“Going Home Party” by Sarah Bence

02 April 2021 on Nonfiction   Tags:

When I arrived in France, I didn’t anticipate splitting a double cheese pizza with a Pakistani refugee in an Auchan grocery store.

But refugee, I’ve learned, isn’t the right word. Neither is migrant. Words are powerful here, or maybe, they were powerful all along, but it’s only since being here I’ve seen my own power firsthand, through the lack of power others have.

So, no. He’s too much Ahmed to go by any other name. It also couldn’t accurately be called ‘splitting’ – at least, that’s a liberal interpretation of the cheese dangling from Ahmed’s beard and the majority of our pizza in his belly.

Ahmed is trying tonight. Try is part of our joint language here, in the burnt down remains of the northern France refugee camps, where I’m a volunteer with one of the few remaining grassroots charities. It means smuggle. It means tomorrow morning, Ahmed could be in the UK. Or a French detention center. Try is code for human trafficking, a code born in this borderland, the chasm between two countries who chose to turn their heads-of-states the other way.

“It’s a special try,” Ahmed gesticulates between bites. “All my money.”

Tonight, a British couple will hide Ahmed beneath the floor of their van. “Extra for UK child,” Ahmed reminds me. The couple’s child will sit atop Ahmed’s hidey hole, and smile sweetly to border security. Ahmed will arrive in the UK in style – no chance of refrigerated lorries or sardine-packed fellow bodies. It will be luxury – but I can only use the word ‘luxury’ in balance with the terror of the lorries. Compared to how I arrived in France – on a train, with a passport, with a ticket – the word ‘luxury’ fizzles.

Ahmed licks his fingers, and insists on paying the bill. “Going away party!” he informs me.

*

I’ve been in Dunkirk, France for a few months, now. I live in a caravan park with the other (mostly white, mostly English) volunteers – there’s no hot water and nobody is proficient enough in French to argue with the landlord. That, or he conveniently misunderstands.

At night, I pad in my flip flops to the caravan park’s communal outhouse. The sky overhead is a flat canvas of gray-black clouds. Never a pin prick of starlight, but I always look for one. In the caravan, we drink cheap Auchan-brand red wine and eat rice crackers and, recently, meticulously pick lice from each other’s hair. Mine is long and dark brown, always braided tightly and covered in a bandana, the way a woman from Kurdish Iraq taught me, to keep the lice at bay.

I fall asleep in my sleeping bag, feeling the grit of sand collected in its interior, and think of that woman – a doctor in her country – likely sleeping in the mud of Grand Synthe forest, or if she’s lucky, a donated tent.

Last week, she asked me for a pack of adult diapers. “I cannot leave my tent at night,” she said under her breath, looking pointedly at the tall men leaning against the lone water pump. Who am I, to be the one distributing adult diapers, and who is she to be asking for them? We are here by twin strokes of luck and unluck, the color of our skin, and the governments we were born under.

I also think of Ahmed, in the dark car flooring, somewhere in the chunnel. Surrounded by the gentle snores of my fellow volunteers, the sticky buzz of red wine, and the chatter of bare branches against the window, my privilege is oppressive. Oppressive: An adjective that in my use as metaphor, is descriptive of my privilege itself. I have a window. I have a toilet. I have the choice to be here, and a home country that would take me if I went.

Some mornings, before we set out in the rusted Honda to pass out donations, I run along the packed sand beach. Across the water, there’s England. I look at the slate gray channel meeting the yellow sky and think of the country I called home for the last four years. I avert my eyes and continue running.

Even sand feels like mud here.

*

With my American passport, it was just a bit of bureaucracy before Britain granted my student visa. After I graduated, they politely kicked me out. I long to return to England, and the idyll of that freshly adult identity, instead of my American Midwest homeland. After graduation, and with three months left on my visa, I turned to France like a self-imposed purgatory. A part of me yearned for that classic, Instagram-filtered “Eurotrip.” But I also wanted a purpose. So on a small grant from my graduate school, I landed here. I was ready to offer my newly licensed therapeutic-use-of-self. Instead I found people who were much more desperate for socks, wifi, and potable water.

