Scars in Their Eyes

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I came back last night from another week in the refugee camp in Calais. I was amazed at the difference in just a few short weeks. There are shelters going up thanks to some hard working and inventive people who seem to be able to knock these things up in no time at all. They are by no means glamorous but they are dry and a bit warmer than a tent. There were lots more people and I would say that there at least 6000 refugees there now, if not more, it’s hard to tell really. There were also a lot of young people, as young as ten years old, who are travelling alone and trying to make it across the channel to family in England.

I met a beautiful young girl from Sudan, 15 years old, who spoke almost perfect English. She said that she had taught herself by watching english films and listening to music. She was there with her 5 year old sister who had that haunted look in her eyes that so many have. I pointed to her bandaged arm and she said that she had hurt it trying to get on the train. She was going each night with her 5 year old sister to try and get on the train. At 5 years old she should be thinking about what’s in her school pack lunch, what to make with lego, what bedtime story she would like, not jumping on a train risking death each night.

I sat in the library for a whole afternoon with a 14 year old boy from Kurdistan. The library, Jungle Books, is a sanctuary, you can step inside there and almost pretend that you are not sat directly in the belly of hell and be nurtured by the calm of the books. We didn’t share much common language but I did manage to understand that his brother is in England and he wants to be with him. We spent the whole afternoon playing noughts and crosses and playing games that didn’t involve language but did involve a great deal of laughter. I have never met people who are able to laugh so easily. Other people from Kurdistan began to gather in the library and we got an atlas out as they all started to show me where home was, talk about home and how much they miss the beauty of the mountains – Zagros, Karokh, Hasarost, Bradost – the names of mountains that are their friends. One man looked wistfully at a map of the world and said that maybe there is a planet out there that has not yet been discovered, a planet where the Kurdish people are welcomed because there is nowhere in this world where they can be.

A volunteer asked if I would help take a husband and wife with their 4 year old daughter to a hotel. They are from Iran and the wife had been heard crying, deep sobbing crying, from the caravan where they were staying and funds had been rallied to get them into a hotel. I soon realised why. Their 4 year old daughter is autistic and blind and terrified. They had made the journey from Iran, in lorries, in boats, on trains with a 4 year old autistic, blind girl. It doesn’t bear to think of the terror that that girl must have, and continues to, feel. The noise, smells and chaos of the camp are impossible to comprehend even when you can see what is going on. They also go to try and get in the back of a lorry with their little girl to get to England, to get to family. I took the husband in my car to the hotel and during the 20 minute journey I could not think of one single thing to say. How bad, exactly, does life have to be that you are driven to make that journey with a blind, autistic child? What on earth do you say to someone whose life has been reduced to that? All I could see were scars in their eyes. Wounds that go so deep there is no end. I saw pain, humiliation and fear but, worst of all, I could see no hope. Not one glimmer. Isn’t that what keeps us all going? Hope? Even the most tragic of stories has to have a thread of hope running through it. We all hope for things, to be safe, for our children to be safe but, for some people in the world, that hope is a realistic hope. What kind of world turns its back on people hoping to be safe, to stay alive? I saw scars in their eyes where that hope has been shattered.

I spent a few hours clearing rubbish from behind tents with families in. A young girl, about 6, came to help and we spent the time working quietly and solidly, sometimes exchanging a smile, creating our own little bubble of a world in that madness. Rats ran out from the rubbish and we just shrugged. Anyone that knows me and my thing with rats will know what that means. I couldn’t show any disgust, fear or signs of cracking in the face of this beautiful, strong and wise beyond her years girl. Without batting an eyelid she picked up maggots, old rice, shit, dirty nappies and then we carried heavy bags, dripping with god only know what, out onto the main drag. With each bin bag filled and dispatched we high fived at our success. It will be a lucky school that gets her in their class one day. There is a centre for women and children but it is full up. There is a place for teenagers in Calais but they only have 4 beds so it’s not even worth asking. From what I can understand the law does not protect these young people one dot and to say that they are vulnerable in that place is an understatement.

