‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

 

 

 

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‘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.

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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

Life with the Afghan Peace Volunteers

Gallery