The Anatomy of a Home
“Sammy is in the kitchen.”
Sammy pronounces it more like “kit-hen” when he points to the upper right-hand part of the diagram. It’s a common problem for a lot of Somalians, that harsher “-ch” that doesn’t exist in all languages. We’ve done a sheet like this with cutesy drawings of architecturally unsound houses every week for the past month that I’ve been coming to the refugee centre. This week there are five rooms: a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, an empty living room, and a hallway.
“Kit-chen,” I correct. “What do you do in the kitchen?”
He rubs his belly happily. “Cooking.”
“In a sentence?”
“I cook in the kitchen.”
I nod and smile back at him. “Do you really?”
It takes him a second, but then he throws back his head in a throaty laugh, his signature one, baring his teeth. Then he answers, “I cook toast and pasta.”
It’s been six months since Sammy first arrived in the UK, three since he got placed in a shared house in Cardiff. Between his five housemates, not a single one of them can boil an egg. I asked him about it in the first week. I thought that maybe only Sammy’s sisters had learnt to cook, knowledge passed down from mother to daughter for when the men graduated from sons to husbands. Sammy’s mum used to make the best plassas – deep fried dough served with plantain and a gravy of sorts – and his aunties ran a food stall selling a rice dish named kukhri. He tells me his dad could only cook charcoal, but that his older brother helped out at the stand one week and was allowed to take over occasionally after that. Sammy would have liked to have learnt more, but his mother just never got around to it. He was only fourteen when they took him, after all.
His flatmates are mostly the same as him: child soldiers who deserted but were adults by the time they reached the UK. One night he tried to cook frozen fish fingers for a change and came in the next day with oven burns all down his arms. His toast is also something to be admired: he coats it in a thick layer of marmite, like jam. He refuses to take anything else on his toast because he wants to eat as the English do. When I explained to him that England and Wales are separate countries, he tried marmite on raisin welshcakes.
I see Sammy once a week in a small church in the suburbs of Cardiff. There’s a group of about twenty volunteer teachers and forty refugees, but I’m specifically assigned to him because he needs help with his conversational skills and my accent is the easiest to understand. His goal changes each time I see him. One day he wants to be able to talk to the checkout ladies and ask them how their day has been, tell them about his; the next he wants to be able to go back to school; then he wants to join a non-refugee football team and go watch an Arsenal match. The next day he just wants to go back to Somalia.
Sammy is in the bathroom.
He didn’t tell me why he decided to desert. We’re not allowed to ask them personal questions — any stories that we hear have to be initiated by them and them alone, the worry being that they might stop coming to sessions or drop off the radar altogether. He didn’t tell me why he never went home, why he went straight from the field to being on the run. But when I told him where I was from in Switzerland, he recognised the town and told me that he slept near a basketball court there for a week before moving on; it was too expensive and the police too fussy. He travelled by train to get there, never once getting stopped by a ticket inspector, but the minute he crossed the border from Italy there were ten times as many police. This was just after Charlie Hebdo.
He doesn’t mention the boats either. Before the boats there was the truck, the one that brought him across the Sahara along with forty others piled into the back. Most were teenage boys like him, many with fresh injuries. The rest were women with children. There was no one above the age of thirty there. He tells me that while the roads are filled with policemen, the desert is filled with gangs and pirates and dunes that fall away as the truck goes down them. They got stuck once and all had to help dig the truck out, and after that they didn’t stop, not when the sun was at its height and the rubber tires melted, not when the cold nights settled in, not to throw out the bodies of the babies, toddlers, mothers, and young men in their prime.
When they started running low on water, the smugglers spiked the canteens with petrol. This was a scarce material, but less so, and the spiking led to less mouths needing to be fed; they’d paid their fares at the start of the journey. Sammy’s smugglers were kind enough to bother bringing them to the outskirts of Fes, which was why they came at such a high recommendation. When Sammy comes back from the bathroom he tells me this story because he says he barely peed for two weeks while he was in the truck, and that he had to drink what he made — all this he tells laughing. I ask him how he made it. He looks up and says “By the grace of God” and pulls a cross pendant from beneath his collar. I ask him why his brothers didn’t come with him, or any of his friends. He falls quiet.
When I get home that night I fill my diary with his stories, but I find myself getting muddled on the details. There’s another refugee who I talk to over tea and play ping-pong with in the recreational room in the twenty minutes before the language sessions start. Ahmed is from Côte d’Ivoire. I can never remember which of the two stayed in Calais’ Jungle for half a year and which moved straight along. But the rest of it — the paperwork, immigration centres, trains, sand, blood-stained walls, and childhood lost — all that remains the same.
Sammy is in the bedroom.
He doesn’t show up the next week, or the week after. I ask around to see if anyone’s heard from him. Some say they saw him playing football just the other day. Others say he went to Bristol to visit his friends from when he first got here. One claims that he’s gone to London to try his luck there while the next says he heard he got a job in a Spar and his shifts clash.
I ask Jonathan, one of the more senior organisers, and he says that this happens sometimes. They all know where Sammy is, he tells me, but they won’t say anything. From what he knows, Sammy hasn’t had any updates to do with his status so that can’t be the issue, which helps a little. I remember how quiet he’d gotten the last time I saw him.
