The Wednesday before last, early in the morning, I walked up the steps of the entrance portico of the Ministry of Defence, past the policeman on duty, into the entrance portico. I drew a stick of charcoal out of my pocket and drew a cross on column and then another. I walked in amongst the columns and then drew another and then another. The workers, their long coats hanging open, carrying their briefcases, were just arriving. One caught my eye and said, ‘What you as well?’ I wasn’t sure what he meant. It sounded like ‘Et tu, Brute?’ Men and women rushed past, as if they were late. It wasn’t even eight o’clock. Not that I was thinking about the time. I was trying not to be distracted by my surprise that no one was stopping me. I heard an iphone camera rattle. A woman was taking a picture. Was she going to write ‘This numpty…?’ Was she going to post it in MOD staff news, ‘This numpty thought she could tell us how dangerous nuclear weapons are.’ One woman tut tutted. And she’s the one tut tutting at me? It’s me who should be tutting. It’s me who should be kissing my teeth, as we say in Hackney.
The yoga teacher, a small neat man, with his neat beard and neat shorts who is as strong as a gymnast, well him, he said, ‘Examine which part of you feels made larger by your practice.’ That’s the way he talks this yoga teacher. On that occasion I would say it was my thighs.
After the action at the MOD, but also after Ash Wednesday in general, the part of me that felt larger was my heart. It seemed to have grown. St. Philip Neri had an enlarged heart.
Some of the participants in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, organised by Pax Christi, have been coming for over thirty years. They have been holding this problem, this sin, this collective, terrible transgression up to the light perhaps since the UK got nuclear weapons, or at least since the beginning of Polaris. At first I used to be a bit disappointed that not so many younger, or even middle aged people came, other than some school children brought by their RE teacher. But I’ve recently become a grandmother. So my perspective has changed. I know why it’s the older people who come.
Ash Wednesday is a good moment to think about these things. My whole day was devoted to Ash Wednesday. Having been told, ‘Well Done’ for the charcoal writing, by the policeman outside the MOD, I went home, and got marked with ashes myself in my parish church. ‘Remember you are dust’ says the priest. The smile on the familiar parishioners’ faces as they came out of church, the big damp gritty cross on their faces. It’s strange that being reminded I am dust is such a joyful occasion. All our wrinkled brows and wispy hair suddenly plastered with ash, brazenly showing our reality, that soon we’ll be ash. Or in the story of Nebuchadnezzar, when the three men walked out of the fire..
MOD remember you are dust. You have no rights just ‘bare existence’, when stripped down to it. Just a heap of Portland stone, carefully scrubbed of all the soot that you used to be covered with like all public buildings in London.
So as a peace activist, I thought it’s important to grow. As it’s about growing in love. It’s not so much about taking the moral high ground, saying something clever and devising a campaign, or planning incredible jaw dropping nonviolent direct action, although that would be good. It’s that the next step is growing in love. This is why peace activists are old. They have grown in love, they have grown old on the job, they haven’t given up.
Strange to think that my Ash Wednesday would have made me think that. Yes I feel uncomfortable with the after effects of the action. It’s humiliating in a way. To make yourself momentarily vulnerable. To put yourself at the mercy of the police.
Fasting, weeping, mourning, sings the prophet. Gather the community, even the babes at the breast and the lovers in their bedrooms. No one can be let off . No one escapes. Love for babies, love for lovers, love for our community. This kind of love is bigger than all of it. This is the kind of love, the blessings that will come, you have to get better at as you get older. It takes a grandmother or an aunty to do this kind of loving.
Raveloe, London, Kabul, we cling to our ‘way of life’ even though it makes us sick, obsessive and lonely. Governments cling to policies that cause harm to ordinary people. In this article, begun while staying in Kabul, I ask what George Elliott’s Silas Marner has to tell us about our own ‘pile of gold’.
I recently travelled to Kabul, where I teamed up with the Afghan Peace Volunteers and Kathy Kelly of Voices for Creative Nonviolence. I took with me, to read under the covers when I couldn’t sleep, Silas Marner by George Elliott. Marner, estranged from his home town, sets up as a weaver in the small village of Raveloe. Through weaving he accumulates a pile of gold coins which he counts obsessively every night, until one day it is stolen. The plot turns when he adopts a small girl, the daughter of a drug addict, who wanders into his house. He mistakes her gold curls for his gold coins, miraculously returned to him. As he determines to look after the child he has to ask others in the community for help and so his life is transformed.
