My experience in Calais

Justine Corrie’s report on her first trip to the camp in Calais.

Hope. That’s what I’m left with ultimately. Hope for humanity. Spending just a weekend out in the camp known as ‘The Jungle’ in Calais – I’m left with many, many mixed and contradictory feelings – but ultimately hope stands out. I can’t help but be reminded of Pandora’s box – a sense of all the evils of the world having been unleashed, the horrors unfolding around the world that many of the refugees are fleeing both from and into in – yet there, in the Jungle, behind the barbed wire fences, beneath the tarpaulin shelters, amongst the rubbish strewn mud and sand dunes there is still some hope- in the eyes of the people; in the smiles, in the laughter, in the meetings and connections – there is hope.

I was only there for 2 days, so I don’t feel qualified to write anything that resembles an accurate portrayal of life in the Jungle. I can only say a little about my own experience there and what I’m left with. I don’t want to claim any real knowledge or understanding of how it must be to live there, to exist in that reality every day, not knowing whether you will leave or not, not knowing if you will ever see your family again.

The 2 days I was there were also unseasonably warm. The sun was shining down on the camp and you could almost imagine you were at some festival in a foreign land: wood-smoke plumes drift upwards; guitars strum; aromatic cooking smells waft on the air; groups of young men play football; feral children run around making mischief; women sit around talking. Yet, there is no home to return to when the festival’s over: when the sun goes in and the biting cold wind blows and icy rain pummels the makeshift shelters, flooding the ground and everything lying in it’s wake creating the kind of mud that swallows entire tents up. You may have lost your shoes somewhere on your journey here too and be making do with an odd pair you’ve salvaged from the rubbish. You may well not have anywhere near enough bedding to keep you warm at night. It’s likely that you haven’t had enough to eat and are reliant of the food parcels that get delivered sporadically to the camp by volunteers like us. Add to that the possibility that you’re already traumatised by the hell you’ve left behind in the country that you once called home, it’s also highly likely you have a medical condition that needs attention.

So how does hope figure in all that? In the humanity, dignity and cooperation of the people living in those conditions. That despite the appalling-ness of that reality becoming your day-to-day existence – you can still smile. My eyes met so many other eyes in real contact, real connection. A thousand stories unraveling in each of those pairs of eyes that meet mine. The willingness of people to connect, to reach out and make contact, to tell their story –yes, but that they also that they want to hear my story too. They tell me why they are here, the journey they endured, about the loved-ones they left behind, or about the family they already have in the UK and the injuries they’ve sustained trying to board the train night-after-night trying to reach their family here. They take out their phones to show me the photos of their children, beaming with love and pride as parents do. Sometimes they have not seen their children for several years, nor heard news of them. Yet, they ask to know about my life – they tell me how they love “England people’ – they have very good hearts so many coming here to help”, they ask to see photos of my children and want to take a ‘selfies’ with me to take back.

There is hope in the coordinated efforts of teams of volunteers made up of a diverse demographic: students on gap years, retired older men and women, a group of Sikh men, young Muslim women, Buddhists, dreadlocked seasoned activists, mum’s, dads, company directors… and refugees themselves – you find a diverse cross section of society here pooling their skills, collaborating without any central organisation that holds them together.

The vast warehouse that takes delivery of much of our 4 van-loads of donations is a seething hub of activity: pallets of donations being moved by donated fork lift trucks, groups of young people in high vis jackets sorting through piles upon piles of boxes, vans being loaded to take to the camp for distribution. The little makeshift camp kitchen at the very back a little hub of meetings and coordination. One of our team decides the kitchen area needs some TLC and a sort-out (it does!) so she dives in to set up an efficient working kitchen complete with signposts for designated areas. This is how it works- you see something that needs doing and you just make it happen.

I’m happy we could bring pre-sorted, labeled donations – we unload the van, a large number of other volunteers jumping in to help us, and the boxes can be taken straight to the right places. We hand over the 100 food parcels we’ve made up to a group that are heading into the camp with a load more from other groups. Ours bring the total up to several thousand that will be distributed from their van.It’s decided that we will take our 250 clothing packs, several hundred jumpers/fleeces and 250 toiletry packs for direct distribution into the camp.

The most common way to distribute en-mass in the camp is the ‘one line’ system. All the refugees know how this works and quite often as soon as you are seen near your van you’ll be approached and asked ‘one line?’ Basically they form an orderly queue. Sometimes it’s a very long queue and they may be waiting for an hour or so. But it works to prevent chaos and ransacking of vehicles and tries to promote dignity and mutual respect for everyone involved. All of our distributions go really well in with this method and we are able to move about the camp and distribute within different areas. The camp is loosely arranged into areas that correlate to the main countries that the refugees come from. We start off in Eritrea, just near the beautiful church and later spend time in Afghanistan, Little Syria and Sudan. The one-line system relies on us working well together as a team and knowing our roles, often a refugee, once they’ve come to the front of the line and received their item, will want to help. So different people along the way join us, and our team grows to include a young man from Syria, a lovely Afghani man and a tall Sudanese guy. It’s interesting listening to them chat to one another, telling each other where they are from and a bit of their story.I’m struck by how much playfulness and laughter there is. So many smiles too.

