David’s project journal

8 October 2016

Today was the second session of the “Here I Am, There I Go” workshop. When I arrived, the group was already assembled into a circle in the front of a large conference room at the University of London Institute in Paris. In total, we were a group of ten: eight men came to the session in addition to Anna-Louise and I. One of the men came from Ethiopia, two were from Somalia and five were from Sudan. Anna-Louise had passed around photos of the English Channel, as well as copies of the poem “Dover Beach,” by Matthew Arnold. Anna-Louise went to get a device to play the audio recording of the poem. During this time, I asked how long each of the men had been in France. Some had been as many as a few years. One man said he had arrived one month and ten days ago. I asked where the men had been before France. In hindsight, I did not pose my question very clearly as the men told me that they had come from different places in Eastern Africa. I wanted to know how they arrived in France, and asked whether they had passed through Italy or Spain. All but one of the men had come to Italy as a first point of arrival in Europe. One man, from Somalia, said that he had been in Sweden before arriving in France and that he had arrived in Greece from Turkey before that.

When Anna-Louise returned, we listened to the audio recording of the Arnold’s poem. We listened to the depictions of calm sea, the glimmering and vast cliffs, and the sweet night air. Then Anna-Louise then asked the men to describe their experiences with the sea. All of the men said that they had never seen the sea before making their harrowing journeys from Libya to Italy, from Egypt to Italy, or from Turkey to Greece. The men described the length of time that they spent at sea. While each crossing could be as short as a few hours, some of the men described spending nearly one to two weeks on board inflatable rubber boats. One of the men described how the floor of the boat was wet as water flowed in and over their feet. Another described the endless tipping, rolling, and rocking they experienced over the course of their journeys. As each man spoke, Anna-Louise wrote down the terms that they used to describe their journey. Another man discussed the hunger and thirst that they experienced; he said that with regards to provisions, each passenger was given seven dates each morning and each night. Another mentioned the brightness of the sun that beat down on the exposed passengers. One man said that he observed other passengers who refused to look up during their journey. Instead, these people kept their heads down, potentially insulating them from discovering the immensity of the sea. Perhaps they just wanted the journey to be over instead of looking around to see in their neighbors the palpable fear not knowing whether they would ever arrive. One man stated that he saw dead bodies of fellow passengers.

As each person shared his experience, I could not help but think of the figure I had seen in the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) recent report, Fatal Journeys, which describes the number of people who crossed the Mediterranean in 2015, as well as the estimated number of those who lost their lives. The Central Mediterranean route, used by all of these men except the man who arrived in Greece from Turkey, is one of the deadliest routes to reach Europe. Their stories did not just attest to the misery and treacherousness of this route. Rather, their stories made the route personal. Through their stories the route becomes suffused with memory and emotion. Any of us who has read the IOM report, listened to the news, seen the photos of the packed boats, knows that this is deadly way to reach Europe’s frontier. Indeed, technology has made these images available to an extent that was not possible during previous large-scale flows of refugees. But what these images fail to show us is the uniqueness of each person’s journey. How many of us know that this was these men’s first encounter with the sea? That this route represents a moment when the weight of the uncertainty of their future was pinned against the weight of the responsibility for their families?

At one point, I got up leave the room. On a table next to the door, I saw a copy of How to Spend It, a lifestyle magazine geared towards the Financial Time’s more well-heeled readers. The magazine was open to a full page advertisement for a private jet company. In almost any other situation, I might have given the advertisement no more than a glance. However, I couldn’t help but think how strange it was to see the image of airplane carrying a single passenger after having heard these men describe being packed on to vessels that were hardly sea worthy. I wondered, with trepidation, how the men might react if they had seen this ad. After all, being confronted with such an obvious example of the inequalities in mobility certainly made an impression on me. At the end of the session, we discussed plans for the following week. Some of the men made their way out of the room, and others collected the paper cups that we had used for tea. I looked across the room and saw that one man was standing next to the table and leafing through the magazine.

