There Is Only Hope
by Katie Ciccarello

From the writer: Big Ben, Parliament, museums, theatres, English accents, and bland food were just some of the things I expected to discover when I traveled to London for a semester. When I began walking around the streets of London, I found a very different world. The world of refugees. Living in Bayswater, most of my neighbors were not your typical Englishmen. Just walking around I could identify four and five different languages being spoken, mostly Middle Eastern and African. This is where people come when they can no longer survive, for whatever reason, in their home country. They live in hotels, bed and breakfasts, in flats, and sometimes on the streets. I wanted to explore this hidden community in London. That is how I met Yvette Bitumba.

From the teacher: In Studio III the students were asked to write an immersion essay, designed to help them extend their roots more deeply in our host city. For this assignment, students needed to immerse themselves in some aspect of life in London, collect notes and artifacts, and write an essay to relate both their findings and a reflection on their findings. When Katie shared her emerging essay with the class, we were stunned into silence by her illumination of a refugee family. For the first time we truly saw the plight of refugees, whose presence was ubiquitous, but whose actual lives were invisible.

From the editors: Ciccarello's description reflects her compassion and empathy for the human condition. The common thread of displacement of both the writer and her subject brought the essay to a level higher than technical proficiency. Through the arts of photography and writing, she discovers a new outlook of the world and herself.

Tourists and holiday shoppers crowd the pavement of Queensway in Central West London. International students meet and chat at Seattle Coffee Company. Groups of Iranian and Indian adolescents rush to the four o'clock showing of Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in Whitely's Shopping Center. Old men waste their days away wandering in and out of shops and bakeries. Two tube stations release hoards of travelers out into the street every three minutes as trains pull in and out.

When I thought about living in London, I created scenes like these in my mind. So, when I rented a flat on Queensway I assimilated to the transient nature of the busy district. When I had to decide on a neighborhood to cover for my photography project, it is no surprise that I chose Queensway. When I conceived the project, I never thought that I would find a story like Yvette Bitumba and her four children. I met them at a center for refugee families. When I told her about my project, Yvette instantly let me into her life.

I sat in the room that Yvette and her children call home. No bigger than a large bedroom, the room serves as the family's place to sleep, eat, wash, and play. Privacy does not exist here. Yvette washes dishes in the sink as her son Hans, waits to brush his teeth. Pots, dishes, glasses, and silverware sit in a pile on the ground underneath the sink. Inches away from the dirty dishes, a row of the family's shoes runs the length of the wall. Above the shoes, two tall windows let a soft light into the room. A shower stands in a lonely corner. Two towels and a bathrobe hang on the door and sides of the glass tower.

Yvette sleeps in the same bed as her two youngest daughters, Judith, 3, and Tara, 6. Fanny, 12, and Hans, 11, sleep in a bunk bed next to the double bed their mother sleeps in. Yvette makes her bed everyday. But Fanny and Hans rarely get around to making their beds before they have to leave for school.

Opposite from the beds, a miniature refrigerator and small desk act as a makeshift kitchen. Here, Yvette prepares skimpy Nutella sandwiches on white bread for Judith and Tara. A tiny television on the desk blinks and squeaks at Judith as she rubs the sleep from her eyes. Yvette says something quickly to Fanny and Hans in Congolese. They shuffle out of the room, following her waving hands.

Although it has been an early morning for me, I get up from my chair and follow them out the door, intent on knowing how they manage to live in the small surroundings. Fanny and Hans had already made their way down three flights of stairs. I finally discovered them in the breakfast room of the hotel. They each carried a plate piled with typical English breakfast food. Fried eggs, salty bacon, toast and baked beans crowded together on the chipped hotel plates. I expected them to sit down and eat, but they hurriedly assembled the plates and dashed back up the stairs.

Still a little winded from my trip down, I trailed behind them. They prepared the plates for their mother and sisters. Fanny explained to me that she and her brother had already eaten. Fanny and Hans speak English very well because they both attend a British school in London. Understanding Fanny only took me a brief moment. Conversations with Yvette were like being in mime school. Her mouth moved and words came out, but the actual words confused and cluttered our conversations. I interpreted her stories and emotions through her actions and movements.

