Hospitality in the Calais Jungle

Tea in the jungle photo: Johannes Maertens

I wrote this after my first day at Maria Skobtsova House and my first visit to the jungle camp. Even after ten days so many things have changed. As I post this coaches are taking people to ‘Centre d’Accueil et d’Orientation’, (CAO) or reception centres.

Calais is a sea shell shape of canals that make a circle around the old town.

I walk with Broeder Johannes towards the camp. The first sign of the camp, at the traffic lights, near the crossing of another canal, was a small group of people walking the other way, towards the town. Johannes greeted each one with a ‘Salaam’. As we cut through some estates of tiny bungalows and came out onto the same road, the groups became more and more frequent. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon in October.

We walked along a straight road, bordered on each side by industrial parks some deserted, some with giant stretches of mown grass, the road to the ferry port crossing over a bridge up ahead.

Riot police stood around the entrance to the camp at a respectful distance.

At the entrance a there was a group of European looking people, huddled round the information point and many camp inhabitants eating meals out of cartons. We walked down the main street of the camp, a stony road, shops and businesses on each side, a phone charging shop, restaurants. I learn there are 11 mosques in the camp but only one church. We progress slowly down the wide street, salaaming and shaking hands with many people. This part of the camp seems to be mostly Afghan. Many things remind me of Kabul. The men walking past in shirts and trousers, with colourful scarves round their necks. A guy who says he lives in Hackney invites us to look inside his boxing studio, the smell of testosterone and sweat, which was to become familiar. Boxers stand around in shiny sweats, waiting for a film crew.

We turn round and walk back to the church. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church the famous church, is much more beautiful in real life. Outside we leave our shoes and then walk inside onto the cool, soft carpet. Brightly painted paintings, St. Michael of all angels, the Last Supper and one of three bearded faces, the Trinity. I sink down into my prayer, prayer just comes over me as I kneel on the spotless carpet. Outside a large rat then a large chicken. The church is in a compound left behind after the other parts of the camp were destroyed. I’m introduced to one of the deacons and the security guards. Behind the church is a kitchen where a young woman is making a huge pile of Ethiopian pancakes, carefully covering the frying pan with a cardboard lid to let them steam.

Around the church compound are benches, tempting to sit on in the sun, but it’s on to meet Fiona who hands out tea from her van, small tables and chairs, people sitting round bent over meals chess. Then we set out across a sandy clearing, surroundings already overgrown since last eviction with hundreds of flowers, yellow flowers, J says are violets. The fire, during the last demolition, and the human excrement he says has meant the weeds have quickly overgrown. We join a narrow tarmac road, with roofs of brick houses visible the other side of a fence, join the columns of people walking, walking, with small carrier bags of take away meals. We are now in the Ethiopian part of the camp. Occasionally European volunteers drive past in a transit van.

We dive between two large tent structures. A tiny fire burns on the ground with about four young men sitting around it, still in shorts and T shirts, although the sun has disappeared from their small compound. A trivet that looks as if it was once a three legged stool, a small soot covered kettle. The young men quickly built up the fire with tiny pieces of wood, squirting the wood with cooking oil. I sit awkwardly on my seat. There is a long ritual of washing out each of the three cups three times with soap and water, then the water thrown out onto the path. The tea is a desert spoon of sugar whether you like it or not followed by a tea bag. When we’ve drunk our tea, the three cups get washed out again with the three washes ritual for the next cup of tea for other people.

We are there to speak to another deacon of the church. While we sit the young men pass round an iphone playing a song in their language, they pass it round and choose a new song. To take the place of conversation which is surely lacking, shared language is minimal, they speaking only a little English. J says we should go and asks the others to give our regard to the deacon who is sleeping. But this is interpreted as being time to wake him up. So the deacon comes out and sits next to us. He is  a small neat man.

There are Egyptian neighbours we learn, which causes some tension. Then suddenly we must stay for lunch. French bread is handed round and a plate of hot tuna mixed with potatoes and chilli. I tried not to eat too much, scooping up tiny bits with the donated French bread but at the same time the teenager next to me says, Eat, eat! 

As we leave and follow the narrow winding path, we turn into the sun, the strong seaside sun right in my eyes, smoke rising from people’s little cooking fires. that was amazing that tiny fire, how to make tea on a tiny fire.

