SHAFAQNA – Two years after Hasan* fled his home in Syria and six months after he arrived alone in the Calais ‘Jungle’ camp, this teenage refugee is sceptical he’s about to be re-united with his mother.
The 17-year-old’s latest attempt to stow himself away – risking his life rather than waiting for the legal process that would allow him to come to the UK – was just 10 days ago.
He needs reminding where in Britain his mother is and then repeats the name with a smile: “Stockton-On-Tees. Stockton-On-Tees.”
I have been enthusiastically told that Hasan is finally coming to the UK and is expected to arrive tomorrow (Tuesday). It is a hard-won success by the campaign group Citizens UK, which has fought to help scores of unaccompanied children who have a legal right to claim asylum in Britain.
But speaking on Saturday, Hasan is sceptical.
When I first meet him, he speaks in what was earlier described to me as his “beautiful English”, smiling broadly and joking as we sit in what feels like a communal room (which I later learn is actually someone’s home). Inside the wood and tarp structure we sit around a small table where tea and digestive biscuits are served. He learned his English, he says, from Hollywood films.
“Happy but I didn’t rely on it,” is how he reacted to news he was finally going to see his mother again. Citizens UK first met him five months ago, but he has thought “many times” they might never be able to get him to Britain. Speaking through a translator, he says: “I really have hope … I really thank everyone who was working on this case. I didn’t want to be offensive when I said I didn’t rely on it but that’s only a personal thing because I just don’t want to be disappointed.”
His confusion and scepticism is understandable. If it happens as planned, Hasan’s arrival in Britain will conclude a complicated process of applying for asylum in France, then asking the UK to take charge of the case. According to volunteers making this happen, neither government is showing much eagerness for it.
Citizens UK’s Iona Lawrence tells me their work is “a huge trust building exercise” with the children in the camp.
“They’ve been told by smugglers, they’ve been told by friends, they’ve been told by lawyers all the way through their journey – that they were going to be able them get to the UK,” she says. “Why would they believe us after all the other people who’ve made promises that have been broken.”
“Whenever the lawyers tell me to go, I go,” Hasan says.
When I ask how he came from Syria, his cheeky demeanour evaporates. He sighs deeply and after nine seconds of silence, starts telling his story in Arabic.
“They lost their house. No security, no safety to anyone. They had no choice. We either die or we leave,” his translator, a 24-year-old refugee from Damascus, who claims to have learned his English from playing World Of Warcraft, says. “Sometimes, when he goes to school, he comes back, sometimes they bomb somewhere near the school or at the door of the school. Some of the students die, kids die, that became something usual.”
Hasan lived in Daraa, in the southwest of Syria, the birthplace of the peaceful uprisings in 2011 against President Bashar al-Assad, which eventually spilt into civil war. Hasan’s mother and stepfather fled first, driving to one of the refugee camps in Lebanon. Hasan followed with his grandmother and stayed there for a couple of months, though this was “not much better” and like “living on the street”. When asked how he was treated there, he says: “Everyone knows how Lebanese treats Syrians”.
The family fled to Istanbul. Then, Hasan’s pregnant mother left on her own, not wishing her son to risk the perilous journey. She crossed by sea to Italy and eventually reached the UK, where she hoped he could apply to be reunited with her from Turkey. Hasan did so but was rejected. “He was left with basically no option,” Lawrence says.
Leaving behind his stepfather and brother, he set off. I ask how the infamously dangerous sea crossing was. The translator then asks me if I’ve seen photos of the dinghies refugees like he and Hasan use: “Before they launch the dinghy, do you know that people who want to cross they themselves make it [the dinghy]? It comes brand new in boxes. I can show you pictures of my own journey. You have to pump it up. The smugglers don’t really help you,” the translator says.
Hasan landed at Chios. Making the journey alone doesn’t seem to have fazed him. “What does it matter if I’m alone? It’s the same as everyone else.” He was out of Greece within a few days, having been bussed to the Macedonian border from Athens. He then went by train to the Serbian border. The journey from Istanbul to the Jungle took around a month, he thinks.
Interjecting in English for the first time, he says: “Six months I am Jungle. I like Jungle.” He lived in a tent at first, before a programme of shelter building saw them replaced with more permanent, wooden structures like the one we’re sitting in.
I really have hope … I just don’t want to be disappointedHasan
He feels “free” here. That freedom has allowed him to attempt to stow away on trucks heading for Britain “maybe” 15 times, he estimates. “I don’t know. I didn’t count.” He went even when he “didn’t have much hope” of making it. The closest he would get was being caught out at the checkpoints by scanners or sniffer dogs. The translator tells me: “The biggest chance is when it’s raining, because they don’t use dogs.”
He speaks to his mother every day using his friend’s phone. She is “alright, good” in Stockton. When asked what he usually talks about with his mum, he says: “I don’t even remember what I had for breakfast this morning. How do you want me to remember what I had speak about with my mum?”
Citizens UK’s Lawrence says people here live on a 24-hour cycle. “He can’t remember what he did 24 hours ago. They sleep, eat and try to get into the UK.” Hasan adds himself in English: “Yesterday, I say with my mum, ‘hello, how are you? How is my sister?’” Extraordinarily, Hasan’s mother was pregnant when she left Turkey. She gave birth to the sister Hasan has yet to meet in England.
It’s easy to be struck by the strangeness of the Calais camp when you arrive. But talking to Hasan, I realise that Britain is a much stranger land for most of the refugees here.
At 17, he is about to go to yet another country he knows nothing about, where he may be as unwelcome as he feels in France. The most he knows about Stockton-On-Tees is how to pronounce it. He says: “I don’t think I’m going to like it more than Syria. I want to go there to see my mum and study but as soon as the war stops I’m going to go back.”
He has no formal schooling since he left Syria. His favourite subject is science. Does he think the war will end soon and he can go back? “We don’t know. We don’t think so … If my house was still standing, I wouldn’t have left.” When asked how his friends back home are, he says simply: “God be with them.” After half an hour describing what he went through, he is still able to smile and ask: “Is chicken good in England?”
I don’t think I’m going to like it more than Syria. I want to go there to see my mum and study but as soon as the war stops I’m going to go backHasan
Lawrence says around four children a week are now being allowed to go from the camp to Britain. It follows a legal victory in January that forced the UK to admit four Syrian boys while their asylum applications are being processed, given their right to be with their families.
“With that success comes an increasing trust from the people we’re working with that we are able to help but all the same we’re just one person,” Lawrence says.
“We’re just one option that they see as getting to the UK but if they can get there by there own means because it’s faster, then those are the decisions they’ll take.”
She tells me of one case where a boy was stuck in the camp three weeks longer than authorities assured them, because “allegedly the French authorities didn’t have space in the car to take him to the station”. Citizens UK estimate there are 150 unaccompanied children in the camp with the right to claim asylum in Britain.
Hasan found out he was going to Britain around two weeks ago, Lawrence tells me. That would mean his attempt to stowaway 10 days before, came after his legal case to come to Britain was successful. Hasan says he “might” be going to Britain, prompting Lawrence interject to say it is definite.
The translator seems amazed. He and Hasan have a rapport that suggests a close friendship, but the imminent departure is news to him.
The translator asks: “Is he really going?”
Sources – Huffington Post