‘His name is Abdulfatah Hamdallah and he is the young man from Sudan whose body was washed up on the beach near Calais on Wednesday morning.
Abdulfatah had tried to cross the Channel to Dover in an inflatable dinghy, using a pair of shovels for oars.
I learned of his name and saw his photo — wearing his football shirt, he loved football — the next evening, when I was playing football with Hassan.
Hassan, who is built like Diego Maradonna, and has the most powerful left foot shot I’ve ever seen. This week I saved a shot from Hassan and I still carry the bruise. Hassan and his family settled in the UK after fleeing the conflict in Syria. Until the pandemic he worked in a coffee shop and some weeks we would go to Friday prayers at the mosque.
Hassan is thirty, same age as my eldest son, but he has seen more of life’s darkness than I would wish on any young person. Now his children are thriving at a local school — as refugee families often do. They need no one to remind them of life’s fragility.
Abdulfatah Hamdallah did not make it here. After his home, near Darfur in the Sudan, was caught up in civil war, he fled through Africa to Libya, then across the Mediterranean to Italy and France. His brother told a reporter that ‘he wanted to have a better life from the horror we used to live in.’
I have learned not to ask refugees about their past — it is inviting them to recall a nightmare. I think of a poem, A Glass of Tea, by Shukria Rezaei, from Afghanistan, written as a 15 year old student of the poet and teacher Kate Clanchy.
‘Don’t stop and ask me questions.
Look into my eyes and feel my heart.
It is bruised, aching and sore.
My eyes are veiled with onion skin.
I sit helplessly in an injured nest,
Not knowing how to fix it.’
There are statistics. Four thousand people have crossed the channel in 300 boats this year. There are headlines. Politicians on either side of the Channel blaming each other. And there are people. Some say the UK can’t manage any more refugees, that there are other safe countries. Others point to a history of protecting those seeking sanctuary.
I think of the church where I pray. It has a nave where we sit or stand or kneel. Nave: from an ancient word for a ship. My tradition is about a boat, travelling history’s dangerous waters, people fleeing persecution and conflict. The holy book we read from tells the story of a great caravan of migrants, looking for a place to call home. A land of promise and safety.
I think of Abdulfatah Hamdallah. I would have liked to have played football with him.’
(The text of ‘Thought For The Day’ delivered on BBC Radio 4 on August 22nd)