Posted by steven greaves photography on February 3, 2010 · 

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Han is the baby of the bunch. At 21, his experiences are limited when compared to his colleagues, all of whom are Afghan/Pakistani asylum seekers. None see a division between the two countries and see both countries as the home of their people- the Pashtun. Tall and lanky with a big quaff of dark hair, he looks like a Bollywood actor. His face betrays his youthful innocence and wide eyes absorb the world around him. His comprehension of English surpasses those of his friends. He constantly uses this skill to ask me questions about America, Hollywood movies and far-reaching questions about life. “Tell me about the Brad Pitt!” he will demand or “George Clooney. He is gay?” Not too much of a movie buff, I am glad that his pop culture questions are cursory and easy. His inquiries about life are far more difficult. He asks of religion, perceptions of his culture and people and, most of the time, about love. To many of these I am astounded at the depth of the questioning and am unable to give a definitive answer. This, I think, confuses him. In his world there is black and white, good and bad, right and wrong. He is not accustomed to the shades of gray that I so often respond in. He lacks the strength and hard shell of the others and, at times, I can tell that he is on the edge. Over the weeks, I have seen tears and overtures of defeat in him. The others, however, do not allow it. They pick him up, dust him off and gently set him back onto the path he has chosen. At times I fear for him. I hope that he will make it. 

Malik is the joker. Quick witted, daring, fearless and always mischievous, he lifts the spirits of the group. When the grim times hit, and there a many of them, Malik is quick to lighten the mood. “This my good life” he will chuckle as we traipse under somber skies, nowhere to take shelter, while the rain comes down. Despite some communication difficulties, we are able to understand each other. I slow my speech and become overly animated as I try to convey my thoughts or questions. He seems to get it. At 31, he has seen his share of hard times making his way from Pashtunistan to Calais. Along the way he has seen fellow asylum seekers shot by authorities and has spent many nights in jail. After years on the run, he is hardened. Unlike the others, he does not appear to feel the chill that finds most of us in multiple layers and still shivering. Like the others, he takes clothing from relief organizations but never seems to take what he can. He instead chooses to leave most for his friends. Back home, his wife and three children wait. He has not seen them in over three years. He does not often speak of these matters and keeps them deep within his soul. I suspect that this is his way of dealing with this life. He keeps his family safe and locked away from the misery that surrounds him. If they are not on the surface, they cannot be hurt. Inside, deep within his tenderness, they remain. 

The commando is quiet and reserved. We call him such because he was an Afghan National Army soldier. He left Afghanistan and his unit nine months ago after a beating that was ordered by superior officers. One often hears incredible stories (in the true sense of the word- “in” “credible”) here; the one he told me about his experiences in the ANA defies any logic or my comprehension. I am unable to disclose it. The commando often times does his own thing but eventually always returns to the fold. His comprehension of English is extremely limited but he is always quick with a smile and when he sees me, always comes to pull me away and back to this band of brothers. Initially suspect, he warmed up to me and now functions as my guard; he watches over me. When I am with him, I feel completely safe. I know he has seen and done horrible things; the rest know it too. 

And then there is Sharif. He is the patriarch. Having already lived in Birmingham, U.K., he knows what life there is like. I tell the group of troubled times in the West and the possible lack of the opportunities they feel will await them. He remains undaunted and says that, for them, any life is better than what they have left behind. Sharif is in his mid-30s. He is a jovial man, quiet at times but with a keen sense of humor. Our relationship is effortless. He watches over his new family carefully and assures that all are fed, clothed and, when necessary, that an abandoned squat is found for the night. I have become his charge too. I am, at all times, offered and commanded to eat with them. The daily diet of rice, broth and bread is simple and bland but it is hot. We sit on the ground and dip bread into our broth and rice. There is a silence until we finish and when Sharif proposes our next destination, we leave. In his stare, I see deep emotion and will. He is the strongest of them all. When faced with riot police after the public squat had been closed down, it was Sharif that held deliberations. He spoke for the group, all 150 of them. “Animals live in jungles. We are not animals!” he pleaded to the female officer in charge of the operation who ordered them back to the so-called woodland area. Behind her, a row of black-clad troops waited for orders. Behind them, a government whose policies showed little compassion waited. And, behind it, a world who had conveniently forgotten. 

In this land of forgetting, these men have forged a bond. They all came from different villages in a nation continually ravaged by superpowers. None knew each other before arrival in Calais. Some are here because they cannot return. Others are here because of the promise of a new and seemingly better future. They have left behind loved ones but, here in this land of broken dreams, they have created a new family. Their roles, I suspect, have not changed. Malik would be the “joking man” in any situation. Sharif’s need to protect and watch over his flock is likely the same as in his Afghan home. I am an outsider but have been taken in. With open hearts, I have been accepted and allowed a glimpse into their lives. Despite living on the fringes of society in a forgotten world, they persevere. The system has not ground them down. With love, courage and the will to live in a place of peace, they struggle on.
I am proud to call them my friends….and remain deeply moved!

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