The eyes of those I’ve met haunt me

Charlie Bennett is 'Young Vincentian Officer' for the SVP. He recently joined a Columban/Diocese of Hallam programme exploring the call to welcome the stranger, which included a visit to Calais. In the below article he shares his very honest reflection on his experience, and invites others to take action to support people seeking sanctuary.

A sign reads 'Refugees Welcome'
A sign welcoming refugees

I am not a football fan, never have been and never will be. The overly masculine culture that surrounds it instantly puts me off, the competitive bartering of whose team is better, or why a club would buy one player for this many millions over that one. It simply does not interest me. Except, for this weekend. I was talking to four boys from Eritrea, whose eyes glistened when tentatively asking (with a great amount of hope) if I was from London. I replied that I was from London; an explosion of questions and excitement followed… What part? What team do you support? Have you been to Wembley? For the next hour I talked to them, hearing about their dreams to live in North London, hearing about the football teams they support, and what stadiums they want to go to.

I was overwhelmed by their excitement, by their strong friendship, and their dreams that they wholeheartedly believe will unfold in the coming months and years. To see these four boys who had made their way by foot all the way from Eritrea on the east coast of Africa, through desert, armed borders, and several war zones to reach the port of Calais was incredible. These four had journeyed together, and their strong friendship was so very moving- friendship that some of us can only dream of.

Charlie with other volunteers on the visit to Calais refugee camp
Charlie (back row, far left) with other participants in the programme on the visit to Calais

Yet my heart was failing within me. I remember reading Psalm 22 years ago and finding the phrasing really odd and ignoring the passage due to confusion. Now I knew what it meant; “My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me.”

As these boys were laughing and beaming with life and joy I could not subdue the sinking feeling, nor ignore the reality that these boys might not make it across the channel alive. I had seen the 13 foot fence that cruelly snaked along the border in France. The barbed wire fences, the army of border guards, and ever patrolling search boats are among a few of the 500million pound precautions to prevent refugees making their way to safety. As well as that, you have the traffickers who daily pile too many refugees into tiny dinghies, and set them across the choppy English Channel. Mission impossible has nothing on the refugees that seek safety across the Channel.

Volunteers stand on the beach overlooking the English Channel
Participants stand on the beach overlooking the English Channel

Will my four friends make it safely across? Will they live to see their dreams come true to see Chelsea play Arsenal at Stamford Bridge? And if they do, will that band of four brothers be complete, or will there be one or more missing? Lost either to the sea or to despair in one of the inhumane detention centres across this Noble Isle of ours.

One of the educators on our trip, from Our Lady’s in Lancaster, really moved me. She said “The eyes of those I’ve met haunt me. Eyes of hope and friendliness, masking deep deep trauma. Some of those eyes will be closed by the sea, some will close their own through despair in our barbaric inhumane system. And some eyes will never feel safe enough to let the tears run free and let healing begin. I hope they always haunt me, until a revolution of dignity and love rises up and frees those who are oppressed. May we begin.”

May this be my message to you… Rise up with tears of anger, allow yourself to be challenged, and start a revolution of peace, love, and dignity in which all the oppressed may walk free.

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