‘It’s not about you’

Calais diary part 1

Just back from two weeks at Maria Skobtsova House, my head is still ringing with the Taize songs we sang three times a day for Advent, and the sounds of conversations in French, that I half understood, and the conversation in Dutch, Tigrinya, Amharic that I didn’t understand at all.

I still have in my head the mezmur, [hymns] the young guests at Maria Skobtsova House sung every evening at night prayer. Sung in low voices, the hymns begin as a kind of soft hum, then increase in intensity. One young man shouts out the words which others pick up in canon. One drummer taps gently to start with, then there’s a barely detectable crescendo, until everyone is swaying and clapping. Even though I’m tired and looking forward to bed, I find it impossible not to join in the complicated clapping and swaying pattern.

The chapel at Maria Skobtsova House; blankets folded and ready for use at evening Orthodox prayer

Each day we meet at Maria Skobtsova House for prayers at 8:00. There’s supposed to be silence until then, but with seventeen young men in one family sized house, I suspect there’s been plenty going on in the night. After prayers and breakfast, it’s washing the floor, picking out the recycling, cleaning the one toilet, sweeping the stairs, sorting the washing. If you’re not quick enough with the floor the young men are already in the kitchen and making breakfast. Outside in the yard is a rack of freezing trainers, with crispy socks. There is a fridge. There’s a lean-to with an outsize washing machine and extra supplies of tins.

There’s a corner the boys have made into a barber shop. S. is the barber. He says he has been a barber since he was a child, even in Sudan, en route. Getting a new hair cut is a chief pastime. To get the desired effect he takes the blade out of a disposable razor, holds it against the teeth of a comb. J. also likes to hang out in the yard, behind a curtain rigged up between a shower cubicle, not yet in use, and the fridge for extra privacy.

I sleep in an empty apartment, in an old house by the canal. There is a chapel, a kitchen, a bedroom and study and a shower. Every morning I walk quickly to be at Maria Skobtsova House in time for morning prayer. We sing hymns, recite psalms and listen to a prose passage from lives of the saints or written by a saint, morning, noon and evening. At night there is another prayer with the guests.

I get to drive the community’s van home so I can bring back the donated patisserie in the morning: loaves of bread and miniature croissants, pain au raisin, pain au chocolat. Piles of donated food and clothes gradually build up along the walls of the corridor. Visitors from England bring cereal, tea bags, fresh milk. This afternoon, a group comes with a van of donations from Tower Hamlets. One of the girls has never left the U.K. before. Fresh fruit and vegetables are scarce, except for a wholesalers van that comes twice a week. When it’s my turn to receive the delivery I choose the vegetables I crave, like radishes. But of course it’s not about me. When I offer the radishes to the young men, one eats it politely but another one makes comedy show of spitting it into his hand, grimacing. We take the grapes and clementines.

Everyday there is a delivery of stew from the Refugee Community Kitchen, in a large oblong tin. One end of a warehouse has been turned into a commercial sized kitchen. Volunteers, dressed in black chefs shirts and caps, chop vegetables to the sound of heavy techno. I looked enviously at the crates of pumpkins and cabbages, which lead me to wonder why, by the time it reaches us, the food isn’t all that nice. The smell follows me around on my skin.

Refugees are sleeping out in this

Today it’s raining very hard. Rain is making rivers along the pavement. We run more errands, to the hospital, back to the kitchen to return the empty pans, to LIDLS. Rain is bouncing off the tarmac surface of the LIDLs carpark. Under Br Johannes’ direction, we stock up on milk, eggs, sugar, diet coke. Although there is a cooked meal every night, these are the staples of the house larder.

Another essential is ‘berberis’ , a large jar filled with a mixture of chilli, paprika and curry powder that comes out every night. Guests in small groups cook themselves tomato sauce mixed with ‘berberis’ heated in the microwave, eaten by dipping pieces of bread into the shared bowl.