29 October

I was a bit nervous about the workshop today since I did not know who or how many people would turn up. I had enlisted the assistance of my partner, Raphaël, who had previously volunteered at the Comède and was interested in this project. I was the first to arrive, and after fiddling with the lighting system in the room, I began to organize the maps of the Mediterranean, North Africa, and Europe that I had cropped and printed from Google maps. I had also printed off a few copies of the hand-drawn map from Ghaith Abdul-Ahad’s piece in the London Review of Books, Some Tips for the Long-distance Traveller, which I hoped would be a helpful model in thinking about the kinds of journeys that these men had embarked upon on their way to France. In the article, the author makes reference to a friend’s hand-drawn map, which in some ways resembles a child’s treasure map that included arrows linking the discrete stages and illustrations of pirate ships and stick figures. However, instead of pirate ships, the ships on this map are those that transported people to Greece. Next to these illustrations are the names of the cities, the prices they paid for safe passage, and arrows showing the next stage of a journey. Instead of a treasure chest that would mark the closure of this adventure, this map included a stick figure rejoicing upon his arrival in Munich. As we had discussed everyone’s experience with crossing the sea in previous sessions, I wondered what each of the men’s own maps would look like. I thought that they could either draw their own maps, or trace their journeys from country to country on the maps I had printed.

A few moments later, Ahmed and Walid, two Sudanese men, arrived. Ahmed, who had previously come to the group, said, “Oh man, I thought we would be the late ones” in apparent surprise of being the first arrivals. This was Walid’s first visit to the group and he informed me in a mix of French and English that he was from Sudan and had arrived in France about five months ago. Gradually, the others joined, until we were a group of about 11 in total. Other newcomers were Abdinasir, who came with Iman; Adam Abd., who came with Ezzedin; and Adam Aba., who came on his own. I was pleased to see that Iman had returned, and pleasantly surprised that he had invited a friend along. Abdinasir explained that he was also from Mogadishu but that they had met in France. The group began to work on their maps by annotating the printout, drawing out the stages as in the map from the article, or simply writing about their journey. As in the previous sessions, the men were from either Sudan or Somalia.

I sat next to Iman, a young man from Somalia with whom I had worked quite closely during the last few sessions. He was interested in learning to write in English, and we had previously written the words, “Brother, sister, mother,” as well as expressions such as, “How are you?” This time we wrote out the words, “Flight, boat, and bus,” as well as “hours, days, and years.” This young man’s journey to France was long and circuitous, involving several years in a refugee camp in Yemen, a trip across the Mediterranean in a dinghy, and a flight from Greece to Norway. I asked about each of the stages and how long they took. His friend turned to me at one point and said that it was hard to remember how long everything took, that it just took a really long time and that one just wanted it to be over. I felt that maybe I was asking the wrong kinds of questions and that maybe asking about time was insensitive. Though, a few moments later, Iman pointed to the small bit on the map between Istanbul and where he boarded the boat for Greece said “two hours,” indicating the relatively short bus ride along the seemingly endless route to France.

As a group, we discussed the maps and each person’s journey. One man said that he had spent six months in Cairo. Another said he spent five years in Benghazi. What did they do in these places during that time? I asked. They worked to save money for the rest of their journey. Worked doing what? One man said that he worked in construction. Another said that he worked on farms and in gardens. Planting what? I wondered. I also wondered about how it must have been for these men to be and work in the places referred to in policy reports as “transit countries.” I couldn’t help but think about the conditions of their work, the conversations they had with their co-workers, and the feeling of being in a place just long enough to work until they were able to move on to the next place. Did you meet other people? I asked. One of the men responded that in Libya, there are people from all over. What was it like, to meet people from all over? One man said that they didn’t really speak since they didn’t stay together. Another said that they worked all the time.

Adam Aba., one of the men to come to the workshop for the first time, said that Sabha, a city in southwestern Libya, was the worst place that he had been on his long journey from Sudan to Paris. He heard gunfire all the time, which made it impossible to sleep and which kept him and others from leaving the house where they were staying. He described how he had only spent two days in this town, but it felt as if he had been there for a month. Had anyone else been to Sabah? I asked. One of the others said that he had, but said that it was not Sabah where he felt the most danger. Rather, it was in another Libyan city where the sounds of gunfire jolted the rhythm of daily life. The two men discussed how they had been there at different points, illustrating the shifting loci of conflict in an ongoing war.

In Italy, one man said, we didn’t have money for food and did not want to stay because the police mistreated us. They also did not have money for a train ticket to get to France and so they made the journey by foot. How long did that take? I asked. Three days. I wondered what he thought of the scenery and how the air felt, but then recalled how this trek came towards the end of an already eternal and exhausting journey.

 

 

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