REFUGEE TALES III: The Foster Child’s Tale
Refugee Tales III (ed. David Herd and Anna Pincus) is published 11th July 2019 by Comma Press. Refugee Tales is an outreach project of Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, and all proceeds from the books go to GDWG and Kent Refugee Help. You can preorder(/order) the book here. In the run-up to its publication, the Glasgow Review of Books will be publishing extracts from the book. This is the second extract.
The Foster Child’s Tale
as told by
I have been studying social work at university for two years now.
I like it.
I like the stories.
And social work – I guess people in general – well, they’re all about the stories.
Everyone is full of pages, every part of our bodies is a different chapter.
We are all just walking novels.
My problem is that I am still trying to understand my own story.
Some of the key pages are missing.
Some of the key characters are missing.
I don’t really know the beginning, let alone the end…
I don’t know what country I was born in. I don’t know what my date of birth is. I don’t know who my biological parents are… or were.
My earliest memories are from when I was around four years old. I understand that my foster father had rescued my foster mother and her son from India, where she had been sold as a prostitute.
I think I heard somewhere that my foster mother couldn’t have any more children so they took me in. From where, or from whom, or from what… I don’t know. Who knows.
I was around five when my foster mother died of cancer. My foster father used to drink a lot, and after my foster mother died sometimes he was hospitalised.
We stayed in a garage for a while in the capital city, until we got kicked out of there and I was sent to live with an aunt, my foster mother’s older sister.
I was ill-treated there. I was given the job of carrying grass from the field back to the house to feed the animals. I had to clean up the cow shit and look after the chickens.
When I complained, I was beaten. One phrase sticks in my mind: ‘You were found on the streets, you are not our blood, do as you are told.’
One day, when I was out collecting water, I met a guy who told me I could escape back to the capital if I walked for about an hour away from the village, and got a bus.
I remember sitting on the roof of the bus because I had no money for a ticket. I remember bumps on the road and the cold wind down my neck. I remember ducking out of the way of swinging trees. I must have been about six years old.
I tried to find my father when I returned to the city but he had left the area we lived in. I had nothing and I grew hungry. I saw other kids on the street begging and I joined them. I remember being told that if I sniffed dendrite in a bag then my stomach would settle.
I remember older kids stealing the money I had been given. I remember the men who would come at night. I remember the police beating us. I remember waking up one morning after sleeping rough in a temple and one of the other boys had died in the night.
I remember, I remember… When maybe some things should be forgotten.
When I was about nine, I was introduced to a man named Serge. He was the founder of an NGO set up to assist street children like me. He is perhaps the first hero in my story. There would be others, but he was maybe the first.
He clothed and fed me. I started to feel safe. I went to school and excelled.
But when I tried to do the equivalent of A-levels, I was told I needed a citizenship card. I needed evidence of my story. But to get a citizenship card you need a birth certificate, and I had nothing. I was introduced to a man who was involved in political activities. A citizenship card appeared and soon after Serge sponsored me to come to the UK as a student.
I remember arriving in London for the first time. The darkness and rain could not dampen my excitement or my sense of hope. Elephant and Castle felt a long way from home…
Things took a dramatic turn in 2014 when I was told that Serge had committed suicide. My sponsorship stopped and I was unable to pay my fees for the second year. I returned home to ask the charity if they could help me, but they declined as I was over eighteen years old by this point.
It was during this time, that a huge earthquake struck my country, killing thousands of people, including some of my friends and their families. A Biblical chapter. Trauma, shouting, flashbacks.
I returned to the UK only to experience another, second, personal earthquake: immigration detention. My university had reported my situation to the Home Office. From the reporting centre, I was bundled into a van.
The windows were black. There were three other people in the van. More stories.
I didn’t really know anything about detention before they took me there. My friend told me they only detain people for 24 hours and then you are released.
As soon as I entered the detention centre and I saw the faces, I realised some people must have been there more than a day.
