The Manchester dream

'I am learning now, which is the most important thing for me'

Good morning Millers - today’s weekend read is about Ahmed, one of the thousands of delivery riders who criss-cross Manchester’s streets on their bikes, bringing food to our doors.

For months, we have been interviewing riders to find out who they are, where they come from and what kind of people take on this rapidly-expanding job. Soon we will publish a video documenting what it’s like to be a delivery rider.

But today, Ahmed tells us his story.

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By Joshi Herrmann

“Where are you from, Manchester?”

“Originally?”

“Yeah.”

“Originally from Sudan.”

It’s a drizzly, cold Friday night on Burton Road in Withington. It’s mid-December.

The first questions comes from The Mill’s video journalist Jack Brooks, who is out interviewing people for a series we are publishing about the experience of delivery riders.

The second voice is Ahmed. He says he has been riding for the food delivery app Deliveroo for six months. His English is good enough to have a conversation, but not yet good enough to get a place to study at one of the city’s universities. So when he isn’t making food deliveries he is learning English at a refugee charity.

He says he likes the flexibility of working for an app that you can switch on and off when you like. Sometimes — particularly on weekends — he can make good money, he says. During the week it can be tougher. And some of the restaurants “treat you like less than other people,” he says.

The sight of delivery riders is now ubiquitous on our streets. Their number has swelled during the pandemic, as the closure of restaurants has led many more of us to order food to our homes. Dressed up in the liveries of the multi-billion-pound companies whose apps direct them around the city, the riders whizz past with massive box-bags on their backs, or hang around outside restaurants, picking up food or waiting for their next job.

They represent a vast and growing army of workers in our new economy. And many of them, like Ahmed, are thousands of miles from home.

‘They control everything’

Ahmed is 27 and lives in Moss Side, in a shared house with three other people. He pays £350 a month for his room.

He grew up in a very different setting: a village in Al Jazirah in the east-central region of Sudan, between the Blue Nile and White Nile rivers. The farm where he was raised with his two sisters and one brother is about three hours’ drive from the country’s capital city, Khartoum. His family are farmers and he is their eldest son, which came with “lots of responsibility,” he told me recently when we spoke on the phone.

He’s agreed to tell his story but doesn’t want to be identified with his surname or have his photo taken.

Ahmed’s life at home was difficult. His mother has high blood pressure and suffers from rheumatism, and his siblings are much younger than him (one sister is 20 now, his brother is 16 and his younger sister is 6). “I had lots on my shoulders,” he says.

When he was 19, Ahmed went to Khartoum to study Engineering at university. It started out well, and he was happy. “I had lots of dreams when I went to the capital,” he recalls. “To finish my studies and get a career and start a different kind of life.”

At the university, Ahmed made friends with a group of students who wrote and recited poetry. It’s a popular past-time in Sudan, which has a “history of oral poetry as a battle cry and assertion of identity,” according to a recent report on the BBC.

Ahmed had been passionate about poetry since secondary school, “And when I got to university I had the chance to meet so many people who have the same interest,” he says. He joined a performance group that became well known on campus. He says the poems they wrote weren’t overtly political, but eventually, the group found themselves on the government’s radar.

At the time, Sudan was run by a dictatorship under the leadership of Omar al-Bashir. When Ahmed was at university, Bashir had recently become the first sitting head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court, accused of directing a campaign of mass killing and rape against civilians in Darfur, a troubled region in western Sudan.

Bashir’s government was notorious for restricting political freedoms. “They controlled everything — the universities, the systems,” says Ahmed. After three years of his five-year course, he says the government made it impossible for him to continue. The university started inexplicably failing him on his exams.

He is sure it was because of his membership of the group, which marked him out as suspicious. “The government was in conflict with people who were trying to speak the reality,” he says. “If you join their side, life would not be hard.”

That’s when Ahmed decided to leave. He wasn’t thinking about the UK yet, he says, but he knew there was no future for him in Sudan. Legally, he couldn’t leave the country. So he crossed the desert to Libya and found his way to Tripoli, which was in the grip of a civil war after the botched removal of Muammar Gaddafi. “Lots of militias [were] running the country,” he says.

