In the weeks preceding its destruction, the settlement known as The Jungle of Calais remained home to over 10,000 refugees, many of them children. In the wake of the Jungle’s demise, refugees’ search for home grows even more critical.
I visited Calais October 16-22, 2016 - the week before demolition of the refugee camp. It is strange to think this place that I came to know - to love for its fierceness and community, its wood-pallet houses and tarp coffee shop as warm as any in London - is now gone.
After visiting, its title rubbed me the wrong way: the place wasn’t a jungle, and the people there were not animals. It was a small city, a bustling congregation of people from all over the globe, from all walks of life. Through hard work, they’d built houses out of abandoned crates, used the refuse of first-world France to open restaurants and coffee shops. In contrast, along every street, rows of muddied, overflowing portaloos offered the only public infrastructure. It was an impoverished city, a city full of boys wearing flip-flops in bitter rain, of tents thrashing in the wind, of sleepless nights and broken families - but a city nonetheless. The boys played football as they should, and cricket, just the same as boys across the channel. In the Jungle were homes: temporary ones, to be expected, as are all the homes we - regardless of birthplace - must erect.
For 10,000 homeless it is not the first time a home has been shattered. They fled from their homes in their native countries; now they flee from a home in Calais, to be resettled in smaller government-mandated centers throughout France. There, asylum-seekers - many of whom hoped to enter the UK due to family already living there - must claim asylum in France. Others claimed asylum in France only to flee crushing poverty on the streets of France’s cities, finding solidarity with other refugees in the Jungle itself.
“People have lost everything,” said Eliana Mallory, a volunteer and friend who watched as the camp was demolished.
Today, roughly 6,000 individuals, including 1,600 children, have relocated to the temporary housing centers in France. Many children from the camp have since gone missing, and many fear that unregistered children simply left, setting out on their own, unprotected. For children fortunate enough to have been registered at the camp, the UK has agreed to accept minors aged under 18 who qualify for asylum. However, serious concerns remain over the lack of foster homes to take them in.
These are some of my selected journal entries from a week at camp:
Each morning at 9am the volunteers for Care4Calais, one of several charities active in the camp, met at a warehouse on the outskirts of Calais. There, we sorted donated clothes and medicinal supplies in preparation for the afternoon’s distribution of materials in camp. We sorted shoes, put together packages of supplies for the families living in camp, and stocked vans full of necessary materials. The place bustled; coffee flowed freely; everyone had a task to accomplish, and was busy until the grateful lull of a homemade, community lunch for the volunteers. At 1pm, we’d load up with our passports, vests, and rain gear. We entered the camp to give away whatever we had.
October 16, First Impressions
1. It smells like shit.
2. I'm in a long sleeve shirt layered with two wool sweaters, and overcoat, scarf, gloves, and hat, and everyone else I see is running around in flip-flops. They are the only shoes they have. It’s a sick joke, getting the impression that everyone else here is on a tropical getaway.
A tall, muscled man with a composed, powerful presence comes up to you, asking urgently: "How do I get to the UK? My sister, my brother, my aunt is there. I am stuck here." His eyes meet yours, glinting with frustration and desperation. All we can do is say, "I don't know, good luck, God bless." I think quietly, I don't know. I don't know if you'll get in, ‘my friend’. We call people ‘my friend’, though I don't know most of them, and I like that somehow. I like the concept, and I hope that we are friends, but I am painfully aware of how shallow that hope is.
The emotional part built, I think, built up as one saw the same people, day after day. You got to know them.
My conversations with other volunteers turned friends help me to process what I’ve seen. They offer solidarity in what I am feeling.
"It makes me physically sick, now, when I get on the ferry. It's so easy for me.” Leila is a 21 year old long-term volunteer at camp, just out of college. She continued, "I was with my 14 year old friend in the van, when he felt the square of my id in my pocket. 'U.K. Passport? ' he asked. No, I relied, I keep that at home. 'You're rich,' he said.” “I know.”
I want to share how one man comes back every afternoon to talk warmly about his wife back in the Sudan. His naturalness made us volunteers - who felt and who were so separate from camp life - feel accepted for what we were.
I don't take photos in the camp out of respect to the people there, who have been photographed ad nauseam. It is their home, like I have mine, both temporary. I wouldn't want mine photographed to be gawked at, not for as long as the camp had existed, since the late 1990s. Most residents have lived here for over 8 months, many over a year. They mostly want to move on, but are stuck.
There are a few photographs I want to take: "We want to go to the UK, PLEASE." Spray painted along the road into camp. And above it: "We are people, too."
We experienced tear gas wafting over us from police training nearby as we distributed shoes to the men in flip-flops in the bitter cold and rain. The police use this place to practice, and intimidate. The people don't yet know they'll be forced to leave.
"I want to stay here." A man from Darfur looks me in the eye.
The volunteers’ lines shield the lines for supplies made by the refugees. In a way we volunteers and refugees stand together, in the cold, in the drizzle, as the tear gas stings our eyes. It is a fake, though, for you look down and they wear flip flops and I wool socks and boots. Please don't count the layers I wear, old man, for I have four and you one flimsy jacket. My hands are held on either side; I ought to give you my gloves, but I don't destroy the line to do so. The truth is, I'm cold. Physically and otherwise.
"They tear gas a camp with kids in it." Gabe, a 23 year old volunteer from Birmingham, states the fact blandly. The words taste unfamiliar together.
When we are holding the line, Leila, another volunteer, comes around and rubs our shoulders, vigorous and brief, to keep us warm. "Are you okay? If you want to leave, you can." She comes down the line and looks each of us in the face. "We'll stay," we all said. We smile, jump up and down a bit to keep out the cold . "We're fine," tearing up just a bit as the gas wafts by. This situation - the situation that the authorities have allowed, and have enforced - is not.