Saturday

EVEN IN a refugee camp, the weekend is the weekend.

From Monday to Friday, language, IT, maths and humanities are taught to youngsters aged 6-18, at the makeshift city’s family centre.

Others who have been unable to regularly attend school before, take part in ‘accelerated learning’ schemes, many learning for the first time to read and write.

Teachers recruited from towns nearby, and from within the communities of refugees at the camp, work alongside child protection staff and caseworkers, whose role is to find and assist children who arrived without family or friends, and are otherwise literally strangers in the strangest of lands.

But on Friday afternoon, a large number of the older children attend the camp’s mosque, made from several of the same tents in which individuals and families live.

Many of the others leave to prepare performances for the weekly party and stage show arranged by another of the permanent aid groups at the camp.

As a result, the youngest and littlest of the desert’s residents can, for a short time,totter and stumble unchallenged, as kings and queens of the sand.

They shout and laugh, playing on the donated slide, swings and seesaw, or staging impromptu, comical, games of volleyball and football.

On Saturdays, too, leisure activities take over. Older children return to the centre, but instead of lessons, they take part in sport, music and dance.

A 22 year-old refugee oversees the outdoor pursuits.

As the children play, we talk. He doesn’t know exactly where he’s from, he says, but he lists his nationality now as Ogaden.

The Ogaden live in an Ethiopean region of the same name. Most of them refer to the region as Somali Galbeed – Western Somalia.

His story begins, as he tells it, when he was eight.

His aunt became sick. He travelled by car with his grandmother from Kenya to Ethiopia to be closer to her.

The crossing is not, by the standards of east Africa, regarded as especially dangerous.

But Ethiopia’s civil war had recently ended after almost 20 years, and a new war with neighbouring Eritrea was just a year away, so heavily armed militia were ever-present.

The boy and his grandmother made it across the border.

His mother, father and sisters and brothers, following in a separate car, never did.

For the rest of his life, he has believed them dead, though he has had no definite confirmation of that, and is unlikely ever to get it.

In any case, he has not heard from any of them since.

Just weeks later, he lost his last link to his family, and his past, when he turned from playing in a garden to see his grandmother shot in the head by Ethiopian militia.

He was forced to watch as the soldiers then burned the house down.

As he spoke, the youngsters continued to play.

More than a thousand miles away, my football team struggled to a narrow victory.

It could have been happening on another planet.

I don’t think this is the place to tell the story of his life. To be honest, I’m not sure what is.

He told me about crossing four borders, repeated imprisonments, and repeated escapes.

About shipwrecks, and a walk through a minefield in which 12 out of 16 people were killed.

About a marriage to a woman who left him at the camp, and who he believes died on an attempted sea crossing to Italy.

Earlier in the week, I had talked to another Somalian refugee, a 17 year-old, of whom I asked what may seem like a silly question: why did you flee Libya when fighting broke out?

I expected him to talk about the dangers of stray bullets, or of damage to property.

Instead, he said: ‘In Somalia, we had no government for 13 years. Even now, the government is weak. As a result, people are kidnapped and killed. Somalis and foreigners. And there was no comeback. No-one did anything. In Libya, we feared the same thing would happen. And we were the foreigners. We had to escape.’

On Saturday, now late in the afternoon, we finished talking. The youngsters had long since finished playing, packed up and returned to their tents.

The sun was still shining. I asked if I could take his photo.

As he posed, leaning against goalposts made from spare tent poles, he said: ‘The camp has been better for me. Here, I can help children. I watch them smile and I don’t feel alone anymore.’

He smiled as we shook hands and said goodbye.

I tried to smile back.

I’m still not completely sure I managed it.

Something to kick

A MAN in a refugee camp yesterday asked me for something to kick.

As he’d lived in a tent for more than eight months, I could forgive him some frustration.

But it turned out the refugee, one of thousands living in a ‘tent city’ on the Libyan border, was just hoping someone could help him practise Tae Kwan-Do.

Thursday, November 18, was my first day in a new job. I am working for an international charity, helping to publicise its work responding to natural disasters and other humanitarian emergencies.

As a result, it was also my first visit to a refugee camp.

It was shocking. Not in a ‘rooted to the spot, mouth wide open, unable to do anything’ sense, but gradual, creeping, and finally overwhelming only hours later, on the return to the office, where discussions centre on how to organise distributions of clothing, soap and other items necessary to survive life anywhere, let alone in a sea of tents in a desert region.

Approaching via roads along which traders offer to exchange Libyan for Tunisian dinar, camels stamp their way through spiny vegetation, and patches of yellow grow, until they overtake the few remaining splashes of green on either side of you, the camp looks impressive at first.

From a distance, white-looking canvas shimmers under shocking blue skies.

But proximity invites a more critical evaluation.

This is a desert, in which the sun relentlessly beats down on people who have, since March, lived in tents. (the irony of the fact that the one period in which the sun was replaced by a few days’ rain also happened to reveal many of the tents were holed would probably be lost on most of the refugees. Maybe more on that another time).

You may well ask, well what did I expect? It’s a fair point. And the answer’s not this. Well not completely this.

The point which underlies every moment in the camp is not the desperation of those living there, because most if not all those who remain have, as anyone must to survive, adapted to their shocking situations.

It’s that here, for all these people, life is on hold. And while that’s not a tragedy, or tragic, on the scale of war crimes, or the unthinking, unfeeling massacres doled out by natural occurrences, it’s mind-numbing.

Across the world, people have celebrated the toppling of either a vicious egotistical dictator or a man whose undeniable human rights abuses are slightly less dark because of his successes in agriculture, health, education and welfare. Again, it’s another argument, for another day.

The celebrants pause, perhaps, for a few seconds, to remember those who died helping to bring this about, and maybe also those who fell in the deluded desire to protect the regime in which they lived.

But who remembers those who, terrified by a war which was nothing to do with them, fled to save their own lives, and because they had earlier escaped often far worse regimes carrying false papers, or no papers at all, are now sitting in a desert, on hold for nearly nine months, waiting for a decision which will shape the rest of their lives?

Under the circumstances, a request for something to help a few refugees retain the Tae Kwan-Do skills they developed before their world dropped from before their eyes may seem a little trivial.

But as I walked past groups of youngsters being shepherded into makeshift schools, where refugees and aid workers teach them English, French, Arabic and IT, and queues of people of various African nationalities waiting for food, I realised it would stick with me.

Because this was a request from someone surrounded by tents and sand to be able to continue a part of his life from before, from outside.

In the end, and in its own small sense, it’s an act of heroism.

And there’s little else left, when the world simply stops.