As we walked we came across a phalanx of volunteers walking quickly towards us in a crowd, stony expressions on their faces, following a van. Someone waving a rattle in the air as they went. Suddenly people came rushing out from between all the tents. What’s going on? I asked in alarm. What’s going on? asked a lone French girl.

Nearly out of the camp, we stepped away from the main route into a gap between between tents, barely two shoes breadth apart, to a largish tent, already mouldy, the tent flap being held open for us. We took off our boots and stepped inside, sat on the carefully made blankets and mattresses, folded with new soft blankets. Our host had bought milk but instead disappeared to get tea, having no fire to boil a kettle on. About eight people in the tent, all young men, stared anxiously at their phones, low  in the  eaves of the tent, already mouldy. Johannes commented that these were recent arrivals. They had nothing, only bananas which they offered us.

The talk became very serious. J tried tried to explained what would happen on the 17 of October, eight days away. But no one really knew at that point what to say except to make sure you have your papers with you. Do you have Dublin? They were asked. A friendly young woman came to join us, with her son. The faces became serious as people brought out their papers, some so worn that they had split where they had been folded and refolded many times.

The 17th is now today, but the eviction has been postponed until the 24th October.

Hospitality in the Calais Jungle

What has gentrification ever done for us?

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Pray and Work: Ora et Labora woodcut by Ade Bethune, 1935, Ade Bethune Collection, St Catherine

Just down the road from Giuseppe Conlon House in Hackney, in the same borough as the London Catholic Worker’s weekly soup kitchen, Urban Table, there is an unmistakable whiff of gentrification about the place, with all the changes going on.

Some might call it regeneration, others gentrification, others social cleansing even. The Catholic Worker would call it clarification. Dorothy Day writes, in Loaves and Fishes [1], ‘Poverty is a strange and elusive thing [..] We need always to be thinking and writing about it, for if we are not among its victims its reality fades from us. We must talk about poverty because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it.’

There is plenty to laugh about how bad things were in the bad old days: an infrequent train service and a bus that only went half its route on Sundays. Before mobile phones, in the early nineties, my street was a sort of crack superstore; customers would stand in a row, staring in the direction of the high street, looking out for the dealer’s gold BMW.

Improved transport links, street furniture, cycle routes, regular rubbish collections, decent schools, more restaurants and cafes to choose from; the benefits of gentrification are obvious. Above all, an expansion in housing and therefore population. What’s not to like.

However there is also a housing crisis. House prices have risen out of the reach of most. Young people and those on low incomes have to rely on renting from private landlords, who can then charge as much as they like. Private rents in London are now 72% of income. Meanwhile anyone who is homeless, even if they are housed in the area, the minute they get a job and lose their housing benefit they won’t be able to afford the rent. The message of gentrification is: if you can’t afford to live here, move out.

I was looking around for an alternative proposition, perhaps an anarchist view on the situation. One housing expert friend suggested that, short of a riot, the way to bring house prices down was for all the school children to fails their GCSEs. Another warned, ‘Laws will be broken’. A mass squat.

Then I found ‘Hope and Rage’, an experimental series of six discussions on gentrification. Rob Schellert, the facilitator, told me he set up the group after feeling angry and frustrated at the evangelical churches’ response to the changes in his neighbourhood. He feels church Christianity has nothing to say about the real life issues present. The church he said just tends to be about ‘spiritual stuff’ and offered no discipleship. It offers only a superficial response to what it means to love our neighbour.

The sessions covered transport, shopping, socializing, education, and included an expert speaker, information from local government sources, and a scripture passage. As a group, we put our comfort filled domestic lives, under scrutiny, from a radical Christian perspective.

My first task was to speak to local people about their experience of gentrification in Hackney, so I combined this with setting up a justice and peace group in my parish. One parishioner I spoke to said he was moving; Dalston was too noisy and he had found a larger place in Enfield. He lived in the estate next door and we found much in common. The ‘hope’ part of ‘Hope and Rage’ was already working.

One evening the group took the 242 bus from Dalston to Homerton. When we set off the night time economy of Dalston was just getting started. Commuters were flowing out of its two stations. By the time we reached the far side of Hackney, the Nye Bevan estate, most passengers had already got off, and the road was poorly lit. The 242 bus is the only immediate transport.

For the session on ‘shopping’ Simon Jones, a Baptist minister and financial expert, told us about the small shops, barbers restaurants and businesses that have sprung up in the refugee camp at Calais. Whatever happens people always have a little money for a hair cut or a shave, preferably at a barber’s shop specific to their own ethnic origins.

