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.

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38 thoughts on “Calais – The end of the line.

    • Thank you for coming out with us. At least we made a bit of a dent and by the end of the week it was starting to feel a real difference. I had so many people come up and thank me for clearing rubbish away, saying what a difference it made. I had a bloke from Sudan ask me for 3000 bin bags as he had organised a working party of 40 refugees to clear up. I went and bought about 500 bin bags and will take out more – they are flippin expensive! I might try and ask some supermarkets for donations. x

      • How about setting up a Just Giving account so we could buy what they actually need? There are loads of people who want to do something but don’t know how

      • There are loads of facebook groups. If you go on https://www.facebook.com/groups/CalaisMigrantSolidarityActionFromUK/?fref=ts I think you can find a group local to you and make offers of help. There are always people needed to sort things out. Bin bags are always needed. I don’t feel massively comfortable I have to say about setting up a just giving account as an individual. There are charities like Auberge des Migrants and they are always grateful for contributions as they are on the ground. At least a charity is accountable whereas an individual could just buggar off with the money!

  1. Thank you. Thank you for going and for the practical help you were able (& willing) to give. And thank you for describing so clearly, and calmly, what is so obviously beyond description. The things you describe, the place itself, is (sadly) pretty much what I had imagined, a nightmare. Maybe for some it is better than the nightmare they left behind but that is absolutely not the point. My greatest sadness, the thing that makes me most angry, is the poverty of humanity, kindness, compassion and empathy that the vast majority here, in the UK, seem to suffer from. Here where we have so much, where we squander resources that are surplus to our needs, on a daily, even hourly, basis. Most people seem unable, totally utterly unable, to imagine why or how the refugees are there. I think we’ve been too cocooned in our easy lives for too long. Not that they’ve seemed particularly easy, but in comparison to those in The Jungle they damn well are!
    So thank you. I admire the restraint that you must have exercised to write without it becoming a rant. Something I find impossible. Mans inhumanity to man is a horror all of its own, and we should all be ashamed. Sadly those most to blame, most callous and most vicious, are those that will care the least, certainly they will feel the least shame.
    Annie

    • I could have gone on and on and, you’re right, to not rant is quite difficult but I tried to imagine people sympathetic to other’s plight actually reading it and that in itself brings calm. It is impossible to imagine what some, not just some but millions, of people have to go through. I have a couple of stories that were so awful I will probably never tell them. They are too beyond the realms of humanity to be able to put anywhere. We live in what I describe as abject poverty, poverty of spirit and generosity. It is crippling the world it really is. If we were able to live with a generosity of spirit the same as most of the people that I met then the world would indeed be a far richer place. As it is now, we are all going directly to hell in a handcart (no idea where that saying comes from!). What really struck me as completely mind blowing was the utter absence of resentment. Each person asked where I was from and wanted to know what I did and it was greeted with genuine interest and not a shred of anger that I have everything that they could possibly want including, and probably above all, a passport that allows me to travel freely around the world where and whenever I so wish.
      Annie, thank you for caring and we must spread the truth and try not to be angry although the odd smack in the face probably won’t go amiss! x Glenys x

    • Hopefully it provides some balance to the media. All of the volunteers come back and write about what is a mind blowing experience but with the beautiful, gentle generosity of the refugees. It kicks everything else into touch.

  2. Thanks you so much Glenys – beautiful writing. It certainly gives us all a jolly good kick up the butt in our privileged lifestyles run by closed-hearted governments. Something that has astounded me through my life, is how those who I have had the great blessing to meet / work with / befriend who have lived through harsh regimes and experienced the most pain, trauma, torture and hardship, have taught me the most about what generosity, hospitality, trust and unconditional love really looks like. One would expect them to be the most cautious, but nope, the opposite. There is some kind of crazy inverse proportion thing going on here. Please keep telling these stories… xxx

    • I think the official figures are about 3k but governments like to round numbers down. Everyone there said that there was around 5k but it’s very hard to tell. I was just saying what people there said. If there wasn’t last Friday there will be very soon as around 200 people a day are arriving and that is not going to tail off any time soon. It’s quite sprawled out and I don’t really know how anyone keeps a count but there are definitely more than 3k.