Communal Eritrean dish made of grilled flour, spicy tomato sauce and yoghurt

On the way back from LIDLS we see many refugees at the ‘Belgian parking’ for that is its name, gathering to try and get on the lorries. With the deteriorating weather, it seems that people are ever more desperate to ‘try’. When I get home I read this article in the Huffington Post: people are afraid more than anything of dying of cold.

Each evening, in twos and three, the refugee guests come home, having been outside all day ‘trying’. ‘No chance’ they say. Some prefer to stay out all night. Some prefer the morning.

Almost sooner than I’ve learnt all the boys’ names, I have learnt a bit about their favourite characteristics and foibles. One likes to sit outside. One is the barber of the group. One speaks very good English. One prefers French. One has an infection in his foot and we have to take him to the hospital everyday. Often they come back from ‘trying’ with injuries, cut hands, sore backs. I heard about a broken hip, a broken foot. A few have given up going out.

In the evening there are missing empty places at the dinner table. There is a gloomy and nervous atmosphere. Br Johannes won’t start the meal until all are present. No one is allowed to stay in bed. J. who usually sits by himself in a corner to eat, today joins us. He says in English ‘maybe they’re in Engerland, but they’re asleep’ then continues in his own language, causing everyone to laugh. Even his face makes them all laugh.

Yesterday two come home with cut hands, saying a lorry driver attacked them with an iron bar. The soaking coats and hoodies, hats, gloves, all go into the wash and then the drier, sometimes they say the coats have been tear gassed, so need to be washed. The drier is on at least 12 hours a day, filling up with water and fluff from the soaking wet towels and coats, hoodies, scarves and hats.

The smell in the yard could be tear gas or it could be the rotting food. I look up smell of tear gas on my phone. It’s difficult to tell.

Refugees try to keep warm round a fire under one of the city’s bridges




‘It’s not about you’

Belgravia to Hackney: it’s Budget day

Yesterday I made a short return journey, barely half an hour, from Dalston, Hackney to Belgrave Square, for a vigil outside the Bahrain embassy. The vigil was to show solidarity with Nabeel Rajab and with Bahraini activists who are being harassed, even here in the UK.

Vigil for Nabeel Rajab, political prisoner in Bahrain, outside the Bahrain embassy in Belgrave Square.

This is not the reason I woke up this morning feeling so sick, I could hardly eat my breakfast. But it did set me thinking. On this day, Budget Day, it occurred to me in the kind of elemental way it does first thing, there is plenty to go round. There would be no need for austerity if we could just share all the resources we have. Austerity is not something that effects all of us. Only the poor and the sick. Those who rely on public services. Inequality is damaging us.

I’m at a time of my life thankfully where I barely have to use the NHS. I’m not yet one of those people who can write a glowing report on Facebook on the wonderful overstretched nurses and doctors. Only in our work, as a family, we see the effects of austerity. My husband, an architect who works on school buildings, has seen the amount of work dwindle. I give my time to a soup kitchen, drop in centre and a centre for women refugees, giving English lessons, and the local night shelter; all voluntary services that should be unnecessary in a just society. My daughter’s job is to monitor behavior in a secondary school. The poor behavior of a few pupils is directly caused by poor mental health, poverty and the instability in their lives, by the lack of resources to cope with the petty awkwardnesses school throws at them. Inequality undoubtedly causes poor mental health. It’s something I can see in front of my own eyes.

Poor housing or no housing at all must be one of the highest contributers to mental ill health. We are all the poorer for it. All the people who are suffering from lack of support from government, are prevented from taking a full part in society, from being creative, from being sociable. Instead they are forced to traipse from food bank to drop in to free meal to substandard housing to GP.

In Hackney, and further north in Haringey, there are people forced to live on an industrial estate in converted buildings, just like the one in this video, unable to keep themselves and their possessions safe.

So even more galling it was to think of my journey home yesterday from Belgravia back to Hackney. Some people even think Dalston is a rather smart area. It’s certainly been gentrified for the ones with enough to buy a house, to meet their friends in a café, to go clubbing. And stable enough lives for their children to benefit from the improving schools..

