From Sudan With Love

by Liz Mason

A volunteer group uses music and games to connect with Sudanese refugees in France helping to raise their spirits. This story was selected as a finalist in the Soundtrack of Travel travel writing competition.

We park up on scrub land on the outskirts of Calais and step out onto a large expanse of dusty earth, worn bare from eager feet. Only sparse clumps of green grass and hardy bushes grow here. In the distance a few small tents are flapping in the breeze, and beyond this, lorries pummel the dual carriageway, gone in a flash and with them the hope of escape. Our volunteer group huddles together as men appear from all directions, some dragging their feet in silence, others falling into conversation, their youthful bodies stirring. There are over 150 mainly Sudanese men approaching. Even in May, the sky remains a stubborn steely gray, and the breeze holds an unseasonal chill. After so many harrowing stories of the plight of refugees in the British news, I felt compelled to cross the Channel to France and help, but now I wonder if I can be anything other than a tourist here. 

Today we are offering “services.” Two minibuses hold the equipment, and before we can start unloading, the men crowd round. With overall 400 men possibly on site, the volunteer team has to be well organized. We have been drilled with full instructions, rules, and roles before arriving. We unload several panels of charging points and generators, and the men take them to the allotted corner of the field, already plugging in their phones before the panels reach the ground. Their lives may depend on charged phones. Speakers are set up and are soon blaring out the sounds of urban, reggae, hip hop. The field springs to life with drum beats and soulful freedom songs.

I am on “games,” and within minutes of unloading them, a football game is underway. Agile limbs spring into life as the young men dart around with the deftness of pros.

Simon, an experienced volunteer, catches me watching them: “You should see how they shimmy up the lorries.”

“How do they do it?” I ask.

“They work in groups to slow the traffic down. Then, a few try to climb on top, or under the wheel arches.”

Simon explains that enhanced security near the Calais port is making it harder for refugees to stow away in lorries, but boat crossings are expensive. 

One refugee died after being crushed by a lorry last night.

Men crowd around tables, and lively games of dominos ensue, and as they slam down the domino pieces, more holes are hammered into the flimsy plastic table-top. Karen, the team leader, has encouraged us to chat, but it feels like an intrusion. I drift over to the hair station, taking care to keep off the “football pitch.” Men are busy with shavers and cutters, pruning diligently, every angle cut with care until the men fashion style and dignity once again. They walk away with a swagger in their step.

I notice a man limping slowly in my direction and approach with apprehension. “Hello, how are you?”

“I’m fine.”

“How did you hurt your leg?”

“The police, with a batten.” He lifts his arm and swings it to his leg.

Then, he walks off, leaving me standing alone. My stomach churns.

Behind the football pitch, a group of men are rocking their shoulders, leaning back and waving their arms above them to the reggae sounds, feet lost to the beat. Their faces are softening with weary smiles and remembered freedoms. A pick-up truck turns sharply from the road into the field and swerves to a standstill in a cloud of dust. He screams at me in French to turn the music off, and I hastily call on one of the seasoned volunteers to respond. The music is turned down a couple of notches before he screeches off again. 

I approach a serious-looking young man in the queue. His hair is all unruly dreadlocks on top and was once shaved from the ear down. He wears a fake black leather jacket and skinny jeans ripped at the knees.

“Hello, how are you?” I ask.

“I’m fine, how are you?”

“I’m good, thank you.” I am impressed by his asking.

Somehow, we start talking and my confidence is boosted with Jamal’s enthusiasm for learning English. He describes a little of his journey from South Sudan.

“Your English is excellent.”

He beams back at me. “No, no, but I learn on YouTube for the 3 months I’m here.”

It would take me years to learn any Arabic

“So, you want to go to the UK?”

“Yes, yes, my friend, he has just made it to the UK.”

“On a lorry?”

“Yes, he was lucky. I hope I am lucky, too.”

“You deserve some luck,” I reply smiling. I wish he didn’t have to risk his life for it though.

“How old are you?”

“22 years.” He smiles again, his face alight with youthful hope.

Meeting his gaze, I try to stop my tears welling up. He is the same age as my son who is about to finish university in the UK.

“Do you like the music?”

“Yes, hip hop is the best.” he suddenly freestyles a few jumps and steps, the same moves my son would do.

Afhak, one of the established volunteers, is serving drinks and beckons me to join her. The operation is well planned, and the place is buzzing, lines of men already stretching down the field. As each man approaches, Afhak opens her arms wide and calls out, “Welcome my friend, what would you like? Tea, coffee, hot chocolate?” The water is lukewarm, but cups are grasped eagerly with a nod of the head and a greeting, “Thank you, thank you.”

Afhak gives me strict instructions to hand out only two biscuits and then send the men to the back of the line if they want more. Most of them know the rules and how to get around them. Some are zigzagging the line playfully to get back to the front, and others are gently shuffling their feet and nodding their heads to the reggae as they wait their turn.

One man is causing me problems; he keeps taking a handful of biscuits and then pushing straight back to the front of the queue, perhaps taking advantage of a new volunteer, or maybe just sick of the injustice of it all. Some men are getting agitated with him, and others smile politely at me.

Eventually, I muster up all the authority that Karen has bestowed on us: “You know the rules!”

He laughs, and relief ripples through the line as he joins the back of the queue.

When his turn comes around again, I try a different tack. “As-salam alaykum.” I love the Arabic greeting of peace.

“Wa alaykum as-salam,” he replies with a huge smile and takes two biscuits.

Jamal appears with a wide grin and fist bumps me.

I glow with pride at his recognition. “Nice haircut.”

He wanders over to a small group of young men who are playing a fusion of African and Arabic music from a smaller speaker in the corner of the field. They laugh gently together as they dance with their arms jabbing the sky above them. 

When the drinks and biscuits are all gone, I arm myself with a trash bag and long pincers to take up the task of litter picking. It is not my favorite task, but it gives me a reason to move around as I pick up empty cups and discarded paper. Some men come over and drop their cups into the bag, moved that we are all doing this voluntarily. Another volunteer joins me, and we start to sway to the music as we move around, incorporating our litter picking into a dance move, clicking our long pincers together as we turn around. We playfully skirt past the corner that stinks of urine and shit. 

As we approach the dancing group, Jamal beckons us over, “Come and dance with us.” The sun has broken through a cloud casting silver rays to the horizon. They are so young, some maybe 16 and 17 years old, even younger. I feel awkward, but they smile and make it clear they want us to be there, so we approach and fall into the rhythm. The music is switched from a chaotic fusion to a slower Sudanese song; soothing sounds swing from string instruments, and a man’s deep voice cradles the field with love and longing. 

Jamal takes my hands and smiles self-consciously, inviting me to dance. His hair is now styled into fashionable short dreadlocks. I wonder when he last saw his own mother, when she was last able to care for him or celebrate his life. We instinctively keep a respectable distance between us as we turn and sway, waving our arms above our heads and stepping our feet in unison. I look around me at the young men who are laughing and waving,

“Nya lagu cinta!” one calls out: It’s a love song! A few are filming this unlikely spectacle on their mobile phones. Next to me the other volunteer laughs aloud as we all dance around each other. As string instruments dance on the breeze, we weave our worlds together with a solitary soulful singer reaching out from the belly of Sudan to these brave young men, so far away from home.

I turn back to my dancing partner. He has lost everything and has nothing to lose; lost in the moment. His friend calls out to us, “This is beautiful.”

I call back, laughing, “Yes, yes. This is beautiful.”

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