A sharp knock at the door jolted Hasan* from sleep. He checked the time. A 2AM wake-up signalled bad news. Hasan was told to pack his things – now.
“I was given five minutes,” Hasan remembers. “It was a complete shock. I was so worried and anxious. I didn’t know where I was going, or if I had done something wrong, or if I was going to be deported.”
Hasan, 30, had arrived in the UK almost a year earlier, fleeing conflict in the Middle East. He was waiting out his asylum claim in temporary accommodation in a London hotel. Now, he threw his scant belongings in a bag, before a cab took him to a waiting bus in Wembley. Around 40 other men were nervously climbing aboard.
No one slept, Hasan remembers, as the bus swept west along the M4, driving through the night. It was midday before the question on everyone’s lips was finally answered.
“I got out of the bus and I was in complete shock, thinking, ‘What the hell is this place?’ says Hasan. “I was in a camp with metal gates, a barrier and a fence all around with razor wire on top. It looked like a prison.”
Hasan had been dumped 240 miles from London, almost on the westerly edge of Wales, where the Home Office had hastily – and to the dismay of locals – converted a crumbling military barracks into “temporary” lodgings for over 200 asylum seekers.
Penally Training Camp is one of two military sites that were transformed almost overnight into asylum accommodation in September. Like Napier Barracks in Kent, it has become a focal point for far-right protesters, who have tried their hardest to stoke tensions by leveraging the lack of local consultation.
Inside Penally’s razor-wire fences, residents complain of broken heating, shared showers, a lack of sanitation and the impossibility of COVID-19 distancing. Videos and photos shared on messaging apps show empty soap dispensers and men housed six to a room, with sheets of plywood cable-tied to the sides of their bunkbeds to create an illusion of privacy.
The Welsh government has called on the Home Office to shut the camp down, stating that it “does not meet the basic human needs of people seeking a new life in the UK.” There are a couple of TVs and three washing machines for 155 men. On the odd occasion, their boredom and frustration has flared into violence. Meanwhile, the cruel irony of being housed in army accommodation is not lost on men who have risked their lives to flee homes ravaged by war.
“It felt threatening,” says Hasan, a business studies graduate. “Many of us had run away from violence looking for somewhere to settle and live in peace, but we were put in a military place in the middle of nowhere. I was terrified about what was going to happen to me. I felt like my life was over, that no one cared about us.
“For the first night, I didn’t sleep,” he continues. “I could hear people talking, snoring. I cried silently – I don’t like to show other people I am crying.”
Still reeling from the trauma of their new surroundings, a small group of Penally asylum seekers formed a kind of union – Camp Residents Of Penally (CROP) – in an effort to address the gaps in their care. Hasan was one of the founders of the CROP committee, which sprung organically from a WhatsApp group started by a Kinan, a Syrian asylum seeker, to share residents’ needs with the charities outside offering help.
“From the outside, the camp didn’t look so bad,” Kinan remembers, recalling a grim welcome of horizontal rain and a jeering, far-right mob. “But inside, everything feels 70 years old. I saw a lot of bad things on my journey from Syria, but I never expected to be in a place like this in the great United Kingdom.
“I tried to be optimistic and positive, and I wanted to encourage others with this positive attitude, so I started the WhatsApp group so we could communicate,” Kinan continues. “I say it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”
Kinan saw that one of the members was messaging in perfect English, and discovered he had ten years’ experience teaching the language.
“I had tried to arrange some English classes in the camp but they wouldn’t allow volunteer teachers from outside, so I recruited two more English speakers among the residents. We found an abandoned classroom and hassled the camp staff until they gave us the key.
“The first day, we had 60 students sign up. We started with three lessons a day. Now it’s increased to four.”
The CROP committee wrote their own constitution, outlining their principle goal as: “To enable the camp residents of Penally to meet their own needs and to benefit the wider area.”
Sub-committees have been tasked with organising English, music and art classes, and liaising with local aid charities such as The Heart, which collects and distributes donations of clothing and care packages.
When aid workers from asylum charity Migrant Help visited Penally, Kinan encouraged Hasan to speak to them on behalf of CROP.
“I didn’t want to, but I could not stay silent,” Hasan says. “I spoke about my experiences and interpreted for some other guys. I was angry and frightened, but I needed to put the spotlight on all the terrible things. I said the camp was not appropriate and needed to be shut down.”
Shortly after that meeting, Hasan and three other men – including two English-speaking CROP committee members – were told to pack their bags. A cab drove them back to London.
Penally seems to be a strange location for a large-scale asylum accommodation. Made up of houses and bungalows built mostly in the 1980s, the village butts right up to the barracks’ metal fences. There’s also a village hall, pub and boarded up nightclub, as well as caravan sites and B&Bs that cater to summer tourists. A bypass and a railway track separate the village from a grassy dune and beyond that, the coast. The nearest town – Tenby – is a 40-minute walk away.
The men in the Penally camp, who can come and go as they please, hope to find a sense of place within their new community. CROP has a role here, too.
“It’s a big responsibility,” says Eduardo Mulato, the newly-elected CROP chair. Although still active in CROP, Kinan stepped down as leader after he was moved elsewhere just over a week ago.
CROP works closely with County of Sanctuary Pembrokeshire (COSP) to organise day trips, and also helps administer a “buddy” program, which sees local volunteers partner with camp residents.
“The people here are so lovely and kind,” says Eduardo, dismissing the far-right protesters as an irrelevant minority. “We already have 40 guys who have met their buddies. We can practice our English, express ourselves. We’re trying to help ourselves and each other.”
Eduardo, one of just two Salvadorans in Penally, is bright and sunny. He has a degree in marketing and arrived in the UK in July. When we talk outside the camp gates, his voice breaks as he relives the moment eight years ago, when he was kidnapped by an armed gang and held for ransom. He is still haunted by the screams of his fellow captives being shot.
Then he remembers a moment last week, on a trip organised by COSP, when someone brought out a guitar, and his face lights up.
“The first time I’ve played a guitar in five years,” he says. “It felt incredible. I sang a song about hope.”
*Names have been changed.