Issue 219
Winter 2021/2022


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Jan 29, 2022

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Talking to Ahmed – on zoom

THE LATE journalist, A.A. Gill, scourge of restaurateurs and baboons, was more than a mega-wit. During the last years of his life, he took to heart the refugee crisis and wrote about it with remarkable poignancy. It was only when I saw pictures of children's bodies washed up on Greek beaches and unseaworthy dinghies, crammed with men, women and children, in the Mediterranean, that I paid much attention.

While we were in lockdown at the beginning of the year, a friend asked if I would chat each evening for 10 minutes via zoom with a refugee. Her migrant support group wanted to prevent them from giving up hope while they waited for their asylum claims to be considered.

Covid did them no favours. It restricted their movements further than normal. On arrival in the UK, the lucky ones were put in hotels in or near London; the unlucky shoved into old army barracks. Although they got three meals a day, laundry service, wifi and a few pounds a week subsistence, they were essentially adrift in a country whose language they were unable to speak.

Ahmed (not his real name) became my conversation partner. Looking younger than his 22 years, he came from Darfur in West Sudan where his older sisters, brothers and mother still lived. His father was killed when he was five, after which the family moved to a refugee camp.

Ahmed was bright, feisty and although his face betrayed signs of trauma, he had a disarming smile. While I helped him with English irregular verbs, he taught me about football, his teams being Real, Madrid and Man. Utd.

There's nothing more sobering than seeing yourself through the eyes of someone else. Ahmed asked why so many Brits didn't eat meat, kept pets, had few children and sex outside marriage.

I blush at my thoughtlessness when telling him about our Sunday roast, showing photos of my house, modest in this country but a palace in theirs and speaking about my transatlantic flight when his journey of several years involved almost dying of thirst in the Sahara, risking his life, not only in lawless Libya, but on the voyage to Malta, where he was imprisoned, then travelling to Calais via Italy.

I never discovered how he crossed the Channel. Did he stow-away on a truck or pay a ransom to board a collapsible dinghy?

Prospects for asylum are not high for Ahmed. Last year, 14,365 initial decisions were made on 29.456 asylum applications; just under half (46%) were granted. Following an applicant's appeal, the final grant rate may be increased by 10% - 20%. In Europe, Germany takes the highest number (120,320) of asylum applicants, France accepts 96,030 and the UK, 25,355.*

MARY GLADSTONE
*Gov.UK Home Office. National Statistics.
Published 25/2/21




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