Many years ago I used to visit a man in Harmondsworth. He was from North Africa. He made it to the airport in the UK, on his way to another country to seek safety. Because he was using a false document – he could not leave his country otherwise, he said – he was sent to prison and then ended up in a detention centre.
By the time I met him, he was in the UK for longer than a year. But the only parts of the UK he saw were the prison and the detention centres, and what he saw through the TV. He spoke what to me sounded like prison-English – slangs and phrases that were unfamiliar to me.
He was curious and eager to know what the UK was ‘really like’. As I described the physical environment outside the detention centre that he had never seen, the sad little bus stop from which I walked to the centre, that there were houses just outside the centre, a busy highway that separated the centre from the airport – I felt responsible acting as his eye and tried to remember all the tiny details that lie outside the fence. I also felt inadequate not being able to communicate everything – how do you describe the world outside for people who have never stepped out of the detention centre?
After a few visits, we established a ritual. This involved him buying me a cup of rather disgusting coffee from the vending machine in the visitors’ room as soon as we finish greeting each other and enquiring about each other’s’ health and family. We were introduced to each other through a visitors group and of course did not know each other. When he first offered to buy me coffee, I declined his offer and offered to buy drinks for both of us instead. He was adamant that he would buy the drinks. So we settled on each of us buying our own coffee. The first time it happened, I mulled over the incident on the bus back to the tube station, feeling bad. Surely I should be offering to buy him coffee, as someone who has freedom and much else that he doesn’t have? The second time, I did the same and felt even more uncomfortable. In my third visit, I decided to graciously accept the coffee, bought by his money. I realised that it was this gesture of being able to do something for me was important to his sense of self and self-respect. He always smiled ear to ear when he brought those beige plastic cups of coffee back to our table. I felt satisfied that I was able to play a role in helping him to retain his humanity and dutifully drank all the disgusting coffee.
During our visits we chatted this and that, always in a light-hearted way. It was hard to guess what the right approach to him should be. His situation was miserable but he always smiled. But in each conversation, there was always something that kept you in your track. That his mother whom he phoned weekly did not know he was in detention so all his siblings had to pretend he was doing well in another country. That he said he didn’t feel like taking his cap off during one of the visits. He said he was on suicide watch – I could see that he was crying and his eyes were swollen from his tears.
One day, I arrived at the centre and reported to the visitors’ reception. I was told that he was no longer there. Eventually I managed to track him down in another centre, of course miles and miles away, and spoke to him on the phone. I introduced him to another visitors’ group. The following week, I started visiting someone else.