From Darfur to Calais: One refugee's story

From Darfur to Calais: One refugee's story
Feature: Souliman Keir, currently in Calais, is going to desperate lengths to reach the UK. Here, he shares the story of his journey from Sudan.
7 min read
03 September, 2015
"The jungle" in Calais [Getty]
For the past five months, Souliman has been living in a make-shift refugee camp in Calais, commonly referred to as "the jungle", along with another estimated 4,000 refugees.

Leaving Sudan was not "a decision" for him. Desperate hardship in his home country drove him to live in these conditions in France, as he desperately tries to reach the UK. 

"I had to leave Sudan - none of us had a choice," he said. "We felt we had to run, there was killing and people destroying land."

Keir is a member of a tribe from Darfur, in the west of Sudan. Due to fighting between the indigenous population and the government, Darfur has been in a state of emergency since 2003.

There were 19.5 million refugees worldwide
at the end of 2014 [Getty]
"My father disappeared when I was four - it was difficult for us - we moved from one village to another," said Keir.

Despite a difficult childhood, he did well in school and was able to attend Sudan University in Khartoum and study in the engineering faculty.

"I was very active - I started in societies which attempted to do things like spread peace through education," he told al-Araby.

Darfuri students in Khartoum play an important part in political activism in Sudan, but they have been increasingly targeted by government campaigns to restrict their work.

Keir said he was targeted by under-cover intelligence officers posing as friendly students, attempting to solicit information and even recruit him into government service.

However, due to witnessing the disaster of Darfur - where the UN estimates 300,000 were killed and a further 3,000,000 displaced - Keir had other ideas.

"I didn't politically support the government in Sudan and didn't want to work for them after I graduated," he said.

After Keir finished his degree, he was unable to obtain his certificate, and no one would give him a clear reason.

While he and other Darfuri students were protesting this mistreatment, they were taken into a police station, questioned, and security services created a "file" for him. From that point, he says, his problems escalated.

Keir went on to launch alrahma, meaning "mercy", a small association which aimed to help the local community.

The group was involved in activities to alleviate problems plaguing Darfuri neighbourhoods, including making containers to collect rain water, helping with rebuilding, giving out books, and collecting money from business owners to help fund their activities.

The government refused to register the organisation.

"They suspected it was political," Keir said. "It wasn't, it was just a charitable organisation."

The beginning

One day, while Keir and other members of his association were travelling from Khartoum to Darfur's el-Fasher refugee camp, they were detained in an airport.

"They took all our equipment and laptops. We were detained in the airport for a while, and taken to another place around 50 minutes away," he said. There, they were interrogated.

"They kept telling us: 'you are accused of crimes against the country'," Souliman said. "They asked where we live, what we wanted... they accused us of taking information from Khartoum to rebels in Darfur.

"They accused us of being spies and rebels and were treated very badly - we were beaten, and not given any food, they threatened to kill us," he said.

"When they were torturing me I didn't know if I was dead or alive - going in and out of consciousness… I stayed in the prison for two months - my family didn't know what happened to me."

When Keir left prison he fled the humanitarian crisis and his personal political difficulties in Sudan and walked hundreds of miles to Libya - the first stage of his perilous journey.

Reaching Europe

"I was caught twice in Libya by gangs with guns - the first time I paid them with money, the second time I was in a car and the gangs shot the driver in the chest," he said.

Reports of kidnappings of refugees in Libya are very common, and are often aimed at extorting money or forcing refugees to work in camps. However, despite the dangers, Keir continued.

"I couldn't go back to Sudan," he said. "Back home they took my brother and questioned my family over where I was."
An Afghan flag flies above
some of the makeshift shelters [Getty]

Yet making the dangerous crossing from Libya to Italy took several attempts before he made it to Europe.

"It's destiny, if you are lucky you can succeed," said Keir.

He lost money after a middle man for a smuggler failed to pass the money to his boss. The second time he attempted to travel, the boat started sinking.

"We were a tiny boat of 100 people - one side was broken... it was very dangerous," Keir said. "One of the times we tried to cross, the boat was broken and water was coming in and air was coming out."

Keir said that refugees making the crossing were given a phone and the number for the Italian coastguard. As the boat was sinking, one of the passengers made the call.

The boat was judged to be outside the jurisdiction of the search and rescue team.

"Sometimes you call and maybe they will come, maybe not. Maybe the next day," said Keir.

Fortunately, the boat drifted back to land - in neighbouring Tunisia.

After walking back to Libya (again), they boarded a sea-worthy boat packed with 500 people.

When Keir finally arrived in Italy he ran from having his finger-prints taken - so as to avoid the effects of the Dublin Regulation, the EU deal which agreed that refugees must apply for asylum in the first EU country they arrive in.

"I needed to sleep in the street with no money - I took a train to the border of France, hiding in the bathroom," he said.

He arrived in Nice exhausted and hungry. He found a meal in a mosque and continued his journey.

"It is not easy to take a train from Nice to Paris, and I should be very careful because there are a lot of controls and if you are caught by the police your fingerprints are taken," he said.

He therefore took a roundabout route to Paris, via Marseille and Lyon, before venturing on to Calais.

Welcome to the jungle

He lives in the camp known as "the jungle", which has become a make-shift home to thousands of refugees who hope to travel to Britain.

"We are living in shelters of plastic that we build ourselves, and take the materials from organisations," he said.

It sometimes it takes a long time to receive materials to build a shelter, and new arrivals to the camp sleep in the open air.

The refugees use a local centre which provides food and allows them to charge their phones. Keir says the refugees wait for hours to use the centre's facilities.

Crossing the Channel

Keir has tried multiple times to reach the UK from Calais on the back of trucks.

"We go where the trucks are… We should be careful not to be seen," Keir says.

"We read the registration plate and check the addresses on boxes in the truck to see if it's going to the UK," he said.

"If it is, we climb in a box, as far away from the door as possible, cover ourselves with clothes. It's good to be as a team - so people help each other.

"There are three checkpoints - two French and one British - the British one is the most difficult to cross. If you are lucky you will pass," he said.

However, the measures are making it increasingly hard for refugees to get through.

Hiding inside freight trucks gives one route to Britain [Getty]
"If they find anyone [in one load of trucks] they check all the trucks with lasers - you feel the rays when they use this."

When the trucks are being X-rayed, those inside move around quickly, trying to avoid detection.

"We try to change our place, and quickly go back to the same place," he said.

"Another way is to enter is between the wheels of the truck [clinging to the axle]," Keir said.

"I think Sudanese people are the only ones who try this. We lie down in between the wheels with warm clothes and hold on tight - its very dangerous," he said.

"Calais is different now - one year ago when the police caught you, they put you in detention and released you - but the police are not kind and don't treat you well."

He says the French police use many tactics to attempt to prevent the migrants from gathering in Calais. 

"Sometimes they put us in a car and drive us far - almost to Belgium, they even put people in planes," Keir said.

As reaching the UK by truck becomes more difficult, and as the truckers' strikes have ended, many are attempting to use trains - which involves hiding until a train comes near.

Then ensues a race to the train, away from police attempting to stop them from boarding.

Although some have now decided to attempt to stay in France, Keir is determined to reach the UK. 

"They say that life is better and they take care of you from the beginning and its quicker to do your papers," he said.

Family and language ties provide another appealing support network.

"A friend who lost many members of his family is trying to go to the UK to see his sister, he doesn't care what happens to him until then," Souliman said.

"The situation is very tough and very bad, days pass by very badly."