You will know when it exists -- Obscure journalism direct from our man on the ground.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Hal Far would you go? - Sleep-over at a refugee camp in Malta

March 2007
I arrived in Malta with a few hundred pounds in my bank, 3 nights stay booked in a cheap hotel and no skills or trades to offer other than those of a disillusioned art student.
Within a week I had a room in a nice shared flat and a part-time job at a bowling alley – Superbowl! Suited me just fine…
After a few weeks of working the paperwork caught up with me apparently I needed a Work Permit. “Just tell them you will start at the end of the month.”
To pick up my permit I had to go, with my passport, to the ETC head office in Hal Far. I left early (ish) but it took 2 buses and a good while to get there, I arrived just as they closed the gates, desperately I explained I just needed to pick up a permit but “We close at 12. Man. You will have to come back tomorrow, we open at 9am.”
Feeling slightly stunned (who closes at midday?) I wondered around a bit - not much in the neighbourhood; a few workshops and warehouses. An army truck drives by following the sign to the base… and… what’s this? – PEACE LAB – I look in through the fence; some modest statues, some nice plants and flowers, some empty tents. Perfect: I will walk down to Birzebugga, spend all day snorkelling and on the beach then come and sleep here so that I don’t have to take all those buses home then back again and this way I will certainly get into the ETC offices before 12 tomorrow!
In my backpack [A litre bottle of water, a snorkel and my passport.]
The walk down to Pretty Bay is pleasant down the rural side-roads. I pass a Boy Scouts HQ (more tents – seems luck is on my side). Whilst snorkelling I talk to an old Canadian man who is prizing shells from the rocks and collecting sea urchins called Rizzi, eating them as he goes. He opens one up with his knife and offers it to me. Its deep orange tastes of the sea with just a hint of days gone by. I swim out and look at the Freeport, cargo ships come and go, I guess they named it Pretty Bay before the heavy industry moved in next door.
Swimming in the clear water I wonder what those ships stories are and what freight is in all the large faceless containers. The whole operation is anything but transparent casting a slight mystery over the area, looming like an ignored secret.
After drying myself on my T-shirt and letting it dry in turn in the sun, I stroll into Birzebugga to get something to eat (A pizza slice and a Pea Pastiz.) I see a bunch of teens skateboarding and watch for a bit, then ask to have a go and soon I am hanging out and skating as one of them, down by the seafront on a large semicircular concrete seat. We jump on and flip off. I get taught what becomes one of my favourite phrases in Maltese, I do not know how to spell it but this is how it is pronounced “Jer-e-oo-lee ha nist-ree-ahk.”
The day passes quickly – having fun, then the sun goes down and the skate rats head home. I head back the way I came. The scouts tents are full of muffled chit-chat and activity (Who’s lucky now?) I continue past the ETC it seems a much longer walk this time.
The Peace Laboratory smells of cooking there are lights on in a little cabin so I go in, I am greeted with confused looks from the three African men sitting around a small table but those lying on the bunk beds don’t sit up to look. I ask if there are any rooms to stay in the tents and once I manage to explain it is just for tonight one of the men goes to find someone he says can help. In he walks my saviour in a retro Manchester United shirt. He says follow me and as I do he tells me his name is Beckham and smiles pulling on the red football strip. Strange I think as we walk out of the Peace laboratory I thought there was room in the tents there but I follow him faithfully.
Soon we get to an open gate in a high fence and go on in, there is a sort of security block with its lights on Beckham says not to worry about signing in, I am only here for one night and asks if I want any of the clothes laid out on the floor there, they all look about twice the size I take so I tell him I’m alright. Then through the darkness I see where we are; hundreds of old military tents set up in rows with a few fires burning in petrol cans here and there, I presume it is a sort of refugee camp. We walk through and Beckham sees a man being very loud and confides in me how this man takes all the women and does not seem to pleased about it. He advises me not to look at his women, believe it or not I take his advice.
Beckham speaks to some people outside his cousins tent, two women clean clothes in a bucket (I watch, hoping they have nothing to do with loud man) then I get showed in. Inside is unlike anything I have seen before; bunk beds turned into four person rooms by segregating them with cardboard boxes. A lot of the people are out in the middle corridor (?) and look like they are enjoying the evening seeing my white face they seem slightly amused but carry on doing whatever they are doing.
In the makeshift room I am assigned a bed (Beckham’s cousin is away) the bed has silky sheets and is very pleasant. The guy opposite offers me the only food he has which is a jar of mayonnaise, it makes me feel sad and also chuckle. He tells me to sleep on top of my bag; again I take the advice given, wanting to keep a hold of my passport.
I drift off to sleep feeling warm from the generosity shown by these people who obviously have very little to call their own.
I drift off to sleep to the whispers and shouting and laughter of a community.
I drift off to sleep to the sound of joyous singing.
I wake up early and it is now very quiet and still. I look at the picture pulled from a magazine of a woman in a bikini posing sexually and here she looks more unobtainable than ever. Everyone else is asleep, the note I write reads:
Thank you for your hospitality.
Chris Cooley
It is only 8am as I walk out of the camp, there is dew on the grass and the sky is a white shade of blue. I wait for the office to open as the sun comes up. I see some more people come out of the camp wearing heavy work boots, their clothes covered in paint.
The office opens and after sitting in the waiting room for over an hour I go in and after a short talk and signing some forms I get my permit. As I walk out into the courtyard pink flowers glow in the sunshine. Waiting at the bus stop I feel once again feel that luck is on my side.
I hadn’t known anything about the immigrant situation in Malta before that night. Afterwards I read bits and pieces in the newspapers. I heard people talk about them in scorn. I walked into a nightclub and the bouncer turned away the black guy behind me saying he didn’t have an invite. Neither did I. Neither did anybody.
Thankfully not everyone is against their fellow people though:
... and of course -

No comments:

Post a Comment