J, Eritrean, wanders around with a thin stick, gently hitting volunteers and his friends with it around the legs. Ow! Ouch! We cry, pretending to be hurt. He laughs. “My friend. In Libya, we get hit with sticks very hard, you know? Some people die. This is nothing.”
One year since I arrived in Calais “for a week”.
Last week, a gun was shot during a distribution, critically injuring four young men. It made the news worldwide, and I hugely appreciate everybody’s concern for my safety, but I was eating pancakes in my caravan at the time, so I’m fine. The 4 boys aren’t though. Nor is the kid who lost his eye at the hands of a police officer. Or the yet another young man injured in a deliberate hit and run on the motorway. etc. etc.
I was unsure how to mark my “Calaisversary”. The first thought that popped into my head as I lay awake on another freezing Calais night was a list of all the other shit things that have happened in the past year that didn’t make enough headlines to have people fearing for my safety.
I still intend to be reflective, but this one’s about me…
I’m rewinding…speeding past the second degree burns from slipping in the kitchen…past a long night spent courtesy of the Hotel du Police Nationale…past the Dunkirk fires…past my first week in Calais…past Trump’s travel ban…past Brexit…
I’m sat in the reception chair of one of my various odd-jobs in London. All I had to do was answer the door, so I was naturally sitting on Facebook because what else do bored “millenials” do. Firmly in the remain camp concerning the upcoming Brexit vote, me, myself and my echo chamber had convinced ourselves that everything was going to be just fine. Others have written better pieces about just how fine we thought it was going to be, so I won’t bother. But here I am, sitting thinking that everything’s going to be ok in the world, at least for me, in true neoliberal style, pretending to enjoy living in London, living the dream on social media. And then news starts pouring in of the stabbing and shooting, and later death, of pro-EU MP Jo Cox. A switch was flicked, slowly, slowly.
It still took some time to get here. It’s not like the Jungle didn’t exist at this point, it was fully underway, but y’know, had to finish my masters. In marketing. If I’d gone to Calais that summer I would never have finished such a waste of £8000. Not to worry, me and my British passport took ourselves off to Jordan for a few weeks to research my dissertation. Sitting, what, 60 miles from the Syrian border with my privilege and my backpack, a conversation with Iraqi refugees in Amman got me thinking. A ferry from Dover would have been cheaper, but nonetheless. (No regrets whatsoever about my trip to Jordan though – incredible country – it was just quite a long-winded way of getting on the right track).
“The only thing I regret about my past is the length of it. If I had to live my life again, I would make the same mistakes, only sooner.” – actress Tallulah Bankhead, quoted with exceptional timing in the Economist earlier this week.
Returning home, with all the panic of middle class Britishness, I initially chose to run from what was happening in the world by booking flights to New Zealand. It was the done thing, an answer to “so what are you doing now?” that so plagued reunions and Christmas dinners. Running from reality, really. Because my passport allows me to.
Tweet tweet tweet. Becoming increasingly vocal on social media about the treatment of refugees, Trump, Brexit, blah blah blah but in the real world: doing nothing. Crucially, getting annoyed that I was doing nothing. Applying for jobs without enthusiasm because I knew that I was on the wrong path. No longer really enjoying nights out or social occasions, because everything began to feel utterly meaningless, until I could no longer ignore the screams of people who I could actually, in some tiny way, maybe, listen to. The straw that broke the camel’s back was Trump’s travel ban. One utterly dire protest in Glasgow later, and a meeting with Glasgow charity Refuweegee, I finally figured I’d go and see if I could be of any use in Calais. I wanted to see, to understand what was going on, to stop running around with rose-tinted glasses. I signed up for a week prior to my trip to New Zealand, and jumped in the car.
We’re 700 words in and I’m just arriving in Calais. Stick around, we’ll be here for the long haul. The first week with RCK was…immersive. Volunteer numbers were low because nobody knew that Calais was still on the map following the eviction of the Jungle just a few months earlier. We rolled into a government run (but Kurdish smuggler controlled) camp in Grand-Synthe with “Take a Chance on Me” by ABBA blaring out of the radio and I had no idea how to feel. 1500 Kurdish, Afghan, Pakistani and Vietnamese men, women, children and babies living in small wooden huts and containers in a barren industrial wasteland by the side of the motorway, hidden from passing traffic by fencing. You’d never have known it was there, unless you knew.
We’d had no bread to give people for over a week. That night, we stayed up until 4am baking focaccias for 2000. I hadn’t quite realised that I’d found where I needed to be, but it just took a few more days for me to cancel my flights and throw myself fully into this situation. A black cloud that I didn’t even know was there lifted from my shoulders. There is something immeasurably reassuring about confirming that the world is, in fact, utterly shit – in the same way that it’s reassuring to look out at the ocean, knowing (or perhaps hoping) that nature will one day decide that we’ve done quite enough damage and that it wants the Earth back.
It’s March, now, and I’m in the Free Shops in Grand-Synthe pretty much every day. 5 hours each afternoon of scurrying around a container, passing chickpeas and salt and bread out of a window to crowds of young men, some of whom are still in this situation a year on, except the situation’s even worse now. At least people had shelters where they could invite you in for tea (or just hot milk, as I endured once), and hold onto their sleeping bags, and not have to deal quite so regularly with the police. Well, the Kurds had it good anyway. The Afghans, crowded into communal kitchens and sleeping in shifts because there wasn’t enough space – not so much.