That week we also read the Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25. We discussed how the common expectation is that even if you have just a little, you should put it to earning capital. How many feel good stories do we hear about people who have risen from humble beginnings. The parable ends, after ‘there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth,’ with:

‘to those who have
will be given more
and to those that have not,
even the little they have will be taken away.’

Nowhere has this prophecy been more fulfilled than in Hackney, in the housing crisis and in particular in the private rental market. More and more people have to rent privately, with no hope of a council house or owning their own home. Where rents remain unregulated, private landlords, and those who own property, can only get richer. Those on low wages lose a disproportionate amount of their income to the landlord, effectively buying his property for him. In addition they are in danger of losing their home through ‘no fault’ evictions. Their situation becomes precarious, leading to anxiety, stress and ill health, the ‘gnashing of teeth’.(2)

Rob Schellert believes social cleansing is already happening. In a place such as Hackney, which used to be one of the most diverse boroughs, it would be a ‘tragedy’ if through gentrification that diversity was lost. Both at my local church and Urban Table, the weekly soup kitchen, I meet elderly people who seem to have been abandoned. Twenty years ago perhaps, their families chose to leave the old Hackney, of drugs and gang violence, for somewhere leafier or somewhere more affordable. The ones left behind are the elderly, the sick or the very poor.

‘What little they had’, their community, is being taken away. As gentrification as we enjoy the advantages, we can easily lose sight of those who are losing out.

The conversations on domestic matters, shopping, transport, made me think long and hard. I felt resistant at times – who cares if I take a bike or catch a bus? But this in itself reminded me of my own responsibility, the times I have thoughtlessly taken more than my fair share. It’s so easy for us to enjoy the benefits, thank you very much, without considering our relations to others and our neighbours. Even Radio 4’s Money Box Live recently ran an item on how parents giving their grown-up children money contributes to rent hikes and therefore the housing crisis.

Living in a family or community, I grow to understand the pitfalls of taking more than my share. If I take too long in the shower, I’m stopping my son from getting ready for work. If I extend this to my own neighbourhood, my shower, the one I am taking too long in, is someone else’s shower, the one I am taking from the poor. My house is the one I am taking from the poor. I am like the rich young man in Mark 10, turning away disheartened.

Hope and Rage, Rob says, is about recognising how our actions, whether consciously or not, affect others around us. Together we grow in awareness of how we relate to our real neighbours through shopping, education, transport. We persevere in sharing our experiences, until we see there is no right or wrong answer. The group is a place of encouragement to commit to something, to try new habits.

Dorothy Day writes, ‘But maybe no one can be told about poverty; maybe they will have to experience it; Or maybe it is a grace which they must pray for. [..] I am convinced that it is the grace we most need in this age of crisis.’

1 Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, Loaves and Fishes, Orbis Books, 1963
2 Rosie Walker and Samir Jeraj, The Rent Trap: how we fell into it and how we get out of it, Pluto Press, 2016

This article was first published in the London Catholic Worker newsletter and is produced with permission

What has gentrification ever done for us?

A star fish, a lighthouse, a city and a submarine

Last night, as Londoners, in 30 degrees of heat, began to dream of going to the beach, MPs voted 472 to 117 to continue renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system. Theresa May, our new prime minister, seemed almost to slap the dispatch box with glee, when she said yes, she would press the button. She has already written the letter we are told, by hand.

In Parliament Square, waiting for the vote, along with the sensible families who had brought beer and pizza, I had a vision of one of those drawings of the seaside you find in children’s books. In the drawing there’s everything you might find on the beach: seagull, starfish, lighthouse, boat, sailing boat, water-skis, below and above the water line. In my version I added the Vanguard nuclear submarine, everlastingly prowling around. As any child knows there’s only some of these things. The fish and starfish and crabs are invisible, unless they’re dead and get washed up by the surf. This submarine is also invisible but real enough.

The majority of MPs have voted that we must have Trdient, on constant invisible patrol beneath the sea, so we can be safe , so we can have a holiday, so we can keep ‘our way of life’. I wonder often if they really think that. The fact that SNP and Plaid Cymru don’t think this gives me much hope. I wonder, with all the other members of my family, what is the matter with all the MPs who seem to be afraid of the power that they have, of the possibility of real change. They prefer to keep on with the absurd, even though the rest of us don’t need any military experts, lawyers or faith leaders to tell us that Trident is useless, illegal and immoral.

