Volunteering

Calais Chronicles #2: Ahmed

His name is Ahmed. 24 years old. Syrian. A dentist by training. And a refugee by fate.

We met on the worst day in Calais – the day with 4 evictions. He had just arrived and hadn’t yet settled in when the other Syrians in town got evicted. Judging from his very clean looks, and as he was helping us volunteers pack the Syrian refugees’ belongings, I honestly thought he’s a volunteer as well. Apparently not.

He’s from Aleppo and was planning on opening his own dental clinic when the war broke out and he was threatened to join and fight. He fled, first to Turkey then to Germany, then France. Not having contacted his family for over a month, he was really happy when I offered him to use my phone to text them.

Ahmed has a flashing, wide smile which is infectious, but listening to his stories that day made me too emotional for words. He’s my age, from a well-educated family, and a dentist (made me think: it could’ve happened to any of my own male friends). Maybe that’s why I was worried for him. I warned him that life in The Jungle is hard. He flashed a grin. “I’ll be out from here in a few weeks.” For once, one’s optimism weighed heavily on my heart.

However, the one thing he said that haunted me the most is this: “You have to understand. No one wants to leave their home country, not like this.”

***

After my time in Calais was up, I returned to the UK, and we lost contact after a while. I came back to Calais for the last time in November, yet I didn’t manage to find him during my visit, and his well-being had been on my mind ever since.

In December we finally got in touch again with the help of his brother, and I received the most wonderful news: he made it into England!!!

He wouldn’t tell me how he managed to cross the borders – he said he’d save the story until when we meet again – but it still made me so happy I literally sobbed into my blanket for a good minute upon hearing the news – there are absolutely no words to express this kind of joy and relief.

Ahmed was currently in the middle of his asylum application and waiting for an interview with the UK Home Office. Getting to England wasn’t the end of his journey; he still had a long way to go. But I remembered how full of optimism he was when he told me he wouldn’t be staying in the Jungle for long. Despite my pathetic pessimism, he made it – and I know this time he’d make it too.

***

 Meeting Ahmed in Swindon. Meeting Ahmed in Swindon.

In January 2016, I went back to the UK for my graduation at Warwick, but was able to spend a week in London. It was here that I contacted Ahmed to see whether he was still in Crawley—where he was staying in an asylum centre with other refugees/asylum seekers—but apparently he had been moved to Swindon, a small town in southwest England. After some thought, I bought a Megabus ticket from London to Swindon, and went on a day trip to visit Ahmed.

Meeting him again made me so glad I decided to travel to one of the most random English towns! Ahmed looked so happy and much healthier. He was always a good-looking chap, but not living rough in a camp obviously made a huge difference too. This time, his hair was tidily combed, and his eyes sparkled. Alhamdulillah, alhamdulillah.

We met at the city centre, and wandered around a bit until we found a small fast food restaurant. I wanted to pay for our meals, of course, but he absolutely insisted to pay. “I’ve saved my allowance so I could treat you lunch,” he said. (I almost cried…) We had a lovely time that day, talking and walking around the city. He told me about living as a refugee in the UK, where thankfully they’re being taken care of, despite many hurdles and limitations—and he finally told me about how he managed to get into England. It’s not a story to share to the public, but let’s just say I was so, so glad that things ended the way it did because so many things could’ve gone wrong.

By the time it was dark and my bus was about to come, I felt a rush of sad fondness for this friend of mine, who has been through so much and has thankfully been given the chance for a fresh new start, knowing that I wouldn’t be meeting him again (or at least for a very, very long time), and desperately prayed that he would be alright. A few months later, he would be given the leave to remain (a very contradictory term for the English equivalent of a residential permit), and would be studying to take an IELTS exam, so that he could continue his studies one day. He would keep a beard and ask me to pray for him during my Omra. He would tell me he misses living in a Muslim country, but that he is thankful anyway. But that day in the bus stop, I didn’t know all that yet. So I gave him a small gift — a book and a batik pencil case from Indonesia — and hugged him, all the while praying that Allah will take care of him.

He is well. All is well. Alhamdulillah.

Written in October 2015 and November 2015, with updates in March 2019.