It was January 2003. Next April, I would be twenty-four years old. A few days before this, Ali and I had attended the New Year’s party in Brussels’ city centre. We had stayed outside the refugee camp until the early hours of the morning. The camp was huge, with over one thousand refugees from all over the world. They had divided the rooms and put around ten beds in each room. The space within each room was no more than two meters. I had been staying there since my arrival from Dubai two months prior. In Dubai, I had worked as a salesman for about two years in one of the top fashion shops and earned a monthly salary of $2,000. That allowed me to apply for a French visa and get it in a few days’ time, which was a miracle for a Syrian citizen only two years after 9/11. I had arrived in Paris, and from there I had taken the train to Belgium. There I met my brother, who did not want anything to do with me, so I claimed asylum and they put me in a camp.
Then we were in Zeebrugge, waiting to see if our luck would strike that night. The camp was about a three-hour train journey from Zeebrugge, but it took longer as we didn’t have tickets, and every time a conductor approached us, he made us leave the train and wait for the next one. Sometimes it took the whole day to arrive at Zeebrugge that way. Each piece of snow was as big as a snowball falling on us. I had dressed so heavily that I could barely move. I was wearing two pairs of jeans, three sweaters, four socks, two jackets, and thick snow boots.
‘You are walking like a robot,’ Ali told me as we made our way towards the port.
Across the field, the whiteness of the ground reminded me of a spotless white Persian rug we once had in Aleppo. It was so quiet around us, and the sound of waves sunk into our ears slowly. Although the beach was far off, we still heard them. We all saw the ships, and, as I had never seen ships before, I thought of them as being like the Titanic from the famous film. The smell of spilt petrol triggered my memory. I remembered Aleppo’s petrol stations and their smells. I didn’t know Ali that well, but here we were, taking risks with our lives to cross into England. He was of average height, dark, but not handsome, and had wide lips and deep eyes. He wore the beige track suit that he had on all of the time.
My hands were two pieces of ice. I blew hot air into them, but by the time the air left my mouth and reached them, it was already cold. I put them in my pockets to see if that helped, but it was in vain. I remembered Mama’s words that if your hands or feet were cold then all your body would be cold.
We were attempting this crossing less than two years after the 9/11 attacks. All western governments were extra cautious and wary. Attempting to cross with no identification whatsoever was very risky.
Last week, Subhy had made the crossing successfully to England. As soon as he had gotten there, he called me. I did not know the country code for England at the time; all I saw was a +44 code followed by a number. I did not believe him, but then I decided to Google the code and it was for the UK.
‘There is a crossing every Tuesday evening,’ he said, ‘so leave in the afternoon and wait in the hall where the lorry heads come to take the containers into the ship.’
A week before Subhy crossed, we were together in the same spot trying to cross. With us were three Sudanese guys who asked how we were expecting to get on the ship. Subhy and I walked towards the hall where the containers were and told them that we would hang underneath the lorry between the four back wheels on the long axle that connects them. There are different containers, and each has a different shape of axles beneath it. The Sudanese guys laughed and said, ‘We came to Europe to find a better life, not to end our lives.’
Subhy, with his broken Arabic (as he is a Kurdish from Iraq), said to him, ‘Brother, life is about risk. If you don’t take this risk, you will never reach England.’
The Sudanese guys left, still laughing. Subhy and I stayed.
We saw a lorry head approaching us and we quickly went underneath one of the containers and hung there, waiting for the driver to connect the head and drive it into the ship. As we clung to the metal piece, we heard him approach closer and closer until he stopped just a few meters ahead of us. We saw a man’s legs moving and affixing things to the container. Then the legs disappeared. Suddenly the container started to move. My heart sank. My hands were starting to slip from being too cold, and now they are sweaty from the anxiety. I could not see anything but some distant lights on the ship.
Then the lorry stopped, and we saw more legs around us.
‘A dog, a fucking dog,’ Subhy whispered to me.
‘What dog?’ I asked.
‘They are the border police and have a dog with them.’
Before Subhy finished his sentence, the dog barked heavily, ran to where I was hiding beneath the lorry, and started biting my clothes and pulling me.
‘Shit,’ said Subhy, ‘that’s it.’
‘We are fucked.’
We crawled out and the police put us in a van, drove us a few miles away from the port, and left us there.