Highly respected activists and politicians spoke out on the podium last night, as they have been doing for years and years, including my own MP for Hackney North, Diane Abbott. But the BBC showed in its report a choir singing terribly. Anti Trident activists are woolly, nutty people who can’t sing it seemed to be saying. Those who voted for the motion tell us that to get rid of them would be foolish. It is playing politics with people’s livelihoods. No one ever asks what kind of a livelihood is it that prepares for mass destruction.

I read some of the comments the day before the vote. Our Trident submarines they seem to be saying, under the hash tag #Trident, are patrolling night and day, keeping us safe night and day. Out there beyond the starfish and the light house.

No one ever says what kind of a beach holiday it is that calls for mass destruction. There’s nothing like a day on the beach watching the huge waves crashing in from across the Atlantic to remind us how connected we all are, that the same sea, where we paddle our sunburnt toes, stretches out to the West, joining together all the countries. The same sea is hiding the nuclear submarine that we have to pay for.

The nuclear arsenal is necessary, we hear, in case someone, some city, threatens us. But which city no one knows. Mercifully, Theresa May has no idea which city. But we do know that it would be a city, here, on this planet, in this world. And we do know this is the only world we have.

A star fish, a lighthouse, a city and a submarine

First October update

As I post this, it is the forteenth anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, the beginning of the disastrous war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Voices for Creative Nonviolence and the London Catholic Worker are planning vigils at local hospitals, saying ‘To bomb this site would be a war crime’.. ‘the same is true in Kunduz, Afghanistan’.

Last weekend started with a vigil called by Pax Christi opposite Downing Street since it was Ghandi’s birthday and International Day of Nonviolence. We prayed for victims of the wars in Syria, Yemen and the Middle East.  We saw Boris Johnson, who took a leaflet, and a party of foreign military top brass, who didn’t. I thought while I was standing there in Whitehall, searching for that quiet space of silence and peace, watching the passersby, interns in blue suits running errands, clutching their ipad cases, why so many tourists? Of all the places in London, Whitehall is the most tedious enormous leg ache to be walk down. Lined in Portland stone, not all that well hidden is the pain, remembrance, protest, injustice we have either protested or approved or let slip .

The next day, feeling tentative because of total exhaustion, following the least favourite journey from London to Lincoln for the ‘Scones not Drones’ protest called by Drones Campaign Network during the Drones Week of Action. On the journey up a bit nervous this week as the EDL, easily confused with a well known French energy company, had announced they were going to stage a counter protest. Surely a counter protest is counterproductive, why does the RAF need supporting or protecting? It’s already there, protected by millions of pounds worth of taxpayers money not to mention arms manufacturers who are only too expert at selling us taxpayers another drone.

I arrived at Lincoln and found at the bus stop a friendly group of Quakers from Sheffield, and Maya from VCNV and we all got on the bus together to RAF Waddington.

Two of our friends were already on their way to speak to the EDL protest, which was kept well down the end by the gates, while we all sat by the layby, near the road. Kept well away by the police, they were very polite, but their posters and comments on FB and in the Lincolnite aren’t.

With good photo from Drone wars Chris Cole here

I indulged in several cheese scones and some chocolate cornflake crispies. The highlight of the afternoon, was the Skype call to the Afghan Peace Volunteers, the group I visited in Kabul. Some of the teenagers with us asked questions of the young people over there. I heard the voices, all the way from Afghanistan, I remembered why I was there, on a lay by outside an airforce base, made me grateful and privileged.

That very morning we had heard news of the US-led air strike on a MSF hospital in Kunduz.

Back in London, several times this week, thinking of Kunduz, I have had the same uncomfortable painful feeling I have when I walk past an old haunt, a place that reminds me of an old lover from long ago. I was wondering what this feeling is and concluded it must be guilt. Some memories, some places bring guilt.

It is our guilt. Being part of NATO, we are culpable. In the scrabbling about for reasons and excuses changing stories, that US airforce are getting up to, mix and match stories, at least they seem to recognise a crime.

We are part of NATO, so we should feel that guilty pang when we think of Kunduz. When we recognise the absolute horrifying brutality of bombing a hospital: the inhabitants are sick, wounded, ill and vulnerable, unable to run away. The doctors and nurses cannot  leave their patients. It’s no good comparing ourselves to the Russians, or even the Taliban, as the Economist  would have us do. It is a wrong that is also saying bombing defenceless civilians anywhere is cruel and brutal. In an urban area, the target is always going to be surrounded by civilians, and that means children, the elderly, the sick, the poor.

