It was late July and the air hung hot and heavy over Ard el-Lewa, a crowded Cairo neighbourhood of dirt streets and grey high-rises that sprawls along the wrong side of the Upper Egypt railway line. Arafa Hassan Gouda, a 52-year-old refugee from Darfur in western Sudan, was out running errands with her three daughters when her mobile phone rang and she received news so astonishing that all four forgot their public reserve and danced in the road. The caller was an officer from the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, who told Arafa that she and her six children were among the 750 people worldwide to be accepted for the UK’s Gateway resettlement programme, an initiative that, every year since 2004, has offered a hand-picked group of refugees the opportunity to start a new life in Britain. Arafa rushed home to speak to her sons.
The news shouldn’t have been a complete surprise. A team from the UK Home Office had interviewed her in Cairo a few weeks earlier, but the family had learned from bitter experience to keep their expectations low. They had fled across borders in the back of trucks, in cars and on boats, and had waved goodbye to friends who later drowned in the Mediterranean dreaming of Europe. Travelling by plane would be an adventure, doing so with a UK visa an almost unimaginable luxury.
“The first thing I thought when I heard Britain was: Mr Bean,” Eithar, Arafa’s 17-year-old daughter, told me when we met in their cramped apartment three weeks after the momentous phone call. Her twin sister, Mayas, giggled.
The twins had since started going to a local internet café, together with their younger brothers, Wael, 16, and Akram, 15, to research their future home, and now they had many questions. Had I visited Stonehenge? Was it true that there was a big library somewhere – maybe in Ireland? Had I also read the news about Prince Harry being photographed gambling?
Arafa’s rented flat had scuffed walls and unexpectedly grand furniture; she was sitting on a battered red-and-gold armchair that resembled a cast-off throne. Arafa is short, with high cheekbones and a wide, gap-toothed mouth. She wore rectangular glasses, a black abaya and a purple headscarf, the corner of which she used to wipe away her tears. In the corner of the living room, the television was playing an Arabic rip-off of You’ve Been Framed! but no one was paying much attention. Eithar, Mayas, Akram and Wael were hunched over a wooden dining table strewn with printer paper and pencils. They sketched as they spoke to me, their arms moving in smooth, confident strokes.
For many years now, Arafa’s children had entertained themselves by drawing together, and sometimes writing each other poetry or stories. The two boys liked to draw Japanese-style comic strips, and had created cartoon alter egos. Wael, who is tall and reed-thin and was wearing football shorts, an NYC trucker cap and a brown T-shirt, drew himself in louche, gangster poses. Akram, who is similarly built, depicted himself as a spiky-haired superhero with flaming arms. Eithar drew fashion sketches and Mayas was working on a graphic novel that told the story of two childhood friends, separated by the war between northern Sudan and South Sudan. After a long time apart, the friends have met on opposite sides of the battlefield. “What will happen next?” I asked her. “They drop their weapons and hug and everyone around them stops fighting and laughs,” she said. “I hate war. It’s because of war we are here,” she added, softly.
Statistically, Arafa and her children are lucky to have been resettled, yet theirs is an unenviable kind of luck; it’s the luck of surviving a lightning strike or reaching the top of the organ transplant list: good fortune arising from misfortune. In 2015, the number of people fleeing war or persecution reached an all-time high of 60 million. Of these, more than 19.5 million registered as refugees with the UN, which gives them the right to protection in the country where they have made their asylum claim. Some countries treat refugees better than others. More than 50 states have not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and therefore do not recognise these protection obligations, and many others only partly meet their legal responsibilities. The parts of the world that can best support refugees, such as the wealthy states of North America and western Europe, are the hardest for most asylum-seekers to reach. They are separated from war-torn areas by policed borders, and vast expanses of land and sea. About 86 per cent of refugees live in poor countries.
Resettlement schemes are intended to redress this imbalance by providing a route for refugees deemed “most vulnerable” to move permanently to a third country. The UNHCR believes that 1.15 million refugees need to be resettled. This group includes the sick and the disabled, unaccompanied children and single mothers, LGBTI refugees who face persecution, and victims of gender-based violence. The 28 countries with resettlement schemes made 80,000 places available in 2015 – enough for roughly one in 14 of those eligible for resettlement – but they rarely meet their annual quotas. The US resettles the largest number, taking in about 50,000 people a year. The UK is in the middle of the pack, behind Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Germany and several Scandinavian countries, which take in more than a thousand a year. Additional ad hoc schemes have been set up specifically to help Syrians, the world’s largest UN-registered refugee population, who also take up a substantial proportion of mainstream resettlement schemes.