That was my last attempt to cross before this January day, but there had been three or four attempts before that. One time before we made it to the lorry, as we were walking into the hall, a security guard approached and shouted, ‘On the floor, on the floor!’ I went straight to the floor and Subhy started laughing at me because I had obeyed his commands. We were, again, driven by the police for a few miles and dumped – after our fingerprints were taken at a police station. But this day, things were different. I was determined. I knew the time that the ships went to England. I was not going to fail. I was more confident as Subhy had given me the exact time and place where the containers to England were to be picked up.
I could not feel my hands anymore; I dug deep in my pockets to warm them. I tried to hold my cock, as it’s the warmest part of my body. I still felt the coldness in my bones. My nose and ears were frozen, although I was wearing a hat to cover them. Ali and I walked in the dark towards the hall where all the containers were stationed. I led the way, as Ali had never been there before.
As we walked, he backed off and told me, ‘I am scared.’
‘Don’t be,’ I said as we walked, ‘we will be fine. It’s just this part which is hard.’
Then we arrived in the middle of the hall. I chose a red coloured container and headed towards it.
‘Why that one?’ asked Ali.
‘For no reason; I just like the colour red.’ He laughed, and we continued.
Inside I was shitting myself, but I didn’t want to show it to Ali. If I did, he would ask to go back to the camp in Brussels.
I leaned down and looked at the axle that connected the back wheels; each container was different, and I wanted to know if it was wide enough to hold us both. I thought it was, so I pointed to Ali to take a middle position and I took a side one. I gave him the more secure place to comfort him. The question now was how long until the lorry head would come and collect the container we had chosen. The floor was cold, so we avoided touching it as we clung to the metal, awaiting. The problem was that the metal was even colder. After a few minutes, Ali left his place and lay on the floor, and I did the same.
‘I wonder what is in the container?’ I said to Ali.
‘I don’t care,’ he replied nonchalantly.
More than an hour passed before we heard a lorry head coming towards us. My heartbeats were so loud I could hear them.
‘Hold tight,’ I said, ‘we will do it.’
‘I think I am going to walk out,’ he said.
‘No, just relax and hold tight,’ I repeated.
We didn’t know yet if the lorry head was coming to take our container or another one, but it had been making the journey back and forth to the ship for the last hour. I heard the sound of the engine so close and I was certain it was our container that would be taken. And I was right. I heard the driver fixing the head to the container without looking towards us. I prayed that there would be no dogs at the entrance.
My hands held tight to the metal. All the sudden, the container started to move. We both whispered, ‘It’s moving, it’s moving.’ The journey to the ship was about a ten-minute drive, and all the way we held tight underneath the lorry and hoped our hands would not slip. The lorry was going very slowly, and every turn made my hands slip so I had to adjust them again. The huge wheels were so close to me, and I thought of what might become of my body if I died.
Then we stopped. I saw many legs moving around and that damn dog was there again. I almost lost hope on the spot, and I thought about coming out as there was no point of hanging there anymore. But I decided to wait and see what would happen. The dog started to bark very loudly in our direction. I heard laughter from the policemen, who held the dog close to themselves.
‘I think they know we are here,’ Ali whispered.
‘I think they do,’ I replied back. ‘But we will not come out until they tell us.’
Suddenly, one of the policemen leaned downwards and peered towards us then, making a funny face. Then he stood back up and I heard him laugh loudly with the other policeman. I found that strange and did not understand whether he wanted us out or he was taking the whole thing as fun. I was in disbelief that they let us go. The axle where we sat was hardly thick enough to handle human bodies. There were plenty of metal pieces; some moved, some din’t. But I knew from previous experience that this part did not move, and I assured Ali about that. I was worried that I would fall off any minute and my body would be crushed between the wheels. The fear inside me was inexplicable.
Then the lorry started to move towards the ship’s entrance. As we went in, we came face to face with the police, and they pretended not to see us. The lorry parked inside the ship. For the next hour, we watched from our hiding place beneath the lorry. When everything was done, the ship’s almost deafening horn went off and we started to move. The noise of the ship is familiar to me, as I had heard that noise every time I had tried to cross before.