Back towards Victoria station, still an acre of grime and lurid signage, I clicked along spotless, creamy stone pavements, Belgrave Square, Eaton Square, where a school friend of mine had lived, Chester Square where another friend had lived, long ago of course. Every now and then I noticed a state of the art sports car, the like of which I’d never seen, hunkered down in a residents’ parking bay. The buildings all freshly painted in uniform ivory. You could say embassies need to be smart, they have to entertain kings and queens and generals. They have to have clean streets. But even here, not all the houses can be embassies. Anyway wouldn’t we all like to have clean streets.

Usually I breathe a sigh of relief when I reach Dalston, everyone gets off. It’s always been  a busy station, even before gentrification. But this morning when I thought of the beggars in Kingsland High Street, over again I felt sick. There used to be only one beggar, a woman with a gambling addiction. Now there is a new person every hundred yards or so, fifty even. It’s a fairly crazy but also courageous thing to do to resort to begging, to put yourself at the mercy of the passersby, of the street. It means services, both public and voluntary, have failed. Some of the drop-in users tell me the foodbank on Sunday was closed because of a children’s party. But also the motivation to keep going, to access all these services, has left this person. It means family and friends have deserted this person. I’m always shocked every time I see a new person, someone I don’t recognise. Yesterday there was a woman about my own age, she could be someone’s mother, one of my own kid’s school friends’ mothers perhaps or a neighbor. Further on a new spot had been taken up by a young woman, her possessions bundled around her.

So my prayer is that today’s Budget can make life more equal. All of us need to work for a more just society. There are plenty of houses; they’re not properly distributed. There is plenty to go round if you could just choose fairness over greed. We all suffer, from the fact that thousands are forced to send every hour of their day trying to work out where the next meal is coming from, putting all their intellectual energy into negotiating job centre, foodbank, housing benefit, without any time for friends.

Belgravia to Hackney: it’s Budget day

Dirty Protest

Thoughts on the work ethic and the arms trade

During the week before the DSEI arms fair, protests take place on the service road into the back of the Excel Centre, by London’s Royal Victoria Dock. Lumbering up the road, along with the low loaders carrying vehicles and boats, armoured, camouflaged, tied down with net, boats, along with the white vans of caterers, fitters, cleaners, carpet layers, is one huge elephant. That is capital and the work ethic that supports it.

The arms trade is harmful many times over. It makes conflict more likely in areas of the developing world where there is already tension. Poor countries are persuaded to spend millions on weaponry rather than on infrastructure for their own people. Its industry manufactures war and bloodshed.

Being a capitalist enterprise just like any other, the arms trade, and the industry that supports it, causes damage to the climate. It is a wasteful use of natural resources. It poisons the atmosphere and water supplies and lakes and natural habitats. It hoards the technological expertise amongst its employees that could be used in other creative sustaining ways and prevents progress in other areas.

But also, being a capitalist enterprise like any other, the arms industry depends on our wonderfully strong work ethic. In his book S.O.S. Alternatives to Capitalism, Richard Swift points us to William Morris, one of the first socialists to oppose the ecological decay of capitalism and the society based on ‘useless toil’.

He also directs us to Lafargue’s, The right to be lazy. Written in the nineteenth century, by Marx’s son-in-law, this is a satire aimed at the bourgeouisie, who counted work as a religious virtue and the path to salvation. Industrialists encouraged country people away from their ‘hearths’ into the towns, to the severe detriment of the workers’ and their families’ health. Once in the factory they had no time to tend their vegetable plots, which led to malnutrition, or else had to travel long distances to work, leaving no time to look after themselves and their children.

Lafargue describes conditions for factory workers in Alsace, who worked twelve hour days to produce stockings, which they themselves had no use for, and could never afford. The factory owner then had to find new markets for his products, leading to colonialist expansion. Seen in the context of the arms trade this is particularly apt. The arms companies make something far worse than useless; the only product of an arms company is bloodshed and terror. The arms trade constantly must find new markets so the factory can stay open, so the employees can travel to their full time jobs. It must keep the factories open, otherwise there’d be a riot. The employees of the factory must be kept busy. The devil makes work for idle hands.

