It was January 2003. I was twenty-three years old. A few days before, Ali and I had attended the New Year’s Eve party in Brussels city centre. We’d stayed outside the refugee camp until the early hours of the morning. The camp was huge, with over a thousand refugees from all over the world. The authorities had divided warehouses into rooms and put five bunk beds in each. The space in each room was no more than two meters. I had been staying there since arriving from Dubai two months prior. In Dubai, I had worked as a salesman for two years in one of the top fashion shops and earned a monthly salary of $2,000 that had allowed me to apply for a French visa and get it in a few days’ time, a miracle for a Syrian citizen only two years after 9/11. I had arrived in Paris, and from there had taken the train to Belgium, where I met my brother who did not want anything to do with me. I claimed asylum and they put me in a camp.
So, there I was in the camp waiting to see if my luck would turn. The place was a three-hour train journey from the freight ferry port at Zeebrugge but it took us much longer as we didn’t have tickets and every time a conductor approached, Ali made us leave the train and wait for the next one. We had done this several times before and sometimes it took a whole day to arrive. It was snowing heavily and each flake of snow felt as big as a snowball. I had dressed so heavily that I could barely move. I was wearing two pairs of jeans, three sweaters, four socks, two jackets, and thick snow boots. If we made it across the Channel, these would be all the clothes I would have in England.
“You’re walking like a robot,” Ali joked as we made our way to the port.
“I feel like a robot,” I told him, “I have so many layers on I can barely flex my knees or elbows.”
We left our last train and began the long walk to the harbor. The whiteness of the ground reminded me of a spotless white Persian rug we’d had in Aleppo. It was so quiet that although the beach was a mile off, we could hear the waves rolling in. When we finally got close enough to see the ships, I thought of them as being like the Titanic in the famous film. There was a strong odor of diesel, which brought back a memory Aleppo’s petrol stations and their smell. I didn’t know Ali that well, but here we were, risking our lives together to cross into England, where we would not have to live in a camp, and if only we were granted refugee status, could start new lives. Ali was of average height, dark but not handsome, and had wide lips and deep eyes. Over his other layers, he wore the beige trucksuit that he’d had on since we had first met.
I had no gloves and my hands were two chunks of ice. I kept blowing hot air into them but as soon as I stopped they were freezing again. I put them in my pockets to see if that helped, but it was in vain. I remembered Mama’s warnings when I was a boy that if your hands or feet got cold then all of your body would be cold. My feet were soaked and freezing too. We were attempting the crossing less than two years after the 9/11 attacks and the western governments were extra cautious and wary. This whole trip might well turn out to be for nothing but the previous week our mate, Subhy, had crossed successfully. As soon as he arrived, he’d called me and urged me to try too. I didn’t even know the country code for England then; all I saw was a +44 followed by a number. I did not believe him, but then I Googled the code and it really was for the UK.
“There’s a crossing every Tuesday evening,” he told me, “so leave in the morning and hide in the hall where the lorry heads come to tow the containers into the ship.”
The week before Subhy crossed, we’d stood together in the same spot trying to make it over to England. There were three Sudanese guys with us who asked how we were expecting to sneak onto the ship. Subhy and I walked towards the hall where the containers were and explained to them that we would hang underneath the lorry between the four back wheels on the long axle that connects them. There are different containers, and has a different shape of axles beneath it. One of the Sudanese guys laughed and said, “I thought we came to Europe to find a better life, not to end our lives.”
In his broken Arabic, Subhy, who was from Iraq and spoke Kurdish, said to him, “Brother, life is about risk. If you don’t take this risk, you will never reach England.” The Sudanese guys left, still laughing but Subhy and I stayed. We saw a lorry head approaching us and quickly ducked underneath one of the containers and hung there, waiting for the driver to connect the head and drive it into the ship. As we clung to the metal, we heard him approach, closer and closer until he stopped just a few meters ahead of us. We saw a man’s legs moving and affixing things to the container. Then the legs disappeared. Suddenly the container started to move. My heart sank. My hands were starting to slip from being too cold, and now they were also sweaty with anxiety. I could not see anything but distant lights on the ship. The lorry stopped, and we saw more legs around us.
