CALAIS, AUGUST 31- SEPTEMBER 1, 2017
This week we returned to Calais after a two-week break, we felt the gradual change in seasons as nights begin to close in and preparations for Eid were underway.
With long delays on the journey under the channel we read about collaborative Tunisian painting: a secret society of artists led by Hechmi Ghachem, who met in basements and painted in silence during the dictatorship; a sense of quiet action in order to preserve freedom of expression under a repressive regime.
Our delayed arrival at the hostel meant a smaller group of friends than usual and without time to make art, we shared news from the last two weeks and talked about the men’s pending plans for where they hoped to go as their duration at the accommodation reaches its limit. Unwanted in Calais, a young man from Chad who has status and the right to work in France, seeks jobs advertised around the town but he is advised to go elsewhere and that he has no chance of finding work.
We sat with blinds drawn, capturing moments of human contact with team members through snap-shots on a phone. We reflected on the team’s absence over the past two weeks as photographs of us and ways to remain connected over the coming week were sought out and secured through a Facebook message to the team.
We were greeted by familiar faces and noticed a growing difference between some of the teenagers and young men who we have come to know. There are some who appear to have established themselves in a routine, and are pacing themselves for sustained efforts necessary for survival. Whilst others appeared visibly tired, depleted and disconnected from the ebbs and flows of energy in the centre, totally exhausted from the lack of sleep.
Today, the table at the day centre was not big enough for everyone who wanted to draw, paint and build; vacated chairs were quickly occupied by those who had patiently waited their turn and materials were scattered across the table in easy reach. One man reused bricks from another’s impressive house to make a high narrow tower, silently passing it to the man sat on his left with a mischievous smile, challenging him not to topple his creation. Inevitably, after a few passes, the tower was unsteadied and collapsed across the table, creating a new game of fishing the bricks out of a paint jar. The wooden coffee sticks that usually serve as rafters and beams for the roofs were quickly re-appropriated as the necessary tools for the job.
The business at the busy table lent itself to a communal atmosphere where older men joined to support younger builders, developing a small construction into a large mosque complete with shower and places to wash feet. Across the table, two builders were remembering their work together on the sites in Birmingham, referring to saved photos of houses from their old jobs in order to recreate scaled down models, whilst a friend appointed himself as site-manager, offering advice on roof construction.
We arrived to the evening distribution to hear music pumping out of a van, quiet queues for clothes, food and shoes, and the regular police patrol looking out of place amidst the playful games of football and table tennis. Our map was attached to the Médecins du Monde ambulance, quickly drawing a crowd of people eager to explore it and chat together about their experiences.
An Ethiopian maths teacher joined us at the table to share his story, and his sadness at not being able to return to his country: mourning the loss of home, profession and equality, feeling stuck and frustrated. Attempting to teach us fractions and lengthy equations, we all communicated our sense of confusion, sharing an experience of not being able to understand no matter how hard we tried. Fractions, fractures, fragments.
People left earlier than on our last visit, as the nights draw in and they make preparations for the night: somewhere to hide and shelter from the cold or making the journey out into the darkness.
We attended the weekly meeting with our colleagues in the basement at Secours Catholique centre to discuss recent events and to think about the responses needed to adapt to the shifting circumstances. Alongside their efforts to provide basic sanitation, the team have adopted an often parental role; holding boundaries, remaining empathic and doing what they can within their own means to make daily life a little easier. It was heartening to listen to the team tell stories of recognition and support from strangers around the town, thanking them for their kindness and hard work, as well as the growing success of the #douche #calais(shower) campaign that gaining attention across Europe.
As the team members took it in turns to share their own experiences, several colleagues were affected by their encounters with young unaccompanied minors, and the struggles of adults from certain minorities within the refugee population to with existing groups that provide companionship, friendship and emotional shelter, so vital to resilience and hope. One team member shared the invite from Afghan community to the Secours Catholique team to break fast with them tonight in celebration of Eid.
The Safe House will soon have has a volunteer from Médecins du Monde joining them one day each week, helping attend to the many needs of the young people cared for in the house. A small number of young people gathered around the table to play with the different materials on offer and one young person returned to making a drawing of a house; an almost identical replica of a home he drew on our visit three weeks ago. The beautiful weather tempted the remaining residents out to the beach and the rest of the session was serendipitously spent with colleagues from various parts of Secours Catholique team, making spontaneous 2D and 3D creations, sharing stories of mothers and grandmothers, reflecting upon their own distance from loved ones. A moment of calm and respite for all, gentle times reflecting, sharing and laughing together.
Eid Mubarak to all our friends