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.

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