Recently Action on Armed Violence reported on a BMJ report from Syria. Women and children suffer more from bombing than from shooting. And they have suffered more than men.

First October update

Being a peace visitor in Kabul

Green tea in KabulI had never considered that part of my own peace activism would be to visit a war torn country. I knew several people who had travelled to Gaza, Iraq and Afghanistan. I also knew people who had worked in refugee camps in Syria. It didn’t occur to me that I could undertake such a journey until about a year ago. I had been taking part in the monthly vigil against drones at RAF Waddington. One day I travelled up to Lincoln with Maya Evans of Voices for Creative Nonviolence UK. She had recently returned from three months in Kabul. On the long awkward journey, Maya told me all about the young members of the Afghan Peace Volunteers and their life in community. Eventually she said, ‘Have you ever thought of visiting Afghanistan?’

I had spent so much time praying about, discussing, protesting against UK involvement in NATO’s wars, my heart knew the true next step was to visit the site of so much suffering. At the same time I was nervous and found it difficult to work out why I was going or what I was going to do when I got there. Travelling to Afghanistan in a group, we could make the situation for our hosts potentially more dangerous. I recognised my heart was telling me to go, I recognised the Spirit was calling me to go, but my understanding had a difficult time catching up. It castigated me for causing too much bother, for spending too much money, for putting lives in danger, for missing family Christmas. It came up with a thousand excuses.

Afghanistan is a beautiful country like all countries are beautiful; the snowcapped mountain range hovers over the smog; on a clear day the sky is the most intense blue I have ever seen. Sometimes it was so cold the open sewer in the street was frozen over, but during the day kept us warm. I listened to the friendly, young Afghans as they talked about their homes in Bamyam province. I looked at their pictures of child shepherds, rivers, trees, mountains.

Once I said, ‘What a beautiful day!’ and my new friends laughed. ‘This is Afghanistan. There is a war on.’ But it was a beautiful day. The smog had been blown away. The green flag of faith on the top of the building opposite and the washing lines on the balconies were all fluttering. People were standing on street corners, gesticulating, chatting. Students were being students.

I felt excited to be in what felt like the centre of the world; Russia to the north, China and Pakistan to the east, Iran to the west.

This would be my peace message, an obvious message but one I could now hear in reality not just in theory. One I need to repeat. Countries are full of young and old, thoughtful, hopeful people just like us. We have no right to destroy their means to live, to make life so difficult, a whole country dysfunctional, a whole country traumatised, so many families having lost a father, a son, a daughter, a brother, a sister. As I was there the US army was leaving, the UK army had already left. One boy said to me, ‘Hey! Our countries are no longer at war. We can be friends!’

Another message I held close to my heart is one inspired by scripture but also a practical one. Our trip wasn’t going to be very long, only three weeks. What could I do in three weeks? What skills could I possibly bring? I’m a literacy teacher, but only in English, not Dari. I’m not a journalist. I know nothing of aid work.

On the Sunday of Christ the Kind I sat in my local church searching and searching for an answer. Why was I going to Kabul? I went through the works of mercy, the gospel reading for that day. Separate the sheep from the goats. Feed the hungry. It’s not helpful the other members of my group said, to take food to the refugee camps. We could cause a riot. Clothe me when I am naked. As westerners, our group had a dim view of that too. Gloves and socks and pants? We hadn’t raised money to buy food or clothes. I’m not a journalist so I can’t add an eye witness account. ‘Absorb!’ the rest of the group told me.

I was thirsty and you gave me drink. There was fantastic hospitality in Kabul. Everywhere we went, a large pot of green tea came out, hot, steaming, weak and left on top of the wood stove to keep warm. It was served with a thermos of hot water, sometimes flavoured with cardamom. You could drink the plain hot water or use it to top up your glass of tea. In the morning our young hostess came rushing in to put glasses of tea by our beds. After the first night I woke up with my throat sore and feeling as if it was full of gravel. Our hosts said, ‘You’re not drinking enough.’ Fumes from the wood, coal and diesel that people burn to keep warm, fills the atmosphere with a strange yellow smell, which burns the throat and nostrils.

