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A Hijabi Londoner in Calais: A Refuge

09/12/2015 12:10 GMT | Updated 08/12/2016 10:12 GMT

Let's face it, it's a bit of a shit time for everyone: hijabi, non-hijabi, Muslim, non-Muslim alike. Everyone feels like they have to look over their shoulder for fear of some kind of knife-wielding, tube-pushing, bomb-blowing attack. We are living on the edge of social anxiety.

When I decided to go to Calais to help in the refugee camp - otherwise known as The Jungle - I wish I could say it was out of a sense of allaying this anxiety by working to be part of some solution. The volunteering was more of an afterthought, actually. I also had a vague idea that I might need to get away from Paris, away from all the disdainful looks. (These looks haven't been as intense as I'd expected - although there was the security man in Carrefour who looked in my bag, pointed, and said, 'Oh, bomb,' then laughed so loud people stared at us.)

'You've sent me the address where you're staying, right? Do you have the contact number of someone there in case anything happens?' asks my seven-month pregnant friend. Her day job is to prevent organised crime and so she is nothing if not always prepared for the worst.

'Erm, yeah, sure.'

I haven't.

'You know 40% of Calais has voted for the far-right party? Apparently they had a poster with a woman in western clothing and another in a burqa with the title: You Choose.'

My rucksack feels heavier under the weight of this knowledge. She shakes her head in what I assume to be despair. It might be worth mentioning that she's white and so this despair is felt mostly for me.

'Do you think I should've used another bag?' I ask.

'If anything happens, I'll be there in a heartbeat.'

At Calais Frethun station I walk up to three security guards puffed out in bulletproof vests and a gun or two. I ask where I can get a taxi to the warehouse where donations for refugees are sent. One of them turns to his colleague and says something in French. The colleague looks up and down at me in my oversized waterproof jacket and bulging rucksack. Under the cloudy sky I'm sure my orange hijab is only that much more visible. I smile at him until my mouth hurts.

'Where are you from?' asks one.

'London.'

'Ah! Londres. We walk you to the taxi.'

'Oh, okay.' I look at all three of them, only one of whom is smiling at me. 'You don't all need to come,' I suggest.

'Non non. We show you,' says the smiley one.

'Thank you, although it does look a little bit like you're taking me to jail.'

I don't think they get the joke. Maybe because it isn't an entirely unfeasible one.

I reach the warehouse - a vast expanse stacked to the ceiling with bags and boxes that contain the expression of people's kindness (and the occasional inappropriate sense of winter attire - no-one needs a mini skirt and high heels in a refugee camp). Volunteers in hi-vis coats and vests are scattered around, stacking trolleys, playing scrum with the cash-for-clothes bags that are loaded in a van, making packs with essentials for the new refugees that come in every day.

Time works differently in this place. An hour is equal to a day and so by the afternoon the warehouse already feels like home. Theorising is a scheduled pre-occupation: during breaks and after work only. Doing is the thing here. There are women's and children's clothes to be sorted before we can engage in any kind of conversation about the government's decision to bomb a country whose citizens they won't give refuge to. You're more likely to hear, 'I need another black marker' or 'Where do the hot pants go?' than anything to do with socio-political dynamics. And in the shadows of the cold warehouse I don't even think about the way my hijab might stand out amongst these hijab-less people. Maybe because no-one has commented on it, or asked about it, or made furtive movements away from me.

In the jungle we distribute the items to people who are grateful and frustrated in equal measure. Every evening the police come and round up a bunch of refugees, put them in a van and drive them to one of the borders and tell them to walk. To what end, God knows. At night, when the volunteers have gone home, tear gas is released in certain parts of the camp to keep refugees in order. A week before I arrived there was a fire in the Sudanese camp. They lost everything - except their hospitality as they offer us tea and food.

'I was a lawyer in Sudan,' says one. 'We all have an education - every one is a professional. All we want is to live with some dignity.'

I don't suppose there is much dignity in tear gas and hand-outs.

As we leave for the day a volunteer in wellies and shorts, says, 'You, sit in the front of the van. The police don't stop us if they see a woman.'

'What? Even with a hijab?' I reply.

He (let's call him Pierre, even though he's from Peterborough) looks at said hijab. 'If anything goes wrong we'll just blame you.'

I'm wedged between him and another volunteer as they offload about their day, as a rule, only in the van. Half-way to the youth hostel, Pierre says, 'We need more boxes.'

I nod.

'Did you know that cardboard boxes have a 5% life rate whereas plastic boxes have 75%? Doesn't your life feel richer for this information?'

'Much richer.'

'We need plastic boxes.'

I leave him to ponder the carbon make-up of boxes as I turn to the other volunteer - we can call him Colin.

'When do you think you'll leave?'

'I'll stay as long as I'm useful,' he says in his Scottish accent. Colin spends his days fixing electrical faults in the warehouse. He's been travelling for fourteen years with no plan to stop any time soon. I could spend hours speaking to him: the life he left because he became tired of the industry he worked in, with corporations funding climate-change deniers, governments waging wars for oil and the meaningless of bureaucratic life.

'And you?' I ask Pierre. My heart is already contracting at the thought of leaving the following day.

'Until the job gets done.'

At night I'm annoyed because my Wi-Fi doesn't work properly in the room and I can't log into Facebook or Twitter. Then I hear the wind howling and rain slashing at the window and I think of the refugees in their flimsy tents. I remember one of the volunteer's quoting Rumi: 'You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.' I'd have rolled my eyes if it weren't for the fact that he was from Essex.

It's time to leave after another day of sorting and distributions. I'm taken to the station and Pierre tells me to get out of his van - it's not safe to be travelling around with a hijabi. (By now, the hijab is spoken about for comedy value only.)

'Watch out with that rucksack,' he adds before saying goodbye.

'If the police stop me for anything,' I say, 'it'll be because I look like a refugee.'

As I walk to the train, back under the canopy of an open sky, I think about the people in the jungle and the best of humanity rounded up in a damp corner of a random warehouse. All that is hopeful and good lives in a hi-vis jacket, rubber wellies and electrical know-how. It occurs to me that I've not had to worry about my hijab: no second guessing as to why someone is looking at me, or having to hold my head higher to show that I'm not ashamed to wear what I want. Isn't it ironic that it's in a once derelict warehouse, and a jungle packed with six-thousand homeless strangers, that you feel the safest?