One night in Calais…

Charity, Communication, Immigration, Reports, Story of the Week — By on January 4, 2016 at 8:57 PM
Valentina Del Fuoco

Valentina Del Fuoco

One night in Calais: 24-25th October 2015

By Valentina Del Fuoco*

The solidarity walk for refugees on the 12th of September saw thousands of people marching through the streets of central London. I stood in one place and waited for the demonstration to pass, trying to capture the full meaning of this event and scan the huge variety of solidarity messages. It took more than an hour until the streets cleared and became silent.

From that moment, I decided to read more and more about this topic, until I felt that I wanted to speak directly with the refugees myself.

London to Calais: it took just a few hours to arrive in France. When you search on Google for “Calais” you do not see images of the city, so I did not know what to expect.

I meet with the group Paxchristi from Paris, at the station, and we walk together towards the industrial area.

In the street there are more seagulls than people.  If walls, lamp posts and pavements could speak they would tell us the stories of the thousands who arrived with hope at the refugee camp, after a long, painful journey aiming for the ultimate destination of the United Kingdom.

In front of the entrance to The Jungle. Photo by Valentina Del Fuoco.

In front of the entrance to The Jungle. Photo by Valentina Del Fuoco.

After about an hour we walk past a railway track and turn left to Rue des Garennes. The railway track is now on our left and we are receiving hospitality from the locals. These people are smiling, greeting and welcoming us.

Despite what people might think there is no gate to the camp; the entrance is marked by a highway bridge and by the presence of police. People are free to walk in and out and if they wish, may even go to the supermarket. Cars are leaving the camp; these either belong to volunteer helpers or to people who come to leave their unwanted clothes.

The camp is a temporary micro-city consisting of tents spreading along muddy roads.  The most important buildings, churches, mosques, restaurants, etc are made of timber frame covered by fabric and have some furniture inside. There is no drainage, only temporary toilets and outdoor taps for washing, and there are badly sheltered changing rooms.

Appeal to conscience. Photo by Valentina Del Fuoco.

Appeal to conscience. Photo by Valentina Del Fuoco.

Inside the camp the different communities are grouped together according to their origins, in one day you go from Afghanistan to Ethiopia, from Sudan to Syria, from Egypt to Iran. I see mostly men, eyebrows and hair freshly done; they walk up and down as if they were busy doing something or having a stroll. There is not much to do in The Jungle, as the camp has been called, and these people want to start re-building their lives, but meanwhile all they can do is wait…

My new friend Spencer and I did not want to judge them and their situation superficially so we knew that we had to stop, engage with the new “locals” and create interactions that could soon become friendships.

The first conversations are icebreakers; we do not ask many questions, as we do not want to be too invasive. We realise that people want to tell their stories so we engage to listen to the tale of their arduous journey as if it were something like a normal adventure.

It does not seem real to be talking to Mustafa who survived the crossing to Lampedusa from Egypt, which takes about 16 hours on tiny boats with inexperienced pilots. Mustafa is only 18 years old, he wants to work and earn money for himself. He is telling me: “You will see, in a week’s time all the refugees together will try to get to the UK.” He has tried already many times. I ask him: “Why the UK?” The economy, the language and the education system are some of the main drivers.

A few ask me if I know of any free studies for people under 18, and I had come completely unprepared to answer such a question; however I tell them that in the camp there is a school and they may be able to find some information from the tutors or the volunteers.

Refugees welcome.

Refugees welcome.

Meanwhile an 11-year-old child is riding a bicycle, and stops to say hello to Mustafa. Mustafa tells me that ‘K’ is on his own, his parents had sent him to Europe so that he might have a better future; people from the community here are taking care of him.

The camp is populated with old bicycles in a just-about working condition. Someone from the camp is fixing them. Mustafa and the newly arrived people speak Arabic among themselves and I am sure they are saying something about us. Mustafa does not want to translate but he looks at his friend with complicity and they laugh.

It’s getting dark and cold; almost time to eat something warm.

We decided to sit down at Kanzaman’s restaurant, and taste some simple Afghan cuisine. I am the only woman, but it does not feel too awkward. Kanzaman is such a great host and offers us a vegetarian option of spinach korma. My neighbour in the restaurant starts to talk to me and offers me from his plate the meat option, which is equally tasty. Kanzaman is asking for only a few euros and he is telling us that next time we visit he would be more than happy to host us.

After dinner we go for a walk and find out more about the camp, we find an outdoor cinema where people are watching a Charlie Chaplin movie, we hear music coming from the theatre and from some of the restaurants that become sort of clubs during the night. It seems strange because there are only men about; women are uneasy about going out on their own.

After the walk we go back to our tent just before it starts raining. We are six in a tent and it feels cold, we know that for us it is only going to be one night, and winter has not yet started. The next day, the sun is a blessing and puts the smile again on everyone’s faces. We go around for another walk and we start recognising faces and saying hello to the people we met the day before. We end up going to ‘Sudan’, where we meet a few people from the community.

There is a boy who is playing football with other people and he starts throwing the ball at me, sort of inviting me to play, so I join them. It was such a nice gesture, we did not have to speak but we shared the moment and that’s the most important quality of the people I met there, sharing.

I want to thank the boy for letting me play but he does not speak English, he is possibly from Syria and I really hope that his dad is here. We shake hands and he puts his thumb up to say “well played!!!”

Protest at the UK's stated commitment.

Protest at the UK’s stated commitment.

I join again my friend Spencer who is now engaged in a long conversation with some youths from the Sudanese community. We end up speaking with Moha who has just arrived at the camp. His brother is settled in London and he wants to join him.

Moha is only 21, he completed his studies in Economy and wants to sign up for a Masters course in the UK and then find a job. His wife is back in Sudan and he hopes to get her into Europe once he is settled down. He tells me that he will be waiting for his brother, who already paid around 2, 000 Euros to smugglers to get him from Egypt to Lampedusa. His trip was as scary and adventurous as Mustafa’s but now Moha’s smile is full of hope. I tell him that there is a school and a library in the camp for him to use in case he has to wait there for a bit longer and wish him lots of luck with following his dreams.

Weeks later and back in London, when I hear and read news about ‘the Jungle’ and the refugees, when I feel how cold it is outside, when I hear of people jumping the Eurostar, when I see the rain pouring down I remember Moha, Mustafa, Azul, Kanzaman, and I end up praying earnestly that they have been able to make the start they craved for a better life.

*Valentina Del Fuoco is an Italian architect based in London with a passion for photography and social issues.

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