9.25am, La Pass, the medical drop in centre, is still closed. Nebiyou’s ripped hand, heavily bandaged, rests limply in a sling. He spent two weeks in a specialist surgical unit in Lille after his hand was badly cut on razor wire whilst trying to run from the CRS, the French riot Police. One finger was sliced in two lengthwise.
We wait patiently at the locked door.
Awate arrives. He presses his scarf to his lips. There’s blood on his white hoodie and on the sleeves of his denim coat. Livid raw skin to the side of his left eye. “It was the CRS” he said, “they hit me with an electric baton on my face and on my head and on my back.”
Osman, another Eritrean, joins us outside the door, pink fresh skin on his dark face. “I’m ok now”, he reassures me.
Two Eritreans. I ask them if they’ve seen Nahom, and describe the boy with the broken teeth. They haven’t.
9.30, the sullen security guard, proffering a single wink, unlocks the door. Nebiyou checks in at the desk. Awate comes into the waiting room and slumps into a chair, leaning forward, head held in his hands. Osman has disappeared. We wait in the plastic and chrome silence.
Beside the football stadium, a group of young Eritreans. Amongst them, Mebrahtu, his hand no longer bandaged. The scar on the ball of his thumb, a distant bird in flight, is punctuated by twelve neat stitch marks. A CRS officer stamped on his hand which was split open by a buried spike.
“It’s the same here as in Eritrea”, he says. “I’d as well be back home”. His smile belies a deep suffering.
There’s music, the surprising sound of Nashville in Calais: “One day at a time, sweet Jesus, that’s all I’m asking from You, just give me the strength to do everyday what I have to do”.
“My friend in Holland told me about this song,” Yoel explains. “One day, one day I will get to UK”
The ever smiling Yoel, it’s two years since I first met him in Calais. He’s had a haircut and looks much younger.
They’ve not seen Nahom. Time to move on.
A solitary hooded figure slowly paces the back road in the shadow of the industrial zone. At last, Nahom. He’s lost in the music he’s listening to on his phone, mezmurs, Orthodox Christian chants. Seeing me, he pulls out his earphones and grins broadly, baring his broken teeth. Discharged from hospital after falling from a lorry and losing his front teeth, he came to stay in Maria Skobtsova House for a few days, before suddenly vanishing. During one quiet moment, he spoke of Eritrea, of how his family house had been destroyed in the war with Ethiopia, of the years of harsh military conscription. After three years in the army, he ran away to see his family, then escaped to Ethiopia. He showed me the burn marks on his feet from when he was held to ransom and tortured in Libya. Finally he reached the UK only to have his asylum application refused. Under the Dublin Regulation, because he had been fingerprinted in Italy, he was deported there. Tired and hungry on the streets of Naples he had accepted the offer of bread and water only to pass out and awaken to find his jacket and boots stolen.
After a big embrace and checking he is ok, we talk football, and about friends in common, now in the UK. I tell him he is welcome in the house anytime.
“I will come, yes.” He is silent for a moment, perhaps registering my concern. “I am ok”, he reassures me, “I am ok because I have God.” We part with another embrace.
Earphoned once more, he continues his lone path.
Alex Holmes May 2019.
(Nahom is now an asylum seeker in UK)