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  • You don’t know us, but we know you.

    You have seen where we live, though you won‘t have known it. We’re in one of the run down houses you passed on the street where the garden is overgrown with weeds and the curtains are always closed. There is a gap from which we peer at you.

    You don’t know us, but we know you.

    We live in the dark and hide, with the electricity off. We grow used to the shadows and the thin slit of light through the window that, on a good day, will stretch a vivid white border across the carpet.

    Maybe we are from war-torn Afghanistan, where children watch and emulate their fathers with guns. Perhaps the shape in the corner is my wounded mother, bleeding from her abdomen.

    I see you through the slit in the curtains. You are the man in the business suit and sunglasses shouting loudly on your mobile phone, for everyone to hear, about your new car. You are the single mother, fag in hand; gossiping with another single mother, fag in hand, while your children play in the road.

    You don’t know us, but we know you.

    You passed us in your car, or on public transport. You definitely didn’t walk past. It’s not the kind of area you want to walk through.

    It may be that we are from Iran, where making a protest puts you in prison, or gets you tortured, or both. There are curves on our wall, marking divisions between lighter and darker territories of shadow. Perhaps they form a noose, and the silhouette of my hanging brother.

    The night draws in and the streetlights turn on. I see you. You are the boys in tracksuits sharing cocaine at a bus shelter. You are the homeless man shouting, striking your girlfriend. You are the man with a barking Labrador strolling past them. You are the woman that sees them and turns the other way.

    You don’t know us, but we know you.

    There are too many houses you’ve passed like ours to know which one it is. There are too many places you’ve known the edges and so not crossed them. There are too many places and too many lines. It’s a small world, they say, but they’re always trying to make it smaller.

    Perhaps we are from Iraq, where it’s impossible to know what side to be on, though you can be done for even if you don‘t pick one. You came in and freed us, then imprisoned and tortured us. You said we were liberated, and then you told us what to do. Perhaps the rippling darkness by the door is the effect of a light breeze dancing through the curtains. Perhaps it looks like a river, like the one that intersects my home country, the country where only the water has known freedom. Or perhaps the ripples outline the image of my father, on his knees, swaying back and forth with a bag over his head, praying you will stop. Perhaps you made him drink his own piss, and then ordered him to hold an arm out from his body, indefinitely. Then, when his arm dropped, you beat him with a lead pipe.

    The day breaks. I see you. You are the kids in packs on your way to school, trying out swear words on old ladies with sticks. You are the man running for the bus stop, your shirt only half tucked in and a piece of toast madly waving at the driver to let you on. You are the bus driver, bitter and fed up, who ignores him. You are the man throwing his shoe at the rear window and cursing, all in futility.
    But there are some of you that listen, no matter how hard it is. There are some of you that find a way to see past your Englishness. Still, a good man is hard to find.

    You don’t know us, but I know you - so let me tell you who we are.

    We came in on freighters, ferries, trains, planes. We came in wheelie bins, cargo boxes, in hidden compartments. Some of us paid a lot of money to get here. A lot of us made difficult promises. Some of us left people behind, people we love. Fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, lovers. People we might never see again, either because we‘ve lost the means of contact, or because we leave them where they have no control over their lives, because those responsible are out of control.

    We came here from Zimbabwe. We came here from Afghanistan, from Sierra Leone, from China, Iraq, Iran, India. We came here to escape. We came here for a new life. We came here to be free. But sometimes we think we have just swapped one prison for another.

    I know you. You are the man who works eight hours of the day, five days a week, only to be able to afford a holiday, to get away from it. You are the woman who buys an expensive new dress, wears it once, then stores it away in a cupboard, never to be seen again. You are the man who buys DVDs and CDs compulsively, absorbing others’ creativity to distract you from your own mind-numbing boredom. You are the woman who looks forward to getting drunk, the same thing you did last Thursday. You are the child who watches his parents and learns how to behave. You tell your offspring they‘ll get what they deserve. You lie.

    There are people that will tell you there is only one choice, but the time will come when you will know that cannot be true. When the choices were pressing upon us, we knew that there had to be something better. Perhaps we are the victims. Or perhaps you are.
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