A man in a caravan asked if I would be able to get him some more gas. He was in a caravan with his cousin and wife who was pregnant and 6 days overdue. Get some gas, it sounds simple. First find a spanner – go through a field of about 400 people all asking for something, towards the people building shelters, find someone who has a spanner and is willing to lend it to you, back through the field of 400 people with more requests. Undo the gas bottle. Find someone who is willing to give you the money for a new gas bottle. Drive out of the camp, running the gauntlet of the armed police and then drive several miles and try to find somewhere that sells gas bottles all the while following dubious instructions all in French. Eureka found somewhere that sells gas bottles and buy one. Go back down the motorway and back through the crowd of armed police. Can’t fit the gas bottle because it has a different regulator. Find someone who knows about regulators and am told that there is someone up the other end of the camp which is a mile or so away. Walk down there, by which time word has spread that I was seen carrying a gas bottle and I have about 300 requests for gas bottles. Find said person who is busy taking someone to hospital, can I come back later? A fight has broken out over a bicycle and a gentle, lovely Eritrean man approaches me with terror in his eyes. Arguments remind him of war he says, so I take him to the library where he feels safer. Am stopped by a young Afghani man who had given me tea the previous day. His cousin was killed last night on the train, can I help him get his body back. They are afraid that the hospital will take his cousin’s kidneys and organs. Find number of a hospital, find someone who has a phone that I can ring the hospital, realise that my french definitely doesn’t stretch to dealing with the morgue department and find someone to interpret. By this time, it’s time to go back to the person who may have news about a regulator. Find him – hurray. He has a regulator – double hurray. He is going to fit it himself – sodding miracle. Have I fitted a carbon monoxide detector? My eyes glaze over, I can’t even begin to think how impossible it is to find a carbon monoxide detector. Manage to distract him long enough that he fits the gas bottle. Suggest to the family that, for now, whenever they cook that they keep the doors open in case they die. Ah yes, they laughingly reply. Pregnant lady is now getting twinges and by some sort of miracle I manage to track down a volunteer who is a trainee midwife. ‘Simply’ fitting a gas bottle took 9 hours. I could go on and on about all the other things that happened that same day but this is a shortened version.

On the last night I stood on a little hill with a young lad, the same age as my son, staring at the full moon. I give him a load of tobacco. He doesn’t smoke, it is for the tear gas. Apparently blowing tobacco smoke in people’s eyes neutralises the tear gas and that is a nightly hazard. Every morning sees new injuries, swollen eyes, broken legs. He says that he is going to try and get on a lorry that night. He is a surveying engineer but had to flee his country due to death threats. In his city 300,000 oil tanks leave every day, there is money a plenty but his family live on charity given by the Americans as there is no food. The irony is not lost on him. He reminds me of my son and it breaks my heart. He thanks me for my kindness over the past few days and I have absolutely no answer. He is fleeing violence that is carried out in my name, in all of our names. I can just swan on to the ferry because I was lucky enough to be born in the right place. The only thing that I can do is to try and be the person that I hope my son would come across if he was ever in trouble, if he ever needed help outside of his own family and country. It doesn’t feel very much but for that split second, staring at the moon, with this wonderful young man it is everything.

Calais – The end of the line.

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Last night I returned from spending a week in the refugee camp in Calais or The Jungle as it is more commonly known. The people there call it the Jungle as they are treated like animals. I was stopped several times from calling it a camp. A camp conjures up an image of organised tents, toilets, clean water, a holiday – The Jungle is none of that.

I had always considered myself to be open minded and free of judgement but the minute I stepped foot in there I realised that I had come with my own pre conceived judgments and they were soon blown out of the water. There I met some of the kindest, most generous and magnanimous people that I have ever met in my whole life. I had gone as part of an organised clean up operation and together with about 120 people we set about with bin bags, shovels, rakes and a fortified sense of humour to try and clear up some of the piles of rotting rubbish that has accumulated. Why don’t the people clear it up themselves you might ask? For a start there is not a single bin in the whole place and with around 5000 people sharing the space it doesn’t take long for rubbish to accumulate. The local authorities refuse to clear any of the rubbish away although by the end of the week we had forged relations with the local authorities and they actually came and cleared some of the 1500 bin bags of rubbish that we filled in just 2 days. There are 2 industrial sized skips but they are a long walk for most people and they had no bin bags to put rubbish in anyway. As soon as we started we were immediately surrounded by people wanting to help. We handed out thousands of bin bags to people who were so grateful that we were coming to try and improve the squalor in which these people live.  We cleared away areas where children were playing in raw sewage. We cleared the water pipe areas where sewage, rats, rotting food and rubbish all mix. Attempts had been made to burn piles of rubbish but piles of wet clothes and tins do not burn easily.

Piles of clothes, left by well meaning but totally misplaced generosity, rotting unable to be used by anyone. People arrive and leave shoes, stilettos, sandals, party shoes which are no use to man nor beast. We found piles of posh office clothes, scanty tops, lacy dresses and managed to laugh it off but inside we were all weeping. Every now and again one of the volunteers would just sit and sob at the inhumanity of the situation and how overwhelmingly useless we felt in the face of it all. All the while, refugees were smiling and greeting us, offering cups of tea and sharing their food even when they have precious little. These men, for it is a high percentage of men, arrive after goodness only knows what sort of journey and then have little food, some get one meal a day but most barely get that. They walk most nights for three hours each way to try and get on the train or find a way across the border, and spend all night awake in the cold and trying to dodge beatings from the police – hoping. They are cold, traumatised, stressed and hungry and yet they retain a resilience, humanity and generosity that was jaw droppingly humbling.