The shortfall in places is such that it can be hard for the UNHCR to select which refugees to put forward for resettlement. Heidi Boener, a resettlement officer for the UNHCR in Cairo, said of the large numbers of refugees from Africa, many of whom have suffered traumatic experiences, that “it is difficult sometimes to identify the most vulnerable among a pool of already highly vulnerable individuals”. In Egypt refugees are not legally allowed to work (though many do so), and several nationalities have limited access to education or health care. Rights groups have recorded cases of harassment, arbitrary and indefinite detention and forced deportation of refugees. According to one charity (which asked to remain anonymous because of the political complications of its work), “around 95 per cent” of refugees in Cairo would meet the UNHCR’s criteria for resettlement. Last December, there were more than a quarter of a million registered refugees in Egypt. Viewed from this perspective, Arafa and her children, who are among 150 to be resettled from Egypt to the UK in 2015, have achieved something closer to winning a lottery.
Arafa, in Cairo in October
Arafa once told me that her happiest childhood memory was also her most painful. She was six years old. In the morning she was circumcised by an old lady from Dello, her village in southern Darfur, a vast province that stretches along Sudan’s western border. In the afternoon she wore a new dress and kohl around her eyes; the neighbours gave her gifts and money and they sang until late at night. Her father, who had four wives and numerous children, divorced her mother soon after that and Arafa was sent to live with her childless aunt and uncle in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. She remembers little else of her life in Dello.
Until she was 14, Arafa went to school, and at 16 she entered into an arranged marriage. Her husband, Mohamed, was 30 or so and worked as a clothes trader. He was a quiet, calm man and her uncle decided that he would offer the stability and security Arafa needed. For two months before her wedding she was confined to her uncle’s house, as is customary, while her female friends and neighbours prepared her to be a bride. They braided her hair, and perfumed her body with aromatic ember-wood smoke and incense each day so that her skin glowed and even her sweat was scented. After their marriage, Mohamed slaughtered a goat on the doorstep, in keeping with the local custom, and she jumped over its body into her marital home.
In 1986 she gave birth to a son, Amr, and two years later a daughter, Ghaida. But then, one night three years later, a loud bang marked an abrupt end to their quiet life. Policemen had knocked down her front door, and they proceeded to beat her and Mohamed up in front of their terrified children, before taking her, blindfolded, to prison. She stayed in solitary confinement for about 45 days and was beaten often. It was more than a decade before war erupted in Darfur, yet tensions were already running high between the Arabs, who made up the political elite in Khartoum, and black Darfuris who sought greater independence for their province. Arafa was questioned about Mohamed’s activities – her interrogators believed he was part of a Darfuri dissident group – but she could not tell them anything of use. “I knew nothing about his life,” she told me. When she was released, no one knew where Mohamed was. She did not hear from him until two years later, in 1993, when he sent news that he was in Libya, and that she should join him.
Arafa’s neighbours helped her and her two children travel from their home in Omdurman, Khartoum’s twin city on the opposite bank of the Nile, to a small Bedouin village in north-western Sudan. From there they could board a truck that would avoid the main checkpoints into Libya. Two trucks travelled in convoy through the desert for 15 days, crossing the Jebel Uweinat mountain range, where the Libyan, Egyptian and Sudanese borders meet, and continuing to the Libyan oasis of Kufra. At night the passengers sang together, their voices magnified in the stillness of the Sahara. Arafa made friends with a woman with two teenage girls, and once they reached Kufra the two families hired a minibus to travel the 1,500 kilometres north to the Libyan capital, Tripoli. Arafa was overwhelmed by the beauty of the Mediterranean city’s harbour, and by her first view of the sea – it looked to her like a painting.
Mohamed and Arafa resumed their life together in Tripoli. She gave birth to the twins, and then in quick succession to her two youngest, Wael and Akram. The marriage was traditional: Arafa stayed at home to look after the children, and Mohamed kept his life private, as before. He was kind to his children, who remember his love of drawing and how quickly and skilfully he could capture anyone’s portrait, but he was distant. Money was often tight; Mohamed would disappear for weeks on end, eventually returning with cash. In 2005, two years after the beginning of the war in Darfur that killed hundreds of thousands of people, Mohamed said he needed to go there for work and Arafa could not talk him out of it. She never saw or heard from him again. The family can only assume he was killed.
