“We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back”
Sitting at my desk one day during the summer of independence in 2014, I noticed something unusual from the corner of my eye. Sticky-taped to the panes of glass in the building opposite were six pieces of white A4 paper spelling out five words and a question mark in a child’s deliberate but uneven handwriting: DO YOU WANT TO PLAY? My heart lept. Five syllables- the first line of a haiku- and a direct, unambiguous question with a choice of two answers. I scrawled my response in marker pen on one sheet of printer paper, positioned it in my own window and waited for the reply. And so began the first of many surprise conversations visible to all passers by in the street, confusing Yes/ No Indy pollsters and reviving the Scottish ballad tradition of etching verse onto street windows.
Maddie is a true child of Constitution Street. The youngest of four, her parents met at the Port of Leith bar and were married in South Leith Parish Church. Now separated, Maddie’s father, an Englishman, voted Yes to Scottish independence and is an active member of the local branch of the SNP. Her mother, a Scotswoman, voted No and is fervent in her disdain for Scottish nationalism. Such is how our lived experience and the people we meet shape our layered identities.
Having babysat her older siblings when they lived at home, I know the family well. On the occasions when Maddie stays the night in my spareroom and I have to get her up, dressed and breakfasted in time for school, I feel truly useful. I want people to notice us on the walk to the school playground and for some to mistake me for her mother or older sister. These are mornings with purpose. I wanted her to know that spending time together is not a chore or act of neighbourly goodwill so I told her that anytime she felt like meeting up, she could simply send me a sign. In the age of instant messaging and emojis, ours became a window to window, face to face friendship. She has taught me a lot.
No. 59 Constitution Street is the old Manse adjacent to St John’s Church. Once a Georgian townhouse with stable block and servants’ quarters, the ruin of the building remaining was bought as a project by Maddie’s father thirty years ago. Now sub-divided into three, the small, curved doorway flush with the front of the building opens like a Scooby-doo bookshelf onto a cobbled pen and courtyard beyond. Residents and visitors in the know push against the hidden door and stoop to enter. Inside, children from the street mount a discarded mobility scooter that used to belong to Maddie’s grandmother and steer it like a chariot caroling around an assault course of old whisky barrels. I watch these comings and goings from across the road. Maddie’s parents tell me that they have twice had television and film producers ask if they could use the soot-stained facade of the building in a Dickens dramatisation. As goes the chorus from the musical, I’d do anything for her.
Three years on from the first window text messages, we sat on the edge of her bed amongst a detritus of early adolescence and Sunday mornings- teddies, laundry, phone chargers, milkshake cups, makeup samples and our dogs- to discuss Constitution Street. The news in the wider world spoke of Britain’s failure to uphold its commitments under the so-called Dubs amendment. The Dubs amendment, known as section 67, was passed in April 2016 amid a campaign to bring 3,000 lone refugee children stuck in camps in Europe to Britain. By July 2017, the press reported that not a single extra lone child refugee had been brought into the country.
Maddie and I could hear the raucous squawks from seagull chicks waking inside their nests atop the flattened spire of neighbouring St John’s Church, the mini-dinosaurs demanding to be fed some more before flying solo. We had found an injured chick alone in Leith Links earlier that morning. Its white, feathery shape lay splayed on green grass like the chalk-outline of a crime scene victim. We deliberated over whether or not to intervene. Tethering our dogs on short leads, we approached the bird cautiously and decided that the best course of action was to calmly and gently lift up the bird and place it in a less exposed area of the park to protect it from being trampled on by walkers or dogs. Reluctantly, I put my hands around the bird’s surprisingly soft, warm middle, taking care to avoid getting pecked by the jurassic beak. I then lay the bird down as softly as I could in the shade of a tree in a quieter section of the park. The bird and beak seemed to eye me malevolently, before flying away with gusto. Well, that’s bloody grateful, I said, wiping bird shit deposited in my hands onto a tuft of grass. We continued our walk home to the street.
‘Well mainly because I’ve grown up here, I like it because it’s home but also because I know mostly, roughly, about everybody who lives here…. And it’s like, when I’m on holiday and I come back and go onto the street, I just feel happy to be back. And it, it can be rough at times [giggles]. But it’s nice because it’s… you can trust it in a way.’
