Hospitality in the Calais Jungle

Tea in the jungle photo: Johannes Maertens

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.

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Hospitality in the Calais Jungle

Delegation to Kabul: the Afghan Peace Volunteers – their courage and bravery

Arriving in Afghanistan put a stop to my pre-trip nerves. In spite of the diesel fume haze, I was able to see that our preparatory lists of pros and cons had only provided me with a shaky grasp of the risks of visiting Kabul.

What was clear to me though were the fears of the Afghan Peace Volunteers themselves and the risks they take in their daily work of living in community, running the Borderfree Centre, running humanitarian and cultural projects that promote justice and nonviolence. Even when living in fear for their lives, they continue with their commitment to nonviolence and peace making. The work of the APV is truly radical. In a country where fighting and guns are the norm, where armed sentry boxes stand at every road junction, where police drive with guns mounted on the rear of their Toyota pick-ups, to be dedicated to nonviolence and peace is truly courageous.

About a week into our visit, we were present at the monthly Skype call with Global Days of Listening. People from all over the world book a slot to speak to the volunteers, on the 21st of each month. Crammed into the smallest room at the Borderfree Centre, the stove going full blast in the middle, its punched metal sides glowing red hot in places, we all said our names and croaked a shaky ‘hello’ into the laptop across the room. There was no electricity and an intermittent internet connection. On this evening a gardener from the US, a psychiatrist and his students from Iraq and Kathy Kelly from Voices for Creative Non Violence in the US were on the line.

One by one the APV told of their personal reactions to the worsening security situation in Kabul. One after another the young men and women answered that their parents were worried, told them not to come to the Borderfree centre, not to cross town, not to visit their relatives, just to stay at home all the time.

Faiz feels that he himself could be the next victim of a random bomb attack. He himself could lose his life, going to college, walking on the street near a junction: this has become what life is like. Insecurity has affected him personally.

Bharat Han says that when he cycles to university in the mornings instead of taking the main busy roads, where the incidents happen, he takes the small roads to be extra careful. In the past he would gladly invite foreign peace delegates to visit his house, to meet his mother and family but he regrets that this time, for the safety of both the delegates and himself and his family this has become difficult. He regrets it. He wishes this was not the case.

Another says the unpredictability causes psychological fear: suicide bombers wear vests you can’t see – in a split second your whole life could change.

Zahidi tells us the Taliban have officially threatened all the citizens living in Kabul who are involved in cultural groups or in peace and justice groups. They have announced they will harm or attack these groups. She doesn’t feel safe coming to the Borderfree centre.

Ali says that in the past two weeks the Borderfree Centre has had visits from the authorities, the NDS [National Directorate of Security].  He became very worried when the NDS visitors suggested that there was a risk that certain groups, such as the Taliban, could misunderstand the work of the APV and therefore plan to harm them. This made Ali worry even more about coming to the centre. It’s not like in the past,  he says, when we didn’t have to worry about coming on our own.

We learned later the NDS were parked outside the gates of the Borderfree Centre while we were there. Hakim, the community’s mentor, says he wishes they would come in, just to see what really goes on. Although they are ostensibly there to protect citizens, there is the possiblility the NDS people could be criminals, they could turn nasty if there was something they didn’t like.

The mood became grave and fearful, as everyone thought about the risks they were taking, even coming to the Borderfree Centre that night. The room became over heated, and airless. People started to go grow restless and coughs filled the Skype track.

It was the longest night of the year, 21st December. So the APV bought take-away chicken and chips, burgers, spicy potato pancakes, fruit and fizzy drinks. There was a tray of tea lights, and the boys just like boys everywhere started playing with the wax. Hohr handed us each a forfeit on a scrap of paper, and people responded with poems and songs, skits in pantomime. I recognised the rhythm of the storytelling voices and the animated gestures. The mood lifted and everyone seemed to forget their fears. Outside the street was empty and unlit, except for the neon sign of the petrol station, and the headlights of a few taxis.

Important occasions lay ahead. One was Christmas day. It was considered a good idea for us foreigners to stay at home on that day, to avoid the evidence of any kind of gathering, which might be interpreted as Christian. In the evening, a few members of the community came round for a special meal, by candle light, games and sharing thoughts.

Another was the end of Operation Enduring Freedom, the withdrawal of all the US forces from Afghanistan. The local newspaper showed pictures of soldiers lined up to attention and tanks driving away. There was the rumour there might be more incidents because of this.

Not all the dangers are violent. Like many young people, the APV are worried about their futures. When Hakim asked each member of the group for one word to describe how he or she was feeling, almost all of them said ‘worried’. One said, ‘I don’t know what to do,’ one young girl said ‘I wish I had never been born’.

