Tuesday, November 24, 2015

caravans and libraries, sharing food and tears under Calais' darkening skies

I arrived for my third visit to the so-called jungle in Calais yesterday, thirty-six hours after fire has destroyed about 50 homes. Men are digging out the charred remains of tents and makeshift structures caught up in the inferno. Some have found fresh tents to live in but many are looking at another night in the open air.

The fire scorched and melted some of the outer fence of St Michael’s church; that fence is made of plastic sheeting, the main building material in the camp.

Water stands in lakes across the roads and tracks, churned to a thick, gloopy mud that makes parts of the site resemble a first world war battle field. This is partly due to rain and partly to the French fire brigade who eventually turned up to the blaze.

The camp is stretching out towards and along the motorway that takes travellers to the port. In the shade of some of the £7m fencing that our government provided to keep the refugees enclosed in this space, structures are going up made of four by two and plastic sheet, big enough for a couple but often occupied by half a dozen or so. They are packed close together which is why a spark from a fire – lit for warmth and cooking – causes such wide-spread damage. The amazing thing is that there aren’t more of them and that no one’s been badly hurt.

We were delivering caravans, one for our proposed listening project, others for people to live in – especially the more vulnerable camp dwellers (families with small children; women on their own). We were also deliveries a heap of clothes and duvets, boots and waterproofs generously donated by people from our church. For some of our party, it was a first visit. One seasoned visitor to slum communities in India was shocked and troubled at what he saw. Some went off to help guys build shelters, others to meet residents and hear their stories.

I was keen to catch up with Samir as I had a box of food for him to use in his kitchen. He received it and looked inside to see what there was. Then he distributed bags of rice, onions and oil to representatives of the families or groups that he has responsibility for, keeping just a single bag for himself. The generosity of the poorest never ceases to amaze me.

He wanted to show me the library and education centre housed three shelters along from his kitchen. The library is stocked with books – dictionaries for those learning European languages, histories, books in Arabic, novels in English – as well as a computer (although the generator is broken and someone has stolen the modem!) It is amazing that in the midst of the relentless difficulties of living in this place, people come to read, to talk about ideas, share stories and learn languages. 

Humans are amazing. These people are here because of the worst that men do but what we see as we visit is the best that people are capable of. It’s profoundly humbling. As we embraced at the end of the day, I felt I was leaving my brother in this dark and desolate place.

One of our group went to the Syrian village where a woman called Miriam has a two-week old baby. She’s received no pre- or post-natal care; the family is in an unheated caravan (which is at least water-tight), has no access to warm water and has to use portable toilets that would shame the fifth day of a music festival. This is no place for a two week baby and a nursing mother still recovering from labour.

So, we have a dream: can we find somewhere for this family; somewhere safe, dry, warm, with access to some basic healthcare and good sanitation? Ideally, we’d like to find a family who could offer hospitality to this family somewhere in France. And, yes, we know there are all sorts of mountains in the way of this – they are undocumented, they don’t speak the language, what if there is an emergency… 

But this is the time of year for impossible mountains to be scaled. A long time ago, another Miriam had a baby in less than ideal circumstances – though she probably had family around her and was able to have her son in a warm and secure place. That and baby soon had to flee because of the murderous intentions of their government, living as homeless refugees for a number of years.
Yet that boy was Emmanuel, the Word made flesh, God moving into our neighbourhood so he could be with us.

So those of you who pray, please pray for Miriam and her family; for Samir and the group he is responsible for and the work he does alongside other volunteers community-building and peace-making; for everyone caught in this shanty town on the edge of a city in a G8 country, ignored by the host, shunned by its neighbours, left in a limbo of indifference.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Facing reality over a feast in the jungle

This week I returned to the camp in Calais that's known as the Jungle. It was only a fortnight since my first visit but a lot had changed. Many more permanent structures had been built and a number were under construction as we walked through the central area of the settlement. On top of that toilets and shower rooms had been installed in various places and there seemed to be more generators powering electric lights in the shops and cafes that line the main drag through the camp.

In one sense all this development is good; in another, it suggests that the jungle will become a permanent fixture, a growing shanty town on the edge of Calais, the end of the line for so many people fleeing persecution and war.

People like a man from Sudan who showed me his village within the settlement. There are some solid structures - including a kitchen he's erected where he and his friends cook for a couple of dozen people every day - but mostly people are living in a rag-tag mix of tents, some supplemented by plastic sheeting, but all being ripped apart by the wind that cut through the camp on a mild but blowy day. The sound of flapping plastic formed a backdrop to every conversation.

We were offered iced tea and hot, very strong, very sweet black coffee and the chance to meet some of his fellow-countrymen in the his kitchen. Some are bright and smiling, optimistic that this is a transit camp. Others have built solid structures from wood and tarpaulin, knowing that this will be their home for the foreseeable future and they'd better make the best of it. People talk of their hope of finding a safe place, a peaceful and secure life.

