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.