With his father missing, Arafa’s eldest son, Amr, then 19, became the head of the household. He was studying medicine at al-Fateh University in Tripoli – for as long as anyone could remember, Amr had wanted to be a doctor – but took on part-time jobs at a restaurant and on a market stall. For the first time in her life, Arafa began working, too. She taught Arabic to children and illiterate women. Life as a black African in Libya has never been easy, with discrimination and abuse by civilians or by the security services commonplace, yet Arafa and her family had assimilated well. They made Libyan friends, and although they still spoke Sudanese Arabic at home, the children easily switched to the long, flat vowels of the Tripolitanian dialect on the streets.
But by early 2011 their lives were once again in turmoil. An uprising against the 41-year rule of the Libyan leader, Muammar al-Gaddafi, had quickly escalated into civil war. Rumours spread that the government was employing Africans as mercenaries, and black people became the target of brutal attacks, torture and detention by rebel militiamen and vigilantes. Amr received a call from university friends warning him not to go to class. The family barely dared to go out. That March, when Nato forces began bombing government and military targets in Tripoli, they stayed in one room at night. The younger boys, Wael and Akram, then aged nine and ten, became traumatised by the low-flying planes and nearby explosions and began to wet the bed. One day, Mayas, one of the twins, opened the front door to find a bullet-riddled body on the ground in front of her. Arafa and Amr decided they needed to leave Libya.
Initially they planned to travel west by road to Tunisia, but heavy fighting had made the route impassable. In September 2011, a few weeks after Tripoli came under the control of the rebel-backed National Transitional Council, Amr received a call about a boat chartered by the Red Cross that was leaving the following day for the port city of Benghazi, in the east. From there they could hire a vehicle to take them across the border and into Egypt. They decided to take their chance.
For 16 hours they huddled inside the boat, packed so tightly they could barely move. The passengers were mostly Libyans, but there was also a small group of young Sudanese men. The atmosphere was tense. “Everyone was afraid of everyone else,” Ghaida remembers: no one knew whose side the other was on. There was heavy fighting in the city of Sirte, the pro-government stronghold between Tripoli and Benghazi, close to where, one month later, Gaddafi was shot and beaten to death. Rather than hug the coastline, the boat diverted north before Sirte to the island of Malta and then south again. In Benghazi Harbour, Libyan officials threatened to arrest the group of Sudanese men. Some of them jumped into the sea, attempting to swim to safety, but the police fished them out and handcuffed them. Arafa’s group was allowed to continue on its way, because they were a family. Amr phoned a friend, who arranged a private minibus to take them to Salloum, the main border crossing with Egypt.
Sudanese culture is important to the family: Mayas tries on a traditional bridal headdress
According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), between February 2011 and January 2012 more than 290,000 people entered Egypt through Salloum. Some were Egyptian migrants in Libya returning home; others were Libyans fleeing war. Both of these groups were granted safe passage into the country. There were also people from third countries, including migrant workers or refugees from sub-Saharan Africa and south-east Asia. The Egyptian government did not want to permit these nationalities to enter Egypt. As a result, the UNHCR struck a deal with Egypt to create the country’s first refugee camp since 1948, designed as a temporary measure to allow the UN to register arrivals. Under the agreement, those deemed able to return home safely would be repatriated – either voluntarily, with an assistance package organised by the IOM, or involuntarily, by a government deportation order. Those given refugee status would be resettled to Europe or North America.
The first camp at Salloum, used between February 2011 and August 2012, was little larger than one square mile. At its peak, it was home to over 1,800 residents (third-country refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants) as well as several thousand people transiting. The UN-issued tents were packed so close together, they almost touched.
Arafa’s family quickly faced a big problem. In late 2011, when they arrived at Salloum camp, they were denied refugee status. As a result, they were stuck: Arafa did not feel safe going back to Libya or to Sudan, but they could not be treated as refugees. They did not have the right to be considered for resettlement, nor did they have a right to accommodation, food or medical assistance in the camp. Arafa often grows angry when she remembers the anxiety of having to wait until last in line to collect leftover food, or the humiliation of being barred from camp meetings and once, temporarily, from receiving a tent in the new, expanded camp established in 2012.