The Jungle in Calais is unique in that it has a huge mix of cultures, nationalities, religions and ethnicities all in one space. Most refugee camps are largely one nationality, say a Syrian refugee camp, but Calais has people from Kuwait, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Kurdistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Kosovo, Albania and different sub cultures within those cultures. It feels like a mirror that it is being held up to the world. It feels like the very belly of hell. It is the result of all the worse things that man is capable of doing to its own kind.

Within the camp is a church. It is a human need to create a sanctuary and within the church several religions share the space. There is a library, a school, a couple of shops, a restaurant – all made from found bits of wood and covered in plastic. These people are enterprising, hard working and never endingly smily. Volunteers come in to give the refugees English and French lessons and many people can be seen pouring over books, desperate to learn.

Many people that I spoke to wanted to come to England because they speak the language and also as they have family in England. Some had lived in England for years but had been deported once their country was deemed safe to return to. It didn’t sound like any of these countries were safe to return to. Many people had been involved in political movements against a tyrannical regime and would be killed if they returned. All of the volunteers had a particular story that ‘broke’ us. A gentle man from Eritrea, in Calais with his wife and children who had been abducted a few days ago by 3 french men, beaten and tortured and left for dead. Prematurely discharged from hospital we rallied about to try and do what we could. Eritrea, a country where lifelong obligatory conscription into the military is standard, where it is illegal for more than two people to talk together on the streets – he survived all that and a journey from hell to get to what he thought was safety… For me it was a beautiful quiet man from Kuwait who helped me clean up rubbish. He said that his wife and two children, aged 3 and 5, were in England. They were safe but he is unable to get to them. He is not allowed into England and he doesn’t know why and I was unable to give an answer. ‘I give up, I can’t do it’ he said with the deadest, saddest eyes I have ever seen.

I spent an afternoon talking with a man from Egypt who was witness to the Rabaa Massacre in Cairo on 14th August 2013. He had to leave his wife and children for their safety as he is wanted by the authorities for protesting against the regime and trying to publish photos of that day. He told me things that I won’t repeat, they are horrific. He tried going to England in the back of a lorry and mistakenly got into a freezer lorry but was luckily quickly found. ‘I’ve spent my whole fucking life nearly dying!’ he laughed. He has applied for asylum in France but it can take up to a year for papers to be processed and with no money or means to work, the camp is his only option. He is a scientist.

A group of Iranian men spoke of how they had opposed the regime and had to get out. They each paid £15,000 to a people smuggler who assured them their safety. They had no intention of coming to England, they just wanted to get to a place of safety. They have no idea what countries they passed through but they were pushed out of the lorry at The Jungle in Calais. They are all wealthy men but have no access to their money. One, a mechanical engineer, asked if I could get him some underpants but not second hand ones. He had been shouted at before for wanting new rather than second hand underpants. They don’t want to stay in France as they have been beaten and imprisoned by the French police. They can’t go back, they can’t go forward. They are at the end of the line. Grown men, clever men having to ask for underpants. I couldn’t help thinking about my dear Dad who was an engineer himself, and how humiliated he would be at having to ask for underpants.

Another man from Sudan who spoke passionately about the state of the world. The only answer, he said, is when people realise that the colour of someone’s skin, their religion and where they come from, we’re all the same. So simple. He arrived in the Jungle and realised that young men arriving from war torn countries, traumatised, their families murdered, needed a place of safety. He has decided to be that place of safety. He talked of how his place is there and that he settles people, to try and change their mentality before they go on to their next place. He has set up a school and arranged volunteers to come in and give lessons. He rallies them round to cries of ‘Come on, no sitting round drinking tea, you have to go to your lessons!’ He wants the world to know that the refugees want to learn, that they are not animals, that they are no different to the next person.

I could go on and on. Yes, there are also dodgy people in there, that is the very nature of mankind, but it is not about judgment and who should be allowed to go where. Nobody, absolutely nobody, should be allowed to live like that. It is utterly inhuman. While England and France wage their war of indifference people are dying every night trying to scale the 15 mile long, 5 metre high fence topped with razor wire – all brand spanking new. Our country’s 12 million pound investment to the situation. Taxpayer’s money at a time when people here are being put out on the street due to cuts in benefits. It is all, at very best, completely insane. I did have the thought that I would like to advocate a ‘National Swap a Person of Your Choice’ day but I actually don’t hate anyone enough to put them in there.

I drove off of the ferry last night at Dover and I was struck by the fact that I was driving into a country of abject poverty, the worst poverty that there is which is poverty of spirit. I have no idea what the answer is, but it is not that.