i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
– extract from Warsan Shire’s ‘Home’
My experiences and thoughts about the refugee camp in Calais.
Many names have been changed to protect people with families still in Syria and Iraq. All photographs, unless otherwise stated, are Megan Walker’s – to see more of her work see http://meganwalker.format.com/.
The night before Meg and I went to Calais, I didn’t sleep. A noxious combination of Halloween hangover, migraine, and a buzzing bundle of nervous energy kept me staring at the ceiling until my alarm went off at 4.45am. But it seems odd, looking back, that I was so anxious and afraid about heading to Calais.
As soon as we announced our plan, many people repeatedly told me and Meg how brave we were, and this felt more and more unjustified the longer we were in Calais. Why does it take bravery to travel a few hours from home and sort clothes into piles? Or to talk to lovely people about their wonderful children? Or even to teach a few basic English lessons? Where is the courage? The more I think about it, the more I think that we are all using our fear of the unknown as an excuse not to act.
So once you’ve read this, there are no more excuses. There is no unknown to hide behind.
The warehouse in Calais is run by a group of different charities who take in donations from France and Britain, and sort them into boxes to distribute to refugees. It is situated a few miles from the camp, surrounded by wine warehouses and superstores – and is the perfect place for you to volunteer if you’re intimidated by the camp, but still want to give your time and energy. It is a welcoming and friendly place that even provides a free lunch (including wine of course, this is France!) for all its volunteers.
We got to the warehouse at around midday on Monday. We were both pretty exhausted, but we were able to spend the afternoon putting together welcome boxes for new arrivals to the camp, along with a couple of other volunteers. There are, apparently, up to 60 new arrivals in the camp a day – and we felt pretty proud of ourselves when we’d managed to put together 40 boxes of tents, sleeping bags, sleeping mats, a toothbrush, spoon, tins of food and a torch.
When people think that they won’t make a difference if they only volunteer for one day, this is what you have to bear in mind; one day of your time allows 40 people to have a warm, dry, safe sleep on their first night in a cold, wet and scary place.
We went to bed at 8.30pm that night, shattered and happy. We were here; we were making a difference; with so many volunteers helping out and putting together welcome packs, surely the camp wasn’t all that bad after all!
Tuesday morning saw us back at the warehouse, and a few hours spent here left me with one thought: when it comes to donations – less is more. Time and space are a big issue in the Calais warehouse. People are sending piles and piles of stuff which become part of The Mountain – an enormous build-up of straining black bin bags, splitting cardboard boxes and plastic bag after plastic bag of donations. It’s fantastic! Except that it takes up a huge amount of space, and the time of many, many volunteers who came to Calais to give hands-on help to refugees and are instead battling a warehouse stuffed almost to overflowing with anything from fantastically useful new sleeping bags, to absurd ball gowns and high heels. I won’t go into all the ridiculous things that some people send – suffice it to say that many people are clearly using the donation system as a way to clear out anything old, broken, ripped, dirty or of no use in their house, and it’s costing the charity a huge amount of time and money to sort this junk from the genuinely useful items buried amongst it.
Hettie, who was managing the warehouse while we were there, was doing an absolutely incredible and fantastic job of taking this task on. It is a job that I would have found overwhelming and disheartening, but she tackles it with humour and determination, inspiring all the volunteers to stay and do as much as they can; not an easy job when people like Meg and I kept disappearing off to the camp, instead of staying in the warehouse.
I’d say when it comes to donations, if in doubt, don’t send it. These refugees have lost everything, and what we are trying to preserve for them is their dignity. They queue for hours at a time to be given clothes – clothes that they will have to wear for days or weeks without changing. If you wouldn’t feel dignified and happy in it, then don’t send it. While it might sound ungrateful to reject your second hand jumper just because of a few stains, in reality this is one of the few items they own that can give them a sense of their own humanity and worth. We all know how important it is to feel good about yourself and how clothing can contribute to that. We can’t offer these guys much, but we can offer them a bit of respectability, a bit of dignity, by at least giving them clothes that aren’t stained, or torn, clothes that make them feel like a valued human being.
At 11am on Tuesday we headed to the camp – the Jungle itself. Sarah, another volunteer who we met in the warehouse, had arranged to meet Virginie who runs the schools in the Jungle, and we were lucky enough to be able to come along with her.
