When I first met Fares Al Dhufairy earlier this year, he was living at the migrant camp of Grande-Synthe near Dunkirk, in northern France. He’d been stuck there for six months and was beginning to despair about his future, and living conditions, cooped up in a tiny wooden shelter.
“We’re living like chickens, in farms,” he said. “In the night, we get to sleeping, and then in the morning, we get our food. Not more.”
The 21-year-old was longing to get to the United Kingdom where he has family. He left his native Kuwait when he was 15. After years on the road, and a trek of thousands of miles through Syria, Lebanon and Europe, all that was left to do was cross the narrow English Channel. But that was also one of the most forbidding legs of his journey.
Two months after we’d met at the camp, out of the blue, Fares messaged me a Google map pinpointing his location: downtown Birmingham, England. He had reached his destination.
He later told me he had made this frightening trip on the back of a truck, after dozens of attempts. He said a smuggler who had agreed to take him on called him to say this was the night. He had to try to get onto the back of a truck.
After a frightening 13-hour journey, which he tried to monitor as best he could with a GPS app on his phone, he finally arrived in England. He jumped off the truck and made his way to the town of Croydon, where he had his initial asylum interview at the UK’s Home Office facilities. Later on, he was placed in government housing in Leeds, up north, where he now lives with his mother and one of his brothers.
Fares spent months sleeping in tents and shelters, but he is now living in a brick-and-mortar building again. He invited me to his family’s modest flat on a residential street.
“This is in my home,” he said smiling, “it changed from the ‘chicken house’ to a small flat and I'm happy for that. I have two rooms and one chicken, huh sorry, one kitchen!” he laughed.
With true Middle Eastern hospitality, Fares’ mother brought in a tray of hot tea.
As we sipped the sweet tea, Fares reminded me that he is stateless; that he comes from a family of Bedouins who are not recognized as lawful citizens in Kuwait. Even though he says he was born there, he has no documents to prove it. So, no papers means no driver’s license, no access to higher education, or health care. That’s why he and his family left Kuwait, to pursue a normal life.
Fares Al Dhufairy in the kitchen of the government flat he shares with his mother and brother. He is holding his first-ever picture ID.
Fares had to recount this story to the immigration officer who first interviewed him in the UK.
“I gave him my story,” he said, “what I see, what I have in England, that I come from a bad situation in the world, from the chicken house ... and he say, ‘OK you don’t have any paper, so how can you prove your name?” I say, ‘I don’t know, I come to you to help me.’ He say, ‘OK this is a small ID card to show you are asylum-seeker, so keep it and don’t lose it.’”
This was a turning point in Fares’ life. Until that day, he had never held any official document bearing his name or photo, so this card felt like a trophy.
“The first time he gave it to me in my hand, actually I am crying,” Fares said. “[The officer] said, ‘Why are you crying?’ I say, ‘It’s the first time I get this small card, with my picture, with my name, with my nationality.”
I asked Fares if this felt like being born. He replied that this was the first success in his life and that he could now begin to believe his dreams could come true.
As Fares knows, that photo ID making him an official asylum-seeker, is not a guaranteed ticket to permanent residency in the UK. And there are many immigration hurdles ahead.
But for the time being at least, Fares says he feels welcome here in Leeds — though he could do without a certain nagging presence in his neighborhood: the ice-cream truck.
“The people love it here,” he said laughing, “but the taste is not very well. ... For me, I don’t love it. That’s it.”
Fares took me on a quick tour of the apartment. It’s small for three people but clean, bright and convenient. In the back of the house, there’s a tiny garden, which would be useful for growing vegetables, something that could come in handy considering that an asylum-seeker’s food allowance is only 35 British pounds or about $44 per week. But even just having a fully equipped kitchen is very gratifying to Fares.
“I can cook, wash my clothes, eating at my table and eating what I want,” said Fares, “get outside and come back with what I need. I have a key to get inside and out at the time I want. I have a heater for the winter, like the normal human. I have a place, it’s better than the ‘chicken house’ in the camp,” he adds, smiling.
It strikes me that Fares has come a long way from his days in the settlement migrants refer to as “The Jungle.” But he is grateful that his experience there opened him up to other people and cultures. The day I visited him in Leeds, Sarhang Omar Shera, a Kurdish friend from the camp, visited. That put Fares in a good mood, though we were rudely interrupted by that darn ice-cream truck on the street.
“Go away please, not today,” Fares yelled jokingly toward the truck on the street.
“I told you to close the window!” laughed Sarhang.
Sarhang, who is 26, says his friendship with Fares Al Dhufairy is highly unusual.
Sarhang Omar Shera (L) and Fares Al Dhufairy became friends at the Grande-Synthe migrant camp in northern France
“When I hug him in the jungle, I said to him ‘I really don’t like Arabian people but I really like you,’” said Sarhang. “Because in Middle East, Kurdistan is like a central country between…”
“Five countries,” interjects Fares.
“Five countries,” Sarhang continues, “and Arabian people, they don’t like Kurdish people.”
That’s why Fares says their friendship is a remarkable achievement.
“We changed something in our lives,” he said. “We [have] broken some rules in the Middle East. We broke the racism between Arabic and Kurdish people, between different countries.”
Fares said learning English was key to expanding his horizon. It not only enabled him to communicate and make friends like Sarhang, but it helped him survive.
“The language is important for anyone to feel about another, to know what he want, what he feel, what he do, what he love,” he said. Now he hopes to be able to study English and someday earn a living as a translator.
Both friends are in limbo now, waiting to hear about their asylum status. Sarhang thinks he will have to return to Hungary, where he was first fingerprinted in 2015, but he dreams of heading to Canada where he has family.
Fares says the wait is long and difficult, but he’s relieved he’s made it this far.
“I’m very lucky to make it into the England,” he said. “The hope starts again. I think I’ll be able to finish my dream and yeah, I was lucky.”
From PRI's The World ©2016 PRI