Friday, July 07, 2017

Witness and story telling

I continue to travel to Calais to support those exiled to the city in whatever way I can. I was there on Wednesday. Here's a brief reflection on the day.

So, the UK border force reckon there’s a thousand sleeping rough in Calais and its environs. The officer checking my passport, enquiring where I’d spent the day, told me matter of factly, ’we’ve just picked up eight hidden among the fruit and veg in a van; it happened only an hour or so ago.’

I’m guessing it was discovered here at the terminal somewhere. I’m also guessing he was telling me to reinforce the message that the borders are secure. Of course, earlier in the day, I was told that yet another of the young people we’ve had contact with over the past few months is safely across and with friends in London, the fifth or sixth this month. So the borders are at best permeable. 

It might also explain why French border control is in the hands of a platoon of paratroopers, heavily armed young men fanned out across the road ahead of the booths. One flagged me down and asked me to open my boot. It was polite and good natured, the young grunt smiling as he peered at my all-but empty boot. The bulk of the soldiers I can see - about eight in all - are black or middle eastern. One is checking his mobile phone!

The booths themselves are closed!

Things have returned to normal after a frantic and fractious weekend. There are about six in the house, a further five came for showers and fresh clothes this afternoon. The numbers at distribution were higher than for a while - maybe pushing 300. A snaking line of desperate looking people, mainly men but more women than I’ve seen recently, waited patiently in the heat for a polystyrene tray of hot food. A smaller number were at the back of the water truck, washing. 

We talked to an Eritrean worker with Secours, about what happened on Saturday night. There was trouble in the food line, an Amharic speaker pushed in front of Tigrinya speaker. A fight broke out. But he thinks there are probably deeper roots. The Eritreans have secured the Belgian parking and the Ethiopians want it. But all seems peaceful for now.

Of course, once the fighting broke out the CRS kettled everyone into the site - where the daily distributions take place in what’s called the ‘new jungle’, though it isn’t  - preventing anyone who wanted to from leaving and ensuring that tempers got more heated than would otherwise have been the case. The CRS did not use the kettle as a means of sending in snatch squads to remove the trouble-makers, ringleaders, even the people fighting (which is probably what the Brits would have done in similar circumstances). My witnesses think this might have made things worse. It seems to have led to the casualty rate being higher than it would have been. There’s no way of telling, of course.

There is no obvious mechanism for peace-making. It was the Afghans who stepped in, urging peace on Saturday night. There is no single place where people gather and live. People emerge from the woods when the food arrives and melt away just as quickly afterwards. Explosions of frustration and desperation happen at odd times in unexpected places. It is not surprising as most of the exiles are subjected to daily harassment, the confiscation of what little they possess (especially sleeping bags), the pepper spraying and beating of the slow to move.

We are exploring what kind of Orthodox focused activity we might be able to broker so people can be brought together by the thing they have in common - their faith and culture - and can then talk through their differences. We need to create spaces for hospitable story telling. We had one in the jungle - St Michael’s church - which everyone from the region respected and in which they found common ground.

There is a church available in a good location which would probably cost as much as a house to make into a useable space. But it would provide three or four times the floor area with a dedicated space that could be turned into an orthodox worship zone and plenty of space of volunteers to live and exiles to crash for a few nights. So can we raise €300,000?

A young Eritrean man was at the distribution, limping with a substantial bandage round his head protecting a deep and large wound. We spoke with him as best we could as he waited for a friend to get his food, while he nestled in the shade at the front of the van. His hospital notes speak of him being resuscitated. So he must have quite severely wounded and is probably still concussed; and yet the hospital released him after 36 hours with a letter but no pain medication. He still seems groggy. 

So, we took him to the house, found him fresh clothes and shoes and contacted St Omer about him. This is the place that takes under-18s, especially those who might be up for claiming asylum in France. He seems to be and the Secours Tigrinya speaker confirms this. But there turns out to be a discrepancy over his age. The hospital suggests he’s over 18, while his other documents suggest he’s 17. For this reason the St Omer workers who turn up in their mini-bus will not take him and so he will have to stay at the house with its steep stairs. Not ideal given his mobility issues!

This is just a snapshot of the stories I witnessed in a single day where thousands of stories unfolded. But it is as honest a reflection of the continuing precarious nature of life for those on Calais’ streets as I can write. As ever, one leaves feeling a mixture of impotent rage at the governments whose inaction keeps these people in limbo and awe at the tireless volunteers who day in day out work to feed and clothe, befriend and support as many as they can.

How long, O Lord; how long.

Friday, June 02, 2017

A simple story of a food queue

A heavily armed CRS officer brought his baton down on my hand as he prevented me from carrying a box of food to a group of refugees, unnecessary aggression reinforcing a total prohibition on helping people in desperate need. 

