Thoughts on Calais

I spent my first post-Brexit weekend in Calais, volunteering in the warehouse of L’Auberge des Migrants. L’Auberge is a French charity that partnered up with the British organization Help Refugees, in order to deliver humanitarian aid to the refugee camps of Calais and Dunkirk. Together they run a warehouse, where donations are collected and sorted, they distribute clothes, hygiene kits, tents to the camps, and they operate a kitchen that feeds thousands of people every day. They organize recreational and educational activities for men, women and kids and more in general, they put big efforts into making the lives of people in the camps as bearable as possible.

Volunteers from all over gather every morning at 9am at the warehouse. There is no formal structure or hierarchy of any type, a clear indicator that things do get done – and well! – even without the usual power mechanisms that we are all used to. After a cup of coffe and a bit of a pep talk, one of the long-term volunteers briefs the newcomers on the tasks of the day. I always find it encouraging to see how quickly and instinctively people find their role in self-managed communities. It makes me hope that some day we will value togetherness over so-called “leadership”.  The job is mainly to sort food and non-food items in a sensible way, so they can be distributed to the camps. Every day the priority is slightly different, for instance on Mondays it is all about shoes-sorting as they go out on Tuesdays. Nothing goes thrown away, donations that are not suitable for France are shipped to the camps in Greece, Serbia and Macedonia. That is the case for baby and small children clothes, since the population in Calais is made of approximately 90% men. L’Auberge highest priority is to preserve the humanity and dignity of the refugees. They don’t distribute unwashed, worn-out, damaged clothes and shoes. Would I want to walk around with holes in my t-shirt? No, so why should they? Defining charity is essential: thinking that a refugee, or anyone else in need, should be happy getting anything at all, exposes a thick layer of superiority: The giver is the savior and can therefore set the conditions for his merciful actions.  L’Auberge rejects this notion in favor of equality, we are all the same, we all want nice clothes.

Europe in the (ware-)house

Dismay over Brexit was omnipresent and the mood was fairly low. People in their 20s and 30s were mourning the friendships they will miss, the job abroad and the Erasmus project that will never be, and the end of freedom of movement as we know it. Even worse was the anger over the main motives of the leave campaign, being xenophobia and racism, a fact that some are still unwilling to admit. In the middle of all these feelings of disbelief, there was the real Europe: the Spanish, Catalonian, Italian, Dutch, French, English, German volunteers preparing donation packs for the Sudanese, Afghan, Eritrean refugees. Europe is not Mario Draghi, the banks in Frankfurt or the institutions in Brussels. Europe is a Spanish volunteer teaching English to an Afghan refugee in the “Jungle” of Calais. The mix of languages and shared experiences that I heard in the warehouse, would have never been possible without Europe. To me, dividing France and the United Kingdom means just as much as having a border between Rome and Florence. All of us who are used to study in one country, move to another and do it all over again, know what I am talking about here. And what does this mean for the refugees stuck in Calais? Certainly there is nothing to defend about European immigration policies. However, handing over a whole country to Nigel Farage doesn’t seem that sensible either.

The camp

The makeshift camp of Calais, or Jungle, is home to approximately 6,000 refugees. They mainly come from Afghanistan, Darfur, Ethiopia and Eritrea. The population is 90% men, while women and children have a separate space at the Jules Ferry Centre. The camp is in an industrial area, which is considered at risk because of the toxic fumes coming from at least two of the plants nearby. The air smells of chemicals and burnt plastic. Although police is present at the entrance, anybody can go in and out of the camp. This doesn’t mean freedom, rather lack of protection, in my opinion. In fact, you will hardly meet a refugee in the city centre, possibly because they fear the reaction of the locals. The camp itself is just as bad as one can imagine: thousands of tents crammed next to each other, mud, garbage, frightening sanitary conditions. It’s a dark place, though some light is still coming through, for instance at the Jungle Books Library. An English teacher, who has been delivering books to the camp for years, created a space where people can read and learn languages. Many volunteers go to the Jungle Books in the afternoon, after finishing the work in the warehouse. When I first got there, I was uncomfortable. It felt like touring the misery of someone else’s life, while maintaining the privilege of getting out of it at any given moment. In the end, I believe the refugees I met there, gave me more than what I gave them. At the Jungle Books people are very keen on learning English and French. A Sudanese boy, no older than twenty, showed me his notebook, thick with English words and their Arabic translation. He wanted to practice some grammar and was very amused at my attempts to say something in Arabic. He wanted to learn how to make a polite request in English, when to use “I wish” and “I would like”, the difference between “appointment” and “interview”. I struggled to find examples to practice with him, since all sentences I would have used in a normal class, seemed inappropriate here. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by coming up with a sentence like “I wish… to travel around the world”, while he’s sitting paperless in a camp in France. A similar feeling I had about saying that I live in London, which is the place so many of the refugees would like to get to. The absurdity of it all really hits you in the face, when you realize that a piece of paper determines your whole life.

We are all very good at commemorating past crimes against humanity, though when it happens now and here we tend to look away. Fifty years along the line, when the victims are all buried, we go out and shout “Never again”. In the face of Calais, Greece and Syria, these words sound pretty empty.

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3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Calais

  1. Hi, I’m really interested to read about your experiences in Calais. Would you mind telling me a bit more about how you came to volunteer there – where you found out about volunteering and what the process was?
    Best wishes, Fi and Jonny.

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  2. Hi there, thanks for your comment. I’ve been following the events around the refugee crisis in Europe for quite a while and just wanted to do something, as small a contribution as it is. From London it’s easy to go to Calais and there are many people going every day, for longer or shorter periods of time. The best thing is to register with a group or organisation – I would of course recommend Help Refugees http://bit.ly/29e4ehv. Normally, they just want to know when you are available and if you have any special skills (languages, carpentry, etc…). Once the dates are confirmed, they’ll send you an information pack with all you need to know. The only tricky bit is to find accommodation in Calais, although there are a few campsites. There are lots of FB groups for sharing lifts and accommodation, like “Volunteer group to Calais”. For the best overview of the situation, visit the Calaidipedia website http://www.calaidipedia.co.uk/. Anything else, let me know!

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