We stayed in our hiding place for another three hours to make sure the ship was away from the shores of Belgium and closer to England. I didn’t risk coming out from my hiding place, so I didn’t get caught. I wanted to be sure we were very far from the shore before I revealed myself. But over six hours passed as we wandered on the ship in the cold that snowy night in January. I started to get worried that the ship might be heading somewhere else. On the map I had seen back at the camp, England had looked so close to Belgium.
‘What if the ship is going to somewhere in the Middle East?’ I said to Ali.
‘Oh my god, what will we do then?’ he replied.
Another ten hours passed, and we became certain that the ship was not going to England. Surely it would have reached its destination by now. Suddenly, Ali collapsed. I slapped him on the face to wake him up, but he had lost consciousness. I ran to the top of the ship where there was a door and I knocked at the door loudly. I knocked and knocked until my cold hands became warm. A Filipino guy who looked like he had just woken up opened the door.
In broken English I said, ‘My friend dead,’ struggling to catch my breath.
I knew Ali was not dead, but I said so to make them help us quickly. He went into complete shock.
‘Wait,’ he said.
And he shut the door and went in for a few minutes.
He opened it again, this time with the captain, who looked European and later told me he’s Dutch.
‘Where is your friend?’ the captain asked me.
‘He is down near the container,’ I replied as I pointed.
He sent two guys with me to get Ali. The three of us carried him up to the top of the ship and the captain asked us to follow him. We went deep into the ship until the captain opened a room which had two bunk beds, a bathroom, and a fridge with some sandwiches and drinks.
Ali started to come to life again, as if the luxurious room had brought his soul back.
‘Where are you from?’ the captain asked.
‘I am a Syrian Kurd,’ I said. ‘He is an Iraqi,’ I pointed to Ali. ‘Where is the ship going?’
‘Where do you want it to go?’ the captain replied.
I stayed silent. The captain did, too.
‘I don’t want it to go somewhere in the Arab world,’ I said, breaking the silence.
‘But where do you want it to go?’ he repeated.
‘England,’ I said, ‘but it has been in the sea for sixteen hours and England is not that far from Belgium.’
‘It is going to England, but to the northeast of England, to a port called Teesport. That’s why it’s taking longer,’ he explained.
As soon as he said that I sighed in relief.
‘You can shower, eat sandwiches, and sleep,’ the captain said to us as he pointed towards the bathroom, the fridge, and the beds. ‘I have to let the police know that you are on board when we arrive as this is a normal procedure for anyone found on the ship. But don’t worry, they will treat you nicely,’ he added.
He left, and Ali and I started to smile, in fact laugh, but not loudly, as we feared that they might hear us. We did it, the ship was going to England and we were to arrive there soon.
Not long after that, we heard the ship’s horn as a signal of arrival. We stayed put in our room until the captain opens the door with two British policemen. I knew they were the police from their outfits; I often watched them on TV. They took us, and on the way, they asked, ‘Do you want to claim asylum?’
‘Yes,’ we replied.
The feeling was inexplicable. I felt free from all the restraints that I knew of in the Arab world. Free like never before – and now in a land of freedom. I had the freedom to say what I wanted, freedom to practice a liberal life, and freedom to practice democracy. Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more, forever.
We headed to the nearest police station where they searched us, took details, and then contacted someone to come for us. We waited for about two hours and then an Asian guy arrived and took us to one of the refugee homes in Middlesbrough.
As soon as he opened the door, I heard someone shout from upstairs, ‘Amir, Amir!’ It was Subhy.
‘Yes,’ I replied and went upstairs, and I hugged him with a tear in my eye that we were reunited again at last, but this time in England.
There were other refugees in Middlesbrough, but they mainly had come from the south of England, as the government had moved them here. Very few came from Zeebrugge, and I was one of them.

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Amir Darwish is a British Syrian poet & writer of Kurdish origin who lives in London. Born in Aleppo, he came to Britain as an asylum seeker in 2003. He has a BA in History from Teesside University, UK, an MA in International Relations of the Middle East from Durham University, UK, and an MA in Creative and Life Writing from Goldsmiths University, UK. As a poet, he published his work in the UK, USA, Pakistan, India, Finland, Turkey, Canada, Singapore & Mexico. His work translated into Arabic, Bengali, Estonian, Finnish, Italian, Spanish and Turkish, amongst other languages. Twitter: @darwish_amir

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