We were all laughs and smiles on the way, jokes flying, spirits high! We were excited. Excited to try and do our bit, to get to work and make a difference in the world. ‘Love the one in front of you’ is what we were preparing to do, nothing really prepared me for what I saw and felt. ‘The Jungle’ is in a way what I expected, a pit of human despair and anguish. Pain, poverty and chaos are some words you could use to try illustrate the feeling and reality there. However, it is almost impossible to convey how I feel, or rather how this short (far too short) trip has made me feel.
I’ve been asked so often since returning; ‘How was France?’, ‘How was Calais?’ and I always struggle with what to say. I usually hide behind the easy and comfortable response of ‘Yeah it was good thanks, really enjoyed it’. The conversation normally ends there, with a smile and a nod. I know it really needs to be more than that. When I arrived back in England I was almost drowned in my own feeling of uselessness – what could I possibly do now, after this experience, that would remotely make a difference. But I understand that the only way to make any lasting change in this terrible and complex problem is to raise awareness, to try and somehow express the horror of The Jungle and the conditions which people have to live in.
With that in mind: winter is setting in and soon conditions will be wet and freezing. The Jungle has no foundation, it is built purely on mud, with small hills in the land all over. There is little or no drainage, most of the roads there are water logged already. Soon, peoples tents and shelters will simply fall apart as the mud is washed away. One of the main things I was lucky enough to help with was getting pallets to people. I can’t overstate the importance of pallets to them, they offer the only foundation to their houses they can realistically get. We could fit about 50 pallets in the back of a van each trip, they soon go though. To avoid any dangerous situations or any desperate grappling for the pallets we gave out tokens, which would later be exchanged for the pallets. The light in the faces when we asked ‘Do you want some pallets?’ told us just how important they were, the gratitude for something so simple helped put into perspective the reality that these pallets are a lifeline.
However, my first trip onto the camp wasn’t actually my first taste of the horror which perpetuates the surroundings. No, what was at first perhaps more discouraging or telling was when the first group got back from a distribution run, and their visible emotional turmoil displayed on their forlorn faces. No longer were laughs being shared, there was a quietened, inarticulate atmosphere among this small group. Some of these people had been to Haiti after the disasters there, and had witnessed human suffering on a horrendous scale. But when these same, brave, people got back from the Jungle, they were visibly holding back tears. Grown men and women could barely put into words what they saw, they were all very clearly shaken. Murmurs of tear gas having been used by police began to verbalise, along with short explanations of the horrible conditions in which men, woman and children had to live in. I was no longer excited. I was scared and disquieted, unsure about what I was going to find. Whatever happened, I knew I would never be the same in one way or another.
All of you will have people you care about; whether it be families or friends. You probably have a father and mother, maybe a sister or two and perhaps even children of your own. Everyone probably has a job or goes to school and leads a ‘normal’ life. I was almost brought to tears by a very close friend of mine during the trip, when she explained the simplicity of the situation. That these people aren’t numbers, or just economic/conflict migrants, they aren’t just there so we can be charitable, and they aren’t a threat. They are like you and me, they led ‘normal’ lives, they have families like us, a large number also are doctors, lawyers, engineers and writers. They are exactly like us. The only difference is that we got lucky in where we were born, in a stable and safe country. We’re driven by the same things; to provide for our families, to ensure we have the best chances of success possible. So what makes it acceptable for 6000 people to live in poverty and squalor, in the mud of France? We are all too accustomed to seeing images of people suffering in faraway places, but we need to wake up and recognise that there are thousands of people at our doors, desperate for safety and some semblance of compassion. Why does it seem so easy to express sentiments of sorrow and pity for people when they are distant, and probably can’t directly be helped by ourselves, but when there is a crisis so close to home we seem to almost ignore it?