One of the team roles is to walk up and down the line helping to keep order, although mostly this is done by the refugees themselves anyway – any queue jumpers and quickly dealt with collectively – a communal shout of ‘one line!’ So the team member walking the line is mostly thanking people for waiting patiently and mostly everyone is very relaxed and good-humoured and just wants to chat with you. Women and children will usually want to jump the queue and push in the front. We’ve been told that we should let them know it’s ‘one line’ for everyone- men, women ad children alike, but mostly the men encourage them forward anyway so we go along with that. We see a few chaotic scenes where people have turned up in their car/van not knowing the ‘one line’ system and chaos ensues. It’s horrible. It creates the kind of scene that the media will take photos of and use to spread an inaccurate and incomplete picture of what goes on. Bags get thrown out of vans that drive off quickly, bags full of random, unsorted, many wholly inappropriate useless items that no one here needs. It create a huge waste problem and there are piles of unwanted ‘donations’ strewn around the camp that could have gone to useful homes elsewhere. People don’t want to take what they don’t need – on our distributions things got handed back to us out of toiletry bags if they already had that item so it could be given to someone else, swaps happened amongst the refugees and much good humour trying some of the clothing on.

Having done a few successful distributions we feel like ‘old hands’ and we’re able to intercept two vans that arrived before they opened up and any chaos ensued. Another 600 food parcels in one and 1000 food bags in another with bottles of water and some blankets too – all distributed with ease and great help from some of the refugees who joined us.

Around the camp there is so much building happening: impressive structures created from pallets, large communal spaces, kitchens, medical centres, restaurants, shops and homes, as well as trust and hope being built.

We eat the best meal I have while in France in Afghanistan. We sit inside the Afghan kitchen eating delicious aromatic spiced rice and beans while talking to a French volunteer who’s been helping in the camp for one and half years.

A phone-call with one of our to try and meet up for a distribution goes like this:
“Where are you?”
“We’re in Sudan I think, where are you?”
“I’m in little Syria, just past the Women’s centre”
“Can you meet us in Afghanistan?”
“Where’s that?”
“ Keep going along the main drag till you see the shops and Afghan flag.”
“Is that before you get to Eritrea?”

There is a unique atmosphere of cooperation and collaboration I don’t feel I’ve seen before. There’s a huge reserve of skills among the refugees and slowly those skills are being able to be put to good use. Builders, engineers, medics, lawyers, and chefs: finding ways to use their skills in ways that can improve the daily existence of many.

Of course, not many people want to stay in the camp; it’s not a place to build a home. The ever-present CRS riot Police presence (the Armadillo’s – due to their riot gear look) machine-guns to their chest – adds to an environment of fear and intimidation. Rumours abound about the camp being shutdown and small areas are bulldozed: tents, belongings, essential papers and all on a fairly regular basis. This is no place to settle.

I met many who had applied for asylum status in France already but have a long wait with no support in the meantime. And many others who have friends & family in the UK, and desperately want to join them. The young Eritrean guy with a shy smile who softly spoke fluent English, he was an engineering graduate with a wife and child back home, “French is very difficult for me to learn, I have friends in England and I want to work there and build a life for my family.”

There are many other conversations, meetings, connections: Refugees and the volunteers who came here once and have returned time and time again, unable to stop returning, pulled by the absolute need to ‘do something’ in the face of our impotent, unwilling politicians. They return or stay even despite their own complicated lives.

I like the three-dimensional approach that Joanna Macy describes in her work around ‘the Great Turning’. To meet this crisis well we need:

Political Lobbying, legal work to support refugees rights and promote changes, as well as direct action – Volunteering, protest and campaigning. Work of this kind buys time. It saves lives and cultures – but it’s insufficient on it’s own.

Analysis and Structural Alternatives-
To create meaningful change to the current unworkable systems and structures, we need to fully understand the current and historic dynamics at play at a systemic level. This can include study groups and developing new ways to self-organise and collaborate.

Awareness- Structural alternatives cannot take root without deeply ingrained values to sustain them. As well as doing the work ‘out there’ we need to look at our own inner conflicts, consciousness and responses. It’s this third dimension that can support us and save us from succumbing to panic or paralysis. The realisations we find here can help us to resist the temptation to stick our heads in the sand or turn on each other, as scapegoats on whom to vent our fear and rage.

Let’s do this.

Yes, I am left with hope. Hope for the ones that have made it this far in their perilous journey: hope for compassion and care and support and community. And hope that arises from witnessing the courage and willingness of the many that are already making a stand and doing something. Hope in the midst of the smiles and shining eyes and laughter that not only survive, but also thrive among the refugees.

Hope for the thousands upon thousands of others that are currently stranded beyond these borders on the far side of desperate conditions – even a glimmer of hope there, that there will be enough of a call to action in people’s hearts and we can meet this humanitarian crisis and it’s immensity of suffering.

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