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.