And now it’s time for something completely different…..
Picture yourself, in the not-too-distant future, or perhaps in an alternate universe, only slightly different from ours.
This is Katie.
She lives in a small flat in the east end of London, . She’s a single mum with 2 kids, Kai (7) and Tommy (3). She works as an office manager in a printing shop down the road, and volunteers at Tommy’s playschool twice a week. Things are going pretty well for Katie, and life is good.
Then the bombing started.
At first they said it was terrorists, then it was the Muslims, or the Russians, or insurgents. People started to flee the city, but Katie stayed. The bombing was all in central London, far enough away from her neighbourhood, and anyway, she didn’t have anywhere else to go. After a few months, things kept getting worse, rioting, looting, fires. Then the bombs started to get closer and closer to home, and then the schools closed down. The shop was closing too – not enough customers, most people had cleared out, and Katie stoically watched the news footage of thousands of displaced people camped out in football stadiums and the old Olympic park in Stratford. After a while, when the bombs and shooting were getting too close, and most of the food shops had shut down too, Katie realised she had to move, had to go north, and find somewhere safer, somewhere with jobs, or food. The trains and buses all shut down weeks ago, so she packs up the boys’ things, straps Tommy into the buggy, and sets off. She’s aiming for a small, quiet, sleepy village, the kind you see on Morse or Midsomer Murders. Somewhere they’ll be safe, somewhere so small and innocuous that no-one will bother to bomb it.
They walk for days, moving at an unbearably slow pace. She can’t carry Kai, so they can only walk as fast as a tired, hungry 7-year old boy.
Eventually, they arrive in Little Newington, on the edge of Suffolk, a village so small that the main street is just called “The Street”. She sits the kids down on the benches in the pub’s beer garden, and goes inside to ask for some water. The publican smiles at her kindly, and hands her 3 glasses of water, and 3 bags of scampi fries, ‘on the house’. She asks if there is a park nearby, and gets directions. When they get to the park, Tommy is restless from hours strapped into his buggy, but Kai is too exhausted to play, and flops down on the grass for a nap. Katie is exhausted too, and desperate for a rest, but Tommy wants to play, and she can’t risk falling asleep and letting him wander off in a strange place.
They aren’t the only family there, another family is here too, so Katie goes over to talk to them. They arrived yesterday, and slept overnight in the park. They can see how tired Katie is, so they offer to watch the boys if she wants to take a nap. She isn’t sure if she can trust them, but they seem so nice and concerned, and she’s fighting to keep her eyelids open at all.
When she wakes up, the kids are fine, but it’s starting to drizzle, and they’re hungry. There doesn’t seem to be a shop in the village, and the snacks they brought with them are almost all finished. Katie is just about to ask the other family where she can get food, when someone comes hurrying over to them, from the street next to the park, and invites them all to come to his house, to get dry and have a cup of tea.
Katie’s busy trying to make sure Tommy doesn’t destroy everything in this kind stranger’s house, while Kai stuffs the proffered biscuits into his mouth with gusto. She’s embarrassed at her son’s rudeness, and normally wouldn’t allow him more than one, but she also knows how hungry he is, and hasn’t figured out what they’ll do for dinner yet.
His name’s John, the owner of the house, and over several cups of tea, he invites them to stay the night, the other family in the guest room, and Katie and her boys can sleep on the blow-up mattress in the study. They all gratefully agree to this plan, and John sets about making dinner for everyone.
The next afternoon, Katie is staring out of the window at the pouring rain, wondering what she was thinking, coming to this place without a plan, without enough money to pay rent anywhere, and wondering if she’ll end up in a tent in one of those football stadiums and makeshift camps, when one of John’s neighbours knocks on the door. He chats to John for a minute, looking a bit sheepish, and then approaches her. His name’s Paul, he lives over the road, and he’d like to invite Katie and her children to come and stay with him, in his spare room. Katie agrees, although she’s feeling a bit weird, like a parcel being handed over after it was delivered to the wrong house.
8 months later, Katie, Kai and Tommy are still living with Paul and his family, along with another displaced family that Paul took in a few weeks later. Both families try to help out as much as they can with cleaning and cooking, and otherwise try to stay quiet and out of sight, not wanting to intrude any more onto Paul’s family space, and upset the delicate balance. Katie still can’t think of herself and her kids as “DPs”, even though that’s what everyone is calling them now. After what feels like forever the aid agencies show up. One of them gave her some children’s clothes, although they didn’t really fit the boys very well, and another gave out some food parcels. She couldn’t tell you which agency was which, they all look the same. Another one came and gave out some cash, £200 per family, plus an extra £25 per child. That was really useful – the boys need winter clothes as the weather is really freezing now, and she can’t bear to steal any more tampons from Judy, Paul’s wife. She’d asked for them once, and Judy had kindly bought her some, but the embarrassment of having to ask was excruciating. Tommy kept coming down with colds, so she wanted to stock up on Calpol, and she was hoping to save up enough to get them tickets to Manchester, where she’d heard that displaced families were getting put into council housing and flats.
