‘It’s not about you’

Calais diary part 1

Just back from two weeks at Maria Skobtsova House, my head is still ringing with the Taize songs we sang three times a day for Advent, and the sounds of conversations in French, that I half understood, and the conversation in Dutch, Tigrinya, Amharic that I didn’t understand at all.

I still have in my head the mezmur, [hymns] the young guests at Maria Skobtsova House sung every evening at night prayer. Sung in low voices, the hymns begin as a kind of soft hum, then increase in intensity. One young man shouts out the words which others pick up in canon. One drummer taps gently to start with, then there’s a barely detectable crescendo, until everyone is swaying and clapping. Even though I’m tired and looking forward to bed, I find it impossible not to join in the complicated clapping and swaying pattern.

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The chapel at Maria Skobtsova House; blankets folded and ready for use at evening Orthodox prayer

Each day we meet at Maria Skobtsova House for prayers at 8:00. There’s supposed to be silence until then, but with seventeen young men in one family sized house, I suspect there’s been plenty going on in the night. After prayers and breakfast, it’s washing the floor, picking out the recycling, cleaning the one toilet, sweeping the stairs, sorting the washing. If you’re not quick enough with the floor the young men are already in the kitchen and making breakfast. Outside in the yard is a rack of freezing trainers, with crispy socks. There is a fridge. There’s a lean-to with an outsize washing machine and extra supplies of tins.

There’s a corner the boys have made into a barber shop. S. is the barber. He says he has been a barber since he was a child, even in Sudan, en route. Getting a new hair cut is a chief pastime. To get the desired effect he takes the blade out of a disposable razor, holds it against the teeth of a comb. J. also likes to hang out in the yard, behind a curtain rigged up between a shower cubicle, not yet in use, and the fridge for extra privacy.

I sleep in an empty apartment, in an old house by the canal. There is a chapel, a kitchen, a bedroom and study and a shower. Every morning I walk quickly to be at Maria Skobtsova House in time for morning prayer. We sing hymns, recite psalms and listen to a prose passage from lives of the saints or written by a saint, morning, noon and evening. At night there is another prayer with the guests.

I get to drive the community’s van home so I can bring back the donated patisserie in the morning: loaves of bread and miniature croissants, pain au raisin, pain au chocolat. Piles of donated food and clothes gradually build up along the walls of the corridor. Visitors from England bring cereal, tea bags, fresh milk. This afternoon, a group comes with a van of donations from Tower Hamlets. One of the girls has never left the U.K. before. Fresh fruit and vegetables are scarce, except for a wholesalers van that comes twice a week. When it’s my turn to receive the delivery I choose the vegetables I crave, like radishes. But of course it’s not about me. When I offer the radishes to the young men, one eats it politely but another one makes comedy show of spitting it into his hand, grimacing. We take the grapes and clementines.

Everyday there is a delivery of stew from the Refugee Community Kitchen, in a large oblong tin. One end of a warehouse has been turned into a commercial sized kitchen. Volunteers, dressed in black chefs shirts and caps, chop vegetables to the sound of heavy techno. I looked enviously at the crates of pumpkins and cabbages, which lead me to wonder why, by the time it reaches us, the food isn’t all that nice. The smell follows me around on my skin.

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Refugees are sleeping out in this

Today it’s raining very hard. Rain is making rivers along the pavement. We run more errands, to the hospital, back to the kitchen to return the empty pans, to LIDLS. Rain is bouncing off the tarmac surface of the LIDLs carpark. Under Br Johannes’ direction, we stock up on milk, eggs, sugar, diet coke. Although there is a cooked meal every night, these are the staples of the house larder.

Another essential is ‘berberis’ , a large jar filled with a mixture of chilli, paprika and curry powder that comes out every night. Guests in small groups cook themselves tomato sauce mixed with ‘berberis’ heated in the microwave, eaten by dipping pieces of bread into the shared bowl.

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Communal Eritrean dish made of grilled flour, spicy tomato sauce and yoghurt

On the way back from LIDLS we see many refugees at the ‘Belgian parking’ for that is its name, gathering to try and get on the lorries. With the deteriorating weather, it seems that people are ever more desperate to ‘try’. When I get home I read this article in the Huffington Post: people are afraid more than anything of dying of cold.

Each evening, in twos and three, the refugee guests come home, having been outside all day ‘trying’. ‘No chance’ they say. Some prefer to stay out all night. Some prefer the morning.

Almost sooner than I’ve learnt all the boys’ names, I have learnt a bit about their favourite characteristics and foibles. One likes to sit outside. One is the barber of the group. One speaks very good English. One prefers French. One has an infection in his foot and we have to take him to the hospital everyday. Often they come back from ‘trying’ with injuries, cut hands, sore backs. I heard about a broken hip, a broken foot. A few have given up going out.

In the evening there are missing empty places at the dinner table. There is a gloomy and nervous atmosphere. Br Johannes won’t start the meal until all are present. No one is allowed to stay in bed. J. who usually sits by himself in a corner to eat, today joins us. He says in English ‘maybe they’re in Engerland, but they’re asleep’ then continues in his own language, causing everyone to laugh. Even his face makes them all laugh.

Yesterday two come home with cut hands, saying a lorry driver attacked them with an iron bar. The soaking coats and hoodies, hats, gloves, all go into the wash and then the drier, sometimes they say the coats have been tear gassed, so need to be washed. The drier is on at least 12 hours a day, filling up with water and fluff from the soaking wet towels and coats, hoodies, scarves and hats.