She told me when I first asked, that she likes London. But that was our first conversation, and perhaps she was trying to appease me. The next time I asked, she explained to me in stumbling English and hurried Congolese French and a jumble of hand and body movements that she has been trying to get housing for seven months. But they won't give it to her. I asked why. She said the word asylum - only she said asiliuum. Together we figured it out.

In order to qualify for housing, refugees must apply for or declare asylum in their home country BEFORE leaving to the next. She didn't. That made me wonder about WHY she came to London. Her quick answer was "for political reasons." But that made me wonder if she made a hasty exit. And where is the children's father?

Yvette is extremely articulate. So full of things to say, she doesn't have many people to talk to throughout her day. Adults-I mean.

I asked her about her country. Was it different from here? (Of course I knew it was, but I wanted her to tell me what she thought). She said-motioning no-that there, if you are needy, hungry, homeless, you are still happy. She produced a face-wide smile. And drew her hands up and shook them about, as if dancing or something. But here, if you need help you are-she squeezed her face up and pulled her coat in to her chin - spiteful. Here, people are needy but nobody cares-she acted out the two parts. The first person, she interpreted, needs help-"Help! Help!" she threw her arms up. The second person, she acted out, walks by and looks down at the person who needs help and does nothing.

In her country, Zaire, people are always happy. Even without houses or clothes or food. Here people can have big houses, she swept her arm across the row of flats on the posh street in Bayswater, and clothes and, she scrunched her face up like Scrooge, still be unhappy.

After talking with her, I walked around Queensway before going back to my secluded flat. The hustle and bustle of the pavement began to annoy me though and I headed home. I couldn't help but think that nobody realizes that people like Yvette exist in London. Tourists come to London and spend loads of money on silly trinkets and throwaway souvenirs. While Yvette feeds her growing children Nutella sandwiches people can afford to pay two pounds for a cup of coffee.

I held Judith's hand as we walked. It was small and her whole hand fit within mine so, I was able to keep it warm like a sort of glove. It was difficult for her to keep up since her mother was walking so quickly. But Yvette had appointments to keep and errands to run before Judith's brother and sisters returned from school. As we made our way back to the hotel, Judith and I played some walking games. We never verbally agreed to play. She can speak Congolese French fairly well, but is far from being able to speak English. So she and I communicate in pure body language. I would take a big step, and she would copycat me. I hopped and she hopped. I skipped, she skipped. I hoped that our playing would help her forget how far we were walking.

Once we were inside and walking up the stairs of the hotel, Yvette paused and looked at me hopefully. "I have no . . . ." She clenched her fists, and placed them as if pushing a shopping cart in the air and pushed them back and forth. "How do you say? Basket?" She pointed to Judith. "Because we walk so much," she tried to put her thoughts into words.

All of a sudden I realized exactly what she was struggling to say. "Yes, yes," I assured her that I understood. She said she has asked for a carriage for Judith- but no one has given her one yet. The miles show on Judith's tired face. I wish I could help.

Once, when I left Yvette and her children, Judith was crying. She wailed about wanting me to stay to play with her. It had been a long day and Yvette's patience had dwindled. One room just wasn't enough space for four children and one mother. Her tears were so painful to hear. It was as if her mother was crying through her, using her tears.

Yvette cried one afternoon during one of our talks. Her three oldest were in school and Judith sat playing by herself near the shower. It scared me to see her cry. Of all her different gestures, her tears conveyed the strongest message. The reality of her desperate situation smacked me in the face. I wanted desperately to be able to do something.

I started the conversation by asking her again, why she came to London. She finished drying some dishes and sat down in a crooked wicker chair. I could tell she was tired. She slumped over in the chair, tired from fighting to survive.

She didn't know exactly how to start. She fidgeted with a towel in her hands. I sat on the hard wooden chair she offered me when I arrived. I shifted in my seat, nervous that I somehow asked the question at the wrong time. But, Yvette wanted to talk. She wanted to tell someone about her frustrations. I was no longer one of those people on the street to her. I cared about her situation. I cared about her. All of a sudden we were talking.