This discussion often gets glossed over at protests. Disgruntled passersby shout, ‘get a job’, not realising how ironic this is in the circumstances. MPs inevitably do all they can to protect jobs in their own constituency, for their own sake if nothing else. It would be impossible to tell someone to give up their job, when there is a dearth of manufacturing jobs, and when income is tied to work, but also while the work ethic is so a fundamental to our culture. As Kathy Weeks shows in The problem of work, the work ethic extends far beyond the means of survival. Work defines us socially, intellectually, by class, even by race and gender. Where the work ethic is strong, the system of favours, long hours culture, fellowship, the ritual of office parties and outings, work itself becomes morally right. We’ve all experienced jobs where we have complied with dubious practices, and not until afterwards realized that our desire to maintain a positive attitude triumphed over our own integrity.

The work ethic even extends into our children’s education, (teenagers trained to be ‘work ready’) our leisure and holidays. Who hasn’t thought of conveyor belts when we step onto a plane or ferry. But above all the work ethic spreads into our homes. Someone has to be cleaning, whether this is the same person who goes out to work, a partner or someone paid to do it. However you look at modern employment, it relies on carers, cleaners, cooks, mothers, those who care for the elderly, the very young, the sick, the destitute.

Weeks suggests that the discussion around wages for housework, while unhelpful and unsuccessful in the seventies, was a useful way of seeing how our lives are monetised, which parts of a mother’s work is work, that could be paid labour, and which is love. She quotes Federici,

“For our aim is to be priceless, to price ourselves out of the market, for housework and factory work and office work to be ‘uneconomic.’ ”

Or to put it in terms of the Gospel story we are all busy being Martha, but Martha herself has power in the work she does to resist. (Luke 10: 38 – 42)

Arms work depends on housework. An employee of the arms industry, and therefore all of us, works a full day, picks up her children, keeps her house clean, and even does voluntary work at weekends. So I propose a dirty protest! Or even more drastic, a care work protest. Or even a birth work protest. Just when we thought housework was something that stays in the privacy of our own homes, we could refuse housework and smash the arms trade.

Recently in a horrible twist, cleaning products themselves have become a weapon. Not far from Giuseppe Conlon House, two young men on a scooter carried out 5 acid attacks in a single evening. In the discussions in the media afterwards, the pundits questioned the use of strong chemicals in household cleaning.

Swift, R. S.O.S. Alternatives to Capitalism, New Internationalist, Oxford 2016

Weeks, K, The problem with work, Duke University Press, London 2011

Lafargue, P. The right to be lazy, edited and introduced by Bernard Marszalek, AK Press, Chicago 2011

This article was first published in the London Catholic Worker newsletter

Dirty Protest

Human rights action at royal horse show: part I

‘UK: Stop supporting Bahrain’s tyrant’

On Saturday 13th May I, and three others, carried two five metre banners saying ‘UK stop supporting Bahrain’s tyrant’ into the Royal Windsor Horse Show. At the agreed time, when the prizes were to be given out after a show jumping event, the CSI5* Kingdom of Bahrain Stakes for The King’s Cup, we climbed over the crowd barriers and shook out the two banners, in plain sight of the royal box and the spectators.

A few weeks earlier I met with a handful of other volunteer activists. Together we looked up information on human rights abuses in Bahrain and the hypocracy of a situation in which our own monarch entertains and is entertained by King Hamad at the Royal Windsor Horse Show.

I had my own reasons for taking part in the action. The UK exports to Saudi Arabia are worth £3.5 billion and Bahrain is part of the Saudi led intervention in Yemen, where war crimes are being perpetrated against the Houthis and millions are suffering from severe food insecurity, famine. The UK targets Bahrain for arms exports, despite its repressive regime and violent response to protests and opposition. At the horse show, many of the events are sponsored by the Kingdom of Bahrain; the Bahraini flag is flying from the hospitality suites and plastered all the round the main arena and the fences. It turns out the King of Bahrain loves horses and so does his son, Prince Nasser. The instruction on the back of our tickets, not to display any political slogans, started to seem highly contradictory.

