By Celeste Cantor-Stephens

Fences in Calais. Photo Credit: Celeste Cantor-Stephens.

My sister lost herself,

Crossing the Sahara

She was a soldier

Practically enslaved by the state

who pushed her

Situps, pressups

at the barrel of a gun

Practice, accuracy

at the trigger of a gun

Five-hundred times a day

A soldier

Practically enslaved by the state

who pushed her

encouraged her and the rest of her nation to hate

the bodies at the other side of the border

who looked the same

felt the same

even had the same names

but whose fate was drawn with the shape of a line

a national border of political worthiness, criminality,


A soldier

Enslaved by the state

who pushed her and all the others they call ‘citizens’

mentally, and physically,

unbearably, damagingly

but not geographically

A soldier enslaved by the state

she could not leave

where national borders were barbed wire barrier

compounds that screamed

‘You belong here!

Thou shall not pass

to the other side.

Not without a document

that tells us


that tells us

that we say

that you belong


You belong here!

Isn’t that nice.

A soldier for your state

A soldier to the president

of the only party there will ever be.

You cannot leave! Because then everyone will see…’

My sister lost herself,

Crossing the Sahara

Uncle at her side

she passed over the border

in the back of a truck

crammed tight between others

each with one well-packed little bag

grasped in one hand

as the other holds on

for dear life

for the bumps in the Saharan sand

for the border controls

for the breath that they held

for their dear life

and for the dear life of those they have left behind

My sister lost herself, when,

crossing the Sahara,

the driver

with hands already grasped around a fat stash of grubby cash

had a change of heart

and my sister was abandoned

to the sand

the tightly-packed little bag still in one hand

while the other flails

with nothing to grasp

but sand

and air

and her uncle’s words

of despair

for the lack of direction

the lack of control

My sister lost herself

She was a soldier


like her uncle

and the five other abandonees

who stood

beside her


in the Sahara

where all the training and press-ups

at the barrel of a gun

came to


But by some…

not ‘miracle’

nor ‘good fortune’

but simply being human

Another one

another rickety van

across the sands

steering wheel in the hands of another trafficking man

They dropped their




and ran

My sister was an engineer

She was an unwilling slave, a soldier to the state

who after enforced training

would stay up late

to study the principles of

structural integrity

contemporary componentry

to withstand emergencies

so that the citizens could be

- maybe one day - free

But my sister was a soldier

a slave too

and when the opportunity came

she knew

We met over Elsa Kidane

singing at the top of her voice

on the outskirts of… Calais

My sister - and I - lost

in yet more sand

between the dunes

in a barren, town dump, wasteland

A tiny fenced-off area

where permitted women used to hang

to avoid unknown men

and police officers’ hard hands

While many more

along with lone children and fathers and granddads

remained outside:

Désolé; we only have beds for a certain number of women whom we have already identified.’

We found each other across the music

streaming out between a borrowed phone

held in the same fingers

that held some months before

a little, well-packed bag

now lost to Saharan desert sands

My sister lost herself,

Crossing the Sahara

that never ended

African land became European sand

tiny bits of grit

that get stuck under your fingernails

and never leave the sole of your shoe

or the soul of you

a sol-dier

Practically enslaved by the state

Sit-ups and press-ups

at the barrel of a gun

turned into scaling spiked fences

an endless need to run

to dodge racist abuse, state-fed dogs

the eyes of authority, the thud of police batons

the cruelty of traffickers

and the cruelty of loss

doubled each time something goes wrong

each time another friend is suddenly gone

My sister was an engineer

who transformed her study of structural integrity

into late-night plots to skip the country

to scale national borders

overcome emergencies

Because my sister was a soldier

Practically enslaved by the state

by the state to which she’d come

in order to be safe

where most of those around her were soldiers too

and all the new friends, all those that she now knew,

were also trying to do what she was trying to do,

and were trapped there for weeks, months, or years,

or simply disappeared

I lost my sister,

Somewhere beyond the Sahara

We met in Calais,

but I don’t know where she went after

Celeste Cantor-Stephens is a scholar, musician, interdisciplinary artist and activist. Much of her work focuses on human displacement, borders, (in)equality and social change, and on the place of music within this. Celeste's work includes research into the roles of music in makeshift refugee camps, a book chapter on 'Institutionalised Abuse ... at the Franco–British Border', multimedia pieces on related – and unrelated – topics, and journalistic writing for music magazines. Celeste is a trumpet player, with projects ranging from free improvisation to klezmer. She has an MPhil from the University of Cambridge and an MSt from the University of Oxford.