Sentences came and went with ease. She explained to me, half in words, half in signs that her husband worked closely with the last president of Zaire. As she spoke her Congolese, I faintly remembered a report on the nightly news about the changing government in Zaire. But that was all I could recall. She began to open up and English words started to come faster for her, although hand motions were still our best translators.

She lived in a villa, with a lot of her husband's extended family. But, when his political regime was overthrown by the new government, her family was in danger. I put the facts together from flashes of the nightly newscast, her waving hands, and her expressions.

"In Zaire," she stumbled over the unfamiliar syllables, "I had..." She motioned to a fake hotel painting on the wall. "Pictures," I finished her sentence. She shook her head relieved that I had said the word that she wanted. "I had clothes," she waved her hands up and down her body frantically. "I had house," she swept her hand across the tiny room in comparison. I shook my head, for lack of a better response. I didn't want to stop her speech. It was as if she had been pent up, unable to talk to anyone. She was ready to talk. I was content to just listen.

She explained to me that she has a younger sister who came to London three years ago, that is why she came here instead of Belgium, where they speak a language much like her own. Her sister lives in North London with her husband and their new baby.

I asked Yvette how she afforded to live in the hotel room without having a job. She became flustered and rushed. It was as if she could not believe I had asked such a question. She started to stutter. She wrestled with her new language and she was losing. Sometimes she persisted and finally pronounced the word, "milk" or "line" but other times she surrendered to her familiar language. I listened intensely, believing at some point that we had become one person telling a story. She would start a sentence; I would finish it. I would ask a question; she would answer it. She would ask how to say something in English; I would tell her.

Yvette has no idea where her husband is. She showed me a photograph of him. She explained to me that he is wanted by the new government in Zaire, and so he must hide away somewhere in Africa. She does not know where. She has had one conversation with him in seven months. She motioned to me that when she lived in the villa, soldiers came into her house and shot a bodyguard and her cousin. She had already sent her children to her parent's house, she remembered thankfully.

She told me that the laws governing refugee aid in Britain had changed in the last two years. A law passed in 1997 cut the amount of aid a refugee received from government agencies. Her sister, who arrived in 1995, receives free milk and bread for her children, a book of checks each week, health benefits for her children. Her sister's baby will receive free school lunches. She also receives child benefits to help her prepare for her child's future.

"I am same person . . ." Yvette patted her chest like an angry ape unable to communicate with ignorant zoo keepers. "But different." Her frustrations stemmed from everything. The changed law. Her one room house. Not being allowed to get a job. Not being allowed to get a house. Not being able to speak the language. Not being able to provide for her four children. "Fanny is growing. She will be woman soon." Yvette's heart swelled in her throat. Speech grew more and more difficult. Tears welled in her eyes. She sat down and cried.

Slowly the distance between us grew with each tear. Only a few feet separated us, but I felt a world away.

I knew that when I left her hotel room I would go back to my flat, only a few blocks away. I would walk in-between tourists and business executives that only exist in their own little worlds oblivious of the refugees like Yvette living on Queensway. I would talk with my flat mates about classes and make pasta and broccoli for dinner.

Yvette has no idea when her lifestyle will change. Since she has no permit to buy a house, she must stay in the room that the government rents for her. Since she has no permit to work, she must live off of the 100 pound check she receives every other week. Yvette's frustrations have no vent. There is no action she can take. She uses all of her energy just taking care of her four children. So, that is what she continues to do every morning, afternoon and night. There is no break. There is only hope.

Her tears scared me because I knew they were real. It was not on television. She was not a character in a story. She cried because she was sincerely sad. Her condition left her with no other way out. She cried because no one would help her.

I was frozen in that wooden chair for a long time, thinking about her situation. Then, magically my feet walked me over to her side. I bent down and put my arms around her. She did not asked to be held, she needed to be held.

The other day, I called Yvette's hotel to speak with her, but the receptionist told me that she had moved. I asked if she knew where or when. But she had no idea. I have no idea where she could be. She could have finally been allowed to buy a house. She could have been shipped out of the country. She could have moved in with her sister. Her husband could have found her.

Yvette had no idea what each day would bring. All I hope is that she found a place where she can prosper. Yvette and her children taught me an amazing thing. They showed me that hope is the only thing that anyone has. Anything beyond hope is material, and can disappear without you having any control over it.

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