It’s Monday afternoon at Baloo’s Youth Centre and Kate has brought a camping stove and a bag of kit to make pancakes for a School Bus style English-through-cooking lesson. Once Kate gets started, the boys start piling in and there’s soon a crush of 10-16 year-olds – mainly Afghans and a couple of Sudanese. They’ve never had pancakes before but especially love flipping them. One of the Sudanese boys is especially good at twirling them 360 degrees. They practise the vocabulary in English and French. S tries to teach me Farsi and Pashto.
All these boys came to Calais without their families. People talk sarcastically about the unaccompanied minors all being strapping 6-foot 17 year-old guys but there is no doubting these kids’ youth. Many are around my nearly 11 year-old daughter’s size. One of the younger boys keeps getting under the table and pretending to be a dog. Another boy is leaving tomorrow to start the process of settling in France. It’s good news, but also an anxious time as he will be leaving his friends behind. It’s a very daunting decision for a child to make. I imagine my daughter living here, having made some friends, knowing a few friendly adults – how likely is it that she would choose to leave here and go to an unknown place with strangers who speak a language she doesn’t understand. The Baloo volunteers are discussing how to make the transition easier and maintain links between the boys who go and those who stay.
On Tuesday I try an English-through-music lesson at the Darfur school: ‘Hello, Goodbye’ from my phone and speaker. Only one of my 12 students has ever heard of the Beatles though –the only one over 30. I ask them to tell me their favourite singer in English and it’s unanimous: Bob Marley.
On Friday I pull up to the camp entrance as usual, but this time the police ask for my driver’s licence. In that moment I realise that I have in fact forgotten to bring it – it’s in the UK. I wave my arms around in what I hope is a fuzzy, middle-aged woman sort of way (so not much of a stretch) and say: ‘Oh I’m not sure, I think it’s in the back of the car somewhere’. Then I hand him my passport and at first he seems happy with that. But he goes though it carefully, frowning at one of my visas in particular. He talks on the phone, holding my passport open for a very long time. Do I look like a dangerous woman? At last I’m cleared and park by the police van. Don’t think I’ll forget my licence again.
When I get to the Darfur School, Steve is already teaching in the schoolhouse so after tea in the new ‘clubhouse’ I take the teachers pack to a table outside for a class. We have a lesson were I am the doctor and they have to come to me with their problems. I use the small whiteboard and pens from the pack to list the problems and look at the vocabulary. We talk about broken bones and stomach-aches. Although I eat and drink in camp every day and have never had a bad stomach I know that in fact this is a very common problem. So I teach them some important vocabulary like ‘diarrhoea ‘ – a word even I can’t spell so A looks it up on his phone for me. We sit in the sun and we drill the pronunciation: di-a-ree-a. In reality, S badly needs to see a dentist and G needs glasses.
I see I’ve lingered and missed my ferry. Oh well. I chat with N, a Sudanese lady nearing 60. She comes to the Darfur school for French lessons, and since her English is excellent, she teaches beginner’s English. Now a French family have offered her a room and board while she applies for asylum in France – which she will accept as her chances of jumping a lorry are somewhat slim. At the moment, she stays in the small, secluded women and children’s centre but she complains: ‘It’s very boring. The women sit around talking nonsense.’ She has made the difficult journey here to force her reluctant daughter to follow. ‘Always, we mothers are thinking of those closest to us.’ I miss another ferry.
G, who I call ‘ibni - my son’ (from my last trip), is helping me with my Arabic. I tell him he missed my Bob Marley lesson yesterday and he asks me to sing it for him. He laughs and gives that 10,000 watt smile – he almost knows the words: ‘Don’t worry, about a thing, ‘cause every little thing, gonna be alright……….’
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