This is calais in 2017 where a group of a hundred or so refugees had gathered on the wasteland near what is being called the new jungle (though see my previous post) in expectation of getting food and water. The van from the warehouse had duly tuned up, the smell of hot food wafting from the tailgate. We had arrived to rendezvous with some young Eritreans in need of a shower and a change of clothes.

But between us and our friends was a row of CRS vans and heavily armed officers toting pepper spray, CS gas,  rubber bullets and other weaponry. There were probably more paramilitary police than volunteers and they were there to ensure that no one got fed today.

An awkward stand-off ensued. As we waited municipal police turned up on motor cycles and proceeded to issue fixed penalty notices on the vans from the warehouse. They were fined €130 for various violations. We could not quite work out what rules had been infringed. Recently one van was fined for being a few kilos over-weight. These seemed to be 'illegally' parked, though how you can do that in an industrial estate, where vehicles are left at rakish angles to the kerb all over the place, beats me.

Finally Vincent decides that this has gone on long enough and with a few of us in tow, he grabs baskets containing takeaway boxes filled with food and leads us towards the line of CRS officers. We intend to feed some people. It's why we'd come. As soon as we reached the line we are stopped, pushed back. A few volunteers take individual meal packs and walk towards the refugees. They too are stopped. One has the lunch box knocked out of her hand and its contents land on an officer. She is led away by a group of police for 'assaulting' one of their own but quickly released. Another volunteer has his mobile phone taken off him by a burly policeman who doesn't like being filmed. Amid howls of indignation from onlookers and some remonstrating from his colleagues he tosses it over his head in the direction of a gaggle of volunteers, one of whom catches it and returns it to its owner. This display of casual brutality is daily life for those we've come to feed.

It is clear that the CRS line is not going to break; indeed it is being reinforced as all this is going on. More vans are arriving and joining the barrier, more heavily armed officers are disgorged and join the thickening blue line. Behind them we notice a van full of border force officers arrives. They start rounding up the refugees, pepper spraying the rocks they are seated on, bundling some into their van and chasing others off. About a dozen are taken away.

It is clear that we can do no more. The few refugees left soon melt away into the woods, making themselves scarce. Hurried phone calls and gesturing from one of the volunteers indicates they will try to meet them and at least give them water on this hot afternoon.

We head for our vehicles that are the other side of the police line. Vincent asks if we can go through to be told firmly 'no'. He asks the young officer why, expecting to be told something about orders or operational safety. But the young man fixes his gaze and tells him 'because it annoys you.' Vincent marvels at his honesty as we walk around the block chuckling in the early summer sunshine to approach our cars from the other end. 

It seems that the Prefect of Calais has decided that, though the court in Lille declared it illegal to prevent the feeding of refugees, he can determine how many times a day they will eat. And he has decided that once a day is sufficient. So distribution, under the watchful gaze of the police, will be allowed between six and eight this evening. We wonder if the prefect is on this one meal a day diet. By the look of a good number of his officers, they are not.

For the refugees who have fled war or the threat of persecution in their own countries, travelled often dangerous routes for many months, this is yet one more indignity visited on them by the home of human rights. It makes you proud to be European! 

We head home to guiltily partake of lunch and post our experiences on Facebook and twitter.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A new jungle?

Well, it has been a while, but here is a reflection on today's visit to Calais. I caught up with friends in the warehouse, met new people in the Catholic worker house and went shopping with my favourite monk (everyone should have a favourite monk!) and I went to see where food distribution takes place on a daily basis...

On a piece of waste ground at the back of Calais’ Zone Industrielle des Dunes, a snaking line of a hundred or so people queues for food. A similar number sit in groups eating, talking, some catching up on sleep. 

This is not the new jungle but it is a rumour of it. Desperate people tell stories of being pepper sprayed last night by the police, of running for most of the hours of darkness to avoid the CRS vans. They gather here seeking a break from the monotony of dodging the authorities, a chance to catch their breath, tell stories.  But there are no shelters here - bar one (of which more in a moment) - and no evidence of any emerging. This is just a place for an hour or so's respite before the trudging continues. So it is no new jungle.

A gaggle of volunteers at the back of a transit doles out rice and beans and salad. The Calais Refugee Kitchen works with miracles with scant resources and a skeleton crew. 

Away from the groups eating, other groups huddle round jerry cans of water 'showering' as best they can, squatting with shampooed hair and cupping water over their heads. There has been an outbreak of scabies, an infection caused by lack of sanitation and living in the same clothes for days on end. With showers harder to come by because the authorities harass those groups that provide them, laundry services all but non-existent and new clothes in shorter supply than a year ago, this low-level plague will only get worse.

A CRS van cruises by every fifteen minutes or so but doesn't stop. So we sit and chat with a mixed group of Eritreans and Afghans, talking as best we can about the previous night and how long they have been in Calais, how often they have tried to get to the UK, and where they are going to try to sleep today or tonight before they try again. 