As a group of women in one Kabul refugee camp recounted their experiences of war, their injuries, the indignities they have suffered since being forced to leave their homes, Kathy Kelly asked at one point, ‘Did you know that the US has just committed 617 billion US dollars to military spending?’ The women implied by their gestures, ‘What do we care?’ One woman said, ‘I wouldn’t know the difference between one side of a dollar and the other, whether a dollar is black or white.’ It was at this moment the image of Silas Marner counting out his pile of gold coins, popped into my head. As well as a literal analogy with the ‘pile of gold coins’ devoted to military spending, there are political lessons for policy makers, for example the western governments whose migration policies cause such hardship amongst refugees.
In Europe, chances for Afghan refugees to claim asylum have grown slim, since the EU now considers Afghanistan to be a safe country, even though there were 5,600 casualties of armed conflict in the first half of 2016 alone. The EU plans to deport 80,000 Afghan asylum seekers. At the time of writing Germany and Sweden have already started the deportations. This is at a time when Pakistan and Iran are also pressurising Afghan refugees to return.
The refugees face homelessness and destitution when they return to Kabul, where there is not the infrastructure to support them. ‘A man-made humanitarian catastrophe could be the end result of these governmental policies’ writes Ahmed Rashid, a journalist in Lahore. 
At the Borderfree Centre in Kabul, Kathy Kelly and I spoke to Abdul Gafoor, of Afghanistan Migrants Advice and Support Organisation. He says everyday twelve deportees arrive from Norway, as a result of its cruel deportation policy. Young boys call him, not knowing where to go. Very often, as soon as they have the opportunity, they will leave again, for Pakistan or Iran. They are given $1200 from the Norwegian government, so they use this money to move on as it is too difficult for them to reintegrate. There is nothing they can do in Kabul; there is no work.
Kathy Kelly, Nematullah Ahangosh, who is an Afghan Peace Volunteer, and I visited the ‘Police Camp’ an unofficial camp for IDPs and refugees. We took a long taxi ride, through heavy morning traffic, into an area of new development, where private hospitals with tinted curtain walling and new apartment buildings, some already clad, others just slabs and columns, lined the broad, unsurfaced road. Opposite a petrol station, where gaily painted lorries were filling up, we were let out onto the edge of an open sewer, the size of a small river, its grey white waters swirling with scraps of rubbish. Salim, from the Jesuit Refugee Service, soon fetched us and led us down a narrow path between mud shacks, to a place where we took off our shoes, stepped inside a small room, with red carpet, whitewashed walls, a stove in the middle, a plastic sheet for a window. Soon the elected camp leader, Raz Mohammed, came to tell us about the camp.
Of the 700 families resident in the camp, one third have come because of recent conflicts, such as in Kunduz in the north east of the country and one third are refugees who have been forced to return from Pakistan and Iran. Sometimes educated people, this latter group already sold all their property when they left Afghanistan, so now they are homeless and destitute. Refugees can only earn three dollars a day. Men work as porters in the market. Other jobs include washing cars, and selling boloni, pastries stuffed with potato and spinach. Others, despite the danger, send their children out to work in the street, cleaning shoes and windscreens or selling windscreen wipers, tissues and sweets.
Those who work in the market can bring home potatoes or turnips but not enough for regular meals. The rest of the time they have only bread and tea. Some don’t even have tea. For fuel they burn plastic bottles, shoes and old clothes. Every winter twenty-five people die of cold. Water has to be bought at 10 Afs for 20 litres. On the way in we saw a single pump. Raz tells us that a woman who runs a beauty parlour noticed the women walking to buy water so she donated the pump but the water is not ‘sweet’.
After speaking to Raz Mohammed we went to visit a group of women who were finishing a class. They sat round the edges of the cold classroom. A teenage daughter ran in to drop off a baby to be fed. The women told us that all ethnicities are represented at the camp. Tajiks, Uzbeks and Baluchis living together. They said they felt safe in the camp, but conditions are dangerous to health, especially in cold weather, and there is no access to health care, despite the private hospitals next door.