  3. I’m aghast, completely speechless, transfixed by your insight!! So my taxes goes towards a 15mile fence with razor wire that kills daily as opposed to bin bags… Our world is so cruel and it’s time to really make a difference

    • It’s a political hot potato that is fuelled by indifference unfortunately. As I say, I have no idea really what the answer is but it’s certainly not that. Leaving people to risk their lives and to live in squalor is definitely not alright.

  4. Dear Wonderful Soul.
    Thank you so, so much. It’s so heartening to have some balance, honesty and humanity to this hideous, hideous happening.
    I’m all out of words.
    Thank you.
    Janina xxx

  5. Disturbing, wonderful blog but I feel that calling it a jungle is insulting to the real thing.
    A jungle is a wild and wonderful place where the animals live in freedom, in their natural habitat and according to their own hierarchy.
    The refugee camp seems more like a badly managed zoo where the people are like captive and neglected animals while the world looks on and says ‘what a shame’.

    • Nick I couldn’t agree more. It was the people living in the camp who call it The Jungle as a reflection of feeling as though they are treated like animals. You are right, it is nothing like a jungle but more like a very badly managed zoo. Some people said that police will throw tear gas at them at night and tell them to ‘get back into the zoo.’ People also said, if only we were treated like animals because people would never leave animals in those sort of living conditions.
      On another note, I did hear that jungle is a derivation of the farsi word for forest. The original Sangrette camp that was bulldozed by police was in and around a bit of woodland. I don’t know where that came from. I’ll ask when i go back.
      Thank you for taking the time to read it though and to send your thoughts.

  6. Beautifully written Glenys. I was there with Sue and the Irish volunteers last week. You sum the horror and the warmth up extremely well. I was also picking litter and made lots of resident friends, whom I worry about each day and night. My head and heart are still in Calais.

    • The crew from Ireland had great applause from all and sundry, well done! Me too, my head and heart are still there and I feel like I will never be the same again. I think our stay overlapped by a day but it’s easy to miss people. Hopefully our paths will cross in the future. I’m going out again for another week on the 24th of this month, then again on the 21st November.

  7. Thankyou so much for not only practically doing something to help but perhaps far more important, for bearing witness so eloquently. You don’t know me but you were there in my name and so many others who couldn’t be there with you. Thankyou again and keep writing your voice speaks for us. Lynne Fornieles

    • Lynne thank you for saying that. I have come across some amazing people and the strength that support and encouragement gives is in no way underestimated. I intend to put together a performance of people’s stories to try and bring a bit of humanity to the situation and be an antidote to the media that we so ashamedly have in this country. I’m going out again for a week on the 24th of this month so will report back. Glenys x

      • Ha..that’s just what I was thinking but more broadly art…haven’t done the puppets for a while due to unavoidable other pressures…South Harting where we have a wonderful Round House for performance

      • A round house sounds perfect. Maybe we could keep in touch and when I’ve got my performance together – I’m getting a week’s intensive coaching at the beginning of January – then i could come to the round house? Maybe combine it with other art forms to raise some money? x

  8. Hi Glenys, I would like to be able to go to the Jungle and offer my help. I’m no great shakes but I am willing to learn and give help where possible.

    • Hi Simon, thank you for your message and thank you so much for wanting to offer your time in the camp, it will be hugely appreciated. You can contact Care4Calais on care4calais.org.volunteer, they have a warehouse where help is always needed and they deliver to the camp and to camps around France. Or there is another organisation Auberge des Migrants who work together with Help Refugees who also have a warehouse and work in the camps. Your time would be massively valuable with either. https://www.facebook.com/groups/CalaisMigrantSolidarityActionFromUK/
      https://www.facebook.com/HelpRefugeesUK/?fref=ts
      If you have problems getting in touch with them or have any questions please do get in touch and thank you again for wanting to go and help, you will not regret it. Glenys x

  9. Thank you so much for putting into powerful and perfect words both the horror and the humanity of this place like no other. We delivered two caravans there on Tuesday with the Jungle Canopy and had the privelage of talking to the grass roots volunteers and the refugees. It was the most humbling of experiences .

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