A quick blog on my first visit to Calais.
Someone asked this week if people were getting tired of the refugee story. Have we heard enough about it? Are people not clicking anymore because they've stopped caring? The question itself annoys me. The refugee crisis is more than just a story. It's not just some miserable entertainment that needs to be repackaged and rebranded to capture the interest of the public.
A few horrific images of a dead child on a beach sparked a couple of days of outrage last year, but the image of that body could be washed away by the headline about the gangs of men in Cologne on 1st January and it feels like people don't want to hear about Calais or the word "refugee" any more.
A few days after this conversation a friend shared a call-out on Facebook asking for people interested in going to Calais with London2Calais to help with distribution and clear-up in the Jungle and to go on a refugee solidarity demo. It felt like a sign and I went along to join the group. If I hadn't gone I would probably have spent the day either reading about the news or looking at trainers so I thought that it would be a good idea to take the opportunity.
I woke up at 5am and wrapped up to meet the coach and we met at Euston. I found myself among people who had been to Calais multiple times working on distribution, medical aid and other forms of support. Our little group was quite mixed, Somalis, Afhans, Pakistanis, Ghanians and of course, Algerians sitting at the back of the bus sharing hummus, pitta bread and stories.
I had heard stories about journalists getting threatened with violence in the camp, which isn't really surprising to be honest. Journalists have been crawling all over the camp sticking their cameras in people's faces for months now, and yet they aren't feeling that the media coverage has done much good for their cases and many are concerned that if their image is taken, it may be used against their asylum cases. For that reason I planned to leave my camera at home, but a friend from the Black Students Campaign asked me to bring it for the demo.
There was a bridge at the entrance of the camp, with four police trucks parked on top, looking down onto the camp. Below the bridge was full of graffiti in French, Arabic and English. I met some Moroccans at the entrance who came from an organisation in Belgium to show their solidarity and join the march. Once we got into the camp the main strip someone perfectly described the atmosphere as "the festival you can never leave". The ground was trampled with wet mud and shoe-prints and there were small shops on the streets selling anything from headphones to cigarettes. We even came across several shisha spots, where food was being served. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't a fun place, but it was amazing to see what had been done to create spaces for people to congregate in. It shows just how long people have been waiting here for.
We were only in the camp for a short while but our group were well received. It's not really surprising when you consider how many languages were covered by the individuals in the group, and I think the mixture of faces intrigued the people passing by. Men were performing wudu in small spaces dotted around there water came out of running taps, but the water was flowing straight into the mud which surrounded everything. People came and spoke to us, and asked some of the people to help them make a poster for the protest, calling out the police for beating them. There were quite a few broken arms, legs and broken noses on the march, and one shy Somali man told us that his arm and fingers were broken by the police after they caught him trying to board a truck. MSF had treated him and he had his arm in a cast.
I could see some other Europeans in the camp, walking around with cameras which made me uncomfortable. You could see that people were getting agitated and fed up of having their pictures taken as they went about their day. It's especially bad when they don't ask first, or don't stop to talk to people. Our group had a self-imposed camera ban, which was probably one of the reasons we found it easy to talk to people.
We went to the back of the camp and found the containers where they want to move the refugees and asylum seekers to. There's a dark irony about stopping a man from boarding a container to the UK, but asking him to enter one that's not going anywhere. They don't even have windows.
Our group fractured into smaller ones as different people got involved in particular tasks and I ended up with Taha and Marco for most of the march. Even though there wasn't any trouble, they looked out for me as there was quite a large ratio of men to women. Many of the people living in the camp came on the protest which was organised by French organisations. It felt bizarre to be marching in solidarity with refugees and asylum seekers next to refugees and asylum seekers.
I found myself talking to people from many different countries, including a Sudanese man who called himself Al-Noor. I asked him if why he wanted to the UK and he said "I have more of a connection with the UK because of colonisation. I speak the language and there are other Sudanese people like me there".
We got into the city centre which looked even more grim than usual under the grey weather. White faces looked down onto the street with broken expressions. One woman shouted in French from her apartment "go back to where you came from you dogs, sons of whores". I remember thinking about the word xenophobic and that if you're scared of people, you don't shout abuse at them from your living room window so they know where you live...
I look a few photos on the protest and one man came up to me and told me that I had to send the pictures to David Cameron. Another fellow asked me to say hello to his family on Skype which was quite funny and I exchanged salaams with more people than I could count throughout the day.
The march was largely peaceful, apart from the singing, dancing and the brass band - I'm not sure who they came with but they were very good. We ended up in the square where you could see that a good couple of thousand people had turned out. The police had a strong presence but there were no problems in any of the main areas where we were.
We had to plan enough time to get through security on the way back and most of us were feeling emotionally and physically exhausted. We got back to London and went to have dinner together. It was raining and we talked about what the people at the camp must have been doing. I left and walked down Oxford Street to catch the bus home at around midnight, and felt especially conscious of all the bodies in sleeping bags lining the road. I found myself making eye contact and wondering whether any of these people had come through Calais. I wondered what their stories were and I remembered the conversation we had at the beginning of the week about whether people are losing interest in the refugee "story".
It feels sometimes like the sympathy is spent, and the patience for the refugee crisis is running thin, but I truly believe that we are going to look back on this time and ask ourselves what we were thinking. There are people living in hellish conditions, with their lives hanging in the balance, relying on hand-outs and pushed into a corner, and these people are only a couple of hours away from London. Many of them have travelled hundreds of miles and desperate to find somewhere that is better than where they left. Mental and physical health is a huge concern here and yet they're regarded as sub-human in many of the headlines that we see in the newspapers at the moment. It's a disgrace and ignoring it won't make it go away.
We spent just a few hours in Calais yesterday, and you can hardly comprehend the situation from that. It's changing by the day, and all those who had visited previously saw stark difference between the camp now and before. That said, there are people like those from London2Calais who are regularly doing great work delivering food, clothes and essential supplies to people in the camps. Having seen for myself the work that they are doing, I would really recommend supporting them if you can, as what they are doing is so important.
You can donate to London2Calais here.
All pictures are mine, please credit if you use them.