Speaking for Ourselves

Celebrating the holy cross “Meskel” in the jungle of Calais, France

Celebrating the holy cross “Meskel” in the jungle of Calais, France

Petros Tesfagiorgis

 Migrant Voice -
 Migrant Voice - Celebrating the holy cross “Meskel” in the jungle of Calais, France

The Catholic Comboni Sisters Missionary in Chiswick, London, together with other groups and individuals, planned to spend the Eritrean and Ethiopian Holy day of the cross, “Meskel”, with refugees in the “Jungle” of Calais, France. The day was Sunday 28 September 2015.

The group agreed to meet in the compound of the Orthodox Church at 12 o’clock noon. I was fortunate to have a lift to the jungle. As soon as we reached the area we were unable to find the entrance. We found ourselves driving parallel to a high fence that sent terror through my veins.  

The sight of the fences embodied the complexities and the tragedy of our time. It is a form of segregation against immigrants and refugees from the rest of humanity as if they are not part of it.  It is no wonder the ordinary people in UK and France are angry enough to organise protests, vigils and marches, persuading their governments to welcome refugees and immigrants. Today the consciousness and humanity of Europeans showed itself in ordinary people’s solidarity.

When we finally arrived there were many young men and women and we were introducing ourselves to them at random, exchanging pleasantries and building trust. Soon more people came carrying   a lot of stuff from London, mainly Eritrean ethnic food “Zegni and Ingera”, specially prepared for the Meskel occasion.  After consulting the priest in charge of the Church who said the ceremony would take place at 4 pm, my colleagues Feven, Ginette and sister Natalia suggested to the rest of us to go on tour while they prepared food in take away boxes with help from some of the refugees. The rest of us left the compound to see the camp for ourselves.

The tour: The “Jungle Books”:

We split up into small groups.  Three of us walked out of the compound accompanied by Samuel, a resident of the “Jungle”.  Samuel suggested we start by visiting the small library first. On the outside wall “Jungle books” was written in four languages: Arabic, French, Tigrinya and English.   At the entrance we were welcomed by a British woman in charge of the library.  She explained that they taught English, and how it was very important to them to learn the language and the culture of the country they are trying to reach so they can build their new life with ease.  “The demand is so big we are building an extension. At the moment the library is too small and we do encourage people to take out the books and read outside,” she told us.   Indeed we saw people outside busy reading.

We then moved to the Sudanese quarter. The extraordinary thing there is an art gallery for artists to paint landmarks of the Sudan. It is also a library that contains books written in French for those who like to study French.  A young French woman explained more about the gallery and how it is organised by individuals who are helping the refugees and immigrants with passion.   

On our tour we came across people from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc.   We saw some Syrians congregating outside a tent. I thought they were praying. Coming closer we found out that they were charging their mobiles from a generator. At the end we reached the mother-children quarter. This is a place well-cared for. There were guards at the entrance. The Eritrean solicitor who came with the group to study their situation was definitely happy to spend some time there.

The “Jungle” houses a multi-cultural society living in harmony.  There is no police there. They say sometimes fighting flares up but it ends up by reconciliation.

 The celebration:

As soon as the people congregated at about 4pm a priest of the church gave a prayer practised during “Meskel”.  Sister Natalia did her grace and declared the celebration open and people started to line up for the food.  All the food was piled up in a manageable take away boxes so that the organisers simply handed over the food quickly and efficiently.  It saved a lot of time and gave opportunity for people to chat as they ate. I never thought they would prepare enough food to feed up to 500 people.  It is simply amazing. I learnt that my colleague Feven had stayed up the whole night cooking. I had never celebrated “Meskel” like this outside my home Eritrea.  I was so happy, was over the moon. It made me nostalgic.  During the New Year, “Meskel”, as children we used to be out on the streets of Asmara chanting “Hoyena Hoye” a kind of serenade of a New Year wish, so that we could collect some coins from relatives and neighbours. It is the most celebrated Christian tradition in the country.

When it was time to leave we got an invitation from the Ethiopians for a coffee ceremony. They too were part of the celebration. The relationship between Eritreans and Ethiopians in the “Jungle” was cordial.   In the tent we found people in a festive mood – singing to the tune of an Amharic song.  After a while my colleague Lul volunteered to sing the Eritrean “Meskel” song.  She asked everybody to say “Ho” after her saying “Hoyena Hoye”.    She changed some lyrics saying “we are with you”,   Ho.  “We share your pain”, Ho. “Where   ever you are”. Ho. “Be it in Libya, be it in Egypt” ,  Ho.  There were many Eritreans in the tent who could relate to the music and song and participated.  They were just on fire.  Who would not be in that moment in time?

