Sunday, March 20, 2016

Lessons for Europe in owning responsibility and moving forward

A lot's happened in the jungle since I last blogged. There have been times over the past couple of weeks when I thought that the community would be sent to the four winds as the Calais Prefecture moved to sweep the camp away. But that hasn't happened for reasons that I don't fully understand but which  I think are profoundly linked to Christian witness (I'll explain that in a second posting...)

Having won the court case, the Prefecture moved fairly swifly to demolish the southern half of the jungle. While this began three weeks ago very aggressively, they remained true to their commitment not to demolish community buildings such as schools, the church, the youth centre and the library. These now stand in splendid isolation in a charred wasteland that used to be a vibrant community.

And although they began aggessively, in the second week of the clearances the CRS, the armoured French riot police, began to allow volunteers and residents to move shelters that had been earmarked for deomolition. So when we visited on the second Thurdsay, we witnessed amicable negotiations going on between clutches of volunteers and squads of CRS over which shelters could be moved from the clearance zone to another part of the camp. Through the day a steady stream of walking groups carrying someone's home wended their way down the jungle's high street from the southern to the northern part of the camp. Several shelters were also moved on low-loaders.

Visitng the northern part of the camp later in the day we found acres of newly inhabited land, home to rows of shelters and new residents settling into their new environment. It was a sight to put a smile on our faces in the early spring sunshine.

Of course, it was almost inevitable that cramming so many people of so many different nations so closely together could result in friction, neighbour disputes, turf wars of one kind or another. And sadly, the week after I'd seen so many people moving, word reached us that there had been a big fight between Sudanese and Afghan residents. It happened on a wednesday evening, the day before I was due to visit.

So, I have to say, that on that Thursday as I appraoched the camp, I did so wih some trepidation. I expected there to be a heavy police presence;  expected an atmosphere of suspicion and fear, where volunteers like me would maybe be less welcome than we have been. I needn't have worried. We passed the handful of CRS at the entrance and strode into the usual vibrant and bustling scene that we have come to expect.

We were greeted by members of our team and some community leaders with smiles and offers of tea. But it was clear that there the events of the previous evening had left a mark that needed to be addressed. So in the early afternoon we were invited to attend to a meeting at which the Sudanese and Afghans were going to resolve their differences. I asked one of my colleagues whether it was wise for us to be there and he replied that it would be good to have a group of people present who were not angry; that perhaps our calmness would lower the tensions in the tent where the meeting was to happen. So we all duly pitched up, removed our shoes (the space being used is a mosque) and sat around the sides of the large tent.

We needn't have worried. One by one Sudanese and Afghan community leaders rose to do two things. The first was to say that the unfortunate events of the previous evening had been everyone's fault, including that of the community leaders. I have to say that seeing gentle men who have never lifted their voice in anger, let alone threatened someone with a rock, owning responsibility for what had happened was extremely humbling. I reflected on the fact that as we met in this makeshift mosque, a hundred or so miles away in Brussels, EU leaders were meeting to pass the buck, blame others for the situation Europe finds itself in for the migration crisis and cobble together a solution that treats the people gathered around me as packages to sent here and there at the whim of a politician. What I saw in the mosque was true servant leadership of a kind I rearely experience or offer in the UK

The second thing my friends all said was that they were determined to work together for as long as the camp remained to ensure its peace, to ensure that it operated in the interests of all its residents, to ensure that no one lived in fear of their neighbour. They reminded each other that they had each fled places where they'd lived in fear of their neighbours and their governments. They needed to ensure that having come all this way, no one felt such fear again. So they called for others from each community to come forward to support the efforts of the leaders to create mechanisms to ensure the camp runs smoothly, that everyone's needs are met in food distribution, that no one goes without shoes or warm clothes, that no one feels unheard and resorts to violernce to make themselves heard.

After an hour, during which time everyone who wanted to speak seemed to be able to so so, the members of our team were asked if had anything to add. It seemed to me that it wasn't our place to say anything so all I said was that I was hunbled and moved to see the communities working to settle their differences and work together. After which the Afghan Iman was invited to lead in prayer (I have to say that he could have passed for a pentecostal pastor, so fervent and passionate was his invocation of God's blessing on this decision!).

And then everyone stood and moved around the room embracing everyone else and wishing them health and happiness and good fortune. It was an amazing moment. It reminded me that the jungle is more than merely a place, it's an idea; a concept rather than a location. What has been created by the community leaders and their willing communities aspires to be an expression of humanity at its best in the midst of continent of indifference and alienation.

I left the meeting feeling humbled and elated (a common reaction to life in the jungle).

I was also forced to reflect on why I had felt so anxious when I heard the news on wednesday night of the trouble. I had felt an immediate concern for my friends, people from Syrian and Sudan, Ethiopia and Afghanistan who have made their home there - would they be ok? What would they need in the morning when I turned up? How could  best help and support them? I had immediate anxiety for volunteers I have come to know and admire - would they be safe? would they be able to do their work? how would they cope with the fact of violence happening around them? I realised that I was connected to this community, that it's pain was my pain, that it's anxiety was mine. And I recalled that the Bible says something about this....

And this led to another reflection that I'll blog abaout presently.

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