It’s April, and the camp is up in flames. At midnight we’re standing in a parking lot handing out tea to people who have just lost their homes, again. At 4am we’re driving around Grand-Synthe like an episode of Benny Hill trying to find a group of children. At 8am, we’re back in the kitchen, cooking for 400 Afghans sleeping in a field, driving around gymnasiums, making sure everyone is safe and fed. A young man died on the motorway that night, fleeing the violence.
It’s May, and there are so few volunteers, but numbers in Calais double overnight. The police close down every single food distribution after an hour, hitting us with parking fines and health and safety bullshit. A police officer grabs a plate of food from a minor’s hands, and I get 15 hours in a cell and a 350 euro fine for flipping them off.
It’s June, and we’re driving around Calais’ Zone Industrielle, handing food out of windows to hundreds of hungry young men as the police follow behind us, not letting us stop the vehicles. We get our IDs checked by every faction of the French police in the space of about 15 minutes. A CRS officer tries to wrestle my phone from my hand, twisting my arm aggressively while his colleague films.
It’s July, and I take 10 days off to go home. It’s been a good few weeks in Calais, it’s sunny and warm, there’s a great group of volunteers and we had a ball at Glastonbury. I was not prepared for how absurd it would feel to be back in Glasgow. It’s a comfortable bubble, a decadent façade and a time warp all in one, like I could go up to a building and tear it apart like paper, exposing…something. I float around for a week, unable to express everything, unwilling to try to explain it all, and yet enormously grateful to still have home to return to. Crossing the Channel never gets easier, because it’s so easy, but friends are risking their lives every night to do it just once.
It’s August and I’m back in Calais but I’m exhausted. My break took it out of me mentally and I can’t muster the same enthusiasm for the kitchen that I once could. It’s a marathon, every single day, and it’s wonderful, and full of love and hope and inspiration, but it’s never-ending. By now I can cook rice for 2500 people in vast cauldrons, organise 40 volunteers to prepare food, lead aid distributions for hundreds of hungry people, but I’m burning out without any desire to leave. The answer comes dramatically, in the form of slipping while carrying a gastro of curry and getting second degree burns on my arm while simultaneously spraining my hand. A few days of moping around, pitifully asking people to carry the lightest of objects for me, and generally reflecting on everything, leads me to the Refugee Info Bus.
It’s September and I’m chatting to people about asylum processes and their options and their stories and their countries and I have the time to take it all in and a platform to write about it and it’s exactly where I want to be once more.
My house, flattened. My father, beheaded under Saddam Hussein. My family, I don’t know where they are.
It’s October and I’m stressed out of my mind about an impending hearing for what happened way back in May which thankfully goes well although I’m 350 euros lighter at the end of it. I’m irked that it ever needed to go to court in the first place, but paradoxically grateful that legal systems exist to protect me from the full wrath of the police officers’ “hurt feelings”. You can take my compensation, just as long as I can keep working.
It’s November and I’m back from a much more enjoyable and restful two-week break at home, but it’s getting cold. We drive around in the early hours of the morning, as eyes on the ground for human rights abuses, gathering evidence, if nothing else to show future generations that we tried to change things.
It’s December and it’s Christmas and it’s just depressing. Deaths and critical injuries on Calais’ motorways don’t really lend themselves to festive feelings, and by the time Christmas dinner rolls around we’re all just wishing we were in our caravans with a cup of mulled wine rather than pretending to be sociable. I stand in a field just before New Years with a group of Afghans as they find out that their friend has died and I can do nothing. I head to London for a few days and for the first time I don’t even care about my privilege in being able to do that, I just need out.
It’s January and I bounce back absurdly refreshed after just 3 days, but it’s still cold and the bad news just keeps on coming. Tensions reduce our schedule and the police keep on clearing people’s belongings and poorly run emergency shelters are opened sporadically and Emmanuel Macron tries to please everyone, pleasing no-one. A teenager loses an eye, and the officer faces no repercussions.
So, it’s February and it begins with a smuggler shooting a group of refugees but yes I’m safe and I’m fine and I’m here to stay. The sun is out and a group of Afghans dance around, playfighting. “Chris, Chris, what is je t’aime?” “Je t’aime? I love you.” “Me too”. Their tents were destroyed about three hours earlier, but at least there are blue skies. Two children, aged 10 and 13, finally gain access to a legal route to asylum in the UK, after months upon months of sleeping rough and dealing with unknowable traumas, and no longer have to risk their lives every night. I wish them all the best and more in their futures, and it has been a joy knowing them. In March, I’m taking a month off (but heading to Greece), and thereafter we’ll see how it goes. There’s no rush. The situation in Calais is never going to just go away, no matter how hard the authorities crack down. Even if they move people outwith the city, even if we build more fences and walls and quadruple the CRS presence, this is Northern France now. This is the UK’s problem too. This has been going on, in various guises, for 20 years. We can fight to live in the past, or embrace the present, and try to make it work for everyone involved.
There’s no right thing, really, just humans trying to live in this rat cage of our own making. I’m here for the faces I see every day, for the handshakes and the hugs and the conversations in unshared tongues and the laughs and the tears and the bloodshot eyes. That’s all it comes down to really, being a friendly face in this post-industrial shithole as we veer unerringly towards the abyss.
If we can change anything in the midst of that inevitability, then even better.
Worth a shot.
Anyway, that’s more than enough about me:
A great blog post by a fellow volunteer: Insha’Allah
Book-wise, I’m currently reading Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Tell you Everything you Need to Know about Global Politics and would highly recommend it.