This week, I’ve begun to shift from the wonderful Refugee Community Kitchen to the Refugee Info Bus, which provides wifi, news, legal and asylum information, activities, and English and French lessons to people living on the streets and in the woods of Calais. Alongside this, there is ample opportunity to get to know some of the individuals living here, what they hope for, and what they’ve left behind.
No English lessons today?
Ah sorry, not today, the teachers are off. Weekend.
Ah, but I want to learn English.
Sorry, we don’t want to mess up their lessons. Your English is good though! Where are you from?
Can you teach us some words in Oromo? Our Oromo is terrible.
What is ‘Hello’?
Wait, I’m going to write these down so I don’t forget. What is ‘Thankyou?’
And ‘how are you?’
Galatoomi. How about “this food is good?”
Nyani kun barredda.
Nyani… (cue much laughter at our attempt to pronounce the “ny” sound). Could you write that down for us?
Yes. Like this. In Oromo, we use the same alphabet as English.
That’s interesting. Can you read Amharic then?
No, I can speak it, but very different letters. We used to have the Ge’ez script, you know Ge’ez?
No, I don’t (upon further research, it’s the script used to write Amharic and Tigrinya, amongst others).
But then, it was decided by many intellectuals to use Latin script. 100 years ago, the Oromo people did not write. It was a spoken language.
And what about religion in Oromia?
Many…maybe 50 (percent) Muslim, 30 (percent) Christian, and 20 (percent) neither. We have old gods, some Oromo worship them.
(Across the patch of grass and gravel, a small, extremely fluffy Pomeranian dog barks at its owner, scaring nobody).
Ha, that dog. In Europe, everyone has dogs like this. Why? In Africa, dogs are guard dogs. That dog would be useless against a hyena.
That dog would be useless against a rat. You have many hyenas?
Yes, they come to the village, eating our rubbish. They come into your home unless you have a guard dog. But they’re not scary. The only animal I’m scared of is lions and tigers. In Europe, you have any big animals?
Not really, I think we killed them all…
Yes. In Africa, you don’t go in the forest. Elephants, tigers, lions. But if you do have to live in the woods you can survive for a year, two years, more. Lots of fruit and animals. Guava. Fresh mango. When I crossed from Italy to France…
Yes…long, hard part of my journey. I was in the woods hiding and walking and there was no food, just small animals, like rats. You couldn’t live in Europe’s woods.
You are with wifi today? Normally you do food. The food is good.
Thanks, yeah I’m here today. Food is coming soon though.
Where you from? England?
On top of England. Bit colder.
Ah yes, Scotland. Capital is Celtic?
Ha, no. Edinburgh. You like football?
Edinburgh. I know cities in UK just because of football.
Where are you from?
I say Mars, border police can’t send me home.
What’s the capital of Mars?
Ha, I don’t know.
N. doesn’t speak much English, but it doesn’t stop him from running and hugging me when he sees me. I haven’t seen him since before the fights a few weeks ago, and last I’d heard was that he was in a coma for a night. He beckons me to sit with him and his friends, who greet me warmly. They look tired. Exhausted, even. N. normally has distinctively striking green eyes, but they’ve lost a lot of their energy, and his skin has an unsettling grey tinge to it.
I’m fine. And you?
Yeah, good. I heard you were in hospital? Are you ok?
(He points out a huge scar around his eyebrow, then shows me some gnarly looking wounds on his leg and shoulder.)
Not good. Are you sure you’re ok?
His friend, J. is trying to have a nap in the middle of the group, but N. is having none of it. He picks up a twig, nudges me and slowly, slowly sticks it into J.’s ear. This new game goes on for about 10 minutes, with J. continually trying to find innovative ways of covering his ear up, before he gets his hands on a cup of water and pours it over N. (and me, caught in the crossfire) in retaliation.
HA, mushkila. We’re sorry! Very sorry.
No problem at all, it woke me up.
When I leave the boys, J. has finally managed to nod off and N. is sitting on the phone to his family, absent-mindedly stroking J.’s hair. It’s a grey day, and it’s bound to rain soon. Just as we leave, the police show up, menacingly observing this moment of calm…