The Jungle is about a 10 minute drive from the warehouse and from central Calais, and can be seen from one of the motorways leading to the ferry port as a sprawl of tarpaulins and tents, hemmed in by barbed wire.
To enter the camp, you have to pass at least 4 van loads of police who lurk at the entrances with their batons and riot helmets at the ready. It’s scary. And in fact they were the men that intimidated us most during our time there – not that they did anything while we were there. Although I’ve heard that the night after we left, they attacked the camp with tear gas.
The Jungle is ordered chaos. A jumble of all sized tents, semi-permanent structures constructed out of wooden pallets and tarpaulin, caravans, shops, restaurants, churches, schools and mosques. It is its own town – with well-lit, wide tracks cutting through the centre, while clusters of family and friendship groups branch off it, forming narrower alleys and paths which weave between tents, caravans and gazebos.
The people arriving have formed groups based on shared language and home, and so the camp falls into several geographical areas including Sudan, Afghanistan, Kurdistan and Eritrea.
It sounds absurd, but there seemed to be an almost festival vibe to the place – people have hung flags, have painted murals and there’s an arts centre, a theatre, several restaurants. It felt fun: chaotic, but exciting and vibrant. Until it rained of course, until it got dark.
It is hard to describe the way that the mood of the whole camp changes as soon as the sun disappears. Maybe I was projecting my own feelings, but you can read it in the faces of everyone there. Without the sunlit gild, when the cold and the wet start to seep into you, I realised that this is not a fleeting experience for the Jungle’s residents, but a dark and indefinite reality for desperate men who can’t escape it.
When we arrived on that Tuesday morning, however, we entered the camp in glorious sunshine, and waited to meet Virginie outside the school, where we got chatting to several guys who were passing by – looking for English lessons mainly.
The school runs when teachers are available, and we just sign up on a whiteboard outside the school depending on what time we’re available to teach. There are three schools so far in the camp -and the two that we taught in were a small adult school near the Sudanese zone of the camp, and a newly constructed larger school for the children in the middle of the Kurdish speaking area. These schools were open to anyone in the camp, men, women and children – although no women ever came to our classes. We taught children in the morning and adults in the afternoon.
Our morning with the kids was hectic and pretty disorganised but fun – and the children seemed to enjoy themselves! While it was easy in a lot of ways to forget what these children were going through, a constant reminder was the state of their teeth. Black, grey or yellow stubs were all that was left – and there didn’t seem to be a child who had a full set that weren’t eroded with decay.
We attempted songs and games, focusing on teaching them colours and shapes, but in the end colouring and modelling clay won out. Most of the time they were well behaved – but one boy came in, immediately trying to cause trouble – throwing toys, stealing a football and trying to disrupt the class. It was hard to know what to do – how do you tell someone off in a foreign language, especially when you have only just arrived, have very little authority, and you have no idea about the traumas they have been through?
That afternoon with the adults was filled with some lovely conversations. Sat outside the school, Meg and Sarah got to know several of the men who spoke an ‘advanced’ level of English, including Wasim, a wonderful Syrian man who spoke fantastic English, but wanted help with his writing. I was inside with a group of beginner English speakers – a farmer, an air con technician, a pharmacist and a soldier. We went through basic greetings and introductory conversation, and I realised how hard it is to teach something when you don’t share a language. I relied on a few of the guys knowing enough English to translate what I was saying to the others, and it began to induce in me a feeling of helplessness and inability, which grew over my week here.
The next day, Sarah, Meg, and I were back in camp in the schools. Children already recognised us, calling after us ‘teacher!’, ‘mamosta!’, ‘school!’ as we walked in with our plastic boxes of books, pens, and clay. As with children from anywhere in the world, their moods and attitudes had changed in a day.
Sirwan, the boy who yesterday was a nightmare, was fantastically engaged and keen to learn – calling me over and demanding I go through picture cards with him and his friend. He was happy, excited and focused.
His sister, Araz, on the other hand was having an off day. At five years old, Araz has moments of sweetness and calm, but she also battles a terrible rage which results in her ripping and breaking school equipment, kicking, punching, pulling the hair of anyone who challenges her and then running away – with or without her shoes on. It’s so hard to understand these bursts of terrible aggression, followed by flight, and it highlighted for all of us that these children have really severely messed up childhoods! Who knows what she’s already been through, and who knows what’s yet to come. It’s a heart wrenching thought.
