“Fathers and mothers: shut your eyes and imagine your child in the Jungle”
The day starts earlier than I’d have liked and is a great deal colder. It’s a harsh -2 degrees and still dark when I leave my house. I feel guilty as I put on the warm coat I have bought for the winter.
We make the three-hour journey out of London to the Eurotunnel in Folkestone by car in less than three hours and drive onto the train with no difficulty. Within half an hour we’re in Calais.
The stretch of roads between the border and Jungle are crawling with Gendarmes. In full riot gear, something like Michelin Men In Black, they stand firm outside their vans looking more menacing than any police I’ve ever seen in England. Following the trail they have left, we find the camp and park the car on the outskirts beside the showers.
Everyone smiles at me as I pass and we greet each other. Someone has decorated the exterior of their hut with painted flowers and children’s toys are hanging from the edges and latched to the sides. The contrast between the DIY shelters and sterile white shipping containers is stark.
We meet Laura Griffiths, representative for Citizens UK – one of the few organisations constantly on the ground in Calais. She walks us through Little Syria, speaking to everyone as she passes. She knows each person and picks up a group along the way – the few she has selected to speak to us.
17-year-old Majid joins us as we walk. He introduces himself and begins to talk about football – Manchester United, obviously. Standing in the small space between a few tents is Wasim, acknowledged by the Syrian refugees to be someone of influence in their group. He welcomes us into his shelter.
We take our shoes off before we enter and squeeze onto the mattresses that line the floor. On the wall are two framed photographs, each depicting a small boy smiling.
“Those are my two boys,” says Wasim. “They’re still in Syria with my wife.”
Wasim, a 35-year-old telecommunications engineer, baker, painter and fluent English speaker, has been in the Jungle for four months. He hopes that he and his wife and children will make it to Canada together where they have family.
300 or so Syrian refugees currently stay in ramshackle shelters in Calais, 200 of which have family in the UK and 45 of which are unaccompanied minors, says Wasim.
“Most people know how expensive it is to stay in the UK,” he says. “Most go only because of family, or they speak English and want to use their education, their masters and PhDs.”
As Wasim says, most in the Syrian community are well educated, with doctors, lawyers, pharmacists and English teachers making up their number.
Their resourcefulness is clear to see among the wider Calais Jungle population at large. Faced with the difficulties they have encountered, and with the help of some volunteers, a small civilisation reminiscent of a shantytown has risen from huge numbers of people trying to make an arduous situation manageable.
A high street with shops, restaurants, libraries and a women and children’s centre has developed. But as the camp grows in permanence, the refugees are worried that the desperation of their position is being side-lined by the British Government.
“I don’t like to feel like I'm a problem,” says Wasim. “I have plans and resources. I’m just looking for a good future for my family. We are looking for peace, to start again. I had a great life in Syria with my family. This wasn’t my choice.
“As a human being, we keep asking ourselves ‘why?’ If you don’t want to help me, if you aren’t going to stop the war, what did you mean by bombing? A lot of innocent people died. How is it my fault? Why didn’t you look at me as a human being?”
It is clear to see that the UK Government’s attitude of indifference towards the crisis has reached Calais, and it’s crushing the already waning morale of the refugees. And it is not only the adults who have noticed.
17-year-old Majid left Syria after enduring three years of war and seeing his cousin killed right in front of him. His family spent a further two years in Lebanon before travelling to Turkey, where he was separated from his mother, who was now pregnant.
She reached the UK and settled in Stoke-on-Trent. After 6 months of his mother trying to legally bring Majid into the country, he could no longer bear being alone and decided to make the journey himself. He has been in Calais for four months now.
Following the trauma, he says he would rather die in Calais than return to Syria.
“Fathers and mothers: shut your eyes and imagine your child in the Jungle,” he says. “I just want a good life and to be with my family.”
His sentiment is likely echoed by every single person in the camp now. For each, desperation grows daily. With every failed attempt to get into the UK, with every incarceration, beating, rubber bullet wound, tear gas canister, with every person labelling them a “bunch of migrants”, their brave faces slip just a bit more.
We say our goodbyes at the end of the day and make our way across the ice and frozen mud. The train takes half an hour and we are back in England before we left France.
I fly over Calais the next day and strain to see the Jungle from the plane window. I am reminded, for the second time in 24 hours, just how easy if is for me to cross a border.
- Originally written for the Scribbler in January 2016