As for all the wayward assumptions I made about what life was like in the camp the most misjudged was what those we were trying to help would be like. It wouldn’t be generalising to say that when most people think of refugees they think of the ticker-tearing images used for inexplicably good reason by Oxfam. Between us we met many dozens of refugees and unless someone had told you of their plight, of their endlessly perilous journeys and reminded you to look around at the setting they reside in the label refugee and all of the images and connotations that hold it in place would have seemed almost farcical.
I can honestly say that the vast majority of those living at the camp were inexplicably and incredibly friendly, funny and had remarkably retained enough energy not only do the basics in life but to also find a way to enjoy it. Make no mistake though, this was not because of their surroundings but in spite of them. Out of the many young men/boys that we met two characters typified that resilience.
Mohammed or Adam or both was only fourteen when he began his unimaginable journey to the camp from a war-ravaged Sudan two years earlier. However, despite facing more in sixteen years than a hundred westerners possibly face in all of their lives combined it would have been impossible to know. A jaunty swagger, wide grin and a handshake that you could hear some distance away when connecting on impact was not the body language I had been preparing myself to encounter. Even more striking though was his attitude to life now. Whereas, those who have suffered misfortune closer to home often seem entangled in their difficult memories, Mohammed was clearly focused on the future rather than the past. With the end (Britain) nearly in sight, literally, this was understandable. His enthusiasm when talking about my home would have been an effective tonic for anyone trying out the British tradition of bemoaning it. Something I will never forget is an hour in the afternoon sun sitting with Mohammed whilst he read Cinderella. We were concerned that some of our resources were too juvenile for these young men but any fears of patronising were swiftly dispelled as I saw the way Mohammed began to greedily devour the fairytale. He knew it was a silly story, written for those much smaller but it was besides the point because he was learning english and being able to speak english, Mohammed knew, would make his infuriatingly slim chances of making his own fantasy story a reality.
Another remarkable individual I had the privilege of meeting was one of the longest standing members of the camp, an early resident when the camp was a shell of its present self. Zapha was only thirteen when he had arrived from Afghanistan over eight months ago, one of the majority of children who arrived unaccompanied after his parents made the unimaginable decision to send their child on to a better future without them with extended family relying on them back in the East. I really wanted to speak to Zapha to try and understand a little better what life was like in the camp for someone so young but he was more interested in interrogating me - with a cricket ball. With great haste, almost as if he thought I would change my mind at any minute, Zapha had gathered all the requisite equipment from various locations on the way to the ground. With a bag of rubbish weighing down an upright pallet for wickets and a crack in the ground to mark the run up we began a humbling episode in my sporting life as Zapha embarrassed me in all areas of the game. Only divine intervention could save me as Zapha said he had to leave to go to Mosque. I don’t know whether either us forgot our surroundings but it would be impossible not to remember meeting someone who had seen so few summers carry on regardless.
There are several significant caveats that have to be made and lead this blog to its final points. Firstly, despite how inhospitable the camp may seem to those who use landfill sites for landfill not as temporary accommodation, for many of these young men Calais is the penultimate leg in a journey that began in Dante’s first circle. For when we spoke to the likes of Adam and his countrymen about how they had come to be at the camp there was a collective familiarity to the stories that belied the enormity of their individual experiences. Starting off in the Horn of Africa, be it Eritrea, Sudan or Ethiopia they had travelled to Libya (usually a combination of walking or in various unsafe areas of a lorry) stayed there for long enough to save so they could gamble on the gauntlet of a boat journey across the Mediterranean to Italy (Adam said there were 400 people on his boat that should have been capped at 80) and then onto Switzerland and then France either by foot or lorry or both. After hearing of these experiences and reminding oneself of the inconceivable national traumas that motivated them to take such huge risks their buoyant moods are more easily understood.
Secondly, we saw the camp when the sun was shining and it’s infrastructure at its most developed and efficient. The classrooms we were in didn’t even exist at the start of the year and the Oromo school that we taught some lessons in hadn’t even been conceived. At this time of year there are more volunteers and their work is far easier to carry out - the fact that we could teach those who couldn’t fit inside the classroom outside being one of dozens of examples. We also were not there when night falls, the volunteers leave and the games of russian roulette begin along with the inevitable tensions that emerge when there is little to do and the shortage of food and provisions is at its most acute. However, with all the many variables taken into account along with the hostility of the police charged with ‘protecting’ the camp it is a wonder that more incidents such as the riots that took place back in May have not become more commonplace.
Unavoidably, thoughts turned to what it was like in the winter and what we could do to ensure our visit would be of some lasting consequence. With so much uncertainty surrounding the camp the coming months are clearly crucial. Plans are already underway at St Mark’s for more teachers to volunteer in the October and Christmas holidays and I hope for so many reasons that the camp is still there next summer where we can organise something more substantial.
Those who live and work on the landfill site in Calais are a breathing testimony to the strength of the human spirit in the face of treatment that is difficult to understand at the behest of politicians whose own understanding of their responsibilities have been clouded - at best by the complicated nature of the situation and at worst by self-seeking or jingoistic motives. It was a privilege to help in the smallest way possible and we now have the opportunity to contribute in a larger way. After seeing what people are being able to do with so little it is the least we can do with so much.
We worked directly with the Refugee Youth Service (RYS). Their work in Calais is coordinated by two extraordinary men, Fergal and Ciaran who are the very definition of unsung heroes. If you would like to donate or feel you can help in any way you can by following this link: https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/ryseducation