For the past two weeks, I have had the pleasure of the company of a young gentleman volunteering in the cafe. He must be in his early twenties, slim, quiet, and he’s from Sudan. A year ago, he escaped from Sudan to Libya, got on a boat to Europe, somehow got to Calais, and took his chances jumping onto a Eurostar to Dover where he began the asylum process. A year in, he’s in Leeds, waiting, in limbo, until the British authorities decide that he deserves asylum here and his life can begin in earnest. He’s one of the lucky ones…
On Tuesdays and Thursdays he goes to English classes put on by PAFRAS (one of the many fabulous organisations supporting asylum seekers and refugees in our city), and, having been brought to our cafe by a friend last Tuesday after the class, he asked, in broken English, if he could volunteer with us on Wednesdays. Both Wednesdays now he has turned up, on time, with a shy smile and keen to get to work.
He seems most comfortable with the washing up gloves on, or collecting the empty plates and mugs from the tables. I have to urge him to take a break, have a drink and something to eat himself, but he is always keen to return to his cafe duties at the earliest opportunity.
I have been keen to engage him in conversation, but it is stilted as we misunderstand each other and end up smiling and letting the conversation drift to silence. Today, when everyone else had left, we were both beavering away, clearing up, in silence. I was reflecting as I wiped the tables; I like silence. This silence feels safe. We are both comfortable in the silence. Why do we feel that silences are often awkward?
And then I was interrupted, by my new friend, who turned away from the dirty dishes and asked me about my family and where I was born.
Our friendly, comfortable, silence was broken. But broken by the new found confidence of someone who had obviously wanted to practice his English but until that moment was too shy or nervous. It felt like a real breakthrough moment and I thought to myself that sometimes the conversations that matter are the ones that are remarkable by the very fact that they are happening at all.