Returning two weeks after our three day summer projects, the temperature is already dropping, the light is changing and there is talk of the coming start of a forth winter. As we arrived, 300 CRS police were dismantling the temporary camp in Dunkirk, displacing over 500 people and cutting off the water supply, keeping the local police at bay, having already swept through the small informal refugee groupings in Calais, taking down tents, intimidating people, causing them to feel still more exhausted and unsettled.
These severing of connections seems to amplify for people their sense of cultural dislocation, with two young men separately telling us that they come from nowhere and belong nowhere - “don’t ask me where I am from”.
Sometimes in our work we attempt to counter what we find with an alternative space, in this case the building of our largest tabletop landscape across two 5 hour periods on Thursday and Friday at the Secours Catholique day centre.
The well-being of workers in this context is always an issue and on Saturday we led our third training on the theme of self-care.
This week we brought a new material for the tabletop surface in the form of a large roll of black rubber flooring to which we invited people to build and draw. With this new surface came the possibility of a different viewpoint. A carpenter and architect from Iran were the first to join us, building the Gate of all Nations from their hometown of Shiraz before making other structures. The table attracted people from other nations - Sudan, Afghanistan, a PHD student from Japan. The room filled with helpers and visitors and we realised that the day centre is starting to feel like a welcoming village hall with a sense of community, in-spite of the increasing transience.
Here there was a very tense atmosphere and a sense from those few people we encountered of growing desperation, anger and disaffection. The map grounded us and seemed to support the other teams, and bringing a focal point, a place where disquiet could be expressed at the map - “I belong nowhere”.
At the Secours Catholique team meeting, preparations for Winter, the challenges of the work as well as the need for self care and positive activities were all discussed. People are trying harder to cross to the UK, fewer are getting through, the sense of urgency is growing. An exhibition of artworks made in the day centre is travelling to the UK which expressly acknowledges the irony that the images can travel freely - “artwork with wings” - while refugees cannot.
Across the afternoon we were joined by a number of individuals, the landscape developing with towers getting taller and dwarfing the farms and small structures beneath. To amplify this we invited still taller structures and the table soon became several feet high, buildings connected with string, shifting the perspective and energy in the space and bringing more engagement, playfulness and interaction, even a little magic.
Our third arts-based psychosocial training at the Secours Catholique day centre was attended by an intergenerational group of 25 staff and workers from 8 organisations and around 8 countries, some French and others English speakers, some long term and local, some relatively new to the work, all working in various roles in northern France. Opportunities to explore secondary trauma and burnout and the tools needed to look after ourselves as both individuals and teams are rare and clearly pressing, and further such sessions are already being discussed.
We were struck this week by the shared endeavour across workers and refugees to try to bring something together, with all the complexities and challenges and imperfections, and the human struggle to find a place to belong.