Calais - March 21-22, 2019
It was a full moon on Wednesday night and Nowruz on Thursday - the Persian and Kurdish New Year. The ongoing Brexit disturbance felt very acute and we were unsure until this morning whether the UK would still be in the EU the next time we come.
On arrival we witnessed first hand the new fences and still heavier police presence. More areas have been closed off including the distribution point beneath the two pylons. People are being pushed further out to the edges of the town and therefore have further to walk in, to receive services. The Medecins du Monde team did not run their medical service on Thursday and will be needing to seek a new site for its emergency medical outreach.
Staff of our partner organisations are exhausted and feeling under immense pressure to respond to all sorts of requests for support that are outside their remit. This included arranging the funeral last week for the teenager who so tragically died in the back of a lorry two weeks ago, which in the event was attended by two hundred people wanting to pay their respects.
Across the two days there were various meetings and activities taking place with and without refugees present but all trying to enable greater advocacy on the part of the refugee communities. As a result, the usual Secours Catholique meeting didn’t take place.
The refugee day centre was busy with over one hundred people using the space. A great effort was made by the staff and volunteers to ensure that the New Year could be celebrated and respected with food, posters, and the symbolic addition of blossom, vinegar, eggs, and goldfish to represent new life. The Iranian community appreciated this in a dignified but subdued way while the food was welcomed by everyone.
At the large table we introduced drawing and plasticine, while also sharing some of the modelling material with the adjacent Sudanese table, the plasticine subsequently used there in amongst mobile phone activity and chat.
We brought back the square drawings from two weeks earlier which provided a helpful transition back into making. What was striking to us was the range of objects modelled across the afternoon. This included a Kalashnikov and a model soldier holding another gun; a horse, driver and trailer; a bird with a golden hat; a boat at sea. The activity of rolling out lengths of plasticine provided a task, a rhythm and a useful activity, with the pieces used for further object making.
The gun was brought across from the other table with the defiant remark: “this is why we are here!” Another man sitting with us agreed with the comment though seemed revulsed by the gun - one object holding both sides of the coin, both knowing the gun from painful personal experience of political violence. The community table could hold these multiple narratives without them having to be turned away from.
At the table we were joined again by a range of individuals all in the day centre for different reasons. This included refugees, volunteers, staff, researchers, and colleagues from other organisations. We realised that one of the strengths of the day centre table is to hold different voices and experiences, including levels of joy and distress. A number of brick houses were made in amongst plasticine roads, tracks and objects. The coiled plasticine reminded one Sudanese man of a significant coiled woven mat that is used as a receptacle for both day to day life and also special occasions which was met by us and him with shared delight.
Reopened after one week of closure, the house felt clean and efficiently managed - though a flood from the one shower took place during the two hours we were there. This itself felt symbolic of the amount of pressure the house is under with a steady stream of young people in and out for washing, sleep and food.
We brought out the rolled plasticine from the day centre which organically turned into a train track and became a shared endeavour, growing in a loop across the table with gentle humour, and yet seemed symbolic of the house being able to withstand the comings and goings, the journeys returning. For one young man it was very important that the track did not go off the edge of the table but looped back round and all joined up in a circle. At the end of the afternoon the track was collectively rolled back up into a reusable object for future fortnightly sessions.