A new perspective

Version 2

‘Where are you from?’ I asked Ahmed.
‘I was from Kobani,’ he replied, ‘But it doesn’t exist anymore.’
‘Are you here with anyone?’ I asked.
‘No.’ he replied, staring at me with piercing green eyes. ‘I have no-one.’

Ahmed is a Syrian Kurd in his late twenties. He wore a khaki hat with a pencil wedged under the rim and was unforgiving with the truth. We met in a ramshackle hut as close as he could get to the border of my own country. ‘I will return to Germany in three days’, he said, ‘I won’t risk having my head kicked in just to get to England.’ He held my gaze, challenging me to respond. ‘Instead of starting my life in Germany I’ve wasted five months here in Calais.’

‘I was from Kobani,’ he replied, ‘But it doesn’t exist anymore.’

I’d kept my composure as he told me his town was destroyed, his family killed, his rights violated by French police, his friend attacked by fascists. Yet these wasted five months I could not bear. A tear ran down my face and I was silent. Ahmed’s eyes finally mellowed.

A softly-spoken cotton farmer from Darfur was also at our table. Motez asked for help with his English, and humoured my confused explanations as we mastered the days of the week and months of the year. He smiled when I told him I too grew up on a farm and we compared crops and seasons.

I started to ask Motez about traditional Darfurian dishes when my voice petered out. Had I actually just asked about the local cuisine of a region that has suffered famines across my lifetime? I recalled Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer-winning photo ‘The vulture and the little girl’. Motez politely changed the subject, he was curious to know what went on at the warehouse that supplies the camp:

Me: ‘I’ve been making hygiene packs of shampoo, shower gel…’
Motez (smiling): ‘That’s great, but I don’t have a shower.’
Me (undeterred): ‘…toothbrushes, moisturising lotion.’
Motez (indignant): ‘I don’t use lotion!’
Me: ‘Well, maybe you should start?’
Motez laughed.

Numbers and collective nouns – flood, swarm, bunch – tell us what we need to know about refugees. How many there are, where they are going and how we can solve their crisis. And yet here I was, for the first time, sitting in front of two individuals.

Fearful of staying after dark I left Ahmed and Motez to another night in the Jungle. I was grateful to Motez for his gentleness and in awe of Ahmed’s brutal honesty. One hour in the hut was enough to empty my mind of statistics and begin rebuilding a picture through personal stories.


– Ahmed is not his real name

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