When I first moved to this country, I cried every single day for a week and called my parents in the mornings and most evenings. I didn’t leave my room for days. I was physically ill for a while, throwing up, and started having regular panic attacks, something that had never happened before. It took months for me to get better. And still, every now and then, I realise how alone I am. My new friends go back home to visit their parents for the weekend and hang out with their school friends. They say things like “family comes first” and “I can’t imagine doing what you’re doing,” and they’re right because they can’t, not really. They talk about how they needed to move away from home, how exhilarating the freedom is, but they never really left.
I am to Sammy what these people are to me. I have enough saved up that if my mother fell ill tomorrow I could get a plane and be home within 24 hours. I speak the language fluently. I didn’t immigrate because my home was destroyed or because I was drafted into a war I didn’t believe in. I didn’t leave because I wanted to survive, I left because I wanted to live, whatever that means.
I can integrate. It’s the word that locals always use to make sure we know it’s our fault we miss home, not theirs. And for me it is, but for Sammy it isn’t. For him and all those who didn’t become expats or immigrants, but refugees, asylum seekers. Every time I show up to these sessions, the same thought occurs to me: they must hate me. I have willingly inflicted the same pain they would do anything to avoid.
Sammy has locked himself away in his room and won’t come out; one of his flatmates tells me this. He says that nobody tells me this because it is embarrassing to talk about. There’s a stigma to homesickness among refugees. They know this place they miss doesn’t exist anymore — only in memory. They know that their present situation is a thousand times better than they could have ever hoped for.
“Go back to your country.” If only.
Sammy is in the living room.
He’s back in Somalia. His little sister is six years old and running around the room with his shoes on her hands. He has homework to do upstairs but he’s here, watching TV. In the kitchen he can smell his mum’s cooking, but he can’t make out exactly what it is. His brothers are elsewhere doing chores. There’s a knock at the door, but his favourite film is on so he doesn’t move; he can’t remember what the film was. His mum shouts at him to get the door and when he opens it there’s a boy who looks about fourteen, around his age, flanked by men with guns but no uniform. He asks Sammy his name and age.
He answers honestly.
He learns to hold a gun, dismantle it, and says that he only ever fired away from people. He wasn’t forced to kill his family, but he couldn’t go home and he wasn’t paid. How can you even escape if you can’t pay the smugglers?
His mother came through from the kitchen and saw him being grabbed, taken away. His brothers were taken on the way back from school a few days later. He learns this three years after the fact when he at last reaches a telephone and manages to ring home. His neighbour answers the phone and tells him he doesn’t know where his mother went to, but that she took off in the middle of the night with his sister, that he reckons she’s headed up north.
I find Sammy in the hallway.
It’s been three weeks since he last showed up, but there he is, putting his name down on the register and taking off a donated grey overcoat two sizes too large for him. He sees me and he smiles at me, his arms inviting me in for a hug.
“It’s been a while,” I say. He shrugs.
“It is some time,” he answers. I don’t correct him.
I make him tea — two sugars, no milk — in the recreational room upstairs. Ahmed walks over and talks to him for a minute about the Arsenal game. We sit on the large sofas and talk about my upcoming exams and my university offers, and he tells me not to worry because I’m smart and good, and good people will get what they deserve by God’s grace. He’s a good man, I tell him. He nods and says “Here I am” and takes another sip of his tea. Across from us, two people are playing mancala with marbles instead of beans.
Twenty minutes later we head downstairs for the session to start, and I pull out this week’s worksheet. This time it’s a townscape with a bakery, a parking lot, an arcade. When we get to the police station he says to me, “I found my mother.”
I pause, pull the sheet closer to me. His eyes trail it.
“I called my neighbour. He says he hears that she is in Fes. He gives me a person. A name.”
Through the endless phone calls, Sammy found a number that was reportedly his mother’s, but she didn’t pick up the first day. He kept ringing every day. He only left his room to get pot noodles from downstairs and sim card topups. I don’t ask him where he got the money for so many long-distance calls, just like I don’t ask how he paid the smugglers over the Sahara.
And then the call got through and she’s doing okay. His sister is still alive, which he didn’t expect. He didn’t expect his mother to be alive, and she didn’t him, and suddenly he didn’t know what to say because how do you speak to a ghost? I imagine him telling her a thousand times how much he loved her in the clutches of grief, lying in his bed staring at the ceiling or smoking a cigarette on the patio and knowing that he had to move on. And now she’s back and he has to relive that.
It’s what they don’t tell you about leaving. You go out there trying to find a new life, one away from the violence and the chaos or the boredom and emptiness. You run away from your ghost town and then one day you’ll try and go home but the chain’s left on. You can see through the crack, you can make out odd shapes and figures, you can see the light your mother always leaves on in the living room, and you can hear their laughter. Maybe they’ll leave you in the corridor. Maybe they’ll open it again and they’ll invite you in, a guest of honour.
But that’s all you are or will be forever now. The taste of home is only a taste. You hang up the phone and you leave your room and go try to rebuild your new life, half in, half out. A foot in the sand and the other on concrete.
That night I go home and ring my mum. She doesn’t pick up.
Zoë Wells was born and raised in Geneva, Switzerland, and is a writer and poet currently studying at the University of Warwick in the UK. She is head editor at Kamena Magazine and, like most aspiring writers, is currently working on a novel.