This week the excellent Human Rights Watch report on northern France has been released and our partner organisations expressed relief that the reality of the police violations and harsh restrictions on basic needs provision are out in the public domain in such a direct and persuasive document. There was acknowledgement of the puzzle of the need to deliver what is manageable and possible, rather than deliver the work of the State in a context in which basic needs are not being met. Conversely there was recognition that even in this context you can offer cultural activities that are humanising, equalising and nourishing. These in themselves however need to be safe, thoughtful and collaborative.
This was a very moving hour in which the room was full of humanity. Our friend had several visitors including a French hostel resident coming in to shake hands and check up on his health. One Sudanese friend is claiming asylum in France and moving to other accommodation outside Calais which brought sadness, farewells and plans of visits. Bricks were laid in floor patterns on the bed and another simple family home was built.
We began the session by sticking on the wall a sequence of photographs of brick buildings made in previous weeks. With these as a backdrop, individuals set to working with the bricks and other materials across the three hours of the afternoon. In amongst creative and imaginative building activity and drawing taking place on all the tables, we were each put to task - invited to solve a mathematical puzzle that involved displacement of people, or how do you only move two sticks in order for the rubbish to be tipped outside the shovel. These good humoured riddles were difficult for us to solve and left us feeling somewhat stupid and out-witted. Meanwhile a detailed model was made of a policeman holding teargas and armed with a gun.
Later as we were on our way to the food and clothes distribution to meet the Medecins du Monde team we ourselves were stopped by police for parking on a verge and subjected to verbal intimidation tactics and our documents checked. At the distribution we were shocked to see so many individuals queuing for food, including a number of young women and children.
During the Secours Catholique meeting
the cinema trip to see the film Dunkirk the previous night was discussed. 50 volunteers and refugees had joined with locals at the cinema in town. For one young boy from Afghanistan this was his first visit to the cinema. Some felt uncomfortable in such a public space because they had been unable to wash their clothes and dress as they would wish for the occasion. Everyone enjoyed the experience overall and staff felt it was something that could be offered when showers, toilets and taps are still not installed, something outside their control and in the hands of the Courts.
The safe house presents the upside down riddle of young boys being invited into the house during the day for showers, food and clothes washing, and the harsh reality of needing to be sent back out into the open at night. The house is already full with a number of young Eritreans and Ethiopians living there. The exhausted but ever courteous young boys gathered around the dining room table, getting up to take turns to have a shower, and otherwise settling into making a series of churches in bricks, alongside plasticine animals. There was engagement with the use of cinematic lighting and photography and gentle conversation before their early evening meal of pasta was served by the brilliant safe house staff.