Going through the works of mercy, I came to the last one. I was sick and in prison and you visited me. I was all those things. But this was something I could do. I do know how to do this. Hospitals are full of visitors. I have sat beside the beds of elderly relatives often enough, felt embarrassed, been told to go away. When someone is sick, they’re not polite. All I can do is sit there. There is not much I can do except stay a while. And just be.

That was what I could do in Afghanistan. I was visiting; nothing grand. The country is sick, from lack of infrastructure, from the effects of one war piled upon another war, from lack of manufacturing base, from pollution. And the young people are imprisoned by lack of opportunity, unemployment, uncertainty, the unpredictable security situation. So this was the  main reason to go, to be a person who visited.

It gave me great courage, while I was in Kabul, to obey these words of encouragement from scripture.

Being a peace visitor in Kabul

Being a woman in Kabul

As International Women’s Day approaches, the question is whether conditions for women in Afghanistan have improved after thirteen years of western military presence. When I travelled to Kabul recently I was able to glimpse first hand how entrenched cultural practices make women’s lives doubly hard, lives that are already made hard by the lack of security.

We hear that even people in power support restrictions on women’s ability to move and act freely in public, that they support to the custom that means that women should only travel when accompanied by a male relative.

This can be interpreted as not being able to take a plane, cross a border, but for some households this means not going out at all. There are many consequences to not going out, that are dangerous and even life threatening, not just humiliating and unjust. Not going out is not just an issue of inequality but also a barrier to young women’s livelihoods. Latifa Ahmady, founder of Organisation for the Promotion of Women’s Capabilities says ‘The way women in Afghanistan are treated badly puts pressure on us all.’ Her demand is that we campaign for Afghan women’s rights from all over the world.

For a short time I was a woman in Kabul. I listened to female members of the Afghan Peace Volunteers and at the APV’s Borderfree centre talk about the restrictions to their movements. The young women I met took on responsibilities in the humanitarian and educational projects run from the Borderfree Centre. One young woman organized duvet handouts at Darul Aman refugee camp. I saw her confidently arrive in the truck, call out names from a clip board as women from the camp came rushing up to collect their duvets. I witnessed another couple of teenage girls organising the local seamstresses who embroider the Borderfree scarves, and checking their work for accuracy. Two young women teach the street children literacy and maths. Another takes charge of the community budget, organising currency exchange and banking the donations.

DSCN0161

The first impression I had was how difficult life is for a young unmarried woman. To make the journey back to see her family in Bamyan province involved taking a male relative. For her to live in all female community there had to be a male relative staying there too, in this case her brother. The young men from the male community took it in turns to keep him company for a few days at a time. This same lad would get the taxis for us foreign guests, go out shopping and generally fetch and carry. So in fact the women’s community couldn’t be all female.

Travel restrictions had other effects on the young women beside making life awkward. While I was in Kabul, I had my own experience of not being able to go out. In my case the reason was because I was a foreigner. I felt like a child again. I wasn’t even sure how to call a cab.

I hardly knew where I was. It was only when, to avoid the traffic, the taxi driver took a circular route home I worked out the relationship between the river, the mountains, the main roads and our house. I slowly built a mental map of main roads, the market stalls, a flyover and offices.

We asked the young women at the Borderfree Centre about restrictions on their movements, on not going out. They said under the Taliban it had been much worse; no girl over the age of nine could leave the house. There are still some families that don’t allow their daughters to go out. An example they gave was of a family who spoilt their daughter, loved her very much bought her all sorts of beautiful clothes and expensive treats, but wouldn’t allow her to go out or use a phone. This made her very unhappy. She told them, ‘I don’t care about the clothes or the food.’

The girls experienced varying degrees of restrictions. Some were allowed out but had to be back before their father came home. One said she was often hassled in the street, being asked where she was going, what was she doing, does her father know. A relative might see her and tell her father. Another reports not being able to go out if there are men in the house, if their father’s at home. If a woman is not used to going out into society, one girl said, when she does she will not know how to behave and then might put herself in danger. She might behave inappropriately, and be called a prostitute.

If girls cannot go out their education suffers. The girls said confidently 50% of girls could have an education if they want to. These particular girls were attending classes, university or school in Kabul. Whizzing around in our delegation taxi, we often saw crowds of teenage girls outside schools, collecting their exam results, carrying their files and books, rushing to lectures.