I was  uncertain about doing this action; I wasn’t sure I knew enough about the victims of Bahrain’s repressive regime. The usual qualms sprung into my head: wrong time, exhausting, not my story. But, I reasoned, there was ‘no skin off my nose’.

The Royal Windsor Horse Show is full of shops that sell everything for the pony mad, from fancy snaffles to ear protectors. The clothes shops were strong on Harris tweed micro shorts and Harris tweed ponchos. The Landrover Discovery promotion offered rides up a steep slope in their latest model.

Harris tweed micro shorts for sale at the Royal Windsor Horse Show

As expected, show jumping is thrilling to watch but this quickly becomes stressful. When the small Arab horses jumped over the fences, they seemed to spring off the ground like harrier jump jets. From our vantage point in front row seats, I saw that before each fence the horse was wild eyed, under stress, not concentrating, being reined in strongly by the rider and then let go at the last minute. Sometimes the horse would dig its hooves into the ground. The crowd would give a soft moan and an appreciative gasp as if they were on the horses side all long.

On the day, five of us, one pair for each banner and a fifth with a camera, met up at Paddington station. At the same time other activists were going to stand with a banner outside the VIP entrance. We kept up the motivation by sending ourselves photos and articles about King Hamad as we were waiting.

Seated as close to the front as possible, I was mentally rehearsing how I was going to clamber over the crowd barrier. We watched the DAKS Pony Club mounted games, where teenagers on ponies hurtled backwards and forwards with sticks, trying to grab rolled up socks. Very popular, at least with press photographers, was the Shetland Pony Grand National, where eight year olds raced tiny ponies round a track to a real steeple race commentary. By this time the stand was full; people kept asking if they could squeeze past us. Kids, couples with babies, families and pony mad little girls, spread across the bleachers.

Bahraini colours all over the arena

Shortly after lunch, workmen put out a third row of barriers. Security guards in plain clothes arrived and prowled up and down, looking at their phones and peering at the crowd. It was time for the  Kingdom of Bahrain Stakes for The King’s Cup. We anxiously watched the royal box for sign of movement, but no one vaguely royal or Bahraini looking came down. I wishes I’d brought binoculars. Instead there were groups of security guards in dark suits and sunglasses, right up at the back of the grandstand.

I put the banner on my lap. The plain clothes guys paid no attention to me or my partner. Prince Nasser appeared for the prize giving. The six contestants rode their horses into the ring to receive their prizes. Ok Now! I grasped the vertical rail and pulled myself up. Unfurled the banner. ‘Wrong way round!’ We quickly walked round each other and held it up. I pulled as tightly as I could. There were cries of hey! from the crowd, but the commentator never missed a beat. Then almost immediately I felt someone tugging hard. The Bahraini security guys were shouting in Arabic. I let go. Soon some regular security quards, heavy white men in blue blazers, came and started prodding us to walk towards the side. But there was no way out! Finally we were led out through the members enclosure. Through the shops. To the on-site police station.

Two of us didn’t have to give details to the police at all. We were led out through the gates and told never to come back. We made it down the road to the first pub on the left.



Human rights action at royal horse show: part I

Ash Wednesday 2017


2017-03-01 07.53.20
‘No nuclear weapons’ written in charcoal on the columns of the MOD

The Wednesday before last, early in the morning, I walked up the steps of the entrance portico of the Ministry of Defence, past the policeman on duty, into the entrance portico. I drew a stick of charcoal out of my pocket and drew a cross on column and then another. I walked in amongst the columns and then drew another and then another. The workers, their long coats hanging open, carrying their briefcases, were just arriving. One caught my eye and said, ‘What you as well?’ I wasn’t sure what he meant. It sounded like ‘Et tu, Brute?’ Men and women rushed past, as if they were late. It wasn’t even eight o’clock. Not that I was thinking about the time. I was trying not to be distracted by my surprise that no one was stopping me. I heard an iphone camera rattle. A woman was taking a picture. Was she going to write ‘This numpty…?’ Was she going to post it in MOD staff news, ‘This numpty thought she could tell us how dangerous nuclear weapons are.’ One woman tut tutted. And she’s the one tut tutting at me? It’s me who should be tutting. It’s me who should be kissing my teeth, as we say in Hackney.

