Thursday, October 29, 2015

Reflections from the jungle

If you want your heart broken, sit in the sand of Calais' jungle (the ramshackle refugee community in the shadow of the docks, barely 30 miles from our shores) and listen to a Damascus shop keeper speak of his grief at being separated from his family and ending up here. Then look at the pictures of two bright and beaming  girls, four and two, that he longs to hold and whose voices he can hardly bear to hear on the phone when he is able to get through to them.

Mahmoud is lost in the jungle, talking of his plans with eyes that betray the fact he's lost all hope of being anywhere but here.

Feeling the solid presence of my passport in my back pocket, I listen to this former soldier whose choice was to leave his country or join his government's war against his neighbours share his story in faltering English in the hope that telling it one more time might lead to a different outcome. Rarely have I felt so helplessly privileged.

He, like so many others, is lost in the jungle; lost in a limbo of indifference where the French authorities see them as an embarrassment and the UK government refuses to see them at all.

Everywhere you look new structures are rising, more permanent than the make-shift tents they are replacing; shops, cafes, mosques, a church, a women and children's centre (with its blunt warning: no photography, no journalists), a bicycle repair shop, a pedal driven generator for charging mobiles, all signs that even the despairing try to make a life that works for them.

I was tagging along with various concerned faith and civic leaders from the UK and had the privilege of meeting representatives of three French NGOs at the sharp end of offering support to those in the jungle. They estimate that there are some 6,000 people there but the number fluctuates as the French authorities move some out while others move in (having made the trek from southern Europe, often on foot). They also estimate that 90% of them are asylum seekers - fleeing war, oppression and persecution - not economic migrants. And they argue that the heightened security (UK-funded razor wire, van loads of French riot police) has played into the hands of the people smugglers - mafia as they call them - and sent the prices they charge spiralling upwards.

It was a day of tears. Listening to Mahmoud and seeing the pictures of his girls (so like my granddaughters) cut me in half. Worshipping with Ethiopian Orthodox brothers and sisters in the increasingly solid St Michael's Church was moving beyond words. Even in the midst of this horror, God is with his people. And after worship they laid on a feast; I never cease to be amazed and humbled at the open-hearted generosity of the poorest of the earth.

So, I come home resolved to do the one thing that everyone we met asked of us: lobby the government to open its eyes and start processing asylum applications in or near the camp. Many who have made it this far have relatives in the UK - parents, spouses, siblings or children - and therefore have a good claim to having their claims upheld. Only our indifference keeps them out.

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