The first time I visited Calais was a bitterly cold February Saturday in 2017. The experiences I had have left a deep impression with me, and it took many weeks to process my thoughts about what I saw and what I heard.
I wrote at the time about visiting the Catholique Secours centre run mainly by nuns and the wonderful group of mainly Eritrean teenagers I met there. The calm atmosphere of the place was the most surprising, and of course the horrible normality of being with a group of teenagers who just want to laugh and joke with each other, who are always hungry, and who were unfailing polite. They wanted to send messages back to England, to the people who had raised funds and sent aid. They wanted to say thank you but mostly they wanted to say hi.
I remember their willingness to learn English and my feeble attempts to learn Eritrean. And the jokes: lots of jokes. Jokes about how they tried to sleep standing up in the woods against a tree, because that way they would be camouflaged and the police wouldn’t be able to see them and catch them. And me laughing at that too, as if that could possibly be something to laugh about.
And just like in every group of teenage boys in the UK, by the end of the afternoon there was a game of football and someone was whizzing up and down too fast on a bike. At the end of the afternoon I was embraced warmly by all the people I had chatted to and played games with for several hours. I wished them good luck, while deliberately avoiding thoughts of what they wished for their futures, and what in fact their futures might bring.
The abiding memory for me though was a huge notice on the wall above the place where food was served, which listed missing people. My eyes focused on one entry out of maybe a hundred. It said a woman’s name and her age and next to it the words read – Looking for my sister, pregnant, last seen at the Greek border.
What kind of effort does it take to be normal, and polite, and to make jokes when that’s the reality you are living in?
Not normal then. Not normal at all.
On returning to England, I thought of them often – how could I not? I teach and spend time with teenagers just like them – and yet so unlike them – every day.
I thought of them particularly this winter, which was so cold and biting. As my friend Norman commented a couple of months ago, the reality of life in Northern France and the hundreds of people living rough there (and indeed closer to home) has changed my feelings about the snow. I used to enjoy feeling cosy and wrapped up against the cold, and even playing in the snow.
Now I can’t get out of my mind the pain and misery that the refugees in Calais, Dunkirk and elsewhere have had to endure throughout this long, hard winter, in a situation where their tents are confiscated and their sleeping bags urinated on and pepper sprayed.
I returned this weekend for a longer stay – the wonderful people who organise Oxfordshire Refugee Solidarity have honed their organisation to a fine art. We are no longer trying to get there and back in one day; there is time for winding down, and for debriefing around a longer period of volunteering.
Our numbers have grown too; this weekend there were 30 ish of us on three minibuses. This means we have more room for the extensive aid that we manage to collect – and 30 of us can collect a lot of aid – and also that we can provide large numbers of volunteers to help in the different locations. We can also support each other – an important part of the process as it can be, to be frank, a very difficult experience to manage.
On Sunday I was involved in a large-scale coat distribution at an ‘illegal settlement’ (note inverted commas there) of around 300 refugees near the ferry terminal.
It was easier in that I felt more able to open conversations with the men there. I could not help but look for faces I met before. It was hard to know if I wanted to see them, for that would mean they were ‘safe’ (there are those inverted commas again) but also that they had endured 400 grinding days in this place since I was last here.
As before, I was struck by the inability of circumstances, however horrific, to crush the human spirit completely. That even in these bleak circumstances – where young men and boys have their tents destroyed by the local police on a weekly rota and were at risk of being teargassed while queuing for food – the instinct to make connections, to laugh and also to look as cool as possible is too strong to be ignored. Style is style, no matter where you are, and some of these young men were extremely stylish.
And again, at the end of the afternoon, there was a game of football and some boys whizzing up and down too fast on a bike.
I was also struck afresh by the sharp contrast between the youthful looks of so many – and some of the people there were incredibly young – and the trauma they have experienced. The stories that you hear are often difficult to process at the time, told as they are in a matter of fact way. It’s only later, often in the middle of the night, when a chance remark or description of a journey will pop into your head and you can only think, did I really hear that? The extraordinary becomes ordinary, but there is nothing ordinary about the strength and the resilience of the people who have got as far as Calais.
The most extraordinary experience of all happened on Monday.
After helping to prepare lunch for the volunteers in the warehouse, we travelled to take aid to a church house near the border with Belgium. It was an ordinary French town like hundreds of others.
There we met the most extraordinary ordinary woman, about 70 years old. She started feeding the African refugees in her town 10 years ago, because, in her words, ‘They were cold and hungry. What could I do?’ At one time, the place was home to a large settlement feeding around 180 men, women and children – although she was keen to emphasise that the refugees always cooked for themselves, and still do. But now repeated raids and crackdowns have reduced numbers to fewer than 20. The men can be there during the day but at night they must sleep where they can in the open air – and as in Calais they are frequently picked up by the police and their belongings confiscated and destroyed.
She told us, in her matter of fact way, that she has been threatened, and that her car was firebombed and her house set on fire because of the choices she made not to stand by. No one was arrested for this crime, because the police told her it must have been ‘the migrants, the blacks’. She was arrested, her house ransacked and put in jail for giving a lift to an eight month pregnant woman to the hospital 11 km away. The police thought that she should have let the woman walk along the road. What if she had been killed, she said. How would that driver feel?
The day centre she runs is repeatedly raided by armed police in riot gear and bullet proof uniform. These extraordinary tales of bravery, set against the reality of the calm and ordinarily-incredible woman and the delightful and gentle Sudanese refugees, who chatted happily with us and brought us strong coffee and sweet tea. She asked to meet with us when she comes to London – she has been invited to the baptism of a child born to people she helped who have now settled there.
What a film that would make, except it’s too far-fetched isn’t it? Too surreal, that such things should happen right on our doorstep.
Which is why I have to go to Calais again, because if you don’t
see it with your own eyes, if you don’t hear it for yourself – well, you will never believe it.
I believe it, but (I am ashamed to say) a small part of me wishes this was all some implausible story instead of the lived reality of life in Western Europe in 2018.