The yoga teacher, a small neat man, with his neat beard and neat shorts who is as strong as a gymnast, well him, he said, ‘Examine which part of you feels made larger by your practice.’ That’s the way he talks this yoga teacher. On that occasion I would say it was my thighs.

After the action at the MOD, but also after Ash Wednesday in general, the part of me that felt larger was my heart. It seemed to have grown. St. Philip Neri had an enlarged heart.

Some of the participants in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, organised by Pax Christi, have been coming for over thirty years. They have been holding this problem, this sin, this collective, terrible transgression up to the light perhaps since the UK got nuclear weapons, or at least since the beginning of Polaris. At first I used to be a bit disappointed that not so many younger, or even middle aged people came, other than some school children brought by their RE teacher. But I’ve recently become a grandmother. So my perspective has changed. I know why it’s the older people who come.

Ash Wednesday is a good moment to think about these things. My whole day was devoted to Ash Wednesday. Having been told, ‘Well Done’ for the charcoal writing, by the policeman outside the MOD, I went home, and got marked with ashes myself in my parish church. ‘Remember you are dust’ says the priest. The smile on the familiar parishioners’ faces as they came out of church, the big damp gritty cross on their faces. It’s strange that being reminded I am dust is such a joyful occasion. All our wrinkled brows and wispy hair suddenly plastered with ash, brazenly showing our reality, that soon we’ll be ash. Or in the story of Nebuchadnezzar, when the three men walked out of the fire..

MOD remember you are dust. You have no rights just ‘bare existence’, when stripped down to it. Just a heap of Portland stone, carefully scrubbed of all the soot that you used to be covered with like all public buildings in London.

So as a peace activist, I thought it’s important to grow. As it’s about growing in love. It’s not so much about taking the moral high ground, saying something clever and devising a  campaign, or planning incredible jaw dropping nonviolent direct action, although that would be good. It’s that the next step is growing in love. This is why peace activists are old. They have grown in love, they have grown old on the job, they haven’t given up.

Strange to think that my Ash Wednesday would have made me think that. Yes I feel uncomfortable with the after effects of the action. It’s humiliating in a way. To make yourself momentarily vulnerable. To put yourself at the mercy of the police.

Fasting, weeping, mourning, sings the prophet. Gather the community, even the babes at the breast and the lovers in their bedrooms. No one can be let off . No one escapes. Love for babies, love for lovers, love for our community. This kind of love is bigger than all of it. This is the kind of love, the blessings that will come, you have to get better at as you get older. It takes a grandmother or an aunty to do this kind of loving.


Ash Wednesday 2017

Life with the Afghan Peace Volunteers


Silas Marner in Kabul

New apartment blocks under construction near Police Camp, Kabul

Raveloe, London, Kabul, we cling to our ‘way of life’ even though it makes us sick, obsessive and lonely. Governments cling to policies that cause harm to ordinary people. In this article, begun while staying in Kabul, I ask what George Elliott’s Silas Marner has to tell us about our own ‘pile of gold’.

I recently travelled to Kabul, where I teamed up with the Afghan Peace Volunteers and Kathy Kelly of Voices for Creative Nonviolence. I took with me, to read under the covers when I couldn’t sleep, Silas Marner by George Elliott. Marner, estranged from his home town, sets up as a weaver in the small village of Raveloe. Through weaving he accumulates a pile of gold coins which he counts obsessively every night, until one day it is stolen. The plot turns when he adopts a small girl, the daughter of a drug addict, who wanders into his house. He mistakes her gold curls for his gold coins, miraculously returned to him. As he determines to look after the child he has to ask others in the community for help and so his life is transformed.