Is there anything you would like to change about the street?
‘Mhmn.. nothing I think. Except those birds! And I’d like there to be a street party. That would be very funny.’
What would happen at the street party?
‘Well, there would be like bunting all around the street and there would be bbqs going on and music playing and people if they wanted, they could sell some things that they didn’t want in their house anymore. And we could all just like dance and things and have a bit of ceilidh as well. And then I think some people would have a little bit too much to drink and I would just sit there watching them and laughing [giggles].’
Pink gingham bunting hung in loops at her window frame and the bedroom walls were decorated with polaroid snaps of school friends in uniform sticking their tongues out. Being age 12 and in-between primary and secondary school can be an anxious, exciting time. Twelve is the symmetrical point on a clock face where ticking hands complete the circle and are poised in a moment of equilibrium, both pointing north. Yet the joined hands do not pause for long, clock-wise as they are to continue their rotation, ever- forward into new seconds, minutes and hours. Being tall and slender with dark hair cropped at her shoulders, a cartwheeling Maddie resembles clock hands.
‘I feel terrified! And sad too because I’m the only one going to a different school. I’ve already made new friends. But they’re not really as close as my friends from primary school. And I’m also worried about the timetable and things. Like I understand how it works but it’s confusing like where the things are and how you’re supposed to get to them. Because it’s such a big school.’
At which point we were interrupted by another voice.
‘I’m having trouble connecting to the internet. Take a look at the health section in your app.’
‘She’s so rude! Ha ha!’
Who is that?
‘Oh it’s Alexa. She’s a robot.’
‘I’m having trouble connecting….’
‘It’s cause I said her name. She’s like this robot that you can ask questions and she connects to your phone and searches stuff up for you. So if you’re doing homework and you’re like ‘ah, what is this question’ you can just go ‘Alexa what is the answer to 3 x 20.’ That was the first sum to come into my head.‘
‘The answer is 60.’
Alexa is quick at mathematics but she isn’t much help with more reflective tasks. For a school project on the Scottish Parliament, Maddie turned to her friend across the road for help. Her primary 7 class had all gone on a visit to Holyrood earlier in the year and it prompted us to talk about politics and about the Parliament building itself.
So did you get to sit in the debating chamber?
‘Erm yes but we were not allowed to sit in any of the chairs, which was a shame. But one of the boys in my class, when the tour guide wasn’t looking, he quickly sat down – just to be like ‘yeah I’m cooler than you!’.’
And did you learn about any differences between the parliaments in Edinburgh and London?
‘So I think Westminster is like the main place where they decide like what happens for the whole country and the Scottish Parliament is mainly for like Scotland and I think well obviously the debating chambers are a lot different too.’
Are you interested in politics?
‘I mean I like there to be a fair way of making decisions and things but I don’t think I would like to make a career out of it.’
Do you think we have a fair country?
‘Yes, I think it’s run fairly. Though I don’t like how sometimes people with more money get treated differently to people with less money. Brexit was not a good decision. Because, well mainly for my Mum’s job. Like she only gets paid if people buy things and people are kind of scared to now. So she’s not getting paid very well. And also when you go to the airport you’re going to have to sign lots of papers and things to go to places like France.’
And what do you think about Scottish independence?
‘Mhmn… well, I mean it’s quite.. I have mixed feelings about it because my Dad is very SNP, SNP you know and then my Mum wants us all to stay together. And I think that’s a good way to think- for everybody to just be together and not separate – because we’re less strong when we’re on our own. But also, I don’t think we’ll be able to go back into the EU and the only way for us to do that in my head is for Scotland to come away and then Scotland to join the EU as a separate country. But I think that’s the only reason why I like the thought of Scottish independence.’
Distinct from UK elections where the voting age is eighteen, in the Scottish Independence Referendum sixteen year olds had the vote. Still several years away from being able to vote in any election, I was impressed by the maturity in which Maddie grasped the complexities of constitutional change and weighed up the relative merits of the binary choices presented. We matched up the phone pics Maddie took on the school trip with some bullet points about devolution and Alexa the robot turned it all into a slideshow on a tablet device. We were smugly reviewing the efforts of our teamwork when my phone began to buzz with an incoming Facetime call and we paused the Constitution Street interview.
