Refugee’s de­ferred English dream

Lesotho Times - - International -

CALAIS — Ah­mad al-ah­mad re­vealed sores on his hand that were — he said — rem­nants of a three­month stay in the Calais refugee camp, known as the “Jun­gle”.

The Syr­ian refugee from Da­m­as­cus gave up on his plans to go to the UK in Septem­ber last year and is try­ing to con­vince his for­mer neigh­bours to do the same.

Ah­mad de­cided to ap­ply for asy­lum in France af­ter talk­ing to friends who had reached Eng­land and found them­selves frus­trated with the length of time taken to process their asy­lum ap­pli­ca­tions, as well as the high liv­ing costs in the coun­try.

His de­clin­ing health and a fledg­ling love in­ter­est with a lo­cal woman helped in­flu­ence the de­ci­sion.

Be­tween heavy drags of a shisha pipe and sips of Ara­bic tea at a small apart­ment in cen­tral Calais, Ah­mad ex­plained the ben­e­fits of claim­ing asy­lum in France.

“The [French] gov­ern­ment gives me €500 to live and €300 for an apart­ment, it’s not a lot but it’s enough to sur­vive day to day ... the most im­por­tant thing is that I’m not in the Jun­gle,” he said.

Life in France is bet­ter than any­thing the “Jun­gle” can of­fer, Ah­mad said, adding he did not see the point in refugees putting them­selves through the suf­fer­ing of liv­ing in the camp for such lit­tle gain.

The mem­o­ries of the Syr­ian refugee from the camp con­sist largely of un­san­i­tary con­di­tions and poor weather, but de­spite his neg­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ences at the camp he re­turns there of­ten, pri­mar­ily for cheap shisha coal from one of the many busi­nesses that have opened up in the camp.

“The [shisha] coal is five eu­ros there. It’s three times as much in the city,” he said.

Dur­ing one such visit Ah­mad made fre­quent stops to take self­ies next to blaz­ing tents and to greet old friends and strangers in­ter­ested in fol­low­ing in his foot­steps.

A group of Syr­ian teenagers flagged him down to ask ques­tions about the asy­lum process in France, the speed with which ben­e­fit pay­ments were made, and whether the amounts given are enough to sur­vive on.ah­mad an­swered ev­ery ques­tion with an al­most evan­gel­i­cal zeal, ea­ger to help his coun­try­men and oth­ers out of their or­deal.

Lan­guage bar­ri­ers For most of the res­i­dents, how­ever, even Ah­mad’s tes­ti­mony is not enough to per­suade them against hold­ing out in the “Jun­gle” in the hope they will one day make it to the UK.

Al Jazeera spoke to a num­ber of refugees on their mo­ti­va­tions for want­ing to cross the chan­nel. Their re­sponses ranged from knowl­edge of the English lan­guage to fam­ily ties, and a per­cep­tion of bet­ter re­li­gious free­dom, among other rea­sons.

Ali, a teenage Syr­ian refugee from Aleppo who hopes to study medicine, said he has rel­a­tives al­ready in the UK and did not want the war back home to have a last­ing im­pact on his ed­u­ca­tion.

“In France I would have to learn the lan­guage from scratch ... it would take years to reach a stan­dard where I could study at universi- ty,” Ali said, de­scrib­ing his knowl­edge of English as good enough to con­tinue his stud­ies in the UK.

For Khalil, a Syr­ian-pales­tinian from Da­m­as­cus, is­sues of re­li­gious free­dom were a con­cern.

“It’s com­pli­cated but in France there are is­sues with the head­scarf and other Mus­lim sym­bols,” he said, adding that the re­cent at­tacks in the coun­try had in­creased hos­til­ity to­wards Mus­lims.

Smug­gling The des­per­a­tion, jus­ti­fied or not, has given birth to un­der­ground peo­ple smug­gling gangs who charge refugees around $6 000 each to get them on to trucks head­ing to the UK.

For those who can muster the sum, there is no guar­an­tee they will reach their des­ti­na­tion and most at­tempts end in fail­ure. Speak­ing to Al Jazeera, an Iraqi refugee who has dealt with the gangs de­scribed the “help” be­ing of­fered.

“They drop you off near where the trucks are parked and keep a look­out while the driver is away,” the refugee, who Al Jazeera has not named for safety rea­sons, said. The gangs had weapons and of­ten fought one another over cus­tomers and ter­ri­tory, he added.

Long­ing for home Ah­mad left Syria to avoid a mil­i­tary call-up by the gov­ern­ment that would have forced him to fight in a bru­tal war he had no in­ter­est in tak­ing part in.

“If they could guar­an­tee me that I wouldn’t have to do mil­i­tary ser­vice, I would go back ... but of course I can’t trust them,” he said.

Lone­li­ness, de­tach­ment from the cul­ture he was raised in, and the gloomy Calais weather were all eat­ing away at him but were prefer­able to the “Jun­gle”.

For Ah­mad the dam­age done men­tally and phys­i­cally by liv­ing in the “Jun­gle” far out­weighed the ben­e­fits of even­tu­ally reach­ing Eng­land.

“My mes­sage for the peo­ple of the Jun­gle is they have to get out any way they can .. .stay in France, go to Ger­many, or re­turn to their own coun­try,” he said.

“The most im­por­tant thing is that they leave the Jun­gle or they will have psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems ... it messes with their minds.”

It’s a mes­sage few of the 5 000plus res­i­dents of the refugee camp are will­ing to act on. — Aljazeera

syr­ian refugee fam­i­lies in a tem­po­rary shel­ter in Da­m­as­cus Fe­bru­ary 2015. — File pic­ture.

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