Calais - January 11-12, 2018
We returned to Calais on Thursday after a three week break and were not surprised to find that the cold and exhaustion haven't abated. At meetings with our partners Médecins du Monde and Secours Catholique we gathered that the numbers of refugees in Calais seem to be rising at the moment. The two days were clouded by the death of a young Eritrean man on the motorway on Tuesday and in each setting we visited his absence was felt, and we were moved by discussions about the need to support and appropriately honour his death, which follows several others over the new year period.
This week also reminded us about the central role of trust in this work. As we moved between the different spaces across the two days we saw many of the same faces and people seemed pleased that we had followed on to the next setting and not just left.
Our friend was pleased to see us and we him. We spoke together about his concerns about his family and made phone calls on his behalf. We were moved to meet his father in Sudan for the first time - on Whats- App. We chatted while a light bulb was changed above the bed, bringing new light into the room to allow us to look together at postcards and stage a mini handheld exhibition in the space before leaving.
The Secours Catholique Day Centre space was warm and already occupied by men of various nationalities sitting at tables, charging phones, playing cards, attempting a jigsaw puzzle, resting on the carpet, occupying the space in a way that suggested they feel safe and welcomed.
We in turn occupied the central table with our usual offering of postcards, plasticine and bricks, and men gradually joined us from Afghanistan, Syria, Iran and Sudan, reminiscent of the afternoons we had regularly shared with mixed groups of people in the large Calais camp before it closed.
Discussions with an electrical engineer, mechanic and electrician ranged from geology to art history, psychology and stress to identity and family. Each person stayed at the table, allowing themselves time for absorption in the art media while one young Sudanese teenager set about making a delicate drawing from a postcard of a Paul Klee watercolour.
We moved on to the edge-of-town muddy wasteland that is the site each evening for several organisations to gather for a few hours with their various tools - water, toilets, doctor, a double decker bus for shelter, food, board games. With our map taped once again to the side of the Médecins du Monde ambulance we sat with others at a table in the mud and made art together or listened and watched as a journey was worked out across the surface of the map. The engineer arrived from an hour earlier, delighted it seemed to see us and us him. Such moments of mutual respect evidenced the importance of continuity, giving us all a sense that it was worth coming. The light dropped while new brick towers and shelters for the plasticine animals were built, and the temporary city once again began to disperse.
SECOURS CATHOLIQUE MEETING
It was proposed that there needs to be an inter-association meeting about how to put weight and action in response to the Macron government's harsh new laws in relation to refugees and migrants. The reality seems to be about making life as difficult for people as possible.
How do you create a resistance when the voices of the people who do this work are completely ignored? There hasn't been the public demonstrations about these issues in the same ways as there are in some other cities in Europe, such as London or Barcelona.
There was much discussion about the need to maintain pressure on the government and to bring the community together, such as by reactivating the 6000 strong local base of activists who have supported refugee rights in this region for many years, going back to Sangatte.
There were positive and moving discussions too. In Belgium a number of younger refugees are currently safe and being looked after through a lodging network and this is a great relief; the system appears to be working well there.
There was also much pleasure expressed at the Orthodox Christmas celebrations on January 6th, 80 or so refugees attending a meal, service and sleep in the church. Staff and volunteers were deeply impressed by people's ability to find rejuvenation in such an event.
The death of the young man was also discussed and the need to remind people of the very real dangers of the roads. An essential discussion took place about the need to think about what support can be put in place when there are deaths and family wants to visit etc. It was acknowledged how difficult it is to sit with someone when they receive bad news from their country or from a bereavement in France.
The director commented upon how impressed he is by those local citizens who turn up to offer a gesture of silence when people die; and yet the state's refusal to give people a name, rendering them anonymous in the press, keeping them nameless refugees without identity.
The house was unusually quiet and subdued in mood. It had been the resting place the night before of a few family and village members of the young man who had died, while several of the young house occupants were out of the house here or there. A respectful and moving gathering around the table of staff and volunteers prepared the way for a few young men who joined us in brick-building. And humour was possible - who could build highest or construct the longest bridge across the Channel?
This is a house that can accommodate such play while making difficult decisions about who is offered a bed for the night, receiving good and bad news in turns, and graciously welcoming back into the fold of the home the bereaved family, for another round the table meal and a night of respite.