The call was from my friend Merwe, a fourteen year old girl from Afghanistan. I met Merwe and her mother, Diba, in Kara Tepe refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos where I had volunteered the previous summer. Diba and Merwe had since continued their journey onto Athens, hoping to eventually be granted family reunification status to join Merwe’s father in Germany. Back at my home in Edinburgh, I kept in touch with the family through instant messaging on our phones.
Before the refugee crisis Lesvos was famous for ouzo, olives, and the Ancient Greek poet Sappho. Reading aloud Sappho’s poem Time of Youth from my souvenir copy, participants in Kara Tepe’s youth group wrote bold, imaginative responses. Stateless, without leave to remain and with the constant possibility of being deported back to Afghanistan as part of a controversial EU deal with Turkey, young Afghans face an anxious, uncertain future. Merwe’s young adult life has been filled with much rougher streets than the one which Maddie and I call home. From Baghdad to Berlin, Aleppo to Amsterdam, young refugees are left waiting, spending their time of youth in limbo and without access to formal education, each day passing much like the one before it.
You don’t need to be a legal expert to observe that human rights violations are being committed on a daily basis in Greek camps. There is a lack of formal education for school-aged children, a lack of adequate or accessible housing, and in some cases a lack of access to healthcare. Even in the relatively well-organised Kara Tepe camp, children play next to bulldozers and immediately outside the camp exit, children and their parents have to negotiate the walk into town along a busy and poorly-lit highway. Kara Tepe was designed with infrastructure and accommodation for 1,000 individuals. There were 1500 people when I visited and about 3,000 today.
Across Greece, volunteers work independently and in organised groups, filling the gaps left by established agencies. They take over abandoned buildings to ensure people have somewhere to shelter, provide nutritional supplies to young children and establish language programs. None of this can be a substitute for securing safe, permanent homes for refugees but it is something.
Short-term volunteers, well-meaning grown-ups, come and go in the lives of refugee children, particularly over the summer holiday season on Greek islands. My last day helping at Kara Tepe camp was memorable for me but just like any other day stuck in the dust, sweat and frustration for those waiting in a limbo not of their own making. Grand farewell gestures aren’t appropriate. I said a personal thanks to the women like Merwe who assisted as translators and welcomed and befriended me. Other than that, it was a sincere ‘hope to see you soon’.
Late in the evening when the sun had gone down and the camp had quietened down, children and some of their parents sat on UNHCR blankets watching Disney’s Peter Pan subtitled into Farsi and projected onto the walls of a portacabin. Aside from the occasional cry of a baby or the whine of mopeds from the main road outside, there was a settling hush. The kind of collective reverence that makes committed atheists whisper on entering a cathedral or mosque. I tip-toed across a gravel path toward the camp exit to wait for a taxi back to Mytilene town. As I stood next to the makeshift snack bar and mobile phone charging station, a little boy of about five that I didn’t recognise appeared by my side as if from nowhere and tugged on my arm. He called out ‘my friend, my friend’ in broken English and gestured for me to lean in close. I bent down and smiled at him. And then he slapped me. Hard. Across the face.
I gave him a row and he ran away laughing. I wanted to say, Yes, ok, fair enough. I feel ashamed that I’m leaving you here and that you’ve been ignored. I see you. I hear you. And thanks for the send-off.
Lost boys and girls marooned in a Neverland of false promises, smugglers and ticking clocks can’t fly away and must constantly negotiate the safest boundaries. It is a real land very near to us if we chose to notice.
Sitting on the edge of her bed in Constitution Street, Maddie and I were joined by her mother. In the heat of a Scottish July day in the Athens of the north, we three huddled together under a fleece blanket. Alexa, the digibot, was there too of course but she doesn’t feel temperature or emotion. And through the phone screen, we could see and hear Merwe and her mother inside their tented home at a camp about 40km beyond the sprawling suburbs of Athens of the south. They complained of the sweltering Greek temperatures. Two mothers, two daughters, a robot and me, in conversation.
