I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free

As a Calais Jungle boy, seventeen-year-old Mohammed performed with Expressive Arts Refuge and with Omar, master of Sudanese song and refugee. One song Mohammed loved to sing was Nina Simone’s I Wish I Knew How It would Feel to be Free. It was a joyful day, that concert with Moira Smiley on banjo, Mohammed proudly wearing a black dress shirt and red scarf we’d brought from California for youth performers, a day sandwiched between difficult days missing his family in Sudan, eyes sore from tear gas thrown by police to clear the road of migrants aiming for the Chunnel. He performed the Nina Simone song, clutching the mic like a parent.

Mohammed worried that he might never cross the Chunnel from France to the UK. He’d lost hope of getting clearance to migrate legally, and, like most refugees in Calais Jungle, tried nightly to board trucks.

I remember a day at the beach in Calais when Mohammed built sand huts, Sudanese style, and explained which of his family slept or cooked in which hut. That home compound back in Darfur seemed palatial compared to his shared tent in the Jungle.

When last week’s demolition of the Jungle approached, I advised him to apply for asylum in France, to queue with 7000 other Jungle migrants at a processing hangar in Calais, and to do what officials required because “France is full of good people, and you will find them.” That night, he sent a cryptic message that he was in London. How had he got there? Two yellow truck emojis.

The demolition of Calais Jungle proceeded. It was brutal on the 1000-1500 unaccompanied minors who lived in the tent city. Police, following orders to contain migrants queuing for relocation, kettled them, and turned youth, unregistered, back into a smoldering Jungle.

Suddenly, all the adult refugees were gone, bussed to Accommodation Centers around France. Sixteen hundred children were left to fend for themselves in unheated steel shipping containers, with faucets turned off, their former teachers and mentors blocked from entering the compound where youth slept twelve to a container – some in bunks, others on tables and floors. Food was short; showers failed to work; and the school, mosque, activities, and amenities – meager as they’d been – vanished. Children wandered or tore around on bikes amid bulldozers, gas canisters exploding in fires, and smoke.

Those whom French officials failed to register weren’t allowed into the now full containers, and slept rough in the damp chill, with no adults to protect them. Riot police and security guards surrounded the container compound.

Mohammed escaped just in time to miss the fires, the kettling, the orders to sit in the mud. He texted a picture of himself standing in an apartment pointing at a jack-o-lantern on a tidy table with a matching chair, something out of reach in the Jungle.

I texted back the lyrics to I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free.

His reply: I will never aver forget this.

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Author: earefuge

I direct EAR (Expressive Arts Refuge) whose work focuses on refugee youth in Calais, France. At home in Oakland, California, I direct World Harmony Chorus.

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