There was a man on the radio, a detainee in a camp in Slovakia, being interviewed about his desire to get to London to start a new life. He was a Somali, and he’s spent every penny he’d managed to save or steal, every last penny he’d begged or borrowed, on his long and hazardous journey from Somalia to Europe, only to end up behind the wire of this god-forsaken refugee camp on the very fringes of the mighty European Union. He had no idea where he was. Austrians to the left of him, Ukranians to the right. Hungarians to the south, Czechs & Poles to the north.
He’d decided one day that he needed to move on from Somalia. He couldn’t really figure out a life plan any more in Mogadishu. The life expectancy there for guys like him is probably about 25. So he’d decided to make his way to London, undeterred by the fact that he spoke no English and didn’t have too many recognised qualifications. Just a bit of work experience on Kalashnikov AK 47s and other bits of choice ordnance from the local arsenal, maybe. Probably had quite a good reference from the local warlord. “One of the best fighters in our team. Ruthless and Fearless. Great at looting, pillaging and hostage taking. We would definitely employ him again.”
He’d maybe had a friend who’d actually made it all the way to London, who was living somewhere in, say, Peckham, or Tower Hamlets. Maybe his friend, or brother, or cousin, had written to him, sent him a postcard. “Having a great time. Streets paved with gold and doggy doos. Wish you were here.” Maybe he’d had a phone call.
The BBC reporter asked him why he’d risked everything and paid so much money to traffickers in this desperate and fruitless attempt to get to London. Through the translator he said he knew that London was a very beautiful city, and the most important thing for him was - that he was an Arsenal supporter.
Now that’s what really got him out of bed in the morning, got his juices flowing. No matter that the cost of admission to see the Gunners kicking a ball around their pitch is probably more than the average Somali earns in a month or more - he needed to be close to the action. He had a passion, and he was on his way to living the good life - the closer to Highbury, to the Emirates Stadium, the better.
At the very least he’d be able to stand in the local pub, possibly in Highbury, one of those places down by Finsbury Park station maybe, in his red and white hat, pint of non-alcoholic lager in hand, yelling at the TV screen along with the rest of his adopted (albeit excluded from the actual stadium on account of having no tickets for admission) tribe. Now that’s what I call getting a life. Though that’s presumably pretty much what he used to do in Somalia - hang out in bars watching football on satellite TV.
This got me thinking about where I’d move to in order to find a better life. Slovakia, perhaps. Its capital, Bratislava, is a wonderful and very beautiful city, architecturally and culturally rich. Not too big. Not overcrowded. Lots of stunningly beautiful people. The cost of living is less than half that of London. Great climate. Easy access to lovely countryside: lakes, mountains, the River Danube. A short train journey to Vienna, and Budapest. Of course you’re not likely to get rich in Slovakia, but you can BE rich, in terms of lifestyle and culture and friendships with lovely people. As long as you not craving a regular 90 minutes of football at Arsenal.
Alternatively I might choose Paris. “It’s a very beautiful city, and I love the museums and art galleries. And French cuisine.” Why not? Paris has everything a city ought to have. Great transport system. Or you can walk for miles on interesting streets, along the Seine, through the parks. And it’s cheaper to live there than in London, where the cost of a hotel room, for instance, is scandalous. It has easy access to Normandy, Provence, the Dordogne, the Massif Central and the Auverne. What more could you want in order to live a civilised and enjoyable life? Arsenal?
The things that shape our destiny are worth thinking about. The key decisions that can make or ruin a life. Decisive action versus inertia. Giving one’s life some real purpose and meaning, quality and enjoyment. Not taking life for granted. We have the ability to enjoy life wherever we may find ourselves living, provided we can actually stay alive, provided we’re not engaged in a life or death struggle for existence. Provided we’re satisfying all our basic needs, as in Maslow’s pyramid. I wonder whether watching Arsenal is basic, or whether it’s higher order, more of a spiritual thing?
Recently my friend K was out on the streets of Peckham in her role as education welfare officer, looking for truants, with her police officer colleague, of West African descent, and her community warden colleague, a Bangladeshi. They came across a thirteen year old girl of Somali background, a very tough nut, who’d spent the previous night in the house of another girl she’d only just met, buying weed. They checked her out and found that she was effectively a runaway.
She was enormously resentful that she was being picked up in Peckham, whereas her own borough, Croydon, evidently didn’t give a damn about kids being out of school when they should be in one. (The burger joint where the encounter took place was enormously resentful of the fact that none of the locals felt like coming into the place to buy burgers whilst a uniformed police officer was present.)
Finally she says to K - “Look, right. I hope none of my gang sees you wiv me ‘cos they ain’t gonna be real happy about it and I wouldn’t want you to get hurt.” So they asked her how many individuals were in her gang, and she told them about 100. So the police officer pointed to his Met badge and said, “Listen little Miss. There’s about 25,000 in my gang, and we’ve got guns that are a LOT bigger than yours!”
* * * * * * * * * *
I made up that bit about the guy in the camp in Slovakia not having any qualifications. I’ve no idea whether he had or not. More likely he was able to pay for his journey to Europe on account of having been a professional or a businessman of some sort. He was probably a very able and very hard-working individual, given half a chance. And a genuine refugee, who had fled in fear of losing his life, having seen lots of family and friends lose theirs. But we, in spite of having a net population loss here due to death and emigration, we no longer have room for refugees aka economic migrants, do we? Do we?
And we, the rich world, are not prepared to provide money and resources that will enable the “wretched of the earth”, as Franz Fanon called them, to escape extreme poverty and danger and remain in their own country. It’s no wonder they want to leave their own countries to seek a better quality of life elsewhere, to seek security and safety. Whether or not they’re Arsenal fans.
Which of us wouldn’t want to move elsewhere if our families and our kids were suffering and we had no prospects of things getting better? Would we not feel a duty to them to become refugees? So why don’t we, the developed world, the fat cat disgustingly rich world, do something about the whole wretched situation? Remember this - the USA spends in two weeks in Iraq an amount of money that would eliminate illiteracy around the world. What are we going to do? Build bigger walls and fences, and employ more border patrols?
And I wonder what the guy in the camp is doing right now.