“A dog, a fucking dog,” Subhy whispered to me.
“What dog?” I asked.
“The border police have a fucking sniffer dog with them.”
Before Subhy had finished his sentence, the dog barked loudly, ran to where I was hiding beneath the lorry and started biting at my leg.
“Shit,” said Subhy, “that’s it. We’re fucked.” We crawled out and the police put us in a van, drove us a few miles away and left us there.
That was the end of my last attempt to cross before this January day. There had been three others before that. One time we had made it into the container hall but as we were creeping up to the containers, a security guard had appeared out of nowhere and shouted, “On the floor, on the floor!” I went straight to the floor and Subhy started laughing at me because I had immediately obeyed his commands. Once again, we were driven by the police for a few miles and dumped—after our fingerprints were taken at a police station. But this day, things felt different. I knew the precise time that the ship departed for England and Subhy had given me the exact time and place where the containers being loaded to England were to be picked up.
I could not feel my hands anymore and dug deep in my pockets to warm them. I tried to press them into my crotch and hold my cock as it was the warmest part of my body. My nose and ears were frozen, even though I was wearing balaclava hat that covered them. At last, I walked in the dark towards the hall where the containers were stationed. I led the way as Ali had never been there before.
We crouched by a wall and he whispered, “I’m scared.”
“Don’t be,” I reassured him, “I know what I’m doing this time. We’ll be fine. It’s just this part that’s hard.”
I chose a red container and headed towards it. “Why that one?” Ali asked.
“No reason; I just like the colour red.” He laughed, and we continued.
Inside I was shitting myself, but I couldn’t show Ali that. If I did, he’d lose his nerve and ask to go back to the camp in Brussels. I leaned down and looked at the axle that connected the back wheels; each container was different, and I wanted to know if this one was wide enough to hold us both. I thought it was and pointed to Ali to take the middle position while I took the side one. I gave him the more secure spot to comfort him. The question now was
how long we would have to wait until the lorry would come and collect the container. The floor was ice cold, so we avoided touching it as we clung to the metal, waiting. The trouble was that the metal was even colder. After a few minutes, Ali left his place and lay on the floor, and I did the same. More than an hour passed before we heard a lorry coming towards us. My heartbeat was so loud I could hear it.
“Hold tight, Ali” I said, “we will make it.”
“I can’t; I'm going to give up,” he groaned.
“No, just relax and hold tight,” I repeated.
I heard the sound of the engine come close and felt certain it was our container that would be taken. I listened as the driver fixed the head to the container without looking towards us. I prayed there'd be no dogs at the entrance this time. All of the sudden, the container started to move. We whispered to each other, “It’s moving, it’s moving.” The journey to the ship was about a ten-minute drive, and all the way we held tight underneath the lorry, praying our hands wouldn’t slip. The lorry was going very slowly and every turn made my icy hands slip so I had to adjust them again.
The huge wheels were so close to me and I wondered what might become of my body if I lost my hold and was crushed under the wheels. We stopped at last and I saw manypairs of legs moving around us but the damned dogs were there again. I almost lost hope and gave myself up but decided to wait and see what would happen. The dog started to bark loudly in our direction. I heard laughter from the policemen, who held the dog close.
“I think they know we’re here,” Ali whispered.
“Maybe they do,” I replied, “But we aren’t coming out until they tell us.”
Suddenly, one of the policemen leaned downwards and peered towards us. making a funny face. Then he stood back up and I heard him laugh loudly with the other policeman. He had to have seen us yet he said nothing and let us go. Then the lorry started to move towards the ship’s entrance and parked inside it. For the next hour, we watched from our hiding place while the rest of the cargo was loaded. When everything was done, the ship’s horn went off, temporarily deafening us, and we started to move. We stayed in our hiding place for another two hours to make sure the ship was well away from the shores of Belgium and closer to England. Over six hours passed as we wandered on the ship in the cold that snowy night in January. I started to get worried that the ship might be heading somewhere else. On the map I had seen back at the camp, England had looked so close to Belgium. How could the crossing be taking so long?