As we walked in the early afternoon we came upon clutches of men attempting to light fires to cook on. One group had dug a pit, lined it with kindling-sized pieces of wood and were attempting to the light the cardboard they hoped would enable them to create a camp fire. But already everything is too damp to catch. I wonder what their lives will be like when winter sets in and damp turns to wet and the frozen ground is too hard to dig.

We came upon a quartet digging down into the sandy soil and filling plastic bags to be weights holding the sides of their tents to the ground. We followed them to where they were building their shelter from heavy plastic sheeting, held up by tree boughs stripped of their foliage. It didn't look promising, but it's better than nothing.

We'd had lunch with our Sudanese friend at an Afghan cafe, along with Tom, a monk and peacemaker, a volunteer increasingly concerned about the well-being of the host of inspiring mainly young people from across Europe who have come to help out. There are no organisations here, no NGOs with settled ways of doing things which can direct the energies of these folk and ensure that they are working within a framework that includes time off and away, time to recharge batteries that are quickly drained.

Tom talks of the need for places to chill, debrief, let the swirl of emotions engulfing them like smoke from the kitchen fires, dissipate in a controlled and healing way. He fears for many of them. And as if to prove his point, we run across a young British man, who's wired and nervy, needing a light for his cigarette, while his staccato speech jumps from one story to another with no narrative thread. He's been working since seven this morning and wants a lift to the warehouse (at least a half hour walk away) in order to do his evening shift. It's getting on for 5pm. He needs down time and a square meal and a chance to kick his heals on the beach or visit a bar far away from here with a bunch of mates. But that won't happen

So, we're returning with a caravan to help establish a kind of listening project for volunteers. It'll be a place where anyone can sit and chill, talk about what they're doing, how they're doing, how they're feeling. It'll be a place where people can find themselves and deal with the conflicting emotions that are the inevitable consequence of working constantly day-in, day-out for days on end. It's a work in progress, an idea that was taking shape over lunch - a spectacular feast of spicy chicken, omelettes and bread - and continues to develop as we talk about it and plan to get the first part of it in place.

Watch this space...

In the meantime, I worry for my Sudanese friends as the winter hits. Today in England the temperature was down to 4 degrees. It's due to be 8 degrees when we return on Monday, half the temperature it was when we were there three days ago. I really do not know how my friends are going to cope, how they'll keep warm and fed, and most of all how they will not despair in the chill of a northern European winter.

Oh, and the showers I mentioned, these are sheds with a tiled floor, rudimentary drainage and no running water. To wash, you go inside with a bucket of cold water taken from one of the taps being put in and do your best. It's better than it was but it doesn't even get close to meeting minimal requirements for human decency. The jungle lives up to its name even in its most developed elements.

It cries out for governments and NGOs to acknowledge its existence and make it a civilised place of safety for desperate people.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

God in the darkness

The ghastly heart-breaking events in Paris on Friday evening cast a chill over everything. Today under leaden rain-filled skies we spent time on London's south bank with good friends, loafing and laughing in first one cafe, then another.

Occasionally the conversation drifted towards Paris and what if... But we listened to the free jazz, enjoyed excellent coffee and walnut cake and luxuriated in our freedom to do what the hell we liked.

And my thoughts have been Calais intermittently through the day, the past few days. I've wondered about the people I met a week ago, wondered about the precariousness of their lives in the grim tarpaulin ghetto, under increasingly wintery skies, wondered about their fragile hopes.

The horror of what was visited on the citizens of Paris on Friday - which could so easily be visited on us - reminded me that for so many, this is a daily reality. Before Paris, suicide bombers created carnage in Lebanon and before that barrel bombs fell on Damascus suburbs, and gunmen strafed shoppers in a South Sudanese market, and Libyans live in fear of their neighbours, and...

...And so the litany of fear and conflict continues.

In our conversation today, my friend asked 'where was God on Friday night?' The answer that now trips off the tongue because it's the one Eli Wiesel offered when asked the same question about Auschwitz, is that he was on the streets, in the restaurants, in the night club and football stadium, feeling the kiss of shrapnel, the jarring penetration of bullets.

Is it the whole answer? No. Perhaps he was in the queues of Parisians desperate to give blood to save the lives of strangers; perhaps he was in the policemen painstakingly removing the dead, trying to identify the bodies for grieving relatives; perhaps he was in the congregations of Christians and Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs all praying for an end to the darkness. Of course, he was in all those places and more.

And he is in the jungle, meeting his people in St Michael's, energising the doctors volunteering with the sick, in the hands and eyes of the poor offering their food to you, in the stories of flight and hope, in the tears of rage and exhaustion, in the dogged determination to see people receive justice and the camp be consigned to history.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot snuff it out however hard it tries, because the darkness doesn't get it, because the darkness is only an absence. The light is a presence, always and forever leaking in through the cracks and prevailing. If that wasn't true, we'd have retreated to hide in our houses and closed our hearts to the strangers in our midst. But it is true, so we go into the world and do what we can do and leave the outcome to God, the source of the light.