Life in Libya

He was in the Libyan capital for a few months, a period he describes as “such a difficult time.” “Nobody cares about you,” he says. “You face lots of situations where you nearly die.” He found a few other people in the same situation as him, and they tried to look after themselves.

Eventually, they found a smuggler who promised to take them to Europe. Instead, he took them to a warehouse full of desperate souls, some of whom had been waiting years to cross the ocean. At this point, Ahmed and his friends fell into a nightmarish period of hard labour on a farm. “You have to spend that time in his farm — from early morning to late evening,” he says.

Ahmed’s English is adequate to narrate his story, but his limited vocabulary has the understandable effect of flattening some of his experiences. His descriptions of what he went through can sometimes come across as wild understatements — like when he tells me his time on the farm “wasn't really a comfortable situation.”

In fact, it was three years of relentless work, trapped in a country where no one had his back and locked into an exploitative working relationship with the smuggler. “You can't stop or have a break or relax,” he says of the working conditions. “He will send some people to watch you.”

And then, Ahmed’s journey suddenly started moving forward again. While sleeping, he was woken by the smuggler. “He came to us at night and said 'Today you are going to go,’” he says. “You get scared. You are facing the Mediterranean.” He says the smuggler was clear and unsympathetic about the risks. “If you die, you die — that's the situation,” he told them.

Under the cover of darkness, the smuggler put them out to sea. How many people were in the boat? “Too many to be honest,” he says. Everyone was praying. They knew about the many migrant boats that had disappeared into the Mediterranean. Ahmed felt it was very possible they were all about to die.

Eventually, after three days, a rescue ship found the boat and took them to Calabria — the region that forms the pointy toe of Italy’s boot-shaped peninsula. Ahmed thought he might be able to make a new life in Italy, but quickly changed his mind. Italy was dealing with hundreds of thousands of arrivals, and he didn’t feel welcomed. “They said Italy has lots of people now — we can't deal with you guys,” he says.

So he made the journey to France. There were days he had to travel on foot, and when he could he sneaked onto trains. But even harder was finding food to eat. “Sometimes when you are starving, you go to a restaurant and tell them and they offer something to you,” he says. “Sometimes you find good people who are offering you some food.”

“It was the toughest time in my life, to be honest,” he says. “I learn a lot from it.”

At that time, France was sending a lot of migrants back to Italy. There was an agreement in place between the countries that if someone had been finger-printed in one place, they could be returned to that state. Word spread among the recent arrivals in Paris that if they applied for asylum there, they might end up in Italy again.

People began to tell Ahmed that if he applied for asylum in the UK, he would be accepted, so he made his way to Calais. He stayed in a camp nearby the town, similar to the one referred to in the media as The Jungle. He was lucky to get a tent, and lucky that the camp was assisted by aid organisations who helped its inhabitants to stay alive.

The guessing game

What he describes next is the elaborate process of getting into the UK in the back of a lorry. A game of guesswork, risk and long periods of frustration. It’s the clearest explanation of this route I’ve heard, and it goes like this.

First, you have to get yourself to where the lorries are parked. That’s a walk of 13 hours from the camp because the lorries don’t park in Calais, so you have to catch them further up the road. You will likely be trying in a small group because there are lots of people trying to cross and not many likely-looking lorries. Plus there are advantages to having multiple collaborators looking out for drivers and spotting opportunities.

Then begins the task of trying to find one with an unlocked door. Usually, you get caught before you can even reach the door, so you have to run and hide. If you don’t manage to, the French police arrest you and throw you in prison for a few days. That happened to Ahmed over and over again, he says — almost 20 times, he thinks.

Eventually, you get into a lorry, hide in its cargo, and wait. It’s a nerve-wracking process, not because you think you might die, says Ahmed, but because you have no idea where your driver is taking you. Your chances of getting into a lorry headed to the UK are relatively low. You have no idea when you get in where each vehicle is headed, so this bit is a lottery.

If you’re unlucky, the lorry is headed somewhere really far from Calais. One time, Ahmed found himself in Granville, Normandy — in the north-west corner of France — and it took him days to get back. In total, he thinks he got in the wrong lorry about ten times. Then you have to do the whole thing again knowing you could be caught outside the lorry or could be taken to the wrong place again.

