Calais, January 10-11, 2019
There is concern in northern France about the dangers of the boat journeys being attempted across the Channel, as there is in the UK. These have a direct impact on our partners and their work with shocking stories relayed to us of one group’s boat catching fire and another boat being rescued by police after it was found filling up with water and a young child on board.
There was curiosity from our partners about Brexit with little reporting taking place about it on the French side of the Channel. Brexit meanwhile continues to be used by smugglers to convince people, largely Iranian, to make the crossing now, in advance of the March Brexit date.
We have ourselves been told several times now that crossing the Channel in a small dinghy is preferential to staying in Calais whatever the dangers. Indeed a small group of people from Africa who can’t afford the smuggler fees have taken to attempting to swim, quickly realising that the cold water would kill them a short distance from the shore.
On Thursday morning we witnessed numerous police vans, as well as CRS police with riot gear delivering one of their regular clearances of tents. We saw where many people are sleeping up on the slag heaps near the old camp and were once again taken aback by the relentless cold weather and the fact that people are still outside struggling to survive under these inhospitable and often violent conditions.
We spent five hours across the afternoon in the day centre with a carefully selected, limited choice of materials - map, postcards, bricks, plasticine, truck. The centre was very busy and the table well used. Unusually we we joined by two bright young Iranian boys who brought a fresh atmosphere to the table with paper aeroplanes and a paper boat made for them, and a positive sense that they were being looked after and out for by the men in the room.
One man - a highly qualified structural engineer of very tall buildings - joined us at the table and proceeded to build the tallest tower we have seen to date in this space. He used a method we have not seen before - forming an internal core on a solid base, around which he constructed an outer shell, intending to build a further outer shell as he went higher. We looked together at the structure and learnt new things about how to make the towers as resilient as possible.
The tower building continued with one young man from Africa - a builder - making a large solid base which enabled him to build a stunning tower that looked like it could withstand any weather. There was a lovely gentle atmosphere with a domino challenge and the making of totemic figures in the sturdy old truck.
We were pleased to be back in the safe house for the final few hours of the day after several weeks break due to the bedbugs and holiday.
Unlike the vast majority of those crossing the Channel in small boats, all the young Eritrean and Ethiopian men in the safe house have already made a terrifying sea crossing.
This afternoon with long term volunteers grounding things, two friends described their own frightening boat crossing from Libya last August in a tiny boat with one bottle of water and a piece of cake for three days. They were then held on a ship at sea for ten days while no country would let the ship dock. Well reported at the time in the press, it was moving to witness them searching for familiar faces on photographs they found on google, and the strength of this friendship that had started in Libya and continued to the safe house in Calais, literally through troubled waters.
We realised once again that this work is about faith and hope on so many levels both on our own part and in connecting to other people’s.