The UNHCR’s decision to reject Arafa’s refugee claim is odd. It contradicts the organisation’s most recent advisory opinion (dated 2006), which states that “the threats are so widespread” for “Sudanese of non-Arab Darfurian background” – such as Arafa’s family – that they cannot safely return to any part of Sudan, and should be granted refugee status. It also urges that “due attention [be] given to the particular protection needs” of single women and previous victims of persecution. UK policy guidance issued in 2012 makes the same recommendations. The UNHCR refused to comment on why Arafa’s claim was rejected, saying it does not discuss individual cases, out of concern for client confidentiality.
Arafa and her children tried to make the best of their situation. Her two eldest children, Amr and Ghaida, volunteered with the health clinic in the mornings, and in the evenings they worked as UN community leaders, checking up on babies and delivering medicine to those with long-term illnesses. When an Eritrean refugee was found half dead from fever and dehydration in the desert near Salloum, Ghaida put him on a drip and stayed up with him all night until he was transferred to hospital. As soon as he recovered he escaped from the camp to cross the border to Libya, on foot once more, and try his luck finding a smuggler to take him by boat to Europe. He was never heard from again.
Mayas, Eithar, Wael and Akram were too old for the UNHCR-supported school, but borrowed books whenever they could and took English lessons from a fellow refugee. They took advantage of the internet access provided, and developed an obsession with Japanese and Korean cartoons. One day they found a sick kitten, which they named Far (which means “rat” in Arabic) and nursed back to health. Far had kittens, and then her kittens had kittens, and still Arafa’s family remained stranded at Salloum. During their four years living in a tent, they acquired nine dogs and four cats, which they named after their favourite comic heroes: Clark (Superman) and Bruce (Batman) as well as Krishna (the Bollywood superhero Krrish), Tama (a black cat in the Japanese anime television series Dragon Ball Z) and Nekobaa (“Granny Cat” in the Naruto manga books).
“We were always waiting, waiting, waiting,” Eithar, one of the twins, said. In winter, the tents were cold; in summer, it was frequently over 30°C. Some residents organised protests and hunger strikes at their continued detention and the poor conditions. One report, published by the UNHCR, describes how a woman doused herself in petrol and attempted to set herself alight in the camp’s clinic, only being stopped by volunteers. Gradually, the number of people in the camp dwindled as residents were resettled, returned home, or escaped either to Cairo or to cross the Mediterranean. On a laptop that Eithar describes as a “superhero” because it has been dropped so many times but always responds well to Akram’s fix-it jobs, the children have saved a few photographs of Salloum. Their tent is surrounded by lonely, spindly wooden stumps and scraps of blue-and-white UN tarpaulin remaining from tents hastily torn down as, one by one, the families around them departed. It pains Arafa to remember how Akram, her youngest, always asked mournfully when they, too, would be able to leave, and how she never had an answer.
Jebel Uweinat, where the borders of Libya, Egypt and Sudan meet
By 2014, the UN was coming under pressure to close the camp, as it was believed that it was attracting migrants who were not fleeing Libya but merely hoped Salloum could provide a fast track to resettlement overseas. On 31 October that year, Salloum officially closed and the United Nations and other agencies departed. Thirty-nine people – including Amr, Mayas, Eithar, Wael and Akram – remained inside. Arafa had fallen ill with high blood pressure and chest pains and was in Cairo, where she had received a heart cauterisation and was being monitored. Her eldest daughter, Ghaida, accompanied her but then she ended up in hospital, too, with appendicitis.
Early on 12 December in Salloum, while the children were asleep and Amr was preparing for his first prayers, Egyptian men in military uniform shouted at everyone to get up and dressed. The family, together with the other remaining residents, was bundled into a truck and taken to a detention centre in the nearby town of Marsa Matrouh. They did not have time to say goodbye to their pets, and left behind most of their belongings, including all their family photographs. Two days later, Amr was taken to al-Qanater Prison in Cairo.
“This was our first time without my mother or Amr, just alone. We were scared at first but after that, we looked at it like an adventure,” Eithar told me when I first asked about their detention. Only months later did they speak about the terrible cold of their cell at night when they slept on the bare floor, or how Mayas collapsed several times and had to receive oxygen. “Sometimes, I was feeling like my head would explode,” she said.
