Seminar Series: Lights in the Distance: Reporting Europe’s refugee crisis

On a cold January afternoon, we had the opportunity to meet Daniel Trilling, acclaimed journalist and author who joined the first GRAMNet Seminar of 2019 to speak about his new book, Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe (Picador). The volume, which has just been released in paperback, is the culmination of five years of research and reporting on the refugee experience just before the height of the ‘crisis’ in Europe, represented with responsibility and painstaking detail. Trilling weaves together the stories of several people he met in camps and hostels across Europe and followed them from country to country as they navigated an increasingly violent and hostile immigration system.

Read below an exclusive edited extract from the book, following the story of Jamal, a young refugee from Sudan who spent the first five years of his adult life on the streets of Europe.

Lights in The Distance by Daniel Trilling [edited extract]

Jamal had almost reached the end of his story, as we sat beside the river in the town he now called home. It was nearly evening, and he invited me back to his apartment one more time, to make dinner. In the kitchen, we made a potato stew, with onions, paprika and rice. ‘We used to eat this in Calais,’ he said. ‘If we found meat, then we’d put meat in it, too.’ Rihanna songs played from his phone as we chopped the vegetables. A lot of his Sudanese friends had got into R ’n’ B and hip hop since they’d arrived in Europe, Jamal said. He laughed as he told me a story about a friend who was now in the UK. ‘When he texts, he’s always, like, “Yo, yo, yo.” Why can’t he just say “Hello” or “Hi”?’

I asked Jamal again about the sequence of events that had brought him from Calais to this northern European country. He didn’t want to go into detail – he didn’t yet feel secure enough in his new home – but I suggested he could tell me just enough so that my readers would understand the dysfunction in Europe’s asylum system, to give them a sense of the gulf between the way states try to regulate movement, and the messy reality of life. He agreed to try.

‘After my friend crossed to England,’ Jamal said, ‘I started to become calm in my mind. And I said, “Let me try something while I’m taking a break from the lorries.”’ The ‘rule’ Jamal was so proud of – don’t tell anybody what you’re doing until you do it – was in play. Like he had done before in Greece, Jamal tried to educate himself through conversations with other refugees, learning the names of other places in Europe where a young man like him might get a better deal. After being rejected by many of the other Sudanese in Calais, Jamal wasn’t as keen as he used to be to join the diaspora in the UK; perhaps he would fare better elsewhere. Based on what he could find out, he chose another country.

Jamal left Calais and went back to La Chapelle, in Paris. He was taken aback to see how many more people there were sleeping rough under the railway track. ‘In February, there were only thirty of us; now, it was around a hundred.’ He spent three days at La Chapelle, mainly in internet cafes, researching his new destination, while he waited for his sister to wire him some money. He made a playlist for the journey on his phone: Sean Paul, Jennifer Lopez, Rihanna and ‘a lot of English rappers, since I was going away from England.’ In particular, Jamal said, ‘I kept listening to Lowkey’s “Dear England”. Do you know that song?’

I didn’t, so I asked him to play it to me. He paused Rihanna, midway through ‘American Oxygen’, and switched to ‘Dear England’. It was a melancholy track with lyrics about police brutality, about military intervention overseas and treasures looted from the empire and dis‐ played in the British Museum.

When Jamal reached his new destination, he wandered around until he found some police officers who could tell him where the nearest asylum reception centre was. ‘I got there, they took all my details, my date of birth, my nationality. I stayed there three or four days, then they sent me to a camp.’ At the reception centre, he applied for asylum. He was interviewed. The interviewers asked him questions about his home country, his reasons for leaving, why he hadn’t stayed put elsewhere. He answered their questions, hoping they would satisfy criteria his interviewers did not let him see. They called him in for a second interview and asked him all the same questions again. He answered them again. Then Jamal received a letter saying his application had been accepted.

‘The last time I had a passport was when I was in Sudan, and that was a false passport so I could get out of Sudan,’ Jamal said. ‘That was the first passport I ever got. Now, I will have a real one – my passport here will be my first real one – I will not be afraid of everything in my head.’

I hardly knew Jamal, and yet he’d told me his story in such detail. His whole adult life up to this point had been shaped by systems – for protection, for deciding who deserves which resources, and where – that weren’t working as they should. Instead, he’d had to build small networks of friends, or acquaintances with whom he shared temporary goals, and use those to survive. Why did he trust me, and why did I trust him back?

While we were waiting for the stew to finish cooking, Jamal described how, in the evenings, at the Sudanese camp behind the supermarket, in Calais, men would sit around the fire and try to burn off their fingerprints. They were mutilating themselves to avoid detection by the Eurodac police database, so that they could make an asylum claim in France while trying to reach the UK at the same time. ‘You put one end of a metal pole in the fire,’ Jamal said, ‘and wait for it to go red‐ hot.’ Then you take it out and run your fingertips along the glowing end, one by one, for an hour or two, until they’re too blistered to be recognized by a scanning machine.

‘Like this,’ he said, grabbing my hand and pressing it into the handle of the fridge door. He pushed my index finger into the metal and ran it downwards, firmly, two or three times.

Find the book here and stay tuned for more events part of the GRAMNet Seminar Series!


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