contribute much in the life of a refugee camp. A doctor – yes; a lawyer; carpenter; linguist; teacher – all these people could make a real difference. But hairstyling and eyebrow threading are luxuries of an ordered world.

Refugees need food and shelter, clothes, medicines – the bare necessities that I had travelled to Idomeni to provide. And yet, how wrong I was.

People in Idomeni slept in fields that make Glastonbury look dry. They had no showers, no clean toilets, cast-off clothes, ill-fitting trousers held up by belts or rope. Little boys wore pink. Remove all choice over what you eat, where you live, where you go, who your neighbours are, what your future holds, whether you can protect your family.

People in Idomeni slept in fields that make Glastonbury look dry

Nobody really smiled when I gave them something they needed to survive. But faces lit up when a group of clowns performed tricks alongside food lines, when children were given balloons to play with. Kids riding bicycles yelled with delight – even when the bikes had no tyres. Teenagers cheered on breakdancers. Music, of any kind, lifted spirits.

Mohammad left Aleppo with the essentials of his trade – scissors, clippers, combs, thread and gel. When we met he’d arranged two chairs in a five-foot gap between a German radio truck and a parked car. On either side people living in camping tents hung out their rain-soaked blankets to dry, lit fires with anything that would burn and set about making breakfast. Mohammad charged a small fee. He was one of few people able to make honest money at the camp.

In a place where people were humiliated daily, I watched the pride creep back into his customers faces and the spring in their step as they strutted back into the camp. Mohammad restored a semblance of dignity. I declined his offer to thread my eyebrows, but slightly wish I hadn’t.

Where is your family?

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My sister lives in London with her husband and two-week old baby. My brother and his family live next door, my parents live in Suffolk and I moved home to London to be near them.

My parents live in Canada, my wife and kids in Lebanon and I am here – in Calais.’ 30 years old from Syria

My fifth child is with my parents in Afghanistan

‘My uncle lives in Italy, my mother, sisters, brothers and I are in Athens. My father was killed in Kunduz. That was when we fled.’ 15 years old from Afghanistan

‘My elder brother lives in London and my younger brother in Turkey. My parents and my sisters are in Damascus and we don’t know where my third brother is. He was taken from the hospital by Assad’s men. I am in Calais.’ 28 years old from Syria

‘My sister is in Italy, my brother, my wife, my other sister and her newborn baby are in Germany. My parents live in Raqqa and I am here – in London.’ 31 years old from Syria

‘I live in Birmingham. My whole family lives in Kabul. My mother is ill so I am working to pay for her operation in Pakistan.’ 22 years old from Afghanistan

‘I am in Athens with four of my children. My fifth child is with my parents in Afghanistan.’ 26 years old from Afghanistan

One emergency too many

‘There’s an old women on the floor of the tent over there and I think she’s dead’, I said, trying to steady my voice and relay my message coherently. ‘Well if she’s dead,’ the doctor replied, ‘there isn’t much point in my coming, is there?’ ‘Well,’ I mumbled, ‘I mean I’m not sure if she’s dead or not, she’s either dead or really ill. I’m not a doctor – I don’t know what she is but I think you should come.’ The doctor inhaled slowly, taking in the line of mothers clutching coughing children desperate to get his attention. ‘If you think it’s important, I’ll come.’

It wasn’t the first time I felt I was playing god with precious resources in Idomeni. I’d found myself deciding on the night shift which family got the last tent, and – after days of torrential rain – which man the last pair of shoes. Fewer than 50 doctors served the needs of 14,000 refugees: calling a medic to an emergency meant taking them away from another patient.

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The camp on the Greece-Macedonia border was set up to provide refugees heading north with basic aid: water, jam sandwiches and a communal tent for shelter. Shortly after I arrived they closed the border, yet people kept coming and the camp continued to swell.

‘If she’s dead,’ the doctor replied, ‘there isn’t much point in my coming, is there?’

 

 

The old woman had the face of an old master painting – like the wizened figure in Caravaggio’s Judith and Holofernes but without the compelling expression. Unsure of whether my medical companion was a fan of the arts, I kept this thought to myself, adding only ‘She’s lying on the floor of a crammed tent with kids jumping and shouting around her.’ The doctor took the opportunity to smoke a cigarette and set an unbearably slow pace as we dodged children playing along the only path that wasn’t up to their knees in mud. I resisted the temptation to hurry him on.

His attitude seemed callous at first. I was new to aid work, it was only my second time in a refugee camp. Only later did I learn that you need to take care of yourself first, before you can help others. My medic had been closeted in a small tent for hours treating case after case with limited supplies.

The old woman was sitting upright when we got there. I found myself in the singular position of being slightly embarrassed that she wasn’t dead after all, almost wishing that she might lie down again to justify my urgency. The medic gave me a sideways glance; he didn’t mind, I’d allowed him to snatch 10 minutes of relative peace.

I couldn’t tell you what happened to the woman. Hurrying towards another emergency I didn’t give her a second thought.