HANOK, aged 17, and Mohammed, 18, are alone in the UK, having left their family behind in Eritrea in order to escape military conscription.
Dariush, aged 17, was smuggled out of Iran by his family, who feared for his life after he had been involved in political protests. Mustafa, 19, left Syria with his mother and sisters after a bomb fell on their home in Aleppo.
These boys — or young men, as some would insist they be called — are all searching for the same thing: safety. As was Joseph, when he fled with Mary and Jesus from Herod’s persecution, to take refuge in Egypt.
The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, is a co-chair of Refugee Welcome, and is on the panel of the all-party parliamentary group that is currently looking at the experiences of refugees who make it to the UK. He says: “There are so many reasons why people flee their homeland today — it may be from war, or torture, or famine.
“In some ways, Joseph was in a better place. God had sent him a dream to guide him to safety in Egypt. Many refugees today do not have a plan like that. They just had to get out for safety’s sake, or maybe they were sent by their families. The cost of getting the whole family out is often too much, and it is often the young man who is the number-one choice, because culturally sons are chosen.
“Usually their plan is not worked out as much as we imagine. It may just be ‘to get to Europe’. You only have to look at some of the families from Rwanda or Burundi: they just go to their nearest point, and then they may have to move on to the next point, to try to find somewhere safe and secure.”
The parliamentary inquiry has so far heard from refugees from countries around the world, including the Congo and Papua New Guinea, where young men spoke of the torture from which they had fled.
YET it is these young men on the cusp of adulthood that the public in Western countries seems most to fear, as was evidenced recently in the headlines above photos of boys brought to the UK from the Calais Jungle camp. Newspapers questioned whether these refugees really were children, and quoted MPs who called for dental checks to determine their age in order, they said, to stop “British hospitality [being] abused”.
Bishop Butler: “Sadly, I think what lies behind attitudes to boys is fear. Stories get told in the media of groups of young males who are predatory, and this is not the case. It is a myth that is perpetuated, and I am deeply disturbed by all the issues around age.
“The reality is that these are young people who have been in Calais for a quite significant time, and when they arrived they were children. They have been deeply traumatised. Some of them are going to look older — they are not going to be as fresh-faced as someone who has had an easy life.”
Liz Clegg, a volunteer who worked in the Calais Jungle camp until its dismantling at the end of October, is fierce in her condemnation of the media’s response to the child refugees. She set up a mother-and-children’s centre in Calais, which supported many of the unaccompanied children, helping them find shelter when they arrived.
“I think the fear about boys coming in is a ‘this is my castle’ kind of fear — we feel threatened. When the refugee crisis was on TV, everyone wanted their cute pet refugees. But they are not cute three-year-olds: they are boys, and they need our compassion and empathy. They are fleeing persecution, and often conscription, and they may have been taken from their families very young to be child soldiers, or they are fleeing radicalisation.
“They are just normal people, and they want to be able to live their lives. Why can’t we share the space we have?”
HANOK, the 17-year-old fleeing conscription, doesn’t say he is from Eritrea when asked. Instead he says he is from “Planet Earth”. “When people ask where I am from I say I am from earth — we are all from earth. We are all equal when we are born. But parts of the earth are broken, parts of East Africa are broken.”
He crossed to Europe by sea from Libya with hundreds of others. He has expressed in art a little of his terrifying experience travelling from his homeland, and his pieces feature in an exhibition, Exodus, organised by the International Red Cross, where he currently volunteers.
One of his pieces, a life jacket, is stitched with words including “unity” and “future”. Hanok explains: “I crossed in a boat from Libya to France. Most of us did not have a life jacket. If you have a life jacket, it can save you and save your future. If you do not have one you can lose your life.”
Hanok did not have one, but he did survive. He is now at college in south London, studying construction. “I now have some contact with my family again [in Eritrea]. It is difficult living here without my family, but it is important for me that I have my freedom, and I can go to school. I want to be an engineer. I can see my future, so I am happy.”
His compatriot, Mohammed, also fled compulsory military service. Alone, he walked for eight days to get to Sudan, but found no safe haven there. He was smuggled to Greece in a dinghy with 45 others, but on arrival was imprisoned before being told to leave the country.
He made his way to the UK. “I had no choice. I wanted to reach a place where I could fulfil my dreams and live in safety.” Three months later, he was given refugee status. “I feel like a human here. I’m treated with dignity and respect, regardless of my religion or race. I can speak without restrictions. I never knew what freedom meant before, but now I am free.”
FOR others, even though they may reach a safe and supposedly free country such as the UK, their ability to hope in a better future has already faded. Dariush was smuggled out of Iran by his family after being involved in political protest, and arrived in the UK in the back of a lorry. He had been told by his father not to come back home, which devastated him. He ended up sleeping rough on the streets, until he was helped by the charity Refugee Action.
His experiences on the journey have left him with little optimism for his future. “My life is not in my hands. It is in the hands of the British and the Iranian governments. You don’t know what a small gesture means to a refugee. Even just a smile can mean so much.”
Mustafa, also, does not know where his future lies. He travelled from Syria with his mother and sisters, the last to leave their village, fleeing only when their home was destroyed. They went to Turkey, before heading for Germany, where they have relatives. But they are now in a refugee camp in Greece, where they have had to stay for many months. Mustafa is still grieving for his old life, and dreams of home, not a new life in Europe.
“We miss everything in Syria. Every Thursday we go to a bazaar and we take the vegetables from the floor. We haven’t got used to the food here. It’s nothing like we expected. This isn’t like Syria. There we had hospitals, and we understood people. Once I was sick here, and I went to the hospital, but they told me to go out.
“In Syria we were living a very nice life before the war. There was nowhere better than Syria. If we were to go back now, and there was no war in that place, I would kiss the feet of whoever would take me there.”
BISHOP Butler is hopeful that the public is beginning to realise that the refugees who most need our help are boys such as these. “Increasingly, people are being helped to understand that these are 14-,15-,16-year-olds who have seen more trauma than most of us will see in our lives. I have heard lots of positive stories of individuals and church congregations helping people.
”We are living in a world that is not going to suddenly stop having refugees. We have to think about this long term.” It is a story of humans seeking sanctuary, he continued, the same search for refuge embodied in the Christmas story, and one that will be played out thousands, millions, more times.
Christian Aid’s Light the Way appeal is asking for help to “light the way” for refugees forced from their homes by violence. For more information visit www.christianaid.org.uk/christmasappeal.