But then Paul asked if she wouldn’t mind sharing her cash with him, to help cover some of the bills and food, and of course she had to help him out, so she ended up giving him £100, which didn’t leave her much left for winter clothes and medicine. She had to forget about the train tickets completely. Maybe next time, if the NGOs come back with more cash…
This is Paul.
Paul lives in a quiet Suffolk village called Little Newington, with his wife Judy and his two kids, Sarah (11) and Jasper (9). He’s got a good job at a marketing firm, and makes a pretty decent salary. He’s got a nice two-up, two-down semi-detached house in a quiet village, and he and Judy both have their own cars. Judy works part-time at the art gallery in the neighbouring village, and the kids are both settled at a nice local primary school. Paul is about as middle-class as they come. Not mega-rich, but very comfortable, able to make ends meet happily, and save a bit here and there. Covering the mortgage comfortably, and able to splurge on a family holiday to France or Spain once a year.
When the bombings started it was awful. So shocking. Everyone gathered in the village pub, gossiping in hushed tones, and having one too many drinks to calm the nerves. Everyone thanked god that they lived in such a quiet little place, far enough away from it all, although sometimes Paul felt that Suffolk really wasn’t far away enough. After a few months, the constant news of bombings and shootings became background noise, people adjusted to it, and, well, life goes on, after all.
They watched in numbed silence at the footage of the enormous refugee camps sprouting like mushrooms on football pitches all over the country. They hugged their children a little tighter when they put them to bed, unable to imagine living in a tent, squeezed in among thousands of others.
When the first DP family arrived in Little Newington, Paul didn’t realise what it was. He had looked out of the bedroom window, and seen some people sleeping in the park. He had tut-tutted about the state of things, and assumed they were bums or homeless junkies somehow in the wrong neck of the woods. He assumed they would move on in the morning. The next day there were more of them, and he watched, irritated, until he realised they had children with them. He wandered down to the pub later, and heard all the gossip – “they’re from London!”, “They’re those DPs!” “Poor things – they came in here knackered – she must have walked that whole way with those two poor kids”. “Well of course I gave her a few packets of crisps for the little-uns.” “Haven’t you heard? John’s gone and taken them all in! They’re sleeping at his house tonight, I’ve just heard it from his missus!”
Paul walked home from the pub feeling wretched, imagining the horrors those poor families had been through, and thinking how it would feel if he couldn’t put a roof over Sarah and Jasper’s heads, if he couldn’t feed them when they were hungry. He was angry at himself for assuming they were junkies, and wished he could help somehow. He didn’t sleep that night, tossing and turning until Judy kicked him out of bed and told him to go and watch TV or something. By morning he had decided, and he told Judy at breakfast.
“I want to invite them to stay here. There’s two families over at John’s, and we could host one each.”
Judy was sceptical at first, but sympathetic to the idea. She always gave £5 a month to the starving kids in Africa, and liked the idea of doing something a bit more hands on. They agreed that the kids would share a room, and the other family could have the spare room.
When Katie and her boys moved in, it was a weird adjustment for the kids at first, and they were all a bit nervous – strangers thrown together, but things soon settled down, and Judy enjoyed looking after them and spoiling them after all they had been through.
Over the next few weeks, more and more families turned up in Little Newington, and more and more residents took people in. Eventually all the houses had DP’s, and yet more kept trailing in, slow and exhausted, and looking worn to the bone.
The villagers started taking in additional families, and before long Paul and Judy had taken in another family, a young lad called Bobby, and his girlfriend Karen. Paul started to worry about money. He’d always done alright, but now he was feeding 9 people instead of 4, and his heating and electricity bills had gone through the roof. Business was tailing off at work, and he wasn’t getting any commissions anymore. The war was damaging business all over, and most of the London clients had shut down. They were starting to lay people off, and Paul worried every night that it could be him next. The gallery where Judy worked shut down, and was turned into a DP center, so Judy volunteered there, cooking meals and doing laundry. It seemed like every village was swarming with people looking lost and scared.
When the NGOs finally came to help, they only gave out useless things like clothes at first, and the food they gave out was cheap and poor quality. When they finally started giving out cash, they wouldn’t include anyone from the village, only the DPs. Paul had gone down to ask them about it, to try and explain he was feeding twice the mouths on less than his normal salary, but they said he didn’t count – he had a car and a house, and a job, so he wouldn’t qualify.
Paul went home dejected and wondered if he would count as vulnerable enough after their electricity got shut off if he couldn’t pay the next bill… Or if he missed a mortgage payment. He hated himself for asking them for a share of their money, he knew they needed it too, but they’d been living off him for months now, and it was only fair that they chip in, wasn’t it?
Little Newington is not a little village the UK, in an alternate universe.
It is a village in Syria. It is a village in Iraq. It is a village in Burundi, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is real life for hundreds of thousands of people around the world. These are the IDPs (Internally Displaced People) and host communities that aid agencies see every day, and we have to make tough choices sometimes about who we can and can’t help with limited resources. So consider donating to some of these hidden crises that don’t get media attention anymore, because people got bored, and other news was more interesting. Syria has been in crisis for over 4 years, and people like Katie and Paul get poorer and more desperate as each year passes.