Through the medium of virtual and digital windows, Merwe and Maddie have come to be forever linked in my mind. Two highly intelligent, brave young women on the cusp of big life changes. All things being equal and fair, Merwe would be offered a safe, forever home in Scotland, could stay in my spare bedroom and attend secondary school up the road with Maddie. As it stands, Merwe hasn’t been to school for five years. The Taliban prevented girls from attending school in her region of Afghanistan and, today, she gets harassed by some of the older Afghan boys at the refugee camp for walking alone without the supervision of a brother or father. She tells me that she is avoiding the occasional school lessons offered in Greek for this reason.
Merwe wants to be a doctor when she grows up. I want to help people, she tells me, and to make money to send home to Afghanistan. Maddie wants to be a forensic scientist or a lawyer, she’s not yet decided, because she likes watching Nordic crime dramas on TV. Both girls follow youtube makeup videos, tong their hair into intricate loops in preparation for a Facetime video call and live alone with fierce, loving mothers who have welcomed me into their homes.
The central Leith area of Edinburgh has about 2,500 school pupils and 15% have a first language other than English. Edinburgh has the highest net migration in Scotland. Maddie tells me that her primary 7 class in Leith had a diverse mix of nationalities and languages with fellow pupils speaking Polish, Spanish, French, Italian and Urdu as first languages. She learnt a few words in Spanish.
A native speaker of Farsi and Pashto, Merwe is self-taught in Kurdish, Arabic, Turkish, Greek, Spanish, English and has a smattering of German. The list of languages are reeled off like flag pins in a spinning globe and hint at the many national borders she crossed by foot and boat to reach Lesvos. Aged fourteen, she picked up conversational Spanish and English from volunteers working in the Greek refugee camps and is trying to learn German using Google translate and a dictionary I bought her. She says it’s by far the hardest language so far. If she succeeds in training to become a doctor in Germany, it might yet come to be her most useful.
I presented her with the pocket German dictionary on a return visit to Athens in late summer 2017. When I was a teenager, a dictionary wouldn’t have been my choice of gift request but she seemed delighted.
On his military service, the Greek soldier assigned to watch over our reunion at the camp gates didn’t look to be much older than a teenager himself. He gave an apologetic smile from under his khaki cap and offered us cheese sandwiches from his packed lunch. Merwe suggested that we make up our own picnic and head to the nearest beach for a trip away from the camp. Diba, her mother, liked this idea too and assembled a tupperware of peaches and a flask of homemade iced coffee.
Theirs is an open camp in the sense that, once registered, residents are free to come and go within the possibilities that limited funds stretch to. Local train journeys are free for refugees. After a short train ride through parched scrubland and a stroll along the boardwalk of an end of season seaside resort, the warm, turquoise water of the Aegean Sea lapped at our ankles. It resembled the cover shot on a package holiday travel brochure and, us, the three most unlikely of models posing as an odd family group amongst many on holiday.
Diba napped in the shade while Merwe and I prepared to wade into the sea for a swim. Not planning for a day at the beach, I hadn’t brought a costume and, instead, was sweating under long sleeves and scarf. I had tried hard, too hard, to not offend my Muslim hosts and looked and felt a bit ridiculous fully clothed in the midday sun. I opted to roll up my trouser legs to the knees and strip to vest. Merwe, meanwhile, had removed her hijab and ran confidently into the waves wearing her light summer dress and leggings. Turning around to see what was taking me so long, she shook her head in dismay and shouted to me, loud enough for all on the beach to hear, Jemmy! You’re European- take some clothes off!.
I was back at Craigiebarns Primary School, writhing and twisting on a wooden gym bench- learning through doing how to skillfully remove thick, woollen tights and starched cotton pinafore without revealing an inch of white flesh to classmates or teacher. These are the elaborate moves of a practised circus artist or a Scottish school pupil changing for PE. I looked around at the bronzed Greek goddesses sunbathing topless under sun parasols on the shoreline and at their young children building sandcastles, happily naked. Everyone was now staring at the multicultural, intersectional spectacle unfolding in the waves. I quickly peeled to my un-matching bra and pants and stomped, laughing and squealing, into the salty sting of the old Aegean with my new friend.