We taught some amazing characters in that class over those three days, and it breaks my heart to think about leaving them there. Medya who would jump on us as soon as she saw us, giggling and singing a half-formed version of ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’. Ardil with his sad, expressive eyes who would just stare at us on the first day, but who by the last day was happy to jump on me and scream and shout with his friends. Mohammad, who would only play with the black clay.
Ashty, who wore a black hat, and was such a fantastic peace-keeper, intervening between Araz and another young boy who kept breaking out into vicious, physical fights. It was reassuring, inspiring, and moving to see him behave so gently with them.
I asked them to teach me Kurdish numbers – it’s good for children to teach, it helps to concrete things for them. Plus it’s good for me to learn Kurdish – it reminded me how difficult it is to learn not only a new language, but a new alphabet and number system! I wanted them to realise that their language was important too, and that fleeing their native country shouldn’t mean that they lose their mother tongue.
After we had taught a class in the children’s school, Meg and I were interviewed for German TV. That’s how it is in the camp – stuff just crops up – you’re invited for lunch somewhere, you suddenly find yourself on an errand for something; you just roll with whatever comes up! The news presenter kept leading us to say how bad it was in camp. It was a tough one – yes, conditions are bad, but we were buzzing from teaching a fun lesson and from spending time with people who were doing everything they could to make it the best it can possibly be. We were reluctant to bad-mouth the school, we already felt an incredibly strong loyalty to it, but as a result we probably came across as pretty naive.
Zimarco, the founder of the schools, has been interviewed 6 times by various news channels. He’s a resident of the camp who is currently working on building the new hospital and school. He doesn’t like being in the news – he says he doesn’t know what to say. He’s doing an amazing job building sturdy, more permanent structures, and is one of several characters in the camp who is always on the phone – with people seeking his advice and assistance and thoughts.
An evening in the Jungle
On the Wednesday we volunteered to stay the night in the camp. A volunteer called Toby mans a caravan which is the first port of call for many new arrivals, emergencies and anyone in need of supplies. After many months spent in the camp, he understandably needed a night off – we eagerly stepped in to cover for him.
I was totally calm about it all day, until I really began to think about it, and quickly became massively nervous, imagining the darkness, the many unknown men, and the fact that we’d promised various people we wouldn’t be there alone at night!
The experience, far from being scary, was a wonderful, eye-opening, heart-wrenching one, with very little to fear. Everyone was so, so, so welcoming and protective of us – and in fact we felt much more of a hinderance than a help. At one point, Roj, a Kurdish man living in the camp, offered to lock us in the caravan from the outside so than no one would bother us – but the whole point was that we were here to help!
The best thing about that evening was being able to get to know a few more people in the camp. We were welcomed into two homes, and round another fire, and stayed up until gone 1am talking to many people who had fled from Iraq. Roj’s home is one of the few more ‘permanent’ structures in the Kurdish-speaking zone of the camp – made out of pallets, wood, tarp, and even a lockable door. His table is scattered with tea-lights, and he told us that when he was in Iraq, he’d come home from uni, light candles, play music and just chill out with a book. Now the candles remind him of home.
Roj is fantastic; one of the most amazing, intelligent and caring men I’ve ever met. He absolutely loves the English language, and studied it in Iraq, though he dismisses Iraqi universities as ‘bullshit’.
He told us that Isis have ruined Iraq. He, like all the men we spoke to, loathes them; a group of cowards and bullies who have stolen everything they had. He has already lost his life, he says, and there is nothing left to live for.
He is an amazing presence in the camp, the ‘glue’ of the Kurdish section. The night we spent there he was so protective of us and kind, and not just to us but to everyone he spoke to. But he is clearly so stressed and unimaginably sad. How can we tell him what a huge difference he makes just being alive and here? And what is the point? While he makes life bearable for the men in the camp, he is in no position to change anything – he can’t fix their situation. Like with all the volunteers here, and all the men who are trying so hard to improve their surroundings, they offer temporary relief from a pitiable and painful situation. But it is paracetamol for a broken leg – it solves nothing, and this fact is probably the hardest thing of all to deal with.
We met other Kurds too. All so welcoming, teaching us different words and making us tea. A young married couple in their early twenties are there, with their friends and cousins. For the first time in the camp I was almost in tears, because it felt so familiar – so easily any one of us could have been flung into this situation.
