CALAIS - JANUARY 24-25, 2019
The two days were full and engaging with remarkable amounts of humour, but the weather was freezing cold and damp, the remnants of snowdrifts on the ground and snow flurries across the afternoon on Thursday. The hostile atmosphere in Calais was further reinforced this week by new concrete walls and fences being erected around areas where people try to get shelter or onto lorries.
On Friday the town was full of additional police due to a visit by the UK Immigration Minister and the French Interior Minister to see first-hand some of the work being done to tackle attempts to cross the Channel illegally via small boats. This followed the agreement on 24 January of a joint action including over £6 million investment in new security equipment, increased CCTV coverage of beaches and ports, air surveillance, shared intelligence, plus a mutual commitment to conduct return operations of those found in boats in the Channel.
The smaller sized table and familiar bricks proved conducive in drawing individuals to the table in a day centre that was soon brimming with people, and by the end of the afternoon of bodies warming up from the cold, smelling of sweat and wood smoke. Numbers of refugees appear to be rising with many familiar alongside new faces. A volunteer we have known across the past two years joined us to make his perfect corner.
There was an unusual theme of animals - personal stories narrated of looking after pigeons, rabbits, dogs, chickens and horses. These were told with tenderness and heartache - from Iraq, Pakistan and journeys on route to France.
We set up with Médecins du Monde this week and were able to choose our corner. Several people came from the woods and surrounding area to see the Doctor, and drawn by the map which one man said looked ‘beautiful’. We met men from Kurdistan, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Liberia, Burkino Faso, DRC, and Sudan. One young man was impressed by seeing how far he has travelled, carefully tracing his journey onto the map, marking down the months spent in each place as he went.
A man from Darfur spoke articulately about mental ill health in this setting - “you see how this situation affects people here; some people are ill in the heart. All the W questions take over and then you can’t dream anymore. You can only dream when you are safe.”
We were invited to the Maria Skobtsova safe house to share the daily evening meal with 22 young men and women from Eritrea and the wonderful volunteer team. We were moved by the cooperation shown amongst the young people - cooking, serving 3.5 kilos of pasta, praying together, clearing, washing up.
As ever with the brick activity we were moved by the willingness of people to engage, the materials experienced as of quality, in miniature but in proportion, lending themselves to a range of ambitious projects. Unusually those around the table were all from Iran. A bright young woman, in a dirty inadequate refugee camp in Germany for four years, created her dream, open plan apartment. Speaking five languages she spoke of wanting to make something of her life in London. Two men built a solid house together, double walls, strong roof, with an animal-filled garden. An initial sense of irony gave way to full commitment to the process for the half hour it took to create. A third man - his large stone house being an elaborate project - explained that he had built his house back in Iran with a handful of his brothers.
The dining room table of the night before was once again the place for making, this time alongside cards and dominoes. Young men came and went from the table - houses built with individual style and linked together by paths, all in the midst of the usual and reassuring domestic house activity.