The smell in the yard could be tear gas or it could be the rotting food. I look up smell of tear gas on my phone. It’s difficult to tell.

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Refugees try to keep warm round a fire under one of the city’s bridges

 

 

 

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‘It’s not about you’

Abraham, faith and the ‘dougar’

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The Jungle refugee camp as it was in October shortly before demolition, with traffic on its way  to the ferry port on the horizon

One last post from the Calais Jungle, soon to be published in the LCW newsletter.

I met a young man in the Calais hospital, His heavily bandaged hand looked painful, He was sunk into the bedclothes, his skin grey. How had he hurt his hand? ‘Dougar’ he said. As one of the volunteers, a refugee himself, chatted to him in his own language, he brightened up a bit, realised he was being offered food, clothes.
The road to the port crosses over the entrance to the Jungle camp and continually there is the skyline of the lorries trundling left to right towards the ferry, to England. Any picture of the camp taken from a high spot in the dunes has this line of traffic on the horizon. Between the embankment of the road and the camp is a kind of ‘maidan’ where people play cricket and football. But this is also the place where police throw tear gas to stop people running up the bank.
For me visiting the Jungle camp was certainly biblical. Every morning at Maria Skobtsova House community I listened to the scriptures read aloud in English, French and Farsi. The voices cracked as if the readers realised the poignancy of the words.
As the self determined nature of  the camp revealed itself to me, with its ancient seeming organisations and its communal nature, the bible readings became more and more alive. People there, I was told, were used to living in large groups. Even if they collected food aid in individual portions, they would put the food together onto one communal plate and eat it together, according to their custom.
While I deeply welcomed the daily readings and prayer in three languages, in the Jungle my faith was being tested, in the classic fashion. How can there be a god while such things happen? It was a nudging doubt in my head, that I’d never heard before.
Shortly before I went to Calais, I attended the refugees welcome rally in Parliament Square, with my daughter, my husband, friends and relatives. It is our moral duty, the rally said hopefully, to care for each refugee or indeed each person who comes to us in need. At the same time the media reported the death of an Afghan boy who already had permission to come to the UK, who was killed on the ‘dougar’, the traffic jam of lorries lining up for the port in Calais. I was shocked at the vitriol and anger on social media that followed both the rally and this incident, It made me think people are afraid. They are unable to cope with the idea of their duty to each refugee. And so they should be. People are afraid on both sides of the channel.
This is when Abraham, the father of faith, sprung into my mind. God told Abraham to take his only son Isaac up Mount Moria, with a knife, fire wood tied to a donkey. Many writers, Bob Dylan, Kierkegaard, Derrida have looked to this moment for truths about religion, faith, sacrifice. Derrida, in the Gift of Death, spends a lot of time looking at the moment when God stops Abraham from killing his son. It is an impossible moment, he says, neither present or future, not graspable. It is the moment when there is no longer an exchange. Abraham leaves oikonomia, the normal relations of home and existence, work, to take his son up the mountain. His son in which all his hope for the future of his descendants lies. God tells him to.
Simon Jones, a Baptist minister, who has been visiting the Jungle for many years, tells me people in the Jungle don’t think in terms of an individual life and death, or of searching for a better life for themselves. Instead it is a moment of seeking for life itself. It is survival for them but also for the future of their family, their descendants. Families or communities in Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan, Eritrea, places where existence – not daily life/job/mortgage as we think of it, but the very existence for them and their family – has become impossible.  They see that there is no future. They send their children to Europe, send money, stay in contact through Whatsapp, just as Abraham collected the firewood, took the knife, loaded up the donkey to climb Mount Moria.
When Abraham lifts the knife, God stops him. Then God promises Abraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the grains of sand on the beach or stars in the sky.
Abraham was travelling looking for a place for his people. His only son Isaac represents his hopes for the future, for his people’s very existence. In the moment of sacrifice, when he raises the knife to sacrifice Isaac, he is following God’s orders. God speaks to him.
This is the terrifying moment when God speaks to us. An impossible moment of right now this minute, neither past nor future, according to Derrida. God is speaking to us. There is the moment between climbing on a lorry and not being on the lorry, falling. Through the deaths on the Calais ‘rocade’.
God is speaking to us from the ‘dougar’ and from the jungle camp. If we listen we will save our sons and daughters our brothers and sisters. Like Abraham we can stay the knife. This is Isaac on the ‘dougar’. God is telling us to sacrifice Isaac and rescue him both at the same time.
No wonder we are frightened. No wonder the tabloid press have debased themselves. I’ve spent enough time on the street handing out leaflets to know that when people come and abuse me, say ‘get  a job, lesbian hippy’, it’s because they are frightened not of me but of the reminder that we collectively are doing something very, very wrong. They are just turning away their faces from what God is telling us, or not even God, but what the situation is telling us about ourselves. We are not welcoming; we are vain and greedy and selfish and lazy. Worst of all we lack faith. We are so afraid our government is building a wall, another folly, the trucks loaded with spoil from building the wall trundling backwards and forwards near the camp. We have so many different ways in which to display our lack of faith!
I remember Luke’s gospel. Each sparrow is precious, no one is more or less. Each one is precious to God. I can’t meet all of them. For us weaklings, we can only speak to a few people at a time, meet a few people at a time, however heroic.
The young man in hospital with his injured hand, becomes precious, come out of the sky mist, become stars. But I can’t meet all of them, Secours Catholique can’t meet all of them. Instead we need to have faith like Abraham.
Abraham, faith and the ‘dougar’