There is one man I met who I believe has changed my life. I mentioned a pallet distribution I took part in above, it was my first time onto the camp and was extremely impactful. I jumped off the van into a puddle of muddy rubbish, this was the main highway in and out of the camp. There was a quiet, almost subdued atmosphere. On either side of the road were ‘buildings’ with ‘hotel’ or ‘restaurant’ and even ‘cafe’ painted on. To say buildings is probably slightly hyperbolic, there were some prefab type huts, a lot of wooden frames with tarpaulin as walls, the main structures people lived in were tents though. Small shop windows with faces peering out fell under my sombre gaze. The smell of cooking surprised me with spices and exotic concoctions, but not nearly as much as the complete ease with which some of the more experienced volunteers we met exuded. They waved and joked with some people, hugged and made chit-chat with young boys and girls. This is what I tried to imitate, with little success. I walked off of the main highway of filth, up a mud embankment. There opened a view onto too many tents on too little land, ramshackle huts, dirt, rubbish and people. One bright eyed Eritrean with a cheeky smile told us how he had been clearing the area because it was dirty, so that they could make more shelters there. He was a tall, healthy looking man, probably in his 20s. I didn’t get a chance to speak to him properly, but it struck me that the people living here weren’t getting any real or substantial help from larger NGOs or even the governments. (The only governmental presence is the mass of armored police at all the entrances, coolly looking on – no help is provided). But, instead of feeling sorry for themselves and just making do, they were being the help they needed. No one was paying this man, I doubt many were thanking him, but he was helping nonetheless and with a beautiful smile too which couldn’t help but raise your spirits in some small way.
After meeting this young man I noticed on the area he had cleared, a smaller and equally smiley man making a tent. By this time I was eager to speak to someone, so I approached him with a smile and a handshake. His name was David, he too was from Eritrea (as everyone in this corner of the camp was I subsequently discovered). He truly had a heart of hope; he had lived on this camp for two months, and was making shelters for four women whom had just arrived. He had the warmest, most welcoming smile and face I had ever encountered – I had no idea what to say to him. I was a world apart from him, having never needed to fend for myself, much less for a family. I went on to tell him how sorry I was for what was happening to him, he simply laughed and said ‘It’s just life’. Just life. He had nothing other than the clothes he was wearing and maybe some other things in his hut, yet he was more content or accepting than I, he was more joyful and warm than I. This is something which still challenges me every day. When I walk down streets here and look at cold, stony and distant faces I remember him. When I don’t smile at someone, or I don’t do my best to welcome someone I think of him. I went to Calais to help people, to give what I could – but I’ve taken more than I could ever give. If David can smile and be pragmatic about his situation, how much more should we be happy with our lot? I cringe when I complain about something now because I can’t forget his musical laughter at my meagre apology for his tragic and unjust situation.
After a few short minutes of chatting, he showed me into his house. It was locked from the inside, so he had to prise it open. When we entered there was a sprawl of different bits of clothes, blankets and a small bed. There were the four Eritrean women trying to recover from their long journey, one lady greeted me warmly and attempted to wake the others so that they could introduce themselves. I politely asked her to let them sleep, I felt like an intruder as it was. It’s still a struggle to process this, they had met me roughly five minutes ago and they showed me such hospitality and friendship that I was almost stunned into silence.
The thousands of refugees here aren’t just ‘existing’, they are living. There is a library, a theater and even a church here. They are trying to make the best of a horrendous situation, with innovation and hopefulness. To say they won’t contribute in our country is a lie, when they have already shown that they can do so much with nothing, imagine what they could do with the resources we have. They would make such a positive contribution to societies around the world.
These small experiences are what will stay with me forever. They probably seem inconsequential and maybe even boring, but they had such an impact on me. As we drove away from the camp on our last day it began to rain, and a silence pervaded the whole bus almost deafeningly. We knew what this meant for these beautiful and kindly men, women and children. Their shelters would be washed away or ruined, the mud foundations wouldn’t last long. But what really cut through me most of all was the fact I was going home, where we all have so much, maybe too much, yet I knew I would have a smaller sense of humanity or compassion here. I’d be surrounded by people who I should have a greater sense of belonging with, but somehow I knew I would feel a stranger, isolated. Yet in ‘The Jungle’ it was impossible to escape the sense of family, friendship and reality which drowns out the normal life.
We can’t all go to the refugee camps, and we can’t all give money or clothes. But there is something we can all do, and we all have a responsibility to do. We all need to understand that the 6000 and counting souls on our doorsteps are the same as us. They may have different beliefs, values, accents and languages – but they all have a heart and desire for a normal life again. We need to remember that they aren’t simply a statistic, or part of a ‘European crisis’, their just unlucky. Unlucky that they weren’t born in the west like us. If more people understand this tragedy to be about humanity and we take it away from which political party or popular opinion we support, then I think the 6000 human lives have a chance. Otherwise, nothing will happen and they will die in the mud, the squalor, the fear and injustice which are now unfortunately their lives.