Friday, February 12, 2016

Is there hope in the darkness engufling my friends?

It’s a while since I’ve blogged about my now weekly visits to the camp that increasingly looks like a suburb of a Calais. The so-called jungle is home to a group of friends struggling to hold their lives together in the teeth of sometimes the indifference and often the hostility of their neighbours. On the day I visited this week, tensions were high and nerves were frayed; people joked and told stories but their eyes and body language indicated that they had deep forebodings about the immediate future.

Soon after we left and were safely chilling with coffee and chocolate as the train rattled back to England, heavily armed men raided one of the cafes we use. One of my friends was beaten and kicked as his business was searched and semi-ransacked. The perpetrators of this crime were the CRS, the French riot police, partially payed for by British tax payers to keep the peace of Calais and the security of our borders. I felt sick as I read Tom’s report of the incident the morning after and then I felt fury rising from the pit of my stomach.

So, what’s happening?

The tensions are rising because the story is being put about that the French government wants to close and demolish the camp by the end of March. If necessary, they will use the army to get this done.
It gives the regular meeting of the community leaders, volunteers and ACTED (the French NGO sent in by the courts to make up for the French government’s callous disregard for the humanitarian needs of the 5,000 or so residents of the camp) something of an edge. Two weeks ago, this meeting had opened with two announcements. One was that the street lighting would be repaired by tomorrow. The other was that the water was now safe to drink as it came from mains that ran along the Chemin des Dunes at the back of the camp. There was muted cheering at both these announcements.  I couldn’t help but think of the matters arising section of a council meeting in any English town. It all seemed so normal, so matter-of-fact.

There were two visitors at this meeting, one from Amnesty International and one from UNHCR. Both had come to gather statistics and stories. They were met with storm of indignant disbelief. Voice after voice was raised asking how many times the refugees have to tell their story before things change. A Syrian asked when will people take seriously the daily threat of violence from those they call the fascists – supporters of France’s Front Nationale who on a nightly basis are attacking anyone from the jungle they happen to see out and about in Calais. A north African community leader asked when all these organisations will have enough detail to take action. ‘it seems that human rights in France are just for white people,’ he said; ‘you people come for 40 minutes; we’re here for months. Some of our people have disappeared, some have died; there’s no protection for us here while you gather statistics.’

I felt a degree of sympathy for the beleaguered woman from Amnesty. But I share the frustration of my friends. Too often they’ve told their story in the hope that things will change. Too often, nothing happens.

There is huge anger in the camp that the police do not protect the residents from the fascists. An Afghan leader, speaking in slow measured tones, said, ‘We tell our people not to fight the police but the police do not protect us from the fascists. Sometimes the police seem to egg the fascists on, standing aside while they beat our people.’ I hang my head in shame as my tax pounds are being spent putting this inept and vicious police force to work around the jungle.

Before the meeting ended, people from L’Auberge and Secours Catholique announced that they were seeking a court order to prevent any more demolitions until everyone in the camp had an offer of proper help and accommodation. The man from Secours stressed he was not defending the camp as such but rather the right of everyone in it for decent housing, care and dignity. Of course, the French authorities would retort that they have built a container village for 1500 and have secure assessment centres across the country where people will be fed while they are processed.

An Ethiopian man voiced the opinion of many that everyone here wants to go to England; who is helping with that? He added that no one wants to go into the containers because you can’t leave that prison at night and so you cannot try your luck at the border.

A week later, the community meeting is more subdued but still pre-occupied with the same issues. There were no good news announcements at the start of the meeting; indeed, it was reported that the street lights had only worked for a day and that the water supply had gone off to one section of the camp. But these were not the major concerns of the community leaders. ‘Where are the missing?’ asked one; ‘why are the police not protecting us from the fascists?’ asked another. Even the Syrian interpreter for the meeting speaks of not feeling safe in Calais. You can cut the fear with a knife.
And Syrians are talking of leaving, not to try to get to Britain but to go home to Syria to fight. Over hot sweet chai – the best in the camp? – my friend says, ‘I’m dying here, I might as well go home and die fighting.’ It fills me with despair to think that it’s come to this, that after a 5000 mile, year-long journey in search of hope and freedom, the only way forward is go home and take your chances with Assad, Isis, the Russians, the coalition, Al Nusra, the Iranians, the Turks and the kurds.

But the building goes on. A youth centre has opened with space for young people to hang out and play games. Tom is building a centre for several of his activities, including his NA meetings, where people want to kick habits acquired as a result of their flight from terror. It was good to see him and Johannes in animated conversation over chai in the Kabul Café. The theatre space is thriving and the education rooms – including the new ones built since the demolitions of a fortnight ago – are full of eager learners. 

In the midst of death, the camp is in life; where there’s despair, humans can’t help but sow hope.
But even as I write this, word arrives that more of the camp has been earmarked for the bull dozer, including St Michael’s church. The fear ratchets up, spirits are crushed, and an impotent rage rises in the guts of those of us who spend our time supporting this community but aren’t permanent residents. It’s possible that the camp will be destroyed by the beginning of March and that its residents will have been scattered to the four winds yet again, alone to take their chances in a Europe that doesn’t give a damn about them. It breaks my heart.

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