During this time, Ghaida and Arafa were in Cairo frantically looking for a way to secure the teenagers’ release. They visited a local organisation (it requested anonymity in this article, citing political sensitivities), which began looking into the case. Members of the Egyptian security forces had begun following Ghaida and Arafa to and from hospital and to their meetings with refugee organisations, saying that as soon as they were well they would be sent to Sudan. A local organisation contacted the UNHCR with their concerns for the family. Finally, on 27 January 2015, nearly three and a half years after arriving in Egypt, Arafa received blue refugee cards for her and her six children. It was too late. A deportation order had been issued for Mayas, Eithar, Wael and Akram. They were driven by police car from Marsa Matrouh to the southern town of Aswan, and then across the border to Sudan. They had never been to Sudan before, and did not know anyone there; Arafa’s aunt and uncle, who had helped raise her, had died many years earlier.
“There was no hope. All of our life stretched in front of us was black,” was how Arafa once described this period. Somehow, she found the composure to contact an old Sudanese friend in Libya, who arranged for some of her relatives living in Khartoum to collect the teenagers and take them in. The girls helped with housework. The boys spent their days doing “three things”, Akram said: “watching TV, watching TV, watching TV”. He describes it as “living like lions, just sleeping and eating”. In March, Arafa, with the help of some friends and the refugee organisation, arranged for the children to travel back to Egypt by boat up the Nile. They paid a Sudanese border guard to wave them through.
On the teenagers’ return, the family were placed on a fast-tracked list for resettlement by the UN. They were deemed to be in a dangerous predicament: despite the last-minute issuance of refugee cards, they remained on a government list for deportation. Worse still, Amr remained in jail with four other men from Salloum, and resettlement was his only route out of jail. In Egypt, those accused of illegal migration can be detained indefinitely. Technically, Amr was allowed weekly visits in prison but Arafa could afford to visit him only fortnightly. He was growing sick and depressed. Because of him, Arafa could not stop crying.
By early last autumn the Cairo sun had lost some of its fierceness. Arafa’s family waited anxiously for information on when they would move to the UK, yet none came. They were not sure what was causing the delay. Secretly, I began to worry and made my own inquiries into the case, but received only vague assurances. Finally, in mid-October, there was some news. They would move to Hull within weeks. Amr, however, would not go with them. There were problems processing his UK visa but, with a bit of luck – they were told – he would join them by the end of the year.
To celebrate the news, we visited the pyramids. Arafa had once told me that she was sad at how little of Egypt she had seen, and I’d promised to take them to Giza. The teenagers rolled their eyes at their mother, who embarked on a happy frenzy of photo-taking as we walked up beyond the Sphinx towards the Great Pyramid of Cheops. Wael enjoyed climbing boulders and posing on top of them. His younger brother, Akram, requisitioned his mother’s phone and shot his own video. “Hello, this is Akram and here before me you can see the pyramids of Giza,” he narrated as he panned across the landscape.
We took it in turns to ride a camel. Arafa tired quickly, and so I took a car with her to a viewing spot while the others continued exploring. Cairo is a filthy, chaotic city but it looks beautiful from afar. We could see the three pyramids, and then beyond them the interlocking flat rooftops that stretch into the hazy horizon, and the million white satellite dishes that point heavenwards. Arafa burst into tears. She was trying to remember when her children had been so happy, she said. On the drive back to Ard el-Lewa the whole family was all uncharacteristically quiet, lost in thought.
On 25 October, the first day of rain after the long summer, Arafa and Ghaida travelled to downtown Cairo to collect their UK visas. They needed to pick them up from the Mogamma, an institution memorialised in Egyptian culture by a hit comedy film, The Terrorist and the Kebab, in which a meek family man becomes so frustrated by attempts to obtain the paperwork needed to transfer his children to a new school that he starts taking hostages. At 11.30, three hours after they had first arrived, I joined them sitting in the drizzle outside the Mogamma’s hulking, Soviet-style building on the edge of Tahrir Square. They still had several hours to wait.
“Ana farhana w’ana za’alana,” Arafa said, slowly raising her index and then her middle finger to the grey sky. I am happy, and I am sad. She was thinking of Amr.
Six young African men came out of the Mogamma building and rushed towards us, greeting Ghaida and Arafa warmly. They had known each other in Salloum, and now the men were collecting their visas to move to Sweden. Ahmed Adem, a 28-year-old from Darfur, paced up and down, occasionally exhaling loudly into cupped hands. “I have found a new life,” he told me. “Waiting is so, so difficult. I am so worried.” Even now, he could not quite believe he would be given a visa and allowed to travel.
As their departure date approached, I asked several times if the family had started packing. I got the impression the question was strange to them; they had so few belongings, it wouldn’t take long to put them in bags. They attended a one-day cultural orientation programme on the UK, organised by the IOM. The teenagers also learned their new address and searched for it on Google Street View. Viewed from a poky bedroom in Ard el-Lewa, the postwar terraces looked exotic even to me, the grass and trees almost impossibly green. Soon afterwards, Eithar asked me how their names would be pronounced in Hull. It had just occurred to them that their own names would sound foreign to them when spoken by English tongues. Wael would lose the glottal stop that separates the two syllables of his name, Akram and Eithar their rich rolled Rs. The letter ’ain at the start of Arafa’s name is almost unique to Arabic: in England, her name would start and end with A.
On 2 November the family left Cairo. I met Arafa and her kids outside the departures terminal at the airport to say goodbye. They arrived by minibus, flustered and jittery, accompanied by a few friends and a dozen brand-new suitcases. Their Sudanese friends, all refugees too, had pooled their money to buy them bags and clothes for their journey. Ghaida and Arafa, who usually wore black robes in public, were wearing new jeans and high-heeled ankle boots. Eithar and Mayas wore matching striped jumpers with colour-coordinated headscarves. Wael and Akram looked proud in their hoodies and beanie hats as they played jenga with one large trolley and too much check-in luggage. More friends arrived to convey their good wishes.
As the family disappeared, smiling and crying, through the sliding doors of the strip-lit terminal building, I felt briefly overcome with sadness and anxiety. For Arafa it was the end of a long and difficult journey – and perhaps the start of a new one.
Refugees get little choice regarding the country in which they are resettled; although the UNHCR tries to take individual preferences into account, where you end up is to some extent governed by luck. More than half will move to the US, which places the highest demands on new arrivals, who receive less support or welfare than those resettled to Europe. The UK Gateway refugees end up in the north of England, predominantly in Hull, Sheffield, Rochdale and Bradford, where local authorities have volunteered to house them. They are eligible for the same welfare entitlements as UK citizens (but cannot vote), and are given 12 months of specialised support, which is delivered by a charity. In Hull, this service is provided by the Refugee Council, whose representatives meet them at the airport, take them to their new home, and try to help them adjust to British life.
“Some of the people on the Gateway programme may have lived in a refugee camp for a decade,” said Lisa Doyle, who is in charge of advocacy at the Refugee Council. “Some children will have been born there, and will not have ever lived in a house, or had a front door that you lock, or a fridge, or a bed.” Sometimes, the initial support needed can be as basic as showing someone how their door keys work, or what a supermarket looks like, let alone how to pay an electricity bill or council tax, or write a CV. Arrivals can struggle to adapt to the weather in Britain, but often their biggest challenges are learning English and finding work. It is rarely easy, but Gateway refugees have an advantage – other asylum-seekers in Britain do not receive this support.
In September 2015, following EU summits on the European refugee crisis, Britain agreed to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. It has not expanded its Gateway programme and has refused to accept refugees from the countries on Europe’s periphery which are struggling to cope. The government evidently does not consider increasing its refugee intake a popular measure; the Home Office said it did not want to participate in this article. I submitted a Freedom of Information request to find out how much the Gateway programme costs: in 2014-15 and 2015-16 it received £11.4m in funding per annum, from a mixture of EU and UK government funds (the Home Office said it could not break down the figures).
Springtime in Hull: Mayas, Ghaida, Eithar, Arafa, Amr, Wael and Akram. Photo: Rick Pushinsky
As the plane descended in Manchester, Arafa and her family looked down at the green fields and trees of England in wonder. “It was so beautiful,” Ghaida said. “And we saw sheep – we love sheep!”