‘If only we had had an education we wouldn’t be in this situation,’ they said. One woman, feeding her toddler under her black scarf, says she used to have a job in Kunduz. She made boloni and her husband sold them.
Another woman told us how she had fled from Kunduz, almost leaving her child behind. Another, from Laghman province, showed us the injuries to her upper arm she had sustained when she escaped. She said that she had no food for lunch. After the class she would cover her face and go and beg at the bakery.
The leader said he gathered people together and went to the government for help. The government only provides food. He thinks they should provide education, buildings. He said the UN had been to visit the camp, even the US ambassador. But nothing has changed. Eighteen months ago, during Ramadam, the authorities attempted to clear the camp, with armed police, but the refugee inhabitants responded with stones.
Without sufficient food, fuel, education or health care, the women concluded, ‘No one cares about us. The government doesn’t care.’
Another group of women I spoke to were seamstresses at the Borderfree Centre. They embroider scarves which are sold in the US and the UK to raise funds for the centre. All having between five and seven children each, their main concern is to feed their families. Despite their husband’s disapproval, they have to go out to work outside the home. Even so the wages are not enough to pay the rent, to buy clothes for their children, food and books for school.
‘The government doesn’t care about us,’ they said, echoing the words of the the women in the refugee camp. They said, ‘If you want to help, you must give money to us poor people’. The seamstresses said they saw all the huge construction projects, and concluded the government was spending money on these projects and not on alleviating the problems of the poor.
Government ministers just use aid to buy each other ‘a cow or a hen’. I asked if they had any means of making their voices heard, which was translated literally I realised. They said their husbands wouldn’t like it if their voices were heard outside the home. Not able to read or write, their only option would be to join a protest. They didn’t dare go on a demonstration, they said, because the government might come after them, or there might be a bomb.
Back in London this week, I did my regular shift in the local winter night shelter. Many of the homeless I encounter at the shelter suffer from poor physical and mental health, and even have mobility problems, which should be reason enough for the authorities to house them without delay. Many were caught between losing their job and waiting for benefits to come through; a gap of six weeks is enough time to lose your flat. Surprisingly some guests are actually working. Holding down a job while sleeping in a shelter must be almost impossible but one man I spoke to was doing just that. His car was parked outside, he wore the uniform of a building servicing company and over breakfast he was giving his mobile phones a last minute boost, checking the location of the first job of the day.
The residents of the refugee camp in Kabul and the guests at the London night shelter are all at the mercy of government policies. Worse than that, our government is unwilling to correct the very policies that made people homeless. As John Berger wrote,
‘The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied … but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.’
Collectively, whether in the UK or Afghanistan, we must turn to the poorest, most helpless members of our society and learn, just as Silas Marner did, from experiencing community again.
Silas Marner, once he accepts his loss and turns to another, a helpless child, builds relationships with the other members of his village community. It is when he turns to another helpless being, and becomes helpless himself, that healing begins. Our governments, and therefore we, are addicted to unsustainable policies that keep many displaced and homeless. When we accept our own weakness, our own loss and turn to look after the poorest there is hope.
George Elliott also asks us to reflect on the nature of work. Silas Marner sits at his loom day in day out, even on Sundays, weaving linen for the well to do of the neighbourhood and collecting gold coins to no end other than to be counted and hidden. US taxpayers are paying nearly $700 million dollars a week for the military in Afghanistan, money which the US government spends without attempting to avoid corruption.
Reading this you might ask what do all these things have to do with each other. Visiting Kabul, not somewhere people normally visit for a holiday, gives a heady ride into geo politics, but mainly the opportunity to see the effect of government policymakers on the lives of the poor. You might think it odd I would use Silas Marner as a way to reflect on lessons from Afghanistan. George Elliott chose novel writing as a medium to comment on social conditions in her time and the novel has a lot to tell us now.  If you haven’t read Silas Marner, or not since school days, I would recommend a visit.
