Sunday, January 03, 2016

Waiting for the Christmas that will bring them hope

On Wednesday I'm returning to Calais to visit friends in the camp known as the jungle. It'll be Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas, so one of my travelling companions will be bringing food and other gifts for the community as they celebrate the coming of their saviour.

I was last there the Monday before our Christmas. We arrived to be told that an MP was visiting and that we should go and join those waiting for him in the library. We joined a group hanging out in and around Jungle Books. It was a mixed bunch of English and French volunteers and camp residents. And we waited. Finally, we told our friend that we were heading off to catch up with some other friends and we'd return when the prestigious visitor showed up (he should text us).

For many in the camp, waiting is a full-time activity (I've talked about this before). People wait for food and clothes, for the possibility of better shelter, for a politician who might just have the key to unlock their status (of course, he never does!).  As our Ethiopian Orthodox brothers and sisters end their advent with Christmas, just as we have recently ended ours, for residents in the jungle advent feels like an eternity, almost Narnian in its longevity - always winter and never Christmas.

In the library I met an Afghan pharmacist who's using his wait to tend the wounds of those who tried to scale the fences and fallen foul of the French police. He has a daily line of visitors with various lacerations, bumps and bruises. When he isn't sticking plasters on deep wounds, he is ensuring that the library runs smoothly, that people have all they need to continue their education - learning English, learning to read, writing letters, etc.

He worked in an Afghan hospital run first by the US army and then by the British. Because of this his family was targeted by the Taliban; half of them were killed. When ISAF withdrew, he fled for his life. Now he's in the jungle. More than many residents, he's here because of us; I am responsible for the limbo he is in. He served the needs of the UK state in its war in his country but we refused him asylum. So now the only home he has is the makeshift one he's made for himself in the jungle.

As we headed for little Syria, we met an Egyptian man with whom we fell into a conversation. He showed his hands, cut by the razor wire our government has spent £7.5m installing along the motorway and around the tunnel and ferry port entrances. I commiserated with him, wished the fences weren't there. He showed me a sim card for a Three mobile that he'd acquired. We talked about how to set up his account. We parted expressing the hope that one day we'll have this conversation in England. It all felt considerably surreal.

There were some positive things happening as we walked around the camp. ACTED diggers were installing drainage pipes in Afghan Square (yes, parts of the camp are being given names by the residents). And the French government are putting in a container village - consisting of properly converted shipping containers, complete with windows and radiators, with mains drainage and front doors - for 2,200 residents. It's a very good development but it raises the question of what happens to the other 2,500 to 3,000 residents of the existing camp when it opens and how will the government decide who gets offered a place in this village.

But even with all these developments, the overwhelming sense of life in the camp is of waiting. Despite all the building and enterprise (cafes and restaurants, shops and bike hire outfits), people in the camp are waiting for their lives to start. People who ran businesses, worked in hospitals, had families and neighbours, hopes and dreams, want to be those people again. Above all else, they want to be those people back home where they lived and loved before war and oppressive governments drove them away. But for the time being, they will settle be offered temporary asylum in the UK where they already know the language, have some family or friendship connections and are prepared to work hard making themselves and us all that little bit richer.

So, how about it mr Cameron, will you rise to the challenge of offering these people hope or will you stay small, pandering the little englander faction in your broken party? It's a tough call but lots of your fellow brits are willing to make the right choice.

No comments: