In the first chapter of the novel "When we get to the island" by Alex Nye, we meet twelve-year-old Hani and his older sister Reena. Having fled from the terror of war as Syrian refugees, they now face a new nightmare in Scotland, a place they thought would be their escape.
It was early morning and a freezing cold dawn stretched across the fields. Twelve-year-old Hani stood in the semi-dark of an immense shed, miserable, cold, tired. He was always tired, couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t felt exhausted.
The gang-master’s voice invaded his dreams. “Hey! You!”
He pointed at Hani and gestured at the place where Hani was to stand. He knew the routine.
“Come on,” his sister Reena whispered at his side.
Reena always made sure that Hani stayed close. It was their one security; they had each other. They would always have each other.
The interior of the shed was like a cathedral or mosque: echoing, dim, full of shadows. But what went on here was neither holy nor religious.
Reena tried to engineer it so that they were near the opening of the shed, which was shaped like an airplane hangar. “If we’re near the front at least we can see daylight,” she said.
The other option was to head for the shadows at the back, where you could remain hidden, unseen. There was an advantage in that, but Reena and Hani opted always for the light. Not that there was much of it this early in the morning. Hani was almost sleeping on his feet.
They took their places side by side at a great long bench which stretched the entire length of the structure, along with the other workers: hundreds of them, anonymous and sad, robbed of hope, barely speaking.
Looming above Hani, behind wooden slats, was an enormous mountain of carrots reaching as high as the ceiling. He pulled a few of them towards him and there was a faint rumble as more filled their place, “a bit like us really,” Hani thought.
He took a carrot in each fist and slid it over the blade set in the bench before him.
But it was cold this morning and the carrots were frozen to the core, so it was hard to top them properly.
He tried again, roughly, and – once he was satisfied – threw the two topped carrots into the carton at his feet. Hani knew that in the past, agricultural workers here were paid by quantity, so it was important to keep up the speed. The faster you worked, the more you were paid. One of the old timers had told him that. But Hani and his sister and the other refugees were fast at their work for other reasons. They were not paid at all – except in food and shelter, and knowing they were ‘protected’. A strange bargain of sorts.
When Uncle Giorgio first turned up at the camp, smiling, strolling between the tents, Hani and Reena thought he was their guardian angel. He promised to help them and the other young people he selected. “You are fit and strong,” he said. “You will be able to work.”
He was their passport out of the Calais jungle, away from the mud and the sad rows of tents sagging in the November gloom. Winter was upon them and Reena and Hani knew that it was only going to get worse, much colder, wetter, muddier, without proper food or shelter.
He promised he would help them and they believed him because they had no choice. There was no one else they could trust.
Uncle Giorgio was not his real name, but he liked the paternal touch, the hint of Italian grandeur. He thought it made him sound interesting, and he didn’t really want people to know his real name. There was in fact nothing Italian about him at all – in spite of his name. He was suave-looking, polished, gleaming, as if he had benefited from all the advantages of a good education and a healthy diet. He was an ‘entrepreneur’, he told the children.
“That is a good word. You will learn about it one day.”
“What does it mean?” Hani whispered.
“It means he is a businessman, I think,” Reena whispered back.
“Why are we whispering?” Hani asked.
Reena shrugged. She did not know why, but it seemed like a good idea.
“You will have no worries,” he told them. “You will be looked after, fed, and as long as you work, you will be happy.”
Hani nodded, but he recognized a certain doubtful look in Reena’s eyes. His sister wasn’t completely sure, he could tell, but it was easier to believe than to question. It was simpler and no one else was offering them any help out of their nightmare.
Hani fumbled for two more carrots from the pile and dragged them across the blade. They jagged and caught again. He lifted his eyes and gazed along the line. Hundreds of workers just like him, stretching to left and right, and if he glanced over his shoulder, the other side of the aircraft hangar showed the same thing – another line of people opposite, silently working, subdued, making no light conversation at all. Obedient because they had to be; they had no choice.
He became aware of shouts in the middle of the shed, voices ricocheting against the corrugated metal walls. Yusuf, the gang-master, was angry.
Reena nudged him.
“Keep your head down,” she whispered. “Keep working.”
Hani turned back to his mountain of carrots, yawning with fatigue, his hands icy and chilblained in the darkness.
He did not even know where they were. Somewhere in Scotland, a place called Dundee – he had heard that word mentioned – with lots of flat fields and glinting polytunnels. Uncle Giorgio had told them in an oily voice that he would look after them, even though they were illegal.
“Illegal?” Reena asked.
“You have no papers. No passport. You do not exist. Technically.”
He said it as a kind of warning and they knew it.
After that, he stopped being so paternal with them; he changed. His voice hardened and they stopped believing that he was kind. Uncle Giorgio had left them here, at this agricultural centre, and they rarely saw him after that. Once or twice he would turn up in a gleaming black car and stand talking to Yusuf and some of the other men, then he would drive away again. They never knew where to.
After two hours Hani had filled a carton and carried it to the middle of the shed where the foreman and gang-master were sorting the topped carrots.
No one even acknowledged him and he slipped back to his place at the bench and began work again.
A cry and a shout from the gang-master. “You!”
Hani turned and pointed at himself.
“Yes. You!” he shouted.
Hani could feel his sister Reena tensing beside him, watching anxiously for what would happen next.
Yusuf showed Hani the contents of the box. “These are no good.”
He selected one and showed it to Hani. It was not properly topped.
“The carrots have ice in them…” Hani began, but Yusuf cuffed him across the back of the head.
Reena, watching this, flinched, and Hani went silent.
Yusuf hurled the carrots back onto the bench in front of him, with the instruction “Do them again!”
An hour later as he was still working, the gang-master stepped forward and checked the blade in front of Hani. It was embedded in the bench itself so that the workers could take one carrot in each fist and drag it across, before dropping the topped carrots in the crate at their feet.
The gang-master pushed Hani aside, and made to sharpen the blade.
When that was done, he pushed Hani back into place.
Reena watched all of this, her heart aching for her little brother whom she had promised to protect.
Hani glanced sideways at her and she smiled encouragingly. “Things will get better, Hani,” she whispered. “This won’t always be our life, I promise you.”
Hani smiled back to make her feel better, but he knew she could not promise that. No one could. At the same time, he wanted to protect her, his sister, and felt helpless because he couldn’t.
They could try to run, but there were dangerous men who would stop them, and anyway, where would they run to? Who else would give them shelter, food, warmth, such as it was?
They had no choice but to endure.
HANI © Alex Nye 2020