Wednesday morning I joined Simon Jones, a minister at Bromley Baptist Church, on his weekly mission to The Listening Project, and more recently, the Catholic Worker House, located in a 5,000 person refugee encampment called The Jungle, situated on disused, industrial wasteland in Calais.
Simon's day began by attending a camp meeting where various representatives of different groups living in the camp and volunteers draw together, often several times a week, to discuss pressing issues inside and outside the camp and then work together to come up with solutions. This particular meeting was not very typical as an aid organisation was trying to convince refugees to claim asylum in France, leave the camp, and go to relocation centres. This pitch did not go over very convincingly as refugees have previously left the camp, gone to the relocation centres only to be left alone, cold and hungry for days on end and forced to make their way back to The Jungle. It did not help that the speaker claimed to be originally from Sudan and this was immediately called into doubt.
At this point many people, including Simon and myself, left the meeting and went outside to listen to a discussion about an Afghan refugee who was killed several days before. Residents in the camp suspected that he had been beaten by the police or "fascists", the collective noun used in the camp for right-wing hoodlums who brutalise residents of The Jungle and the CRS, the French riot police who do little to stop them.
After the meeting, Simon and I made our way inside a sun-soaked a caravan that hosts the Listening Project. The Listening Project is a place for refugees and volunteers to meet, support each other and work to solve problems and address needs inside the camp.
I sat down and chatted with "Abi" and his friend from Darfur; they were looking at Snap Chat on their phones and showed me pictures of friends being carried off by the police in protests the day before. We also chatted about the cost of living in the UK, the possibility of moving to Paris or to Canada. "Abi" wanted to know what "W2" referred to in London.
While we were discussing places that might be nice to live where one would not get tortured, a young man came in and began to cook a meal. He offered us all some bread and beans that he was making for lunch. Faith from the Ashram Kitchen popped in for a rest; she had been working all day feeding porridge to the Afghans. She had a name tag on her jumper that read "Momi", Faith explained that some of the unaccompanied minors call her "mummy", along with the Eritrean mothers and their children. Faith is originally from Wales.
Just outside the caravan, Tina had arrived with a truck staked with plastic crates containing bottles of oil, rice, salt, sugar, milk, tinned fish and tinned vegetables. I came out and offered to help lift crates out of the van to give to various groups of young men who arrived to take them away. "Yousif" had to come and OK each group; only people with registered kitchens were allowed crates of food. He had to calmly and gently explain to various people who did not have registered kitchens why they could not have crates of food from the van.
This food distribution system is a result of the camp meetings. Late last year, a few kitchens would try and prepare thousands of meals and this necessitated endless queueing for food; the volunteers and residents worked out that if they could have smaller kitchens, cooking for under 20 people, this would be more manageable and more enjoyable.
Once "Yousif" had finished distributing the food, he came into the caravan and made chai for us. Evie, who works in the Women and Children's Centre and is originally from Australia, came and joined us. She was due to play the game of football with the kids that was taking place on the Banksy pitch, near the razor wire and CRS guards. "Yousif" persuaded her to stay and have a cup of hot chai with us.
We all discussed the impending evictions from the south side of the camp and what effect it would have on the refugees and volunteers. It would be impossible to move the shelters and buildings this time; unlike previous bulldozing episodes, there is nowhere else for them to go. They will have to be destroyed. This next series of bulldozing would mean the The Good Chance Theatre, which recently put on a production of Hamlet and also functions as centre for older children, would be gone. The vaccination clinic, the legal aid centre, St. Michael's Church, the Woman and Children's Centre, all the cafe's, the shops, Jungle Books (the camp library), shelters for distributing clothing, information centres, homes for thousands of refugees, and the Listening Projects's caravan which we were sitting in would all be destroyed. "Yousif", Evie, Simon and I sat quietly in the warm, sun-drenched caravan, watching the steam from our chai rise up and fade away.
I left south London on Wednesday morning unsure about going into the heart of a humanitarian disaster. I have to confess, I was slightly terrified at the idea of being around so many men who had escaped the Taliban, Daesh, enslavement, torture, hunger, terror, war and worse. I was frightened at the idea of walking through a concentration of suffering, despair, hunger, mud and filth.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the main issues with sanitation had been addressed within the last few weeks: there is clean water, a bit of drainage, bathing troughs, rubbish removal, and the port-a-loos are serviced every day. There is just about enough food and people are just about warm enough.
Much to my delight, and even more surprising, was discovering that The Jungle is, in fact, a thriving, problem solving, enterprising, positive community. Calais is, in many ways, the confluence of the very best and the very worst of humanity: suffering but motivated refugees met by dedicated and generous volunteers. Both groups are working collaboratively, intelligently and empathetically to try and make a very desperate situation work. The Jungle is now a genuine community filled with cafes, shops, community centres, homes and shelters for over 5,000 refugees. It is a community woven together by the best parts of humanity working determinedly to overcome hardships few of us can imagine.
Another remarkable aspect to The Jungle is the concentration of skills and talents. There are so many ambitious refugees setting up businesses, cafes and shops. The expertise, energy, determination, and organisation that has come together is Calais is astounding. This camp is filled with problem solvers, risk-takers, organisers, negotiators, whose various skills have created a vibrant, functioning, town on disused industrial wasteland. I have to wonder, why do we not want them to come to the UK? Just look what they have done already.
Simon took me to see the Catholic Worker House in Calais. The Catholic Worker House is run by Brother Johannes of the London Catholic Worker. The problem for volunteers in The Jungle, and specifically of The Listening Project, is finding a place to sleep in the evening after working in the camp all day. Simon and Brother Johannes worked out that if they could rent a house in Calais, they could house volunteers and save travel costs and increase the continuity and amount of work they are able to do.
I have witnessed firsthand the valuable work volunteers are putting into The Jungle, these efforts are making an incomprehensibly cruel and impossible situation bearable. Please consider sharing this post and donating to my Just Giving Page, all funds will be given to Simon Jones to support The Catholic Worker House in Calais.