The sounds of a port will be the first indication that you are in a lorry headed for the UK. You will hear the birds and the water and the inspection. Unless you are caught at this stage, you can be confident you will be in Dover within hours.

Ahmed describes this moment in his journey as one of euphoria and huge relief. “I've managed to skip over all this hardness, all these difficult things,” he says. “I knew I would be in a safe place at the end.”

When the lorry arrived in the UK, it kept on driving. Then, after a few hours, it stopped and Ahmed and his travelling companions were discovered in the back. They got out and found themselves in what he thought was a warehouse or factory. He learned that he was near Oxford.

The staff in the warehouse called the police. When they arrived, Ahmed began the process of applying for asylum. That was just less than two years ago.

‘I thought of Manchester’

After being detained in London for a few days and briefly taken back to Dover to be finger-printed and interviewed, Ahmed was placed in a shared house in Warrington with three other asylum seekers — two from Sudan and one from Kurdistan. “It was good for me after this, he says. “I finally got some control in my life.”

He got £35 a week from the government but wasn’t allowed to work. He bought a cheap bike on Facebook Marketplace and got his refugee status from the Home Office, the first hurdle on the way to getting permanent right to remain.

In Warrington, he experienced racism from neighbours and people in the street. One of his housemates got beaten up by a group of men outside the house after getting into an argument and spent more than a week in hospital. “That experience made me feel like: this is getting complicated,” he says. The police started coming to check on the house from time to time, to see if the men were alright.

One day, he was out on his bike and three old ladies started heckling him. “A black man riding a bike — did you get this in your country?” they shouted at him, amongst other things that he couldn’t understand. He knew they were making fun of him. “I feel really uncomfortable in that situation,” he says. He didn’t argue and rode away.

Ahmed had the sense that in the bit of Warrington where he was living, people noticed him. He sometimes struggled to understand what people were saying because English accents were still new to him. Longford, the neighbourhood where he was placed, is a working class area where 95% of residents are white, and only 1% are black. “You are scared,” he says. “You nearly catch what people are saying.”

Ahmed enrolled on an English course and got a certificate from the local college. But his overwhelming impression out on the streets was that people didn’t want him there. “I don't think they welcome people in my situation,” he says. “They see a migrant or foreigner. We were not welcome.”

After seven months in Warrington, “I thought of Manchester,” he says. He knew the name before he came to the UK. Now he learned it was “a big city where you can find people from all over the world. Where you won't feel different.”

He’s been in Manchester for just over a year. He now has his right to remain. He’s heard the stories about his neighbourhood, but after his experiences in Sudan, Libya, Italy and France, Moss Side is nothing to worry about. “I don't get in conflict with people,” he says. “I don't smoke, I don't drink. I don't get myself in trouble.”

He’s found Manchester’s Sudanese community and was going to the mosque before the pandemic hit. “I've got many friends from all over the world,” he says. “I'm living life feeling like I'm happy.”

Every afternoon at about 4.30 he turns on the Deliveroo app and starts making deliveries until about 10.30 at night. His earnings over a week range from £200 to £400 he says, but what you make is unpredictable because it depends so much on which jobs you are able to pick up. “Sometimes you make not enough, and then you make more than you predict,” he says.

He worries about what is going on in Sudan, and about his family. He speaks to them two or three times a week, via a payphone. The country’s dictator Bashir was deposed in a military coup in 2019 and the country is in a highly uncertain transition period.

Ahmed’s main aim is to resume his university studies and become an engineer — picking up the dream he had when he left his village for Khartoum. He has already applied for foundation year courses at MMU and the universities of Manchester, Salford and Liverpool. They have told him the only thing he needs to improve is his English, which he is working hard on at the moment.

“I am learning now, which is the most important thing for me,” he says. “Every day I am trying to learn something new, so I can add some value to the community.”

He’s starting to write again. He had stopped since leaving Sudan. “I am trying to write and get into the poetry again,” he says. “And maybe in future write some poetry in English. I am really thankful now.”

Thanks to Jack Brooks for his reporting on this project, which you will see more of soon. And to Dani Cole for her photographs.

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