There's an Afghan family living in a tumble-down wooden caravan (the aforementioned single shelter). A mum and dad and three children, grateful that Secours Catholique will take them off for showers. As months give way to years, they wait for a government that will pay them the attention they are looking for. Meanwhile the children play and run and hug Mariam and eat oranges, juice streaking dirty faces and hands. Their hope breaks your heart, their plight raises a fierce anger in your gut, the desire to break down the fences keeping them from the safety and security we all take for granted.

Our wall - £2m-ish of UK tax payers money lining the A16 to the ferry port - speaks of our attitude to these people: a problem to be kept at arms length by concrete and razor wire, increased armed patrols, pepper spray and harassment. And this group of a couple of hundred, subdued, wary but smiling when we squat with clutches of half a dozen or so, welcoming us into their conversation, wanting to tell us as much of their story as they have language for, wanting to know who we are and where we're from, interested in making connection with the world beyond the constant search for shelter in the storm of indifference.

But this is not the new jungle. That had been a place of relative safety, somewhere, at least temporarily, to call home, a shack, a bed, a kitchen, and the rudiments of community. That was swept away in a wave of cleansing zeal by a prefecture which assumed that if they washed these people from the land, they would disappear. But they are here, large as life, still determined, still amazingly good natured, still steely in their determination to cross over to the promised land. 

And where are we? Most of us are home, tucking our children into bed, entertaining friends for a meal, enjoying a night out, settling in front of the TV, safe, secure and doing all the things those in the snaking line would rather being doing given half a chance.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

The ever-present John Berger

I was saddened to hear that John Berger had died earlier this week. He was one of those voices that has been with me through my whole adult life. I first encountered him as a sixth former watching his BBC film Ways of Seeing. I was a proud owner of the wonderful Penguin book that accompanied the series. And he has surfaced from time to time ever since.

He was a man who knew the value of words and could capture a world in a phrase.

There have been lots of reflections on his life in the past week. What struck me was how much his concerns resonated with mine in relation to Calais. He spoke a lot about hospitality and migration and a couple of phrases in particular have set me thinking about how I might capture some of my thoughts on the past year in writing that I am just getting down to.

The first was reported in today's Guardian. The writer Ali Smith was reflecting on a British Library event that Berger spoke at in 2015. He was asked what he thought about the huge movement of people across the world. It was an obvious question because in the seventies he had a written a classic study on migration, A Seventh Man. Smith reports that he paused for what seemed like an age and then responded, 'I have been thinking about the storyteller's responsibility to be hospitable.'

What a great phrase. I have been thinking how to tell my story in relation to the Jungle, and that is a story of hospitality that I have been on the receiving end of. That's something that Berger reflected on  with New Statesman writer, Philip Maughan in 2015. He'd been in Istanbul and was invited to tea in a draughty cabin on the edge of the city. There a migrant scraped an existence in the hope of a better life. As Berger waited for tea to arrive he noticed on a shelf in the cabin the Turkish edition of one of his books! Maughan observes 'this is precisely what Berger meant by fraternity: even in great solitude, against the dehumanising reality of servitude to capital or war, connections can be formed. Our differences diminish.'

That's precisely what I felt in the jungle. And I, therefore, feel a responsibility to tell the story of my experience hospitably, paying careful attention to my hosts' stories.

This is something that Olivia Laing also reflects on in the same piece in today's Guardian. She says, 'Capitalism, he wrote in Ways of Seeing, “survives by forcing the majority to define their own interests as narrowly as possible”. It was narrowness he set himself against, the toxic impulse to wall in or wall off. Be kin to the strange, be open to difference, cross-pollinate freely. He put his faith in the people, the whole host of us. Host: there’s another curious word, lurking at the root of both hospitality and hospital. It means both the person who offers hospitality, and the group, the flock, the horde. It has two origins: the Latin for stranger or enemy, and also for guest. It was Berger’s gift, I think, to see that this kind of perception or judgment is always a choice, and to make a case for kindness: for being humane, whatever the cost.'

The second phrase that resonated with me was at the end of Maughan's piece in the New Statesman. Reflecting on Berger's novel To the Wedding, he noted a line he liked in his diary, something that seemed to suggest what storytelling was for. 'What shall we do before eternity?' it asks; 'take our time.'

Those final three words have been burrowing away in my mind since I read them. Clearly we take the time we are offered. The implication is that time is to be seized, wrung of all the possibilities it holds for us; not a moment is to be wasted because it comes in an all-too finite supply. But clearly also, we take our time; hospitality requires that we linger, relax into the company of another. I'm reminded how long it took to make chai in the camp, a length of time that was filled with storytelling and silences, laughter and tears, things that could not have found a place in our shared lives if we had not taken the time to be together.

Berger's death has sent me back to his writings with a new relish and a fresh set of questions and expectations. We have lost a voice without equal and yet as Ali Smith noted, it's hard to think of his voice in the past tense because everything about him was so present. Like all great writing, his is continually present tense. For that I am grateful.