Hamid is drawing. A broad highway tapers across the paper towards the mid-distant horizon. He uses the side of his phone to draw the tall walls that cut the road from the surrounding landscape.
“Like here,” he says, pointing to the 4 metre high, UK-funded, ‘security wall’ beneath which the small Eritrean encampment nestles. “When I get to the UK, I will be an artist or I will have a restaurant. That is my dream.”
Providentially, just metres away, Rue Pasteur Martin Luther King runs as straight as the road in Hamid’s drawing towards the city centre. 58 years ago, Martin Luther King led the Walk to Freedom in Detroit where he gave the first of his I have a dream speeches. He spoke of the Right to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, of “dark yesterdays” being transformed into “bright tomorrows”. Calais’ Collège Martin Luther King proudly displays the three-worded icon of French identity: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.
Liberty is in short supply for this exiled community. They have no documented identity; they’re deemed to have entered the country illegally; they are evicted from their encampment every day. But there is egality: every 2 weeks there is a change of the leadership group. And there is a deep fraternity.
“There are good times here, and I can be happy. We look after each other.” Beside the fire, Yusef tells me of his most intimate experience of fraternity – when he was imprisoned in Eritrea, after attempting to flee the country to avoid indefinite military conscription. A 2015 UN inquiry into gross human rights violations in Eritrea states that “thousands of conscripts are subjected to forced labour that effectively abuses, exploits and enslaves them for years”. According to the Global Slavery Index, Eritrea has the highest prevalence of modern slavery across Africa, and the second in the world. “We were so close to each other in prison; we might fight but the next day we were best of friends. I will always remember those guys.”
Yusef escaped in a mass breakout. He walked 6 days with no food, no shoes, terrified he would be informed on if he knocked at a door to ask for help. He eventually made it home, only to be caught and imprisoned after a second failed attempt at escaping the country. We discuss happiness. “If you listen to your body, you are never satisfied,” he tells me. “The body always wants more. You must listen to your soul. Your soul is with God. If you listen to your soul, you will want to do good to others, and that will make them happy, and make you happy.” Suddenly he’s gone, reappearing a few minutes later with a black bin bag which he slits open and puts around my shoulders. It has started to rain.
Fireside, the wind is relentless, in perpetual self-combat. A paper cup pirouettes around the fire.
“Tiki is your best friend, it always comes to you,” jokes Mewael – tiki means smoke in Tigrinya. Rats scuttle out from the undergrowth in search of food. Mewael picks up a stone and hurls it towards a stationary rat sniffing the air. He misses his target by a whisker. His English, like Yusef’s, is good.
“I tried to read The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, but it was a bit hard. Now I am reading Think and Grow Rich.” I ask him what he will do if he grows rich. “I will have a chain of hotels all around the world.” Like Hamid, Mewael too has a dream.
Milk is being heated over the flames. At last, a feel of summer. Fikru, his hair freshly dyed black, grins as he points at my head: “I used to look like you… and now I am a young man again.”
Each day, I’m taught a new phrase in Tigrinya. Today, Fikru’s offering is alam dirfo: the world is a chicken. “Explain!” I ask.
“The world is a chicken, to one person it gives an egg; to another, shit!” There is much laughter.
I share news of Eritrean friends I first met here in Calais: Isaias who has just graduated in chemical engineering; Sheshy who is about to study pharmacy; Anbesa, dentistry. Dreams materialising. Hamid joins the fireside gathering. “This is for you,” he says, handing me his now completed drawing. The walled-in road arrows into the mid-distance; once there, a new world opens, hills, the sun, birds, a plane. Still a dream for Hamid, but one that he’s determined to birth.
“You go to UK tomorrow.” He punches the air. “I will get there before you!”
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