Dost Caseworker Diana Seretis shares her personal reflections on our recent visits to the Calais ‘Jungle’:
Calais has often been painted in the media as a place of constant rioting and danger, with unruly people living in filth by choice. Adult men are usually the focus of most photographs and the reports, along with these skewed images, suggests them to be the aggressors.
Of course I had been wanting to give my time and help directly, however, I had no idea what to expect. What I saw and experienced was overwhelming, and only a window into the world of some of the most vulnerable people throughout Europe.
To start with, we brought the clothing and supplies we had to the warehouses operating outside of the camp. This is where supplies like food parcels, clothing, blankets, tents – everything really – is sorted and later distributed throughout the camp. These warehouses were filled with bustling groups of volunteers, all working in an organised fashion. It was humbling to witness and, for a short time, be a part of such an amazing operation. These are people who spend their spare time working tirelessly, in cold warehouses and temperamental weather conditions, to bring the daily necessities of life to thousands of people who would have none of it without them.
After delivering and sorting supplies, I knew it would be time to move on to ‘The Jungle’, as it’s called – the refugee camp. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. The weather was cold and rainy, the tents and makeshift housing sitting on smelly mud as far as the eye can see. There are overflowing portable toilets and makeshift water pipes flowing in troughs. Initially, many of the people living in the camp were curious as to why we had come. I told them I was there to help, to show solidarity with their cause, and to lend my voice to theirs.
A daily struggle
There was to be a protest that day, with Members of Parliament coming to see the situation for themselves and speak on the way in which these people are being failed daily. The march was a peaceful one, with both people living in the camp, and some from outside, walking together. Within the first half hour of my marching near the back of the group, French police began to aggressively drive their vehicles in and out of where people were marching. I remember seeing one young man almost hit where he was walking, and he quickly scurried out of the way as the police screeched to a halt. At this point, I was aware that nothing good was going to happen, as the group seemed to be closed in on from the back and confined to the street where they were walking. Suddenly, a police officer exited his vehicle with a can of tear gas and his gaze met mine as I began to back up to the side of the road. It was then that I realised how much of a daily struggle it was to peacefully fight for their rights. My group and I decided to return to the camp and were met by a van there, with extra supplies that needed distributing.
As a long queue formed, I began distributing the food and speaking to each person. I suddenly realised that this feeling of helplessness, and the looks of pity that they are often met with, must be slowly destroying their confidence on top of living in these horrible conditions. The more I made sure to look each person in the eye and smile, ask how they are doing, talk to them like a human being, the more the cracks in their sombre faces started to appear. I began getting laughs and jokes from many of them, while some came up to talk to me more and tell me about where they are from. Some shook my hands and thanked me for the food, making a lasting impression on me as to how they could be so thankful for this situation. There are no words to describe the feeling of meeting people who seem they could have so little hope, but instead still have gratitude and positivity beyond comprehension.
Hope prevails despite horrible conditions
This realisation was confounded by the conversation I had with two people living in the camp – the first, a young man from South Sudan, and the second, a young boy from Afghanistan. I was approached by the young South Sudanese man after he had received some boxes of biscuits and wanted to thank me, and shake my hand. He told me where he was from and that he had been in the Jungle for around five months. We spoke about where members of his family are, and joked about a few things. I made the decision to ask him just how things are back in South Sudan, and could these conditions he is living in really be better than where he had come from? I have read countless reports on the atrocities that are being committed in his homeland but nothing makes it clear to you like someone telling you that this was better. He told me that it was “so much better” with a look in his eyes that told me he had seen things that I couldn’t begin to understand. If living in the inhumane conditions I saw was that much better and safer than where he had come from, I can only let myself imagine how much worse life can get. It would be impossible to ever argue politics with someone who had that look in their eyes.
The second of my most memorable interactions came on my last visit to The Jungle. I had made my way this time into the very heart of the camp, where there were schools and libraries set up for the children. No one talks about just how many children and young people are alone and fending for themselves. It is a shocking number. After walking through some of the school ‘rooms’ set up, I entered a small room full of shelves of books. There was no-one inside except for a small boy reading a book in silence. I looked around for a moment and then decided to approach him. I said hello and smiled to which he replied the same, with a smile on his lips and in his bright, green-hazel eyes. I said, “Do you like football?”
“Yes, of course!” he replied, with a look that said it should be obvious that he does. I reached into a bag I had been carrying and revealed a football that had been donated in London. I stretched it out to him and asked if he would like it. The response I got from him was one of the most powerful moments I’ve experienced, his face completely lit up. He thanked me profusely and couldn’t stop smiling. I began to ask him what his story was and who was he here with? He told me that he is alone, with his 14 year old brother, and they have managed to find an empty caravan to ‘live’ in for now. While we were talking, I asked him to tell me what it is like being here. His expression became very serious and he said – in near perfect English – that it was “horrible.” He said it is “so bad here.” I just looked at him with nothing but an attempt at understanding and the frustration that if I could just help him get to a safer place, there were ways to help him pick up the pieces of his life.
Over and over again, I have had people in the camp ask me if I have travelled from the UK, why is no one letting them get there, and especially, why are the children not being taken to help at least. I have not been able to answer satisfactorily on any of these occasions and it’s an empty feeling to look at people in that situation and not be able to offer more.
The young boy from Afghanistan that I gave the football to asked me if I could please take him with me. That is a feeling I will never forget. Many of the young people I work with at The Dost Centre are his age, from his background, and have even spent time in The Jungle. I know firsthand the ways in which children like him could be helped, and it is a tragedy that children like him are trying to survive in dangerous and appalling conditions. I can’t know all of the daily dangers and struggles he and so many others are facing, but I do know that they are all human beings being treated as less than that. When given safety, basic needs are met, and there is someone there for these young people to talk to and trust, they have the ability to reclaim this humanity and innocence that has been stolen from them. Their resilience is truly astonishing, and a testament to the human spirit.