Last night I went to London, the big city, to protest outside Downing Street about the impending demolition of a large part of the camp in Calais. Generally, I don’t do protests but I had a strong urge to go to this one and didn’t feel that I could stay away.
I have to confess that I have often felt a bit at odds with protests. I’m probably going to get shot down in flames for this but hey ho. For one thing, you have to be really sure what you are fighting for. Last night, for me, was about having a voice for people who currently do not have one. For those several thousands of people who are living in squalor but, to some degree, are supported by friends, volunteers and have a modicum of people looking out for their best interests in as far as it is possible to do so. With the demolition of the camp, people would find themselves dispersed and separated from what has become a community. If a suitable alternative was provided then, yes of course, nobody wants the camp to have to exist but there is no suitable alternative at the moment.
For me I was speaking on behalf of the several hundred unaccompanied minors who find themselves in the camp and at the mercy of anyone who exploits vulnerable young people. A huge percentage of those young people have family in England and have a legal right to be with their family under existing legislation. What I am fighting for is that existing legislation be adhered to, nothing new, nothing extraordinary, but that the French and British governments stop breaking the law in the eyes of these young people as they are doing at the moment.
The thing is, the protest moved on to opening the borders, to discrimination, to other things which are all viable in their own right but that wasn’t what this protest was about. Or what I thought it was about anyway, maybe I’d got the wrong end of the stick. Someone was talking about funding cuts in education at which point they had lost me. I know that all of these things are linked but if you are going are going to have an argument you have to know what you are fighting for and stick to the point. That the camps in France fall way below what is required and removing the existing infrastructure without providing a viable alternative will put many people at even further risk than they are already.
As I was stood outside of Downing Street and people were chanting all I could think of were those young people freezing away in the camp with what was an already uncertain future becoming more and more uncertain by the hour. All I could think of was the two brothers, 14 and 12, from Afghanistan that I spent time with just a few days ago. They had just come out of a maths lesson. I asked how it had gone and the older boy shyly said that it was a bit easy. He pointed to his maths book and said that it is for 12 year olds and he is 14 but he didn’t want to offend the teacher by saying that. I said that I was 50 years old and I couldn’t understand a single page in that book and that it was his fault for being so clever. Both brothers speak brilliant English, are always smiling and friendly and funny but over the 4 months or so that I have known them since they arrived in the camp I have seen their eyes dull, hope start to disappear from their faces. They have made the journey from Afghanistan on their own and are fiercely protective of one another. Another lad is only 10 years old and made the journey from Afghanistan on his own.
All I could think of was the beautiful young 15 year old girl from Sudan who is there with her 5 year old sister. They started the journey with family but got separated as do so many. They try and get on lorries at night and during the day go to lessons in the sanctuary of the classrooms in the camp. All I could think of was the young Kurdish lad, 14 years old, who is on his own there and trying to get to family in England. He is possibly one of the nicest people I have met and despite us only having a few words in common to communicate with, we have spent hours of laughter playing games. I don’t know where he is now and I can’t stop thinking about him. I can only hope that he has made the journey in one piece and is not out there prey to people ready to take advantage of his vulnerability.
All I could think of were the two young lads who have suffered unimaginable horrors at the hands of people who have cashed in on the fact that they are alone. I am still not able to speak about their story, I can’t say it out loud. All I could think of was the young Sudanese lad who I saw the other day. He had fallen off of a lorry on the motorway and been picked up by a passing motorist and dropped off in the camp. He was standing with several riot police in complete shock. One whole side of his face had the skin taken off and was swollen to twice its size, his hands had no skin on them, he had back and leg injuries and was unable to sit down. His eyes looked straight ahead with nothing in them. He was surrounded by people from whom he will only have received beatings and he had no idea what was going on. To be fair, the police had called an ambulance although were in no hurry about it. I went and got the lad a blanket from the car and wrapped him up and hugged him, that was when his rigid fear melted slightly. This lad will have escaped from goodness only knows what in his own country. He needs to be looked after by someone somewhere.
All I could think of was the 15 year old lad who I met as I was leaving the camp late one evening just before Christmas. He had just walked from Afghanistan and was delighted to have made the journey. He showed me videos on his phone of the journey through mountains, talked about having met the Taliban on the way and that they were lucky to have got away, of the brilliant people that he had travelled with and how proud he was that he had managed to make the difficult journey in one piece. ‘Is there a room I can book into?’ he asked. ‘Errrr no’ was my hesitant reply. Smugglers tell all kinds of stories of what awaits people. In Greece people were told that they were booked into a hotel and that people with new clothes and food would be there to greet them. I’m guessing that much the same happens with Calais, that they are spun tales of glorification. When I met with him the following day, his eyes spoke volumes of how his dreams had been shattered. I haven’t seen him since, I hope he is alright.
I could go on and on about the stories of young people who are living in the camps, of the laughter, of their extraordinary resilience but the point is, and I am trying to stick to it, that someone somewhere should be looking out for them. We should all be looking out for them as we should be looking out for all young people across the world, in our own lands and anywhere. It’s a golden rule. It is estimated that tens of thousands of children have gone missing, separated from their families just last year alone during the refugee crisis (I hate calling it that but don’t know what else to call it). Children will have been sold into the sex and slave trade and will disappear forever more. By demolishing the camp in Calais, these young people risk meeting the same fate. Their lives hang by a thread and for every vulnerable person on this planet there is a queue round the block of b******s wanting to get to them. These people need protecting from mafia, smugglers, exploiters rather than being pushed right into their very arms.
So when people are chanting about chucking the Tories in the sea, it doesn’t do anything for me. I’m not a fan of the Tories but I do have friends who I have no doubt will have voted Tory and they have also been very supportive of my volunteering efforts. Also if you want to chuck Tories into the sea, how does that make you any better than someone who wants to chuck refugees into the sea? How does that help any argument? It creates even more division than there is already and heaven knows there is plenty about right now. Most people, I like to hope, in their right mind want everyone to be alright. Most decent people do not wish ill upon anyone.
Maybe the right way of protesting is to just get on and do what you have to do against all the odds. I know what I’m fighting for so I’ll just quietly get on and do it. I have said many times that I am simply trying to be the person that I would wish my son to meet should he find himself in need, outside of his country and away from his family. That shouldn’t be something you should have to protest about but it seems that things have come to this. Protesting is a way of people having a voice and that is massively massively important, it has changed worlds, it has changed lives. It seems that governments across the world don’t know what they are fighting for – apart from money and power – so please don’t let us follow suit. I heard a saying somewhere ‘If only those who wanted peace were as good as organising it as those who organise war’ (or something like that) so it really is time for those who want peace and wish well for others to stand up and have a voice and really know what they are fighting for. We are as powerful as any government.
p.s. On the plus side, I did meet some really cool people at the protest and we walked past Big Ben which is always really exciting for a country gal like me. I have been trying for the past hour to upload a photo of people and of Big Ben but it is proving beyond me. So, Jungle Books it is, my favourite place in the camp and due to be demolished any minute now.