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.


Anonymous said...

Hello Simon

Please forgive this out of the blue and unrelated comment, but back in October 2008 (I think) I commented a lot on your blog. Mainly about contemporary Christianity - and Graham Kendrick!

So much has changed in my life since then (for the better!) and I'd really like to share my story with you. I re-read what I wrote yesterday evening and I cannot believe the person I was then.

I am sorry that I wrote so harshly and judgementally. It was wrong and I owe you a long overdue apology. I had no idea that the hound of heaven was tracking me down even then.

If you are able to post a contact email, I'd really like to email you directly. I promise you I'm not a weirdo stalker - just a person who needs to put things right.

Again, I appreciated our discussion, am sorry for my aggression, mis-directed and cynicism and would love to tell you how a God has turned my life upside down.

With warmest regards - and grateful thanks.


Anonymous said...

Sorry - fat fingers on an iPhone. That second to last paragraph should read:

Again, I appreciated our discussion, am truly sorry for my aggression, mis-directed anger and cynicism and would love to tell you how God has turned my life upside down.

simon said...

Hey anonymous, great to hear from you; I'd love to hear more of your story so email me on