Later, while we sat around another camp fire, drinking beer, Meg took some fantastic pictures and was wonderfully engaged, talking to the guys about families and life back in Iraq. I sat more awkwardly, just watching, and thinking, and not knowing what to say to men who had lost everything.
These men kept joking – if I’m not in the UK for Christmas I’ll kill myself. But it’s not really a joke, and there’s a scary, dark truth beneath the bluster. They know that this situation is not feasible forever. They know that they cannot stay – for their mental and physical wellbeing this camp is a terrible place. So maybe they won’t actively kill themselves. But they will put themselves into increasingly more high-risk and dangerous situations to get across to the UK, until they get there, or they die in the attempt.
I spoke to one guy who had worked as a driver and security man for US oil men in Iraq, and asked him why he wanted to go to the UK? Why not another European country?
He told me that in the U.K. they actually saw a chance at living again. You get a house, you get some money, you can work hard and make something of yourself. But in, say, Sweden, people are given nothing, so how can you do anything? You’re homeless. You don’t speak the language. It’s freezing. What can you do? There are rumours that Germany locks people in detention centres for months. I don’t know how much truth is in any of this, but it’s interesting to hear their perceptions of it.
I’m proud to be from a country that people come to for help, that is many people’s number one choice of refuge and hope for a future. I’m proud that our ideals of hard work and providing for ourselves and our community are what draw people to hope for a life for themselves. It makes me realise yet again how absurdly privileged we are, and how much we take that for granted.
Everyone here misses their family. Nearly all of them have lost someone to Isis. All they want is to be somewhere safe, where they’re not in danger of torture or death, and where they can live a life with their families the way they used to. They don’t want to have to be here. They want to be at home, in their beautiful houses and lovely cities, with their loving families and their happy friends. But it has been brutally ripped from them, and they are lost. Their lives have been stolen from them, and they have come to us as their last hope for refuge from an unjust and totally inhumane reality. And we’ve abandoned them – as a country and a continent we have turned our backs and pretended not to notice, leaving them floundering in the mud, with only photographs on their phones to remind them that they once were people too, that once they lived and were happy.
That night we talked about setting up our own country. Roj said it should be called ‘Foundtogether’. A concept stronger than equality and more important than freedom – a value based on working together to build something for everyone. I can’t tell you how much I wish this wasn’t just a fantasy.
Waking up in the Jungle
After staying in the camp for one night, my mind span.
Firstly, I felt useless. They didn’t need us there – Roj had everything under control and looking after us just added another task to his list. He was scared when we wandered off to someone’s camp – he’d said we are safe in his section but there are dangerous places here. Every time anyone knocked on the door, Roj was here sorting things out. Obviously when Toby is here, this doesn’t happen – but it did make me wonder, I guess, why more responsibility isn’t put into the hands of the men and women living in the camp, rather than us volunteers?
Secondly, I felt grimy. I slept in my coat because it was so cold, and that was in a caravan, with a ski jacket and several jumpers on! I had a poor sleep because people were knocking on the door asking for blankets until almost 4am, plus I slept badly due to hunger, and nerves, and the memories of the conversations we’d had round the campfires buzzing around my brain.
Now I had to wear the same clothes I had slept in, stinking of smoke because of the fires we sat round for warmth, plus I had dropped my scarf on the toilet floor so I wasn’t going to be wearing that again, given the state of those portaloos.
And that was just a small insight into what it must be like for one night, let alone everything else that these refugees have to deal with – sleeping in a tent indefinitely, infrequent cold showers after a two hour queue, limited opportunity to change clothes, no privacy. There are obviously no toilets in the tents or caravans, so we had to do a 2.30am walk to the portaloos, all of which were covered in human excrement, a journey which was potentially dangerous and simply exhausting.
I felt so guilty that we could just walk out of there, nip back to the B&B for a shower and a pastry because we felt awful after one night, and this is their life.
After that night, I didn’t record any more thoughts about our experience. We taught a few more lessons, and retreated back to the safety of the warehouse where we felt we could make an obvious difference; anything else just felt too much for little us to overcome.
