My heart has been heavy this week surrounded by headlines and features detailing the closure of the Jungle refugee camp in Calais. An estimated 8,000+ people, 1,200 children (according to various news sources) who are have lost the closest thing to “home” that they have known in some time. Home they lost a long time ago when they fled Eritrea or Afghanistan or Ethiopia or Syria or Iraq or wherever they have fled in order to find a place of safety, hope, justice, a chance…
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE WORLDWIDE TRIBE.
I think it is finally time to recount my small experience in this intriguing place…
It was about 9 months ago that I had the opportunity to visit the Jungle. A phone call from a friend that spoke right into a space in my heart that the migrant crisis had busted open. Photos of faces, stories of tragedy, little boys washing up ashore. An invitation to go. So, early one Saturday morning while it was still dark, a small group of 4 of us loaded into the car and headed from London to Dover. We arrived in Dover as the sun was beginning to rise, a new shade of purple/orange glow on the white cliffs added to my palette. We drove the car onto the ferry and departed for Calais. Dressed in layer upon layer of down jackets and wool socks, we were ready for a day of unknown. One of the girls in our group pulled out her thermos of tea and another thermos with cold milk to add- she’d been there before…
As we entered Calais, I was struck by the skeleton nature of the town. Abandoned wooden huts lining the beach- I am certain they had been pink, green, blue colorful at one point, but the thick grey film that covered the town seemed to cover them as well. Almost like a photograph that had been pocketed and run through the wash. It had a blurry, wrinkled look to it all. We had an atlas as our guide as even the GPS couldn’t break thru the cloud of the town. None of us knew how to effectively read an atlas. Thankfully, the girl with the tea who had been there before, she knew what to look for. “There will be someone out there waving us in,” she assured us.
The scenery morphed from abandoned beach huts to tents and fences around all sides of the highway. French police pacing the ground. Just like all of the photos show. We carried on past the camps and found ourselves in the middle of an industrial park. Warehouses all around, still seemingly abandoned. And there he was, the guy we were looking for who waved us in. Big smile on his face, discreetly looking around as he opened the gate and motioned for us to drive in to park. The warehouses are located away from the camps so that their friends in the camp are not tempted to raid it. Desperate times can bring out desperate measures in any of us.
The smiling guy closed the gate behind us and welcomed us warmly. He was with one of the aid groups that has been in Calais, serving the refugees for the last year or so. We parked the car as he instructed and he carried on about his business elsewhere as he assumed we would do the same. We followed the music into the warehouse and were greeted by more smiling faces. It was like a music festival in a giant Costco warehouse. One lady handed us green visibility vests and told us to ask Sharon where she wanted us. “Bring these clothes to the mountain,” Sharon must’ve overheard. I picked up a black bag filled with clothes in search of the mountain. I dodged people wheeling shopping carts filled with donations, walked past the sleeping bag section of the warehouse, walked past the shoe section of the warehouse, and found the mountain. The MOUNTAIN. It is one of the things that most struck me about my visit, the sheer volume of clothes and other items donated to others in need. I processed for a moment and then followed suit- I heaved the bag in a sideways throw, aiming up to get it as high up the mountain as possible.
Time went on like this for awhile. Throwing bags onto the mountain, sorting thru bags on the sorting tables- discard pile, men’s trousers pile, women’s coats pile. I followed orders from the masses of volunteers. There must have been 10 leaders per section, 10 more like me who had just arrived. That in 10 different sections around the warehouse. 100 people- give or take? In one of the 3 or 4 warehouses in the area there to serve their brothers and sisters in need? It seemed to me an order, a passion and a connection among people that corporations and churches strive for. In one corner of the warehouse was the kitchen. And the chef? He barked out orders and moved with the quick pace and intensity that seems to come over every chef when he enters his kitchen. His sous chefs chopped and stored food in big plastic bins that filled up crates ready to be distributed into meal packs. Meal packers filled brown paper bags labeled by the meal and by the day and week. And van packers, they loaded the prepared bags onto their van. It smelled of onions, spices, old clothes, mud.
Next up, we would be joining a different aid group for an outing to the camp. I still am unclear who organised what, but we found ourselves back in the car looking for another cautious, smiling guy waving outside of a warehouse. And we found him. In a floor-length fur coat and trucker cap, no less. We parked the car and entered the welcoming group. This warehouse was much smaller and much more colourful. A tie-dye sheet with some uplifting words about love and some crass words about hate spray-painted and hung proudly on the wall. There was humour in this warehouse. This one smelled of ratatouille and we were just in time for lunch. Naturally, we grabbed one of the mismatched bowls from the stack and got in line. Judy was the chef and she generously scooped into every bowl. 30 or so people gathered in one big circle, sitting on woven blankets, a few lucky ones in folding chairs. Warm bowls of ratatouille in our hands, sitting around like old friends. People shared how long they had been in Calais- some were 1 day, some were 3 months. There was a hierarchy in time-spent here. Judy the chef, she had just arrived that morning and when asked if anyone could make a big lunch, she stepped right in. I had already become very fond of Judy and now I appreciated who Judy was even more.
It was finally time for our outing in the camp. We would be distributing fruit bags- not one of the planned meals, but an extra. “They will be excited,” they said. We went over the protocol. 10 people per van. 2 in the van ready to drive off in case something goes wrong, 2 in the back of the van organising the bags, 4 people standing behind the van to create a barrier, and 2 people handing 1 bag to each of the refugees as they enter. “Smile. But be firm. They are friends. They are hungry. Smile.” I ended up on the front lines- handing bags out. Smiling. Trying to take in all that was going on. The emotion shown on the faces of those who were receiving food. An intriguing dynamic of gratefulness and expectancy. Many coming back for seconds. Thirds. Our distribution went quickly and easily. “That’s all!” someone shouted and we closed the doors and left.
