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.

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One thought on “Saturday

  1. a nice story. in spite of it all. cheers.
    keep up the adventures and keep the stories coming.
    hope you’re coping and are well.
    rogers

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