Last summer, I discussed the idea of heading to Calais as a volunteer with my mum. It was around the time where Aylan Kurdi monopolised the headlines; this was an inescapable crisis. But then, life got in the way. There was work to do, rent to pay, and friends to catch up with. Since then I’ve had countless conversations about the so-called ‘migrant crisis’. Conversations that all seem to dwell on what lovely people we are, because we’re still talking about it – we care.
When Mum mentioned she was driving to Calais in August and would save me a seat in the car, I couldn’t say no. We packed up, drove down, and checked into the youth hostel that would provide us with a warm, comfortable place to sleep every night.
Every morning, we would drive to the Care4Calais warehouse; organising bags of essentials to be packed, sorting donations, tidying warehouses to make them easy to navigate. Every afternoon, we would either drive into the camp and distribute aid or teach, or we would stay at the warehouse and complete any number of tasks, from packing and sorting, to washing up for the 50+ volunteers who ate lunch with us. It quickly became very clear that there is no job more important than another, and that every job is absolutely vital for a smooth running operation.
Going into The Jungle is an indescribable experience. You’re met by the police at the entrance point – who are not there to enforce the law; as an illegal settlement there is no rule of law in the camp – but who seem hellbent on making life difficult for everybody: “today no tents are allowed in”, and other arbitrary, made-up-on-the-spot rules.
But then, camp itself. I’ve been trying to find ways to describe how camp looks, smells, feels. Imagine Leeds Fest at its worst, but say, a week or so after the festival is over. The bands have packed up and gone home, the caterers have gone, no-one’s cleaning the portaloos anymore. You’re out of food, out of clean pants, and no-one’s coming to help. Other people’s tents got nicked or burnt down, so there’s 7 of you in a 3 man tent. Also, the tent’s broken. Tensions are rising between campsites, and everyone’s a bit on edge. If the police do come in, it’s only to gas you out of your tent, and maybe give you a good kicking just to make sure you’re truly miserable.
You know what the crazy part is? The part it took me a while to admit? My first reaction on walking into The Jungle was ‘huh, this isn’t so bad’. Which it isn’t, if you’re there for a few hours of your afternoon. But being there, day in, day out, for months or years at a time? Without ever knowing when, or if you were going to get out? Whether you’d live long enough to see your asylum claim processed? Whether you’d ever see your mother, father, brother, uncle, son, daughter, family, ever again? That’s when it becomes unbearable.
On my first afternoon in the camp, an Eritrean man called Mohammed needed assistance building his tent. You see, he had a one man tent in which three men were living. He removed everything from the tent so that we could take it down, including the flattened cardboard box on which he was sleeping to ease the discomfort of the hard ground. All the worldly possessions of these three men – the sleeping bags and blankets provided on their arrival to The Jungle included – fit onto this flimsy, flattened piece of cardboard with room to spare. Just as we packed away the first tent, before we managed to get the second out of its bag, the heavens opened. A torrential downpour – the sort that soaks through to your bones within seconds. “Typical!” I laughed, realising I’d left my waterproof at the container instead of bringing it with me.
I forgot about my waterproof as soon as I realised that everything Mohammed and his friends owned in the world was utterly drenched, with no way for us to protect it from the huge droplets that were pelting us. We got the tent up quicker than I’ve ever managed before, but everything we loaded into the canvas for protection was utterly sodden. That flattened cardboard box – unsurprisingly hard to come by when you’re living in an illegal settlement – was left disintegrating on the ground. Mohammed looked forlorn as he told us not to try to salvage it. The sun came out as we put the finishing touches to the tent, and Mohammed surveyed the new tent, before thanking us so profusely, so deeply that I didn’t have the words to reply. “You’re welcome” didn’t seem to cover it. I spotted him a few days later – he called my name, and asked me how I was. He thanked me again and again for helping to put up a three man tent – his temporary home.
The day I taught English, I found myself surrounded by six men of at least three nationalities. Each of them, at one point or another, proposed marriage. All of them, at various times, held my hand, stroked my hair, wiped the sand from my face as I tried to focus on the alphabet, numbers, or body parts. Naively, I thought that teaching from a book was the best way to teach English; mostly it’s not. Mostly it’s just talking to them, sustaining a conversation. And boy, are they keen to talk. And boy, was it exciting that I had come from England. That’s it you see, the Promised Land. They assured me that the marriage proposals weren’t just for the Green Card, but hey, a guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do right? When I left camp that afternoon my cheeks were aching from four hours of smiling, but my heart was aching from knowing that in all likelihood, I will never know if these men make it to England safely, and if they do, whether they are granted permission to stay. They told me ruefully that I will forget them, and whilst to my shame I cannot remember every name, I will never forget their faces or their stories; they have made an indelible mark on my life.
What is more striking than any sight of tents crammed together, or the smells from the portaloos, is the conversations with the guys who have found themselves in camp. There was the man who, when I asked how he was, shook his head and remarked, “very bad – but this is my life now”. The man who couldn’t believe I was from Leeds: “I used to live in Leeds! Do you know Roundhay Road? I worked in a pizza place! Do you know Roundhay Park? The little roundabout there? That’s where my house was”. The man who told me I shouldn’t be standing out in the sunshine (“Too pale! Too pale! Burn! Burn!”). The sixteen year old boy who affectionately shouted “Bambino!” whenever he saw me, because my relatively carefree life has led to me looking sixteen in his estimate. He looked twenty-six in mine.
The man who told me he “hadn’t been here very long, only fourteen months”. Only. The man who came and sat, quietly, as I taught English, and wrote, and wrote, and wrote in silence – just to practice – occasionally prodding me to check it. The man who brought me chai, unprompted, because that’s what you do for guests. The man I saw five days in a row, realising on day four, that he’d been wearing the same white t-shirt since the first day I met him. Realising that washing clothes is only an option if you’ve got something to change into while the rest is wet. Realising that this is no state for anybody – anybody, regardless of the colour of their skin or their religion or anything – to live in.
So, if this is what camp is like, what can we actually do? Well, as the story has dropped out of the news headlines, donations have dropped massively. We’re coming up to the cold winter months: a warm meal, a thick blanket and shelter are absolutely vital. Eid is coming up; will you help camp residents celebrate? Put together a food package or simply donate money so that the volunteers out in Calais can buy what’s needed directly. Care4Calais regularly update their Most Needed list; and I can’t stress the importance of good quality donations. If you’re donating clothing, why would you donate something ratty? Imagine you have nothing in the world, and then you get something hole-y, stained, a bit gross. The guys in camp may not have much, but they have incredible dignity.
If you’re not in a position to give, write to your MP – if you are in South Leeds it’s Hilary Benn MP – remind them that this is a very real, very ongoing crisis with no end in sight. Remind them that it is our moral duty to help our fellow citizens of the world, and that we, as global citizens, will not stand this injustice.
If you are in a position to do so, volunteers are so appreciated over in Calais. Particularly now that the school holidays are over, as donations drop so do volunteer numbers and they’re the backbone of the operation. They’re the reason Care4Calais can hand out 500+ care packages everyday, can teach English, French and Art, can provide a friendly face and advice to residents, and do the work that our own government are refusing to do.
You can find out who your MP is here and get in touch, find out how to donate time, money, or items here, and find the event page for the Solidarity March in London on Saturday 17 September 2016 here.
This post was written by Hanne Talbot using our Create an article for South Leeds Life page.