Some girls seem to be getting an education. How good an education was a different matter; our friends complained of out of date text books from Iran, a teacher who kept them waiting in the cold, who talked about himself instead of teaching the class. The girls in our community were university students studying for their first year exams. We were told to help as much as possible with the housework and the cooking. They must study hard; they had to do twice as well as the boys to be taken seriously.

At the Borderfree Centre, the girls explained that fathers don’t want their daughters to ‘show the whites of their eyes’, an Afghan expression. That is intelligent women become bad women by rolling their eyes, being disrespectful towards their fathers and male relatives. So fathers don’t allow their girls to go to school.

Some fathers believe universities are bad for girls, because there are mixed classes and male lecturers. The fathers don’t allow the girls to come to the Borderfree Centre, for the same reason: girls and boys are mixed together. Some girls come to the centre in secret they said. Others have discussed it with their their father and he’s given permission so they don’t care what the other relatives think. More enlightened fathers are happy to discuss things while others insist the female members of the families are home when he gets home.

Not being able to go out makes education hard for older women too. Latifa Ahmady runs an education project at the OPAWC, offering literacy and numeracy classes. The students progress to learning ‘handicrafts’ such as tailoring, chicken farming and jam making so they can earn a living. We met some of the women upstairs in the freezing classroom, everyone in their coats. They held up their text books. I asked them what made literacy hard, expecting the usual answer, spelling. No spelling wasn’t hard. The thing that was hard was not being able to leave the house. One said she had to lock her children into the apartment. One woman has to come in a burkha.

OPAWC has even had to move its literacy centre because the local ‘warlord’ has created a problem for them. The ‘warlord’ spread propaganda, saying the literacy classes were teaching Christianity. He told the mullah to tell the women not to come. When she found out, Latifa showed the Mullah the text book. The syllabus is provided by the government, and covers women’s rights, health, domestic violence.

All the young women at the Borderfree Centre and Latifa Ahmady at OPAWC emphasized how important it is for Afghan women to know their rights. If women never go out they will not be able to attend classes. If women are not educated they will not know their rights. Girls and women need to know their rights to a life free from violence, to equal pay, to be able to work, to access healthcare. They talked about putting out a radio programme to help women not allowed out of the house. Women need to be able to demonstrate for their rights, to healthcare, to work, to freedom from domestic violence even if they join a protest ‘hidingly’ in a burkha.

Being a woman in Kabul

Delegation to Kabul: the Afghan Peace Volunteers – their courage and bravery

Arriving in Afghanistan put a stop to my pre-trip nerves. In spite of the diesel fume haze, I was able to see that our preparatory lists of pros and cons had only provided me with a shaky grasp of the risks of visiting Kabul.

What was clear to me though were the fears of the Afghan Peace Volunteers themselves and the risks they take in their daily work of living in community, running the Borderfree Centre, running humanitarian and cultural projects that promote justice and nonviolence. Even when living in fear for their lives, they continue with their commitment to nonviolence and peace making. The work of the APV is truly radical. In a country where fighting and guns are the norm, where armed sentry boxes stand at every road junction, where police drive with guns mounted on the rear of their Toyota pick-ups, to be dedicated to nonviolence and peace is truly courageous.

About a week into our visit, we were present at the monthly Skype call with Global Days of Listening. People from all over the world book a slot to speak to the volunteers, on the 21st of each month. Crammed into the smallest room at the Borderfree Centre, the stove going full blast in the middle, its punched metal sides glowing red hot in places, we all said our names and croaked a shaky ‘hello’ into the laptop across the room. There was no electricity and an intermittent internet connection. On this evening a gardener from the US, a psychiatrist and his students from Iraq and Kathy Kelly from Voices for Creative Non Violence in the US were on the line.

One by one the APV told of their personal reactions to the worsening security situation in Kabul. One after another the young men and women answered that their parents were worried, told them not to come to the Borderfree centre, not to cross town, not to visit their relatives, just to stay at home all the time.

Faiz feels that he himself could be the next victim of a random bomb attack. He himself could lose his life, going to college, walking on the street near a junction: this has become what life is like. Insecurity has affected him personally.

Bharat Han says that when he cycles to university in the mornings instead of taking the main busy roads, where the incidents happen, he takes the small roads to be extra careful. In the past he would gladly invite foreign peace delegates to visit his house, to meet his mother and family but he regrets that this time, for the safety of both the delegates and himself and his family this has become difficult. He regrets it. He wishes this was not the case.

Another says the unpredictability causes psychological fear: suicide bombers wear vests you can’t see – in a split second your whole life could change.

