DAY 155 Calais again

December 12th, 2015 § 0 comments

IMG_0288Alice in front of the Therapy Centre. (My first successful import – and well worth the trouble.)

Oh my faithful readers! مرحبا and welcome and bienvenus! My failing technical ability has finally learned how to compose the blog on the move, on the phone, at a moment when, being in imageCalais, I could do little else. Here then I go, always hopeful, with the countless friends from SOAS who send me likes and purple heartsigns regardless of merit [By the way, you have probably guessed that my claim that I could do all this techno shit on the phone was an idle boast. I shall have to enrol in an advanced class, having fallen at the first hurdle, that of grabbing pictures from somewhere and pasting them in on the tiny screen.] simply because we are engaged in one common struggle; prepared for what the Guardian, who should know, describes in terms which are probably by now familiar to you:

‘The conditions are beyond awful – the image of what we encountered in the Jungle still haunts me. No sanitation, no healthcare, no security, no refuse collection, and no roads – just tracks of stinking mud full of litter and human detritus. (These pictures of tents and rubbish are all a bit samey, I have to concede, and I’ll see if I can get one with some startling new emphasis, preferably hopeful.) Fires break out, as people are forced to light damp piles of wood in their tents to cook and keep warm. But there’s no fire brigade, just social media where urgent calls for fire extinguishers, buckets and sand go out. The weekend before our arrival, fierce winds spread a fire, destroying 250 tents.’

Plus, one has to add, the camp is at the heart of a region whose most notable response to the refugee crisis has been the rapid rise of the far right – in particular, the Front National under Marine Le Pen; while luckily her FN didn’t win the election, there’s no cause for premature rejoicing. And where is the Left?

People in the UK often live in dire poverty, denied the services an benefits to which they have a right. But that the governments of Britain and France should conspire to confine 5000 people – men, women and children- who have struggled to escape from brutal regimes, in conditions where they are denied basic needs, is criminal. These countries are effectively laughing at the Refugee Convention to which they supposedly subscribe.

We can’t wait for the law to catch up with our lawgivers – the immediate need is too great. The survival of the camp’s population depends on many admirable volunteer organisations who refuse to accept the situation, do their best to alleviate it – and in consequence are coming under increasing state repression.

In a spirit which was part carelessness, part desperation (‘Live dangerously’, as Nietzsche reminds us), I decided to stay two days to help after the main party had left. This- our regular convoy – took supplies of food and blankets, etc.; as well as a special extra – the toys and children’s gifts bought from the proceeds of Isis Mera’s brilliant appeal (give if you haven’t already done so). So many of the convoy spent a fun day

12369074_10153176801546286_5318711346109272933_nDaniela Garcia with toys

- first, looking for children to play with, and second, playing with them. It should be obvious to anyone familiar with the works of Winnicott (don’t let me go off on that one) that you can’t have any meaningful interaction with anyone without playing with them – usually pool in the case of adults. Accordingly, that pat of the day was a huge success.

Which left me cadging a lift to the Bellevue Hotel with the wonderful Alice, of whom more later, in her clunky green van – and wondering what the morrow held in store.

What, indeed? If you’re one of the 95% of people who have already volunteered in refugee camps, hats off to you, and you wont’t be surprised by what I found, spending most of the day in a roomy ‘therapy tent’ with a succession of volunteers and refugees, bolting and unbolting the door for whoever knocked. Life here, I came to see, is both highly structured and completely unpredictable. Plans are made and abandoned, or carried out two hours later. People drop in and demand shoes or housing and (usually) answered with a yes, a no, or a later. Nothing could be more unlike the choreographed distribution of goods from the convoy.

The arrival of three sick Kurdish refugees (father, mother and baby) who had apparently walked without food from Germany – taking three days – changed everything. They were given food, blankets and ginger tea (the universal remedy), and set to sleep on a couch. Alice would find them a caravan; but Alice had left on a legal mission which was to take an hour but actually took nearer to three. Don’t expect anything to arrive on time.

Indeed every so often there would be a knock on the door. ‘Alice?’ ‘Alice will be back soon’. As junior volunteers we could do tea, blankets and comfort, but not make decisions. But those are already something. [If Alice appears to play too much of a central role in these meditations, remember that there are dozens of similar figures scattered through the jungle, living there permanently and working flat out - surrounded by an army of transient volunteers. They are the salt of the earth. ]

And at 2.15 came the major choreographed event of the day – the lunch, which I really recommend if you’re passing through. Abdallah IMG_0300and a couple of sidekicks, turned up with huge pans containing rice, bean sauce, salad, hard-boiled eggs. The petitioners, in an orderly queue, presented him with saucepans, plates, whatever containers they could find – and were served, incredibly fast, with the amount Abdallah judged right for their case. I was told how many eggs each deserved and threw them over. Inevitably, after about 100 people and 400 eggs, the vast supply ran out; the hungry and the heartbroken were left to demand outside the fence which surrounds the therapy tent.

What a world! After this, after Alice appeared, we found a caravan for the Kurds and three volunteers prepared it with bedding and moved them in. We couldn’t find any doctors – they appear at random in the jungle, as more disturbingly do patrols of flics; but hoped to find some – doctors, that is – tomorrow.

Another world, another sense of time and place. which has to be experienced in its own way. I needn’t stress as everyone does that I was always the privileged observer: privileged by having a warm bed waiting for me at night, and also by having something to give. I was welcomed, for a short time, into a community of givers and receivers. At my age it’s wonderful; and all volunteers seem to agree that – while the existence of the camp is a scandal, while its inhabitants should all be found the secure homes they are looking for, yet working in and for the camp adds something unique to one’s life.

Friends and faithful readers: these are my first undigested thoughts. More will follow in due course, in particular as I hope for a return visit in two weeks. Till then, joy to the world! if that doesn’t sound too ironic.

I seem not to have room for a poem: but I should surely give you Jimmy Cliff’s ‘Many Rivers to Cross’, with its reference to the white cliffs of Dover… what was he doing there?


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