“What if we’re on the wrong ship and are going somewhere in the Middle East?” I said to Ali.
“Oh my god, what will we do then?” he moaned.
Another ten hours passed, and we gradually became convinced that the ship was not going to England. If it were, then surely it would have reached its destination by now. Suddenly, Ali collapsed. I slapped him on the face to wake him up, but he had lost consciousness. I ran to the top of the ship where there was a door and I knocked at the door loudly. I knocked until my cold hands became warm. A Filipino who looked like he had just woken up opened the door.
In broken English I said, “My friend dead,” struggling to catch my breath. I knew Ali wasn’t dead, but said so in the hope that he’d help us quickly.
“Wait here,” the sailor said and shut the door.
When the door opened again, it was the captain, who looked European and told me he was Dutch.
“Where is your friend?” the captain asked.
“He is down near containers,” I replied as I pointed.
He sent two guys with me to get Ali. The three of us carried him up to the top of the ship and the captain ordered us to follow him. We went deep into the ship until the captain opened a warm room which had two bunk beds, a bathroom, and a fridge with some sandwiches and drinks. After a short time, Ali started to come to life again, as if the warm room had brought his soul back.
“Where are you from?” the captain asked.
“I am a Syrian Kurd,” I anwered, “He is Iraqi. Where is your ship going?”
“Where do you want it to go?” the captain replied kindly.
I stayed silent. The captain did, too. “I just don’t want it to go anywhere in the Arab world,“ I sighed.
“But where do you want it to go?” he repeated.
“England,” I said, “but we have been at sea for sixteen hours and England is not that far from Belgium.”
“It is going to England, but to the northeast, to a place called Teesport. That’s why it’s taking longer. You can shower, eat sandwiches and sleep now,” he said to us, pointing towards the bathroom, the fridge, and the beds. “I have to let the police know that you’re on board when we arrive but don’t worry, it’s England and they’ll treat you nicely,” he added.
He left then and Ali and I started to smile, then to laugh, but not loudly, as we feared the sailors might hear us. “We did it!” we told each other, dancing around the cabin. The ship was going to England and we’d arrive there soon. Not long after, we heard the ship’s horn again, this time signalling arrival. We stayed put in our cabin until the captain opened the door. He was with two British policeman. I knew from their outfits as I often seen them on TV. They escorted us off the ship and on the way, one asked, “Do you want to claim asylum?”
“Yes,” we replied in unison.
The feeling at that moment was inexplicable. In that moment, I felt free from all of the restraints that I had known in the Arab world. Free like never before—and now in a land of freedom. I was free to say what I wanted, free to practice a liberal life, and if I were lucky enough to be granted citizenship someday, free to participate in a real democracy.
We were driven to the nearest police station where they searched us, took our details, and contacted someone to come for us. We waited for two hours or so and then an Asian guy arrived and took us to one of the refugee houses in Middlesbrough.
As soon as he opened the door, I heard someone shout from upstairs, “Amir, Amir!” It was Subhy.
“Subhy” I shouted and ran up the stairs, hugging him with tears in my eyes that we were reunited…this time in England...in England...England!
Orignially published by The Other Side of Hope here: https://othersideofhope.com/amir-darwish-the-crossing-to-england.html
Amir Darwish is a British Syrian poet and writer of Kurdish origin who lives in London. Born in Aleppo, he came to Britain as an asylum seeker in 2003. Amir has an MA in International Relations in the Middle East from Durham University, a BA in history from Teeside University and an MA in creative and life writing from Goldsmiths, London. Currently he is a PhD candidate at Northhampton University. Amir has had his writing published in the UK, USA, Pakistan, India, Finland, Turkey, Singapore, Mexico and Canada. Twitter @darwish_amir