Zahidi tells us the Taliban have officially threatened all the citizens living in Kabul who are involved in cultural groups or in peace and justice groups. They have announced they will harm or attack these groups. She doesn’t feel safe coming to the Borderfree centre.

Ali says that in the past two weeks the Borderfree Centre has had visits from the authorities, the NDS [National Directorate of Security].  He became very worried when the NDS visitors suggested that there was a risk that certain groups, such as the Taliban, could misunderstand the work of the APV and therefore plan to harm them. This made Ali worry even more about coming to the centre. It’s not like in the past,  he says, when we didn’t have to worry about coming on our own.

We learned later the NDS were parked outside the gates of the Borderfree Centre while we were there. Hakim, the community’s mentor, says he wishes they would come in, just to see what really goes on. Although they are ostensibly there to protect citizens, there is the possiblility the NDS people could be criminals, they could turn nasty if there was something they didn’t like.

The mood became grave and fearful, as everyone thought about the risks they were taking, even coming to the Borderfree Centre that night. The room became over heated, and airless. People started to go grow restless and coughs filled the Skype track.

It was the longest night of the year, 21st December. So the APV bought take-away chicken and chips, burgers, spicy potato pancakes, fruit and fizzy drinks. There was a tray of tea lights, and the boys just like boys everywhere started playing with the wax. Hohr handed us each a forfeit on a scrap of paper, and people responded with poems and songs, skits in pantomime. I recognised the rhythm of the storytelling voices and the animated gestures. The mood lifted and everyone seemed to forget their fears. Outside the street was empty and unlit, except for the neon sign of the petrol station, and the headlights of a few taxis.

Important occasions lay ahead. One was Christmas day. It was considered a good idea for us foreigners to stay at home on that day, to avoid the evidence of any kind of gathering, which might be interpreted as Christian. In the evening, a few members of the community came round for a special meal, by candle light, games and sharing thoughts.

Another was the end of Operation Enduring Freedom, the withdrawal of all the US forces from Afghanistan. The local newspaper showed pictures of soldiers lined up to attention and tanks driving away. There was the rumour there might be more incidents because of this.

Not all the dangers are violent. Like many young people, the APV are worried about their futures. When Hakim asked each member of the group for one word to describe how he or she was feeling, almost all of them said ‘worried’. One said, ‘I don’t know what to do,’ one young girl said ‘I wish I had never been born’.

The future for the community members is uncertain. What happens when it is time to leave? It might be dangerous for them to return to their families, now that everyone at home knows they have lived in community, taken part in mixed activities, boys and girls together, reading Gandhi and Chomsky. What happens if they get married, what happens if they can’t find a job? How long can they stay in the community? There’s no welfare state to support them for when they leave.

Thirteen years of war mean that fear and mistrust have seeped into many levels of daily life. Living in the women’s community, we learned about some of the other threats. One came from the neighbours and gossip. I will never think of gossip being idle again, particularly for a woman. Gossip and rumours could mean losing your home, having to move, getting you in trouble with you landlord, could mean people trying to extort money from you.

Windows were blocked with dusty net curtains, sheets of wood, window glass was dusty. Someone might see you dancing. Someone might hear you singing. Someone might hear a foreign voice and tell.. tell who? ..tell the landlord. It was imperative to behave in an inconspicuous way. If someone saw you in the garden, or leaning out of a window, or dancing or singing, they might not like it. Not liking it might mean they would tell the landlord, who might ask you to move. If they thought you had foreign visitors, they might ask for money, they might even try blackmail. The mistrust seeped into all areas of life.

The risk to my own self wasn’t so great. It wasn’t me who was at risk, but our hosts, the APV themselves. By being foreigners, by being Western, and therefore perceived as Christian, we made our hosts a potential target. We could bring unwelcome visitors to the Borderfree Centre. Yet they had invited us, trusted us and welcomed us and many others before and after us.

I was reminded again of the seriousness of the ‘bad situation’ when we took a taxi into another district to visit a woman named Latifa Amady, founder of the OPAWC. We found ourselves walking up a pitted and pot holed road, with low walls either side, one of the most bombed out parts of town. Describing daily life, she says, ‘We say goodbye to our children in the morning thinking we won’t see them again. Every day we say to each other, Khodaa haafez’ (God be protector)’

Delegation to Kabul: the Afghan Peace Volunteers – their courage and bravery