 Ahmed Rashid Viewpoint: Why Afghan refugees are facing a humanitarian catastrophe http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-37607785
In Our Time: Silas Marner
As I write this it is Gaudete Sunday. I am staying with the Afghan Peace Volunteers in Kabul, on delegation from Voices for Creative Nonviolence UK. I have been reading the daily scriptures throughout Advent, although Christmas seems very far away. Today I read this passage,
‘Why did you go into the desert? To see a reed swaying in the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in fine palaces. Then why did you go out?’
Listening to the sounds the doves make in the garden, at least I think they’re doves, it’s easy to imagine Mary sitting on her sack in the corner of her courtyard, unstitching another sack, ready to say her ‘Here I am’ to the angel Gabriel when he appears.
That was last week. Today the reading for today, the prophesies in Isiah speak to me as I prepare to pack up and return home. Why did you go to Kabul? Jesus asks. Was it to see the blue sky, the flags flying from the schools and mosques, the little birds puffing out their feathers in the bare branches, the heavily polluted river rushing by.
On the flight from Istanbul, there were plenty of rich people, those who could afford a ticket and who had passports, if not fine clothing. There are glimpses of people in polished four by fours, or the people who have built high bomb barriers and a sentry box for their personal armed guard.
I went there maybe to meet a prophet, maybe a messenger. I can’t say I had any religious experiences, clutching my duvet as I wrestled with anxieties and sadness at the days stories, feeling far from home.
In one sense the message from the prophet is very clear. ‘Make the ways straight..’ while there is such inequality, such as the basic inequality between the West and the rest of the world, rich and poor, while the US continues to use Afghanistan as a strategic outpost, while the world sees Afghanistan as’ a cow that every one can milk’, as one activist described it, it seems nothing much can happen to solve the plight of the poor in a country like Afghanistan. Many people we spoke to sounded hopeless and some desperate. These are obvious mountains and valleys; the deprivation that we’ve seen on this trip, where the number of displaced people rises, where some are so destitute they cannot even, as one camp leader put it, afford to buy tea.
Another way of looking at it could be the different kinds of mountains and valleys we all encounter. The message is one of the transformation that will come, when the paths are made straight. The other night we went to visit the home of one of the Peace volunteers. Gulham Hussein’s mother and his younger brothers and sisters. The family live in a traditional house down a narrow mud lined path, in one room, within a dusty courtyard, the well in the middle, the latrine in one corner shared by three other families. We ate spinach and rice, served with oranges to squeeze over and spring onions. As a baby cousin was passed around, dressed up like a miniature queen in her tight swaddling, as the stove lost its stifling heat the room became pleasantly cosy. The smaller children came and snuggled up next to us, their eyes like saucers as they tried to stay awake, watching the foreign visitors. Outside was dark and foggy, I felt a little bit of anxiety as to how we should get back, but really I hardly wanted to leave. I found it consoling to be in a family environment, to enjoy the fellowship , joyfulness at gradually being able to share a meal, admire the children, communicate roughly in translation.
The relation of this experience and today’s scripture, is it this, fellowship and crossing borders and language barriers that can bring about transformation, that can make the way straight.
One last post from the Calais Jungle, soon to be published in the LCW newsletter.
As inhabitants of the Calais ‘jungle’ set off for the Centres d’Accueil et Orientation and as the authorities begin to dismantle their camp this afternoon, I look for links between the town and the camp, both positive and negative and some small curiousities, that the town offered up itself.
At first sight Calais seems like a sleepy town. By half past ten at night, all the houses have their metal shutters rolled down, not a peep of light shining through. A note from the neighbours on the wall of Maria Skobtsova House asks for quiet. ‘In this area,’ it reads, ‘the majority people work and go in bed on raisonable hour.’ It’s taken me two weeks to get a sense that people of Calais might ever bustle about.
Calais was our family’s favourite ‘town’ beach, to visit on the way home from camping, to grab a last minute swim and a bag of chips before catching the ferry. The minute I had visited the jungle camp my perception changed.
I wanted to be able to situate the experience of the visiting the ‘jungle’ within my experience of staying in Calais. It didn’t seem right to write about the camp in isolation. I struggled with the disconect between jungle and town, I struggled with a failure to make sense of everything I’d seen, the stories I’d heard, the people I’d met, everything I’ve been told and to know what to do with it. What happens, I thought, if I say here I am now, an english woman with memories of Calais, walking through the town, crossing canals, walking out to the camp.