As a group of women in one Kabul refugee camp recounted their experiences of war, their injuries, the indignities they have suffered since being forced to leave their homes, Kathy Kelly asked at one point, ‘Did you know that the US has just committed 617 billion US dollars to military spending?’ The women implied by their gestures, ‘What do we care?’ One woman said, ‘I wouldn’t know the difference between one side of a dollar and the other, whether a dollar is black or white.’ It was at this moment the image of Silas Marner counting out his pile of gold coins, popped into my head. As well as a literal analogy with the ‘pile of gold coins’ devoted to military spending, there are political lessons for policy makers, for example the western governments whose migration policies cause such hardship amongst refugees.

In Europe, chances for Afghan refugees to claim asylum have grown slim, since the EU now considers Afghanistan to be a safe country, even though there were 5,600 casualties of armed conflict in the first half of 2016 alone. The EU plans to deport 80,000 Afghan asylum seekers. At the time of writing Germany and Sweden have already started the deportations. This is at a time when Pakistan and Iran are also pressurising Afghan refugees to return.

The refugees face homelessness and destitution when they return to Kabul, where there is not the infrastructure to support them. ‘A man-made humanitarian catastrophe could be the end result of these governmental policies’ writes Ahmed Rashid, a journalist in Lahore. [1]

At the Borderfree Centre in Kabul, Kathy Kelly and I spoke to Abdul Gafoor, of Afghanistan Migrants Advice and Support Organisation. He says everyday twelve deportees arrive from Norway, as a result of its cruel deportation policy. Young boys call him, not knowing where to go. Very often, as soon as they have the opportunity, they will leave again, for Pakistan or Iran. They are given $1200 from the Norwegian government, so they use this money to move on as it is too difficult for them to reintegrate. There is nothing they can do in Kabul; there is no work.

Kathy Kelly, Nematullah Ahangosh, who is an Afghan Peace Volunteer, and I visited the ‘Police Camp’ an unofficial camp for IDPs and refugees. We took a long taxi ride, through heavy morning traffic, into an area of new development, where private hospitals with tinted curtain walling and new apartment buildings, some already clad, others just slabs and columns, lined the broad, unsurfaced road. Opposite a petrol station, where gaily painted lorries were filling up, we were let out onto the edge of an open sewer, the size of a small river, its grey white waters swirling with scraps of rubbish. Salim, from the Jesuit Refugee Service, soon fetched us and led us down a narrow path between mud shacks, to a place where we took off our shoes, stepped inside a small room, with red carpet, whitewashed walls, a stove in the middle, a plastic sheet for a window. Soon the elected camp leader, Raz Mohammed, came to tell us about the camp.

Of the 700 families resident in the camp, one third have come because of recent conflicts, such as in Kunduz in the north east of the country and one third are refugees who have been forced to return from Pakistan and Iran. Sometimes educated people, this latter group already sold all their property when they left Afghanistan, so now they are homeless and destitute. Refugees can only earn three dollars a day. Men work as porters in the market. Other jobs include washing cars, and selling boloni, pastries stuffed with potato and spinach. Others, despite the danger, send their children out to work in the street, cleaning shoes and windscreens or selling windscreen wipers, tissues and sweets.

Those who work in the market can bring home potatoes or turnips but not enough for regular meals. The rest of the time they have only bread and tea. Some don’t even have tea. For fuel they burn plastic bottles, shoes and old clothes. Every winter twenty-five people die of cold. Water has to be bought at 10 Afs for 20 litres. On the way in we saw a single pump. Raz tells us that a woman who runs a beauty parlour noticed the women walking to buy water so she donated the pump but the water is not ‘sweet’.

After speaking to Raz Mohammed we went to visit a group of women who were finishing a class. They sat round the edges of the cold classroom. A teenage daughter ran in to drop off a baby to be fed. The women told us that all ethnicities are represented at the camp. Tajiks, Uzbeks and Baluchis living together. They said they felt safe in the camp, but conditions are dangerous to health, especially in cold weather, and there is no access to health care, despite the private hospitals next door.

