Shoes, must get shoes: That was my first thought when I woke up the next morning.
B knew of a shop where mens’ shoes were on discount. So we went. Hardy, waterproof winter shoes were being sold at 20 Euros. It felt like Christmas. The shoes on sale seemed comfortable enough so we cleaned the shop out of all their Size 40s to 43s.
We drove back to the silos with the newly purchased shoes hidden in the boot of B’s car. The plan was simple: To discreetly approach those who didn’t manage to get any yesterday and clearly needed them, and follow us to B’s car for a proper fitting. Despite the arrival of our friends, from the German Alliance with more shoes later in the evening yesterday, not everyone got some. Ugh. Shoes, or the lack of them – is a constant source of frustration for volunteers.
Our van contained the remaining sleeping bags, blankets, mats – “for new arrivals,” B said. She got word last night that more arrived. Trains from Germany. Victims in the political version of pass-the-parcel game, or better known as the Dublin regulations.
The mood at the silos was relaxed. Most of the men were hanging around and playing volleyball or cricket.
Some faces were more familiar now. They seemed to recognise me as well. I greeted a man as I got out of the van: “Salaam, how are you?”
“Good,” he responded. “Your sleeping bag was so warm last night.”
I really live for comments like this. To know that we’ve made a little difference.
We were shown around the silos by one of the refugees. I didn’t manage to get a proper walk-through the day before. It was good that he was with us and helped seek permission to take photos. I didn’t want the men to feel like we were intruding in their ‘homes’, we also refrained from taking photos of any faces where possible. Many of them actively avoided it.
“My family doesn’t know I am living like this,” one of them said.
Conditions inside were much worse than I saw from the outside. With winter firmly upon Europe, there was a constant chill in the air. There was nothing but gravel on the ground. The slightly more resourceful ones managed to find pallets to elevate themselves from sleeping on the gravel, topping them with cardboard, that added to a slight semblance of comfort.
I dread to think how these men slept before the sleeping bags and polyfoam mats arrived. B got them mattresses donated by a hotel but some were hosed down by the fire brigade a few days prior. Why the authorities did that when there wasn’t any fire to begin with, is mind boggling. Or how they managed not to freeze to death before our German friends brought the large oil drums for them. These proved so useful. We decided to burn the rubbish first. It was an uphill task. We grabbed trash bags, cleaned up as much as we could and soon, most of the men quickly joined us. We set fire to the rubbish and a putrid smell soon filled the air. Oblivious to the smell, they were simply grateful for the heat. Small crowds soon gathered around the oil drums trying to keep warm.
We hung around a little longer and chatted with a few more men. One of them, who calls himself “Ed” offered me some of the rice he was preparing for his group. I was touched by this hospitable gesture. Those with so little to give are really the ones who offer the most.
Ed told me his real name but I simply couldn’t pronounce it without sending him into fits of laughter. He intrigued me when I met him the day before. Perhaps I recognised his rather distinctive Essex accent. We hit it off when I teased him about being an “Essex boy” and handed him a red beanie to cover his head. Ed was originally from Afghanistan, moved to the UK in his early teens but had to be deported back to Afghanistan a few years later after failing to obtain papers. The forced separation didn’t deter him. He made his way back into Europe again. All alone and barely 21. This time, he is going to try to obtain papers from Italy before trying to reunite with his family who are still in the UK. His tenacity is amazing.
The situation at the silos is definitely different from other places I’ve volunteered in. These men are no longer on the move. There was no urgency to hurry on to the next country, fearing that its border might close on them at any time. They have all the time in the world to share their stories. Some of them hardly had any genuine contact with anyone outside of the silos. To the city, they are faceless and nameless – simply a number on a file for asylum, sitting on some bureaucrat’s desk. A problem to be hidden. They seemed glad for interaction with new people.
As I heard more stories, I realised that they all carried the same theme: helplessness and sadness at being apart from their families. However, underneath it all, the stories also carried strong underlying messages of resilience and hope. A need to cling on to the hope that they’d find a job in order to rebuild their lives. The hope that they’d finally be reunited with the families, some whom they haven’t seen in years. Most importantly, the hope that the city of Trieste will treat them with dignity.
With the light quickly fading, we really had to begin our long drive back home. We reluctantly bade our new friends farewell.
“Are you coming back?” a few of them asked me hopefully.
“Of course, but I really hope you won’t be still here when I am back! Please take care of yourselves, dress warm.” was my response before giving Ed a bear hug. That caused a few jostles and cheeky remarks. I chuckled at their juvenile display of teasing their friend.
With the courage and maturity they’ve displayed beyond their years, it is easy to forget that most of them are just boys underneath it all. Boys forced by circumstances to grow up fast.