When I moved to England four years ago, it was because I wanted adventure – the kind introverted Midwestern kids grow up devouring in the pages of Harry Potter and Emma. I wanted an education I could actually afford to pay off one day. I wanted access to adventure and I thought that by wanting these things hard enough, I made them happen. My summers working in food trucks and smiling blandly from my hostess stand and studying until 4am brought me here. In France, I learned how wrong that assumption was.

So, when I run along the beach, I look away from my adopted home and its memories of rain-slick cobbles, blue buses, Tesco’s chocolate digestives. In a few months, thanks to my expiring visa, I’ll be back in my home state of Michigan. A state that, four years ago, voted for a border-hungry president by 10,000 votes.

But, as always, my resentment fizzles when I remember Ahmed and the other people here. We don’t talk about their homes, but I know in Pakistan, Ahmed’s homosexuality is a crime punishable by death.

*

The movie Dunkirk came out a few summers ago. People loved it. Scrolling through social media, I was often met with Harry Styles’ pasty face. Dunkirk: When 400,000 men couldn’t get home, the movie poster read.

In present day Dunkirk, lines of brown-skinned men wait for the meal that is offered to them once each day.  Cases of trench foot crop up among them – the first in the area since World War II.

In Dunkirk’s Grand Synthe forest, an Afghani boy and his little brother make origami boats, set them to sail in the brown puddles. “Where did you learn to make that?” I ask him. “Lesvos” he says, reaching to hold my hand, as we watch the paper boat absorb brown water, and sink gradually into the mud.

The French police swagger through these same puddles with guns strapped to their hips. One night, they halted another volunteer and I at the entry road to the forest. In our arms, we carried a thick red blanket from the donations warehouse – meant for a blind unaccompanied minor who had arrived that morning, to warm him through the night. “Ça les encourage” a policeman with blond sideburns said, hands on his hips. It just encourages them.

I know the rule: No fixed abodes. No homes in that desolate forest.

*

But people do make homes. That’s what we were designed to do, that’s the base of our theoretical pyramid – the one I learned about in graduate lecture halls at a university across the channel. Abraham Maslow, himself the son of refugees. He tells us: first comes food, water, shelter. Then, the rest.

The clink of shopping carts in Auchan, gleaming with its rows of cream, apples, bread, cage free eggs. Ten minutes’ walk away, a child is sleeping in the mud. Two images, which mean more together than apart. I am here to witness both. But all I seem to be able to do is pass out socks, baby formula, occasionally tarps. As much as I want to, I’m not here to change the architecture of this pyramid. I’m here to patch the pyramid’s foundation – so as it crumbles, less people are standing in the way.

So this forest, burned and then forsaken by Doctors without Borders and the World Health Organization, is not just woodland. Its clearings are communities of donated tarps strung between trees. For the lucky ones: tents. For the less lucky: dug out beds of dirt, a campfire, a circle of rotting logs. Thousands of people live here at any one time – Kurdish, primarily, but also Afghan, Iraqi, Pakistani. Thirty minutes away, in Calais, are the Africans: Sudanese, Eritrean. And all around are the French, the English, and me.

I want to be one of the good guys, but I’m not so sure I am. Because one day soon, I’ll get on a train, and then a bus, and then a plane. And I’ll go home.

*

The morning after Ahmed’s Going Away Party, I arrive in the camp, as usual. I and the other volunteers clamber out of our not-so-trusty Honda, just as a crowd begins to form. I open the trunk to reach for our damp box of socks, a highly requested item and the first line of defense against trench foot. As I resurface, there’s –

“Ahmed!” I gasp. It’s a reflex.

What else do you say to a man who traveled 5,861 kilometers from a home that wants him dead, is 124 kilometers from his destination, and just spent all his money on a failed try? “I didn’t expect to see you,” I fumble.

Ahmed shrugs. I swear there is still cheese in his beard. “Police,” he gestures broadly. At the helicopter in a dirty white sky. At the children cross-legged on the asphalt, pointing up at it. At the Honda, at my tight braids, at the endless mud.

Then: “No chance.” As if those two words encompass all there is to say.

So, I pass him a pair of socks. He’ll need them.

***
Photography by Tom Tvr

Sarah Bence is a freelance writer and licensed occupational therapist. She is a recipient of an Academy of American Poets award, and a finalist in the Aesthetica Magazine Creative Writing awards.

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