‘I’m on the bus’, I texted. I knew I was running slightly late for a Friends’ Talk English Christmas party to celebrate both Christmas time and Mawid (meaning Birthday in Arabic). We were meeting at John Archer Hall – a group of asylum seekers newly arrived, some as little as five days ago to Britain, a couple of volunteer tutors, me and whoever might turn up. I turned into the car park, carrying two shopping bags. ‘I’m here’, I called out to Lee, the centre manager. One of the tutors greeted me, ‘We have waited for you. You are the most important figure.’ ‘Oh, no, no, I’m not…the students are the most important people’, I told him.
Delicious food awaited us on the table. The tutor’s wife had made a lovely chicken curry with rice. There was also a tasty bean stew and salad and French bread. I added the fruit I’d brought in the form of grapes, tangerines and pomegranates and crisps and biscuits. One of the tutors had baked a fabulous banana cake, so we had cake as well.
Five young men sat round the table at one end. They have been studying English for two hours a week for four weeks, taught by a couple of volunteer ESOL tutors, part of the Talk English project. A couple more men joined us…still another was trying to find the building in the dark. And we started to eat.
One of the students with good IT skills was choosing music from youtube videos, the music of Sudan. Some songs were for older people, we learned; others for younger. They raised their hands up high, twisting their wrists and clicking their fingers in celebration when their favourites came on.
‘Do they ever mention what happened to them?’, I asked a tutor. ‘No, we were told it’s better not to ask…’ and we continued eating. ‘They’d tried crisps in class’, she told me. ‘They’d never tasted crisps before and we had a blind tasting. They all liked cheese and onion but not salt and vinegar, ugh! I said to one of them would you like to be a lorry driver? The question had come up in class.’ He said, ‘I came to Libya from Sudan in the back of a lorry with 80 other people, then across the sea to Italy and from there to England’, he looked at her. A ‘no’ then.
We began a go-round. My name is…I am from…in both Arabic and English. Ama Najan, My name is Star…min Sudan, I am from Sudan’ ‘Makhaba/Welcome’. ‘Sukran/Thankyou’. Shared words lead to smiles.
The tutor and one of the young men started dancing together, circling each other, practising bends and thrusts to the beat of the music, raising their arms and flicking their wrists in challenge, in greeting. The young man, a marathon runner back in Sudan, is unable to run here, as he can’t afford the annual membership dues of the local athletics club. What to do?
I noticed each one seemed to have a smart phone. They would have to be smart, I thought, to make it all the way here. I wondered if I’d been in their shoes, as a young man…what would I have done in their position? One of them had been studying economics at university. Another was an army officer, who lost his post because he came from Darfur. The next day, I asked a friend about the phones. ‘They bring them with them’, he told me. They use international apps and pay as you go to stay in touch with their family and friends back home. I have a friend who walked for one month across the desert to reach Libya. He knew how to make a canoe from trees, so they made one to paddle across the Mediterranean.
Where are the women, I wondered. The tutor told me there were three women from Eritrea in his classes but they were too shy to attend the party. Where are the women in this story…their sisters, mothers, cousins, fiancées, wives…how many of them set out? How many are back home, waiting for news of a son or brother? One of the groups we’ve set up under Talk English is for women-only; many of them deeply hurt by their experiences in regions affected by violent conflict.
The music was rhythmical. On Sudanese TV, it looked like someone had invited a group of singers round to their house and each one was taking it in turns to sing a song, backed by a very lively band in the corner. Till a young Irish lad, Declan Galbraith, turned up singing on screen. It seemed a strange follow-on but the images shown behind him held your breath and felt at odds with the party mood. I noticed two of the young men left the room.
A resident scouser sat in the room, doing some editing work on a computer. We locals tried to think of an iconic Liverpool song. Perhaps, ‘Ferry across the Mersey’ or Reward…I struggled…which era do you take? The resident Liverpudlian chose The Christians’ ‘Children of the Ghetto’, sung by Earth Wind and Fire’s Philip Bailey. Which song would you pick?
So many people all over the world are moving because they are afraid to stay where they are. Some who get here may be offered sanctuary or temporary respite in some cities. The City of Sanctuary campaign started in Sheffield. Most recently, City of Sanctuary status has been awarded to Birmingham.
Then, one of them asked us, via the tutor ‘ Is this ok to watch? This is political.’ It was a message from people, like these young people in the room, to their rulers. Why had they had to leave their homes? They want to go home to their work, to their families. The young man who sat next to me smiled and thanked me in English. ‘Like home, like Sudan, party…first time we have party like in Sudan…’ It took so little yet meant so much to him.
One of the tutors handed out presents she’d wrapped to each of the students for Christmas time and Mawid. Another small act of kindness.
I wanted to share our gifts, so I invited them before we broke up to form a circle. One by one, we placed a hand into the middle, offering all of us a gift. The first hand offered us the gift of love…the next, friendship…the one after that, peace…and so on. Another hand joined with those already in the circle, offering each of laughter…then, security…till the last to speak was our resident Scouser. ‘I give to everyone in the circle the gift of water… from which all life comes.’ And we bent our knees and lowered our hands gently towards the floor, before raising them quickly in a great shower skywards. And we smiled and shook hands. We must do this again soon, I thought.
Outside, one of the young men was holding his bicycle lock. His bike had been stolen, most likely by teenagers, Lee said. It was a poor lock, easy to open. Well, you can always get another second-hand bike, can’t you?
A couple of days earlier, I was at a tutor development conference and found myself sitting down to share a meal with someone I’d never met before. We started to talk and this led over the weekend to us agreeing to write a course together. Was it just chance and happenstance that brought us together? My new friend said her sister would say it was the work of the angels. Well, what would you say? I would ask, where are the angels in this story? I found them. Where people are dancing, there you find angels, if you want to. They’re there.