My recollection of the some of the conversation:

We found out that the celebration, the eating together, the New Year atmosphere and the all-out socialising had given the opportunity to our fellow refugees to open up and discuss freely.   I would say it was one of the best times I had with my fellow Eritreans. They were enthusiastic to tell their stories and the dangerous journey they undertook to reach their land of promise. They loved to be listened to. We have discussed a lot of issues, including personal. Below are some key points they mentioned:

  • The lack of sanitation is so bad that it is possible cholera may break out any time. When we were talking about this, Peter Cobbold   of the organisation “Stop trafficking in Sinai” was with us and said we must find ways to take this up with the French authorities.
  • One of the questions persistently asked by the refugees is “What is going to happen to us?” Some of us in UK suggested it is better to link up with other people working in solidarity and put pressure on the Government to take its fair share of refugees from Calais.
  • We asked why people were not seeking asylum in France; was it because of the language? Some said not at all.  They said “there are people who applied for asylum in France – but they are still kept in the “Jungle”. They are not provided with lodging while waiting for their decision.”
  • There were also individual stories. A young man on crutches told us that as he tried to jump the fence three weeks ago he was chased by the French police and fell down, breaking his leg. As soon as he gets well he will try again.  He said, “Is there any other way?”
  • Another man, Habte (not his real name), told us that he will begin his life with a debt:  “I have to pay the traffickers throughout my journey.”  When I asked him where he got his money, he said he borrowed from his aunt who works as a cleaner.  “It is hard-earned money and I have to give it back to her as soon as I start working.”  I realised that the “extended family values of Eritreans” are still intact. Many relatives from abroad send money home or to those trapped on the journey to exile – another form of impoverishing the hard-working Eritreans in the Diaspora. This is an economic tragedy.   The aunt knows she may not get back her money.
  • What can those of us in UK do to make a difference to the life of refugees in different parts of the world? There is a need to organise fundraising to help set up educational facilities in refugee camps in Sudan and Ethiopia. There are about 90,000 Eritreans in Ethiopia and more than 150,000 in Sudan.   There are also 32,000 in Israel.   One person we met said, “I have come from Israel.  They made our life so miserable, lots have already left. We are literally driven away, refused jobs – put in “holot” detention camps and many make deals with people from Rwanda or Uganda to take us there. Israel call us infiltrators not asylum seekers. In fact we are persecuted, as Africans (Eritreans and Sudanese) – I was sad because the Jews were welcomed in Eritrea during their dark days. The first Synagogue    was built in Asmara in 1906.  The people of Eritrea don’t deserve this.”     


The women in Calais are disadvantaged in many ways:

Not only do they have difficulties with jumping the high fences during the night, but they also face problems due to the role set by Eritrea’s patriarchal society.

In the compound of the church next to where I was standing there were some cans which had dropped out of a box. A young girl carrying fire wood approached me and asked what the cans were. I was embarrassed to even look at her carrying her heavy load of firewood as I thought back to a time when women had to do back-breaking work such as fetching water from a long distance, carrying firewood from the forest and doing house work as they carry children on their backs.  In an advanced industrialised country such as France the refugees are made to live in such degrading primitive conditions.  This young girl is a product of President Isaias (PFDJ)’s Eritrea and its most vivid expression of cruelty and deprivation.  I looked at the cans and told her “these are tomatoes for cooking. She said, “Can I have some, I will be cooking spaghetti”.  I was relieved and put four in her bag as her two hands were engaged. She said thank you and continued her walking. I just froze. We said nothing else to each other.


In the “Jungle” at that moment in time we felt one as human beings. It was an unforgettable day. The migrants expressed their happiness to be with people who came all the way from the United Kingdom to share their pain and suffering and offer any support they were able to give. They were thankful to the various groups and individuals from the UK who are working under the idea of “People to People Solidarity”.  The power of love to your fellow humans is a powerful instrument for enlightenment and change.

One Eritrean said to us “Your presence is like food to us.  We are nourished.”  Likewise I felt we are very grateful for being with them. We have nourished our conscience. For us it is fulfilling and a privilege to be among them. Besides we have also learned a great deal from their situation; in spite of this dreadful life, they have a surprisingly hopeful view of life.  In them we have seen woman’s/man’s capacity to transcend her/his predicament into meaningful life.  In the night as we were driven to the ferries we didn’t show any fatigue of the journey, we all were just happy.


A longer version of this article was first published in assenna.com - http://assenna.com/celebrating-the-holy-cross-meskel-in-the-jungle-of-calais-france/