A team from the Refugee Council, including Lisa Doyle, met them at the airport, and they were taken by bus to Hull. Eithar kept on opening and closing her eyes, “just to check it was real”. The Refugee Council support worker asked them repeatedly if they were OK, which they found touching. “We were so well looked after, like babies,” Ghaida said. They found their house beautiful, too, and the backyard, which they planned to plant with flowers. Even the cold was bearable. At 15, Akram considers it a point of pride that he rarely wears a coat.
I called them a few times from Cairo, and then again when I visited the UK in early December. “Welcome back!” Arafa said, the first two words of English I had heard her use. A few days later, I travelled to their three-bedroomed red-brick house not far from Hull station, and the family gave me a tour. A few of the neighbours had decorated their homes with flashing Christmas lights and plastic Santas, and Arafa thought she might join in next year. For now, perhaps because they did not have many belongings, the house didn’t yet look lived in. The white walls were bare; the light wood tables and chests of drawers carried no ornaments. There was more evidence of the previous owner – a beige stairlift, a Zimmer frame in the bathroom – than the current ones. Instead of sitting in the impersonal, sparsely decorated living room, we gathered in the girls’ room, sitting on their twin beds with matching, multicoloured animal-print duvets. The teenagers appeared surgically attached to their new, identically bright orange smartphones, yet somehow they kept on accidentally picking up the wrong one.
“We have a bank account. We have everything,” Arafa told me, over a cup of sweet black tea and a mince pie. She fanned out a selection of plastic cards: her permanent residency card, her bank card, a library card, her college ID and her Tesco Clubcard (this one was Akram’s idea). I thought of the time she’d shown me Amr’s refugee card, a piece of blue paper cheaply laminated like a primary-school poster, and I had been struck by how flimsy this life-changing document was. Perhaps Arafa was thinking something similar, because as she reordered the cards into a pile she said: “I feel human for the first time.”
Arafa and Ghaida cooked me lunch, as they had done on so many afternoons in Ard el-Lewa, piling my plate precariously high with Sudanese meat stew, rice and salad. Afterwards, the teenagers sloped back upstairs to their smartphones, and the mood briefly changed. Ghaida told me she felt haunted by the people she’d left behind. She talked about friends lost in war, young men drowned at sea. She said she could not stop thinking of an Iraqi man who had cried in fear and desperation as he begged for medical care for his dying toddler, or picturing a Somali teenager who had been punched in the face by a guard outside the UNHCR. She worried about the Chadian mother who had shared a cell with the twins at Marsa Matrouh, with her baby son whose cough wouldn’t go. She said that since last summer she had asked UNHCR staff over and over, “What about the others?” They had tried to reassure her they were not her responsibility and urged her just to take advantage of her lucky break, which the whole family was trying its best to do.
Ghaida and Arafa were both learning English at college. Ghaida hoped that once her English was good enough, she could study medicine at university and work as a doctor. Akram and the twins had started school and college, respectively, and Wael was at a special academy for teenagers for whom English is a second language. Amr had not yet arrived, and Arafa still fretted about him. (He finally landed in England on 12 January. After they were reunited, no one could bear to leave his side, so when he took a nap, the whole family stayed in his bedroom, silently watching over him.)
The teenagers were making friends. Eithar loved studying with students from all over the world. “It’s like a door to every country. You just have to open it and discover,” she said. Akram had played rugby for the first time. “I do not like this game,” he said drily. Their English had improved, but they were far from fluent. When I asked them if it was difficult studying subjects such as maths and science in a foreign language – after all, they had not attended school for four years – they shrugged. Because he struggled to read English numbers out loud, his teacher let him write down the answer and hold it up, Wael said.
Their British next-door neighbour had popped round to introduce herself, and Sudanese families nearby were organising a welcome party. Some of the local Sudanese had bought them a TV in the Black Friday sales. They liked watching My Wife and Kids, an early Noughties American sitcom, and The X Factor – even if Mayas did insist on singing along. They were interested by how often British people said “please” and “thank you”. Arafa saw politeness, and the tidiness of British streets, as a form of gratitude to a country that cares for its citizens. They found the postman extraordinary – in Egypt and Libya there is no national postal service that will deliver letters to your front door. They were exploring the city on foot or by bus, and even this was simple. In Egypt, forcing your way on to a bus is “a matter of life or death”, Eithar said, but in Hull you just wait in line and buy a ticket.