CALAIS OCTOBER 26-27, 2017
Standing tall at the front of a park in Calais are statues of Winston Churchill and Charles De Galle.They stand side by side, imposing figures – Churchill has a cigar clamped in his mouth. This often uneasy relationship between the two men felt significant. The two managed to work together to form a formidable force to defeat the Nazis.
Discussions were had over the last few days with groups of volunteers, refugees and professionals all identifying there need to be a unified force working together to create a better situation. But there was also recognition of the complications and difficulties that may need to be overcome.
Conversation was flowing in our small group as we shared cups of tea and caught up on our previous weeks. We thought about the need for places of cultural exchange and opportunities to learn from others with different experiences from our own. How significant art and culture are in understanding who we are - and appreciating others.
There was discussion about the importance of looking back and connecting with one's past experiences. There was also a recognition as to how painful that may be, and how memories and flashbacks can be debilitating. However that it was important to process difficult things together with others. Although they cannot be forgotten it helps to take some of the pain away.
This week we were invited to join the women’s group run by Secours Catholique, a small and gentle gathering of women and young teenage girls invited into the Centre from the cold and wet weather. In the dreary drizzle we joined our colleague in the van and toured a few sites near the distribution aiming to collect these women and bring them to the centre for some respite, some warmth and some food. Most women came eagerly, encouraged by the men whom they were with.
We set out our materials, as food was cooked, yoga practiced with much giggling, showers taken and hair carefully combed and braided. There was a sense of brief comfort. Over the afternoon individuals sat with us to examine postcards and draw, the daughter of one of the volunteer translators immersed in her art making alongside us. As newcomers in the space we were aware that it takes time to build the trust and rapport to work together.
The timing of the distribution is now earlier as a response to the seasonal shift. Small groups of people eagerly clustered around the map which stands bright against the dark sky.
We spotted a makeshift prayer mat discretely placed – made from a piece of cardboard that was carefully and respectfully passed on from one person to another to offer their evening prayers.
People were keen to tell us their stories and journeys. One young man, rich in confidence and potential to excel, described his previous work as a confectioner, making all our mouths water with delectable recipes for desserts. He told of his mother and father dying and living with his grandfather whom he looked after, carefully cooking for him until he died last year. He told us of his struggles getting through particular countries, having been detained, abused and forced to walk for days and days, and being thrown into jail. We asked him what kept him going, where he found his resilience from? “I believe in me” – he said, “I want to study and go to university.” We asked his age, thinking he was in his twenties – “seventeen” he said, “although now maybe eighteen.”
We attended the Secours Catholique meeting where there was a celebration cake for a volunteer who had received ten years leave to remain. Thoughtful and thought through discussion ensued as to how to work together as a team, with partner organisations, refugees and local communities. They are a brave courageous team, working tirelessly to provide some respite to those who literally have nothing. But this work brings struggles that were acknowledged as was the need to just carry on… “et voilà” … and there it is!
Before arriving at the Safe House we passed the beach, the day was windy but clear – so clear you could see across the waves to the White Cliffs of Dover, a reminder of how near the UK is to France and how we should be working together to support people.
We arrived at the Safe House and were invited to join in a culinary work of art that had been created by residents. The meal was made collectively and eaten collectively. Around the table workers and volunteers drew, immersed in the art making. Two young men built houses. "This is here", one young man said showing us his house, "this is the front door, the bathroom, where I sleep, this is this house.” Once again a reflection of how the Safe House is made a temporary home by the collective input from residents, staff and volunteers working together, creating a safe space.