Gratefulness and expectancy. I still find myself intrigued. I was astonished by the willingness of people to donate food and clothing and other items. My western way of thinking sees this as an act of kindness. Important to do, but not necessarily interwoven into my culture, government or daily living. Is it possible that the way of living that many of these individuals are used to- living in multi-generational societies with a culture of communal eating and less focus on material things- could this same beautiful thing that they are used to, be misinterpreted as an expectancy of things being done for them? They are used to sharing, so they are used to being shared with?
Next up for the day was playing football/soccer with the men. While we were distributing food, another part of the aid group was setting up the football pitches. 3 pitches set up alongside one of the highways. Made of dirt and with bottles, boots and other various items used as the goal markers. Some volunteers with whistles and yellow visibility vests. The rest of us? Players: volunteers and refugees alike. I remember one guy from Afghanistan. He never stopped smiling and he had a big mole on the side of his face. He played as one who loved to play and had to keep reminding himself that this was just for fun. He had known pain and death, he was able to share in our broken english conversation between kicks. I was one of, maybe, 10 girls on the field. I never felt uncomfortable. I never felt endangered. I was cautious not to be alone and to keep close to my group- as I often am.
By this time, it was beginning to get cold. And dark. The last bit of time we would be in the camp itself. We had so far remained on the outskirts. We walked up a path to a point and to the left was “main street” and to the right was rubble. We turned right first. Burnt plastic filled my nostrils. This side of camp had been burned and bull-dozed recently. For about 200 metres all you could see were piles of scrap wood, broken glass, occasional pairs of underwear or sneakers. There was a path we could walk along and the path led us to one makeshift building that had either been rebuilt or had withstood the damage. I personally think the latter. It was a church set up by the Ethiopian christians that lived there. There were a couple of men gathered outside the entrance in front of a fire making tea and water for instant coffee. Keeping their hands warm over the fire. We were able to communicate with them and asked if we could enter the church. A piece of wood hinged to a wall served as a door to welcome us into the space. No roof. I try to visualise the metal and wood pieces serving as the refuge walls all around, but in reality, I cannot remember what was actually around us. I do remember walking in and feeling peace. Feeling the presence of His Holy Spirit occupying this sacred place in the middle of darkness. And, finally, there were some women. Smartly, resting in the peaceful refuge of this place. Go figure..
On our way out, the men offered us tea and seats around the fire. The 18-year old, who I mistook as a 35-year old, told me he was an artist. He wanted to paint in London. That portrait over there on the wall? The golden and yellow one of hard shapes and outlines of green, that somehow resembled something holy? He had painted that one. He wanted to paint “around the city.” I don’t know if he meant on the walls as he had done there? Or at a proper art school? But I wished I could see what London looked like in his mind and what his dream of being a painter in London felt like. His eyes sparkled and his resolve inspired me.
We continued back to the point where we had to choose right or left, and this time we chose left. Towards main street. Wooden frames with tarps firmly secured to them in varying sizes and colours. There were shops, there were people chatting, there was liveliness. It all had a brownish-red, fiery colour to it. We found what appeared to be a small restaurant filled with about 50 or 60 people. The owner was from Iraq. He had spent some time working at a restaurant in Norway but then was deported and, so, here he was. Hopeful to find a place to work in a restaurant again. As he invited more and more people in and everyone greeted him by name, it was clear that he had a knack for hospitality. A group of aid workers had arrived before us and they had brought a guitar and a lot of enthusiasm with them. Along one side of the restaurant were the Jungle residents, comfortably close together. On the other side, were the volunteers. Maybe 20 in all. Singing away worship songs and clapping their hands. A room filled with powerful individuals. A pure example of people in need something to hope for and people singing of hope in the Lord. I couldn’t tell how the singers were being received. But then J.J., one of the clear leaders of the aid group asked if anyone could translate. A young man volunteered and J.J. shared the gospel message of love and hope in God in a simple and passionate way. He spoke in excited sentences and the young man translated it in questions. While there were looks of uncertainty and an incongruence with some of the religious assumptions, everyone applauded the idea of hope and love and joy. My heart was on fire. Misunderstood religions at the root cause of so much of this chaos and yet a commonality among all for the same things that are supposed to make up each religion.
We needed to leave in order to make our ferry ride home. We located the car that was parked outside the camp and headed towards border control. Border control checked all parts of the car to make sure there was not a Jungle resident stowed. My friend with the tea told us that last time, one of the residents had attached himself to the back of the van, spider-man style. French police saw him and yelled from their perch on the hill above. He jumped off, laughing. I don’t think he actually thought he’d get out, but did think he could bring some humour to a horrible situation.
Back on the ferry. 9 pm. The sway of the boat left us all a little sleepy. Emotional. I envisioned that once the darkness of night settled upon the camp, it had a very different feel to it. A literal and figurative darkness that was impossible to escape. The busyness of the day stopping, the reality of their dire situation screaming loudly. Cold bodies. Nightmares. Broken hearts and dwindling dreams. Circumstances that don’t have a clear or obvious solution.
I’m so thankful for my experience and the little bit of story that I can attribute to the Jungle. I’ve so thankful to have met eyes and heard stories with these kind people. I am hopeful of a phrase I heard several months ago… that peacemaking happen at the grassroots level. And I’m hopeful to be live accordingly.
If you would like to read more of an intimate perspective about the Jungle, check out The Worldwide Tribe. I’ve been blessed by following their journey on Instagram. And the photo above is from their website.