‘If only we had had an education we wouldn’t be in this situation,’ they said. One woman, feeding her toddler under her black scarf, says she used to have a job in Kunduz. She made boloni and her husband sold them.

Another woman told us how she had fled from Kunduz, almost leaving her child behind. Another, from Laghman province, showed us the injuries to her upper arm she had sustained when she escaped. She said that she had no food for lunch. After the class she would cover her face and go and beg at the bakery.

The leader said he gathered people together and went to the government for help. The government only provides food. He thinks they should provide education, buildings. He said the UN had been to visit the camp, even the US ambassador. But nothing has changed. Eighteen months ago, during Ramadam, the authorities attempted to clear the camp, with armed police, but the refugee inhabitants responded with stones.

Without sufficient food, fuel, education or health care, the women concluded, ‘No one cares about us. The government doesn’t care.’

Another group of women I spoke to were seamstresses at the Borderfree Centre. They embroider scarves which are sold in the US and the UK to raise funds for the centre. All having between five and seven children each, their main concern is to feed their families. Despite their husband’s disapproval, they have to go out to work outside the home. Even so the wages are not enough to pay the rent, to buy clothes for their children, food and books for school.

‘The government doesn’t care about us,’ they said, echoing the words of the the women in the refugee camp. They said, ‘If you want to help, you must give money to us poor people’. The seamstresses said they saw all the huge construction projects, and concluded the government was spending money on these projects and not on alleviating the problems of the poor.

Government ministers just use aid to buy each other ‘a cow or a hen’. I asked if they had any means of making their voices heard, which was translated literally I realised. They said their husbands wouldn’t like it if their voices were heard outside the home. Not able to read or write, their only option would be to join a protest. They didn’t dare go on a demonstration, they said, because the government might come after them, or there might be a bomb.

Back in London this week, I did my regular shift in the local winter night shelter. Many of the homeless I encounter at the shelter suffer from poor physical and mental health, and even have mobility problems, which should be reason enough for the authorities to house them without delay. Many were caught between losing their job and waiting for benefits to come through; a gap of six weeks is enough time to lose your flat. Surprisingly some guests are actually working. Holding down a job while sleeping in a shelter must be almost impossible but one man I spoke to was doing just that. His car was parked outside, he wore the uniform of a building servicing company and over breakfast he was giving his mobile phones a last minute boost, checking the location of the first job of the day.

The residents of the refugee camp in Kabul and the guests at the London night shelter are all at the mercy of government policies. Worse than that, our government is unwilling to correct the very policies that made people homeless. As John Berger wrote,

‘The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied … but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.’

Collectively, whether in the UK or Afghanistan, we must turn to the poorest, most helpless members of our society and learn, just as Silas Marner did, from experiencing community again.

Silas Marner, once he accepts his loss and turns to another, a helpless child, builds relationships with the other members of his village community. It is when he turns to another helpless being, and becomes helpless himself, that healing begins. Our governments, and therefore we, are addicted to unsustainable policies that keep many displaced and homeless. When we accept our own weakness, our own loss and turn to look after the poorest there is hope.

George Elliott also asks us to reflect on the nature of work. Silas Marner sits at his loom day in day out, even on Sundays, weaving linen for the well to do of the neighbourhood and collecting gold coins to no end other than to be counted and hidden. US taxpayers are paying nearly $700 million dollars a week for the military in Afghanistan, money which the US government spends without attempting to avoid corruption.

Reading this you might ask what do all these things have to do with each other. Visiting Kabul, not somewhere people normally visit for a holiday, gives a heady ride into geo politics, but mainly the opportunity to see the effect of government policymakers on the lives of the poor. You might think it odd I would use Silas Marner as a way to reflect on lessons from Afghanistan. George Elliott chose novel writing as a medium to comment on social conditions in her time and the novel has a lot to tell us now. [2] If you haven’t read Silas Marner, or not since school days, I would recommend a visit.

[1] Ahmed Rashid Viewpoint: Why Afghan refugees are facing a humanitarian catastrophe http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-37607785

[2]In Our Time: Silas Marner




Silas Marner in Kabul