I asked my roommate how long he had been inside. I still expected him to say a few hours. When he said he had been there for eight months, that’s when I felt all hope leave my body.
I was terrified in detention. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. I had no idea what was going on, and no one gave me any information.
I was detained for five days before they moved me to The Verne, in Dorset, far away from anyone that could visit me. They took me at night. I was scared.
I remember asking the guard, ‘Why me?’ He said, ‘The people who are flying soon are kept in detention centres near to the airports.’ OK then, I thought, ‘So, I’m not going to be removed any time soon… But then why am I being detained?’
I felt like I was being put into some kind of human storage facility. Altogether, I was in detention for two and a half months and they transferred me four times. Each time I was moved just before I had an appointment at the legal surgery.
I felt cheated. I started to get more and more anxious.
I couldn’t sleep. I felt like I was in custody for no crime. I felt caged.
I found all the shouting, the screaming, very difficult. More flashbacks – the earthquake went off in my head. The aftershocks still ripple today.
I was released at the end of March 2016. I am still getting used to life outside detention but it is also clear that detention goes ‘beyond the walls’.
Whenever I see guards in uniform all the bad memories of detention come back to me. Or whenever I eat noodles – the same kind they gave us in detention – I think about The Verne. Detention is the chapter that keeps on going. No full-stops.
After I was detained, I wrote a letter to my pre-detention self. I needed to find out if he still existed. Sometimes I think he might be coming back. Other times I think it won’t happen.
Dear Pre-Detention Self,
It’s been such a long time! I haven’t seen you for almost a year! I feel like I don’t know you anymore! Where the hell have you been hiding?! Why didn’t you get in touch? I thought there was no secret between you and me. Is everything still good with you? Are you still hopeful and moving forwards towards your goals.
I remember the last time I saw you was at Alex’s birthday, at the Queen’s Head. You were so talkative, making fun of everything. You wouldn’t let the conversation drop for a second. Are you still like that? Do you still want to be a computer engineer? I remember you were in the middle of your studies the last time we were together. I remember your friends asking you whether you were ever going to grow up – you seemed so happy to be in the present moment! I remember you smiling a lot… and enjoying the odd lager (or two!) as well. Are you still playing football with your friends every Monday? Are you still wearing those Nikes you loved? I have to admit, I had to collect ALL my strength to write this letter. I am writing it in difficult circumstances. It’s not quite how it used to be for me. Laughing in the pub feels a long, long way away. I wish we could go back there, and be together again – you and me.
I’ve just come out of detention. I was detained for about three months. It’s too much for me to explain everything about what happened to me there in this letter. But it is an experience you would never want to even dream of. I hope you never go through something like that.
Do you remember when you and Ram and I got locked inside Ram’s flat that time? Well, imagine that but for three months. Only without each other to talk to. And without the food we wanted to eat. And without sunlight coming in. And without the sofa or the bed. And without the peace of mind of knowing the door would open at some point and we’d go outside. Imagine that we were also surrounded by other people who look like they’re experiencing the end of the world – some people are screaming, some people are silent with fear, some people are crying. Some people try to kill themselves in front of you. Imagine one night a stranger in uniform comes in and drags Ram out the door. And you don’t know where he’s gone or if he’s ok. And the lock on the door turns again. And it’s shutdown.
Well, this has been something like my reality over the last few months.
When I came out of detention I had nowhere to go. I was nearly homeless. I had no one to talk to. I had no one to go to the pub with. No money to buy anything. I had no one to play football with. I really missed you then. It would have been good just to see you around. Even just to sit together and have a small chat. Even just to sit together in silence.
I think detention changed me a lot to be honest. I wonder if you’d even recognise me now if we saw each other. You’d probably think I was someone else. I wish we could get back together and hang out. I wish we could get back the old vibe we had, back then.
I miss you. Do you think I’ll ever see you again?
Wishing you all the best my friend,
My Post-Detention Self