The Triviality of Home
By this time, we were having to think about heading home. It felt like a tough decision. Everything seemed so trivial in the UK compared to the camp – our Facebook newsfeeds were full of Starbucks red cups and the John Lewis advert. We didn’t want to feel so judgemental of our friends and families carrying on with life back at home, but it was hard not to judge the priorities and concerns of people only a short drive from this place of mud and sadness.
We spoke to several volunteers over our time in Calais, who all said similar things – many had gone back to the UK after a week in Calais, but couldn’t stand the ‘triviality’ of it all and had come back to help in the Jungle indefinitely.
They had given up lives, partners, jobs, mortgages, moved into caravans or tents and given everything for the refugees here. They couldn’t not.
When we went back to the warehouse on our final day, we found Louise there who had meant to leave the day before – she just hadn’t been able to. She’s now heading out to Lesvos to help with the horrific situation there.
I still battled with the idea though. Maybe I could give up my job, and home, and everyone I love to volunteer in the Jungle full-time. It certainly would make an immediate, human difference, but it doesn’t solve anything. It’s like the paracetamol for the broken leg analogy all over again. While I can make their immediate circumstances much more bearable – which, don’t get me wrong, is a vital and crucial thing to do – I need to find a way of making a bigger change.
My brain is racing: what can we do from where we are? How can we change a power so big and forceful who do not care about anything but numbers? How do we humanise these people to the government? Because coming back and helping in Calais is short term. But none of the men want to be here. None of them see themselves here in 3 months – they would rather die. And at first I thought it wasn’t so bad here, with schools, restaurants, mosques and churches, but then it rained. And it got dark and cold, and you realise that this is an abysmal reality for anyone. And it’s heartbreaking, because a lot of that night I was telling myself ‘it’s easy to leave, I can go back to the hostel, I’ll be home in 2 days’ and they don’t have that. Their only hope is that maybe they’ll jump on a train or a lorry and they won’t be killed, and then maybe they’ll get all the way to the UK and won’t be seen, and then maybe they can somehow not get arrested and instead get themselves into the system for housing and money so that they can restart a life for themselves, and maybe, maybe, even their families.
This is so hard.
Because I know that we can’t just open our borders, give everyone a home, and a job, and free healthcare for life. I understand that our society would collapse under that sort of strain. I know that we have people here already who are in desperate conditions, who are ill or starving or unable to look after themselves.
But I also know what is right. And I know, as all children know, that if someone asks you for help then you do whatever you can to help them.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. It is one thing to ignore those who are fighting their own battles a long way from our home. It is another matter entirely to willingly turn your back on people who have come to our door, begging for our help. Ignoring them is not an option. If you choose not to act, you choose to kill them. It is as simple as that.
I’ve often heard people wonder how ordinary Germans allowed the Holocaust to happen. How they went about their every day lives with such atrocities happening next door to them. We are currently those very same individuals. And we can either do something – be one of this brave men and women who sacrificed what they had to fight for what was right and good – or we can be the ones that said ‘I didn’t know’. ‘There was nothing I could do.’ ‘It had nothing to do with me.’ You choose which side of history you’re on. So when your children and grandchildren learn about the worst humanitarian catastrophe to affect Europe since WWII you can either be proud to tell them of the part you played, or not.
What’s next, then?
You could carry on pretending that you don’t know anything about it. You could justify to yourself that ‘they’re only economic migrants, they should go back home’. You can shrug your shoulders and wish that it was different. It’s your choice.
Or you could step up and do something.
3) Organise fundraisers, campaigns or assemblies.
4) Share the love this Christmas. Add a refugee to your Christmas list, and buy them a gift. Or choose to give an Oxfam Unwrapped gift to the people you love, and select the option for the money to be spent where it’s most needed. You could ask your friends and family for donations instead of presents this year.
5) Write to your MP; tell them that you are not happy with the efforts going into this situation.
6) Spread the word to everyone you know.
For me, the last point is so important. We might not know how to solve this issue, and we might not have all the answers, but we cannot hide behind ignorance any more. We cannot claim that we didn’t know and that it was nothing to do with us. Spread the word – share this, or any other articles, or your own thoughts. Don’t let it drop, don’t let it disappear. Raise your voice in any way you know how – local newspapers, churches, national papers, parliament if you have the connections, schools – assemblies and lessons. Use the power and privilege that you have. Don’t hide behind laziness or fear. I might not be able to come up with a long-term solution, and you might not either. But someone will. And that will only happen if we keep making this issue a priority.