So first I go to the beach.
Sand pipers, unfolding brown black white wings, in little flocks, scuttle this way and that, over the wet sand. There is the unceasing drumming of ships’ engines, as the ferries load and unload streams of cars and lorries, or as they pass each other a few hundred yards from the shoreline. Every half an hour or so another ferry from Dover slides in over the beach, blocks the view from the west. Tankers and giant container ships line up on the horizon.
In between the rows of white beach huts, a few townspeople walk their dogs, their children, stop for a chat, go for a run along the surf.
Saturday and Wednesday are market days. Arman, not his real name, a teenager waiting to join his brother in London, comes with me to buy vegetables and cheese for supper. A few minutes from Maria Skobtsova House, as we cross one of the canals, he points out the funnels of the P&O ferries. ‘Going to England’ he says. The market is much better than many I’ve been to in the south of France on holiday. We easily locate coriander, ginger, lambs lettuce, sweet sour muscat grapes full of pips. I’ve heard that some shopkeepers refuse to serve the ‘migrants’. Fresh chillies are only for sale in the camp.
On the way back, we cut through a small park. Arman tells me he is afraid to go into this park as this is where the ‘mafia’ hang out. They will approach you, sell you marijuana and take all your money for the passage to England, which he says is ‘impossible’.
At mass that evening the peripatetic parish priest blesses the children’s school bags, those famous french school bags, huge school bags. I am told that the level of education in the town is low, not many people progress beyond High School, that teenage pregnancies are high. Many shops and flats in the town centre have ‘a vendre’ signs in the windows, a sign of the economic straits .
But there is another side. When we walk to the house for prayers at eight o’clock, or walk home at night the streets are deserted, and yet whenever we pass someone in the street they nod and say ‘bonjour’ just as in the camp everyone says ‘salaam’ and shakes hands, puts one hand on their heart.
Where Calais residents and the camp cross paths, where there is a peaceful exchange held the most hope.
At the spotless regional hospital, outside the town near the motorway, volunteers from Maria Skobtsova House, often refugees themsleves, go from room to room to visit patients from the Jungle Camp bringing fruit, clothes, once a week spicy food. Two of the patients we visit have Lyme’s disease, mysteriously, picked up along their long journey but mostly we go to the first floor where there are injuries either from the dougar , or in a fight. Down at the entrance there’s the usual crowd of people you’d see outside any hospital, smoking, pushing drip stands.
At the centre for refugees, run by Secours Catholique, on a women only day, a group of volunteers have come from nearby Arras. They bring games and toys for the children, some give the women a French lesson. They eat lunch together. One woman has brought apples from her own garden, so we sit round peeling and coring them to make apple compote.
As I spend days in Calais, I see that in the places where the town crosses the paths of the jungle, or where the jungle crosses the paths of Calais, Calais has some unexplained curiosities of its own.
One Sunday I go with some Iranian Christians to the Anglican church, but the front door lock has been jammed with superglue. A member of the congregation tells me this has happened before. Only the Protestant churches have had their doors glued shut.
On the road to the Jules Ferry centre, almost always thronging with people, walking to charge their phone, pick up food and information, a man drives a quad bike, loaded with boxes of live ducks. Once I’d seen this several times, receiving no satisfactory explanation, one of the volunteers remembers: it’s beginning of the duck season. There aren’t any ducks so they have to bring them in. So soon next to the jungle camp there will be a duck shoot.
On the same small road, people climb into the trees to pick up the phone signal coming from the nearby houses. All along the Rue Mollien, outside LIDL, along the railway track, on the vast factory lawns, small crowds gather, wherever there is 3G.
Even though the shop keepers protested the presence of the camp, they missed a trick really. If they can stock coriander and ginger surely they could stock chillies. The jungle camp inhabitants will soon be potential customers, then students, teachers, nurses, business owners themselves. The phone companies could have made sure there was adequate reception.
These were ways the jungle camp and the town crossed paths. The camp is not suspended in a cloud over Calais. It is only divided from the town by a flyover, not even a fence, but I saw so many signs of growth, in faith, business, encounters in several languages at once, hospitality from all directions. People eat together, care for each other, worship together, greet each other in at least five languages. These things hopefully will not be destroyed by the démantlement.