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.
I wrote this after my first day at Maria Skobtsova House and my first visit to the jungle camp. Even after ten days so many things have changed. As I post this coaches are taking people to ‘Centre d’Accueil et d’Orientation’, (CAO) or reception centres.
Calais is a sea shell shape of canals that make a circle around the old town.
I walk with Broeder Johannes towards the camp. The first sign of the camp, at the traffic lights, near the crossing of another canal, was a small group of people walking the other way, towards the town. Johannes greeted each one with a ‘Salaam’. As we cut through some estates of tiny bungalows and came out onto the same road, the groups became more and more frequent. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon in October.
We walked along a straight road, bordered on each side by industrial parks some deserted, some with giant stretches of mown grass, the road to the ferry port crossing over a bridge up ahead.
Riot police stood around the entrance to the camp at a respectful distance.
At the entrance a there was a group of European looking people, huddled round the information point and many camp inhabitants eating meals out of cartons. We walked down the main street of the camp, a stony road, shops and businesses on each side, a phone charging shop, restaurants. I learn there are 11 mosques in the camp but only one church. We progress slowly down the wide street, salaaming and shaking hands with many people. This part of the camp seems to be mostly Afghan. Many things remind me of Kabul. The men walking past in shirts and trousers, with colourful scarves round their necks. A guy who says he lives in Hackney invites us to look inside his boxing studio, the smell of testosterone and sweat, which was to become familiar. Boxers stand around in shiny sweats, waiting for a film crew.
We turn round and walk back to the church. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church the famous church, is much more beautiful in real life. Outside we leave our shoes and then walk inside onto the cool, soft carpet. Brightly painted paintings, St. Michael of all angels, the Last Supper and one of three bearded faces, the Trinity. I sink down into my prayer, prayer just comes over me as I kneel on the spotless carpet. Outside a large rat then a large chicken. The church is in a compound left behind after the other parts of the camp were destroyed. I’m introduced to one of the deacons and the security guards. Behind the church is a kitchen where a young woman is making a huge pile of Ethiopian pancakes, carefully covering the frying pan with a cardboard lid to let them steam.
Around the church compound are benches, tempting to sit on in the sun, but it’s on to meet Fiona who hands out tea from her van, small tables and chairs, people sitting round bent over meals chess. Then we set out across a sandy clearing, surroundings already overgrown since last eviction with hundreds of flowers, yellow flowers, J says are violets. The fire, during the last demolition, and the human excrement he says has meant the weeds have quickly overgrown. We join a narrow tarmac road, with roofs of brick houses visible the other side of a fence, join the columns of people walking, walking, with small carrier bags of take away meals. We are now in the Ethiopian part of the camp. Occasionally European volunteers drive past in a transit van.
We dive between two large tent structures. A tiny fire burns on the ground with about four young men sitting around it, still in shorts and T shirts, although the sun has disappeared from their small compound. A trivet that looks as if it was once a three legged stool, a small soot covered kettle. The young men quickly built up the fire with tiny pieces of wood, squirting the wood with cooking oil. I sit awkwardly on my seat. There is a long ritual of washing out each of the three cups three times with soap and water, then the water thrown out onto the path. The tea is a desert spoon of sugar whether you like it or not followed by a tea bag. When we’ve drunk our tea, the three cups get washed out again with the three washes ritual for the next cup of tea for other people.
We are there to speak to another deacon of the church. While we sit the young men pass round an iphone playing a song in their language, they pass it round and choose a new song. To take the place of conversation which is surely lacking, shared language is minimal, they speaking only a little English. J says we should go and asks the others to give our regard to the deacon who is sleeping. But this is interpreted as being time to wake him up. So the deacon comes out and sits next to us. He is a small neat man.
There are Egyptian neighbours we learn, which causes some tension. Then suddenly we must stay for lunch. French bread is handed round and a plate of hot tuna mixed with potatoes and chilli. I tried not to eat too much, scooping up tiny bits with the donated French bread but at the same time the teenager next to me says, Eat, eat!
As we leave and follow the narrow winding path, we turn into the sun, the strong seaside sun right in my eyes, smoke rising from people’s little cooking fires. that was amazing that tiny fire, how to make tea on a tiny fire.
As we walked we came across a phalanx of volunteers walking quickly towards us in a crowd, stony expressions on their faces, following a van. Someone waving a rattle in the air as they went. Suddenly people came rushing out from between all the tents. What’s going on? I asked in alarm. What’s going on? asked a lone French girl.
Nearly out of the camp, we stepped away from the main route into a gap between between tents, barely two shoes breadth apart, to a largish tent, already mouldy, the tent flap being held open for us. We took off our boots and stepped inside, sat on the carefully made blankets and mattresses, folded with new soft blankets. Our host had bought milk but instead disappeared to get tea, having no fire to boil a kettle on. About eight people in the tent, all young men, stared anxiously at their phones, low in the eaves of the tent, already mouldy. Johannes commented that these were recent arrivals. They had nothing, only bananas which they offered us.
The talk became very serious. J tried tried to explained what would happen on the 17 of October, eight days away. But no one really knew at that point what to say except to make sure you have your papers with you. Do you have Dublin? They were asked. A friendly young woman came to join us, with her son. The faces became serious as people brought out their papers, some so worn that they had split where they had been folded and refolded many times.
The 17th is now today, but the eviction has been postponed until the 24th October.