The future for the community members is uncertain. What happens when it is time to leave? It might be dangerous for them to return to their families, now that everyone at home knows they have lived in community, taken part in mixed activities, boys and girls together, reading Gandhi and Chomsky. What happens if they get married, what happens if they can’t find a job? How long can they stay in the community? There’s no welfare state to support them for when they leave.

Thirteen years of war mean that fear and mistrust have seeped into many levels of daily life. Living in the women’s community, we learned about some of the other threats. One came from the neighbours and gossip. I will never think of gossip being idle again, particularly for a woman. Gossip and rumours could mean losing your home, having to move, getting you in trouble with you landlord, could mean people trying to extort money from you.

Windows were blocked with dusty net curtains, sheets of wood, window glass was dusty. Someone might see you dancing. Someone might hear you singing. Someone might hear a foreign voice and tell.. tell who? ..tell the landlord. It was imperative to behave in an inconspicuous way. If someone saw you in the garden, or leaning out of a window, or dancing or singing, they might not like it. Not liking it might mean they would tell the landlord, who might ask you to move. If they thought you had foreign visitors, they might ask for money, they might even try blackmail. The mistrust seeped into all areas of life.

The risk to my own self wasn’t so great. It wasn’t me who was at risk, but our hosts, the APV themselves. By being foreigners, by being Western, and therefore perceived as Christian, we made our hosts a potential target. We could bring unwelcome visitors to the Borderfree Centre. Yet they had invited us, trusted us and welcomed us and many others before and after us.

I was reminded again of the seriousness of the ‘bad situation’ when we took a taxi into another district to visit a woman named Latifa Amady, founder of the OPAWC. We found ourselves walking up a pitted and pot holed road, with low walls either side, one of the most bombed out parts of town. Describing daily life, she says, ‘We say goodbye to our children in the morning thinking we won’t see them again. Every day we say to each other, Khodaa haafez’ (God be protector)’

Delegation to Kabul: the Afghan Peace Volunteers – their courage and bravery

Night shelter

So this is where I am today, Friday morning having spent the night at the Hackney Autumn Night Shelter. My fellow overnight volunteer and I divide the hours into two shifts. For the first half I stay up with my knitting in the light from the kitchen door, left ajar. The guests are coughing and spluttering, getting up and bedding down, wandering about in their underpants, swinging the squeaky door to the toilets. Our guests are astonishingly vulnerable: one wets the bed, can barely straighten himself up, can hardly pull himself up the stairs. Then there are the young ones. In the morning we strip the dampish bedding, damp from the night of coughing and spluttering and fevers.

Going to spend the night at the night shelter is like visiting another country. I think oh, how many hours until I can go home to my nice warm bed. But then my bed is at the other end of a cold bike ride. Then at three it’s my turn and I settle into the camp bed, the same flowery duvet and pillow case that all the guests have, thirsty from the roaring heater but soothed by the sound of regular breathing, that gets slower and slower. And we enter the quietest part of the night, around four. Extreme quiet settles over the group.

Angry that so many vulnerable people have only a camp bed in a church hall to sleep on, rickety joints not well, chesty, asthmatic, too young, too elderly and infirm. Just today Cameron proposes no benefits for EU migrants for four years after arrival. Two polish men get up at six, grab a sandwich from the breakfast team, and set off for work. None of these friendly people should be sleeping in a church hall.

It’s unsustainable that’s what it is. Piles of washing, armfuls of volunteers, church hall heating full blast through the night, cooked breakfast, wet socks, wet coats. The health risks from staying out all day in the winter, are a cost, not just physical.

Some of the guests help clear away the folding chairs and tables, swinging them quickly into place, experts at leaving no trace, everything spick and span in the twinkling of an eye. Others sit motionless, watching, waiting for the last possible moment before they will be chucked out.

It’s a terrible violence against the poorest, most vulnerable, infirm. It’s a terrible violence, that someone elderly and infirm is not cared for, getting worse not better. It’s not possible to have any worthy thoughts about any of this. It’s only my own experience, sleeping on the same creaky camp bed, tip toeing to the same freezing church hall loo – someone’s been smoking in the toilets again – that makes me realise sorrow and anger. I don’t have to see anything; I just have to remember that if I’m longing to reach my own warm bed, my own kitchen table, then what must the guests experience night after night.

Night shelter

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OK time for me to add my tuppence halfpenny worth. I was stuck indoors at work so couldn’t really join in apart from speed walking down to Broadgate where I saw a lot of people in their smart casual, can’t assume they were bankers that would be sloppy. But I’ve been listening to others successful stories like Ciaron I but now watching black bird on apple tree with huge worm in his mouth. Is this the same bird that’s been waking me up at four in the morning? I blame the street lights. It’s always the same on bank holiday weekends, the partying echoes round the neighbourhood, even if it’s only one party. Like sleeping on a French mountainside, you can hear what’s happening down in the valley.

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