Refugee Week 2019: The Journey

By Gill Bonner

Thursday midday and we’re waiting on the platform at Sutton station for a train to London Bridge. F asks me if London is left or right? It reminds me that this is his first trip into the city centre, his first experience of a UK train ride (and yes it was on time!) The new vocabulary we have learnt so far today includes “platform, departs, rails, ticket barrier, travelcard, return journey”. All very useful and all tucked away in his incredibly agile brain. I am constantly amazed at the progress this man is making with his English after only 7 weeks in the country after having spent 7 years in Jordan living as a refugee family from Syria. However, those are not going to be the most important words we learn today. This is not just part of F’s cultural orientation programme, not just part of the “To do list” we have as a Community Sponsorship Team. This trip has come out of the blue after a text message received from our interpreter at 11.15pm last night and a conversation with a German school teacher at 8am this morning. The most important words for today are going to be “my younger sister, clever, university, pharmacist, Dortmund, more than 4 years, 18 years old.” This description of his sister dominates our conversation as we travel to meet her in Parliament Square.

We had known that F’s sister, now living in Germany having been re-settled there with her parents and other younger siblings after fleeing the Syrian conflict, was coming to England on a school visit. They hadn’t seen each other for over 4 years. He was of course desperate to see her but we couldn’t get any real details and there were many safeguarding issues to consider. We didn’t even know where in England she would be or for how long. To be honest, we thought the school would not allow her to leave the group to be with him even if we could establish contact. But it happened. The group were staying in Margate but having a day out in London and one of the teachers agreed to meet us and let A spend time with F and his family as long as I was there and could get her back to the group in 4 hours time!

After a quick photo opportunity on Westminster Bridge it was back on the train to Sutton to see the rest of the family in their home. This was all that mattered, to share food together, to see where they are living, to spend time with the children – the youngest now a cheeky and endearing almost-5- year-old as opposed to the baby she remembered.

We were back on Sutton station platform 1, now there were 3 of us. The emotions were high. How is it possible to experience happiness and sadness simultaneously? We managed it! She was anxious that we would be late at the meeting place (North Greenwich tube station) Florian, her teacher, had been very clear that we HAD to be there at 5.30pm (we were!) F had a carrier bag of food for her to take for the coach journey back to Margate, fruit, flatbreads, the remnants of a meal lovingly prepared and eaten in haste.

I haven’t tried to describe the moment they met or the moment they said goodbye. Both were equally heart-stopping events which were a privilege to share, not only for me but for Florian, the teacher willing to take me on trust and the school’s Principal too who came to express his delight that this had been achieved. We exchanged thanks to each other, we recognised the love that was in our presence and I experienced once more the “thin space” when the human and the divine are both equally present and tangible despite being with people I had only just met!

Our journey back to Sutton was quieter, thoughtful, realistic but optimistic. We reflected on the day. F was full of praise for London’s transport system, for the police presence he saw during rush hour in London Bridge station, for the way people offered seats to others on the tube, for the orderly way in which thousands of people went about their lives. It all makes him feel safe and glad that his family are now in a place where they can travel safely and trust strangers. The most frequently used words of the day? “Thank you, happy, safe, you’re welcome!” Said by both of us – over and over again!

Gill Bonner is project manager of the Community Sponsorship of Refugees scheme at Sutton Salvation Army Corps..