Our limbs fully submerged by water and only our heads and shoulders bobbing above the surface, we became two women dancing, playing and, at home, in our own bodies. Fluid and free. Powerful and equal. Brown skin and white skin tones refracted by the blinding midday light to become a continuous marbling of human shapes thrashing the sea with glee, safe in the sensation of being able to still touch the seafloor with our feet. Diba waved from the shore. Merwe somersaulted like a mermaid gymnast. I attempted to copy but made wide, sweeping circles with my arms underwater instead. We said nothing but splashed and grinned and were carefree for a few precious minutes.
How did you learn to swim so well?, I gasped, carelessly, regretting the words as soon as I spoke them. Merwe pretended not to hear and held her breath under water. The bond had broken and we were back to being heavy and anchored in our established roles.
Afghanistan is a landlocked country. To reach Europe’s border by foot is a perilous journey fraught with danger across the Hindu Kush mountains bordering Pakistan, then on into the vast expanse of politically volatile Iran and Turkey, all the while relying on intelligence further up the line from those who have made the journey before as to where to avoid Taliban strongholds, Daesh terrorism, Middle East proxy wars and military checkpoints. No one chooses to leave their homeland and extended family without very good reason. Mothers and daughters like Merwe and Diba flee in the middle of the night with only the clothes on their backs.
The crossing from Turkey to Lesvos in Greece is five miles at its shortest point and looks about the same width as Edinburgh to Fife on a clear day but it is anything but straight-forward when crossed in the dark with poorly equipped boats and no sailing experience. It has been a migration route in both directions for centuries and was the hotspot for people escaping violence and persecution at the height of the current refugee crisis. Refugees arrived in inflatable dinghies, often with poor or faulty life-jackets supplied by people smugglers.
In the very same sea where Merwe had two years previously spent a long, dark night treading water while clinging to the side of an upturned dinghy before being rescued by a Frontex ship, we felt our holiday skin begin to wrinkle uncomfortably and we paddled back to the shallows to dry in the afternoon sun. We ate slices of peach with Diba and dozed for the rest of the afternoon until it was time to catch the last train home. Home to a refugee camp and a guest house in Athens respectively- temporal, transient homes.
Waiting at the train station, a crimson, angry sky beat down on the cluster of faded waterfront hotels, the setting sun casting long splinters of shadow onto the train tracks in front of us and marking the turning of another day. Diba sharpened a twig against the metal arm of a bench on the platform and then began to scratch lines into the pale, honey-coloured hues of an olive tree trunk as though a teenage girl graffiting her school desk or jotter. The date 14/04/14 emerged inside a heart-shaped bubble. This is the date when the family left their home in Afghanistan. The date is forever etched in their minds. It signifies where they are from and where they want to return to with their grandchildren and great-grandchildren one day. These are exactly the sort of people we should want as neighbours.
I thought back to what Maddie and I were doing in spring 2014 at home on Constitution Street. International Women’s Day, 8th March…. Her mother had asked if I could pick Maddie up from gymnastics class after school and babysit while she worked late. I asked Maddie if she wanted to come with me to a spoken word event at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on gender and power and, to my surprise, she was keen. We enthusiastically listened and clapped to a series of personal narratives about the fourth wave of feminism, delivered by confident young women . I relaxed into my theatre seat and felt a self-congratulatory glow, pleased as I was about the education of my young friend into the ways of the sisterhood.
Then the final act of the night. A performance piece about women’s empowerment and the reclaiming of language- every stanza concluding with a rallying call for liberation from the patriarchy and a prompt for the audience to shout in unison an increasingly loud, resounding shout of ‘CUNT!’ I winced, slunk into my seat and pulled the fury hood of Maddie’s puffa jacket up over her head.
Travelling home through the dark in my car afterward, I turned down the car stereo volume and proffered, So there were some choice words at the theatre tonight, Maddie. Should we have a chat about that, together with your Mum maybe?
Jemma, she sighed deadpan, looking straight ahead, when were you last in a school playground?
They say it takes an entire village to raise a child but the street is a good place to start.