Any Room For My Friends?

A girlfriend of mine sent me an email years ago, a polite request on behalf of some friends who were travelling. “They’re planning on being over your way in the next few weeks, they have their own tent but they need somewhere to camp for a few nights.”  I was sure G would be cool with the idea as I read through the rest of the note. They had a truck, she promised they wouldn’t be too much trouble, she had a photo of them leaving her place at the bottom of the email, I just needed to scroll down.







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After I’d finished giggling I immediately sent it to every friend in my address book. The idea of seeing a truck this loaded in Australia was ludicrous, so comedic it could become an email prank.

The photo above isn’t the exact photo but it was pretty much the same. You see photos like these often in Africa. It wasn’t until I moved to Libya that I had the chance to meet people who’d made trips on trucks like the one above. Michael from Sudan who had crossed the border looking for work in Tripoli, and Abdul (formerly Joseph) who had converted from Christianity to Islam hoping it would increase his employment prospects. And then there was Alice. Alice had knocked on our door one day looking for a job, she was desperate for somewhere to live and a regular income. She’d left her life in Sierra Leone where she’d worked as a policewoman, often working 24 hour shifts.

Alice became our housekeeper, it would have been just like the Brady Bunch except when it came to housekeeping Alice made a great policewoman. Alice was loud, energetic and a whirlwind of energy. She broke something on a daily basis, ironed my bathers into a crisp ball, and promptly forgot about every meal she was ever left to watch over. She wasn’t a fan of children and could see no need to keep track of them, I often hired a babysitter to watch Alice watch the children. Alice lived in a constant state of excitement, like she was just about to tell you the best surprise. She sang out loud as she mopped and when she wasn’t singing she was speaking to herself in French, practicing for the day that she would get on a boat and start a new life. She would ask and then answer her own questions. Bonjour, je m’appelle Alice, Comment tu t’appelles? Quoi de nouveau? Très bien, merci.

Like many of her friends Alice came to Libya with a plan, she would save enough money to buy a ticket on a boat that would get her to Europe illegally. The destination of choice was mostly Italy, from there they were going to make their way to France. Alice was a regular at church, she sang in the choir, cleaned, and volunteered. Most of her friends were from Sierra Leone and all of them had a complicated and heartbreaking story as to why they’d left. Civil war makes for uncivil living. For Alice it was corruption within the police force, she had seen things that remained with her in the shape of nightmares – she felt she could never go back.

When we left in the December to go home for Christmas we hugged goodbye. I told her I’d see her in January when I returned. I was so excited to get home, Fred was just eight weeks old and yet to meet my parents. Lizzie had turned three, and Annie at 17th months was providing the leg work. The flight was an exercise in crowd control, G and I took turns, barely slept, and arrived in Sydney feeling like we should have been presented with some sort of achievement award. It was Christmas Eve when the phone call came that we were moving again, this time Canada. Every time I thought about returning to Libya to pack the house I couldn’t get my head around the logistics. G had two weeks until he started the new job, I was unable to fly with the children on my own. In the end G went back on his own and organised the pack, he was in and out in ten days. I have friends that I never got to say goodbye to, a house that I never left. In my mind the car remains in the driveway, the vegetable man still come to the front door, and baby group is at my house each Tuesday.

I spoke to Alice on the phone, she had other work lined up and felt she’d saved enough money to be able to buy her ticket soon. She would destroy her passport and all records when it was time to go.

I don’t know if Alice made it or not. Months later there was a story in the news of a boat full of immigrants on its way to Italy which had sank; the reporter said it was thought the boat had departed from Libya but they weren’t entirely sure of its origins. There was another boat, and another. Boats full of people like Alice, people hoping to leave their nightmares at sea. I’ve been lucky enough to visit France a few times since then, each time I’ve kept an eye out for Alice, wondering if she had a chance to use the French she’d practiced.

Seven hundred people died just this week when their boat bound for Italy sank. Seven hundred people just like Alice. I choose to think of her in France, the alternative is horrifying.

Bonjour Alice, Ça va?

Très bien Kirsty! Très bien.

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  1. It started with a laugh and ended with tears. We had an Alice too in Libya, her name was Mary. Once her baby daughter died and she came to work the next day. I tried to talk her out of it but she said:”Why? Things like this happen all the time because they cant afford to go to a doctor in Libya”. Someone on an Austrian radio station said they should let the refugees drown because we have other problems here.

    So, so sad

  2. You have an amazing way with words a put a great spin on your stories… Apart from how funny and sad that story is you made me laugh with the vision of Alice ironing your bathers–everyone who’s expated in a country where you have the luxury of an Alice has a story like that–we just can’t laugh about it at the time ;-D.

  3. Felicity Barber says

    This story brought tears to my eyes. I’ve lived in Benin which takes in a lot of refugees from other African countries (particularly Rwanda) and their stories were always heartbreaking. As ever – wonderful writing. I love getting your emails in my inbox 🙂

  4. Oh, just so hard and so sad. When we think about leaving one place for another it is in (relative!) comfort with all sorts of things set in place – whether it’s moving house, moving countries or just taking a trip! The thought of leaving as a refugee is heart breaking. I do so hope that your Alice made it safely to France.

  5. says

    Haven’t had a chance to explore all of your website yet. What was life in Libya like? Were there many other expats there?

  6. sundaebean says

    Yes – in this post you so skillfully put the humanity and face on the hundreds of individuals (moms, dads, cousins, brothers) who risk – and sometimes lose – their lives due to global imbalances.

  7. Just popping in from the link-up to say hi 🙂

    I really hope your Alice made it to France too.


  8. Nicely said Kirsty. I often wonder what has happened to our Syrian driver we had in Damascus and other locals who worked with my husband. Did they manage to get out or are they still lining in the broken city?

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