Friday, July 07, 2017

Witness and story telling

I continue to travel to Calais to support those exiled to the city in whatever way I can. I was there on Wednesday. Here's a brief reflection on the day.

So, the UK border force reckon there’s a thousand sleeping rough in Calais and its environs. The officer checking my passport, enquiring where I’d spent the day, told me matter of factly, ’we’ve just picked up eight hidden among the fruit and veg in a van; it happened only an hour or so ago.’

I’m guessing it was discovered here at the terminal somewhere. I’m also guessing he was telling me to reinforce the message that the borders are secure. Of course, earlier in the day, I was told that yet another of the young people we’ve had contact with over the past few months is safely across and with friends in London, the fifth or sixth this month. So the borders are at best permeable. 

It might also explain why French border control is in the hands of a platoon of paratroopers, heavily armed young men fanned out across the road ahead of the booths. One flagged me down and asked me to open my boot. It was polite and good natured, the young grunt smiling as he peered at my all-but empty boot. The bulk of the soldiers I can see - about eight in all - are black or middle eastern. One is checking his mobile phone!

The booths themselves are closed!

Things have returned to normal after a frantic and fractious weekend. There are about six in the house, a further five came for showers and fresh clothes this afternoon. The numbers at distribution were higher than for a while - maybe pushing 300. A snaking line of desperate looking people, mainly men but more women than I’ve seen recently, waited patiently in the heat for a polystyrene tray of hot food. A smaller number were at the back of the water truck, washing. 

We talked to an Eritrean worker with Secours, about what happened on Saturday night. There was trouble in the food line, an Amharic speaker pushed in front of Tigrinya speaker. A fight broke out. But he thinks there are probably deeper roots. The Eritreans have secured the Belgian parking and the Ethiopians want it. But all seems peaceful for now.

Of course, once the fighting broke out the CRS kettled everyone into the site - where the daily distributions take place in what’s called the ‘new jungle’, though it isn’t  - preventing anyone who wanted to from leaving and ensuring that tempers got more heated than would otherwise have been the case. The CRS did not use the kettle as a means of sending in snatch squads to remove the trouble-makers, ringleaders, even the people fighting (which is probably what the Brits would have done in similar circumstances). My witnesses think this might have made things worse. It seems to have led to the casualty rate being higher than it would have been. There’s no way of telling, of course.

There is no obvious mechanism for peace-making. It was the Afghans who stepped in, urging peace on Saturday night. There is no single place where people gather and live. People emerge from the woods when the food arrives and melt away just as quickly afterwards. Explosions of frustration and desperation happen at odd times in unexpected places. It is not surprising as most of the exiles are subjected to daily harassment, the confiscation of what little they possess (especially sleeping bags), the pepper spraying and beating of the slow to move.

We are exploring what kind of Orthodox focused activity we might be able to broker so people can be brought together by the thing they have in common - their faith and culture - and can then talk through their differences. We need to create spaces for hospitable story telling. We had one in the jungle - St Michael’s church - which everyone from the region respected and in which they found common ground.

There is a church available in a good location which would probably cost as much as a house to make into a useable space. But it would provide three or four times the floor area with a dedicated space that could be turned into an orthodox worship zone and plenty of space of volunteers to live and exiles to crash for a few nights. So can we raise €300,000?

A young Eritrean man was at the distribution, limping with a substantial bandage round his head protecting a deep and large wound. We spoke with him as best we could as he waited for a friend to get his food, while he nestled in the shade at the front of the van. His hospital notes speak of him being resuscitated. So he must have quite severely wounded and is probably still concussed; and yet the hospital released him after 36 hours with a letter but no pain medication. He still seems groggy. 

So, we took him to the house, found him fresh clothes and shoes and contacted St Omer about him. This is the place that takes under-18s, especially those who might be up for claiming asylum in France. He seems to be and the Secours Tigrinya speaker confirms this. But there turns out to be a discrepancy over his age. The hospital suggests he’s over 18, while his other documents suggest he’s 17. For this reason the St Omer workers who turn up in their mini-bus will not take him and so he will have to stay at the house with its steep stairs. Not ideal given his mobility issues!


This is just a snapshot of the stories I witnessed in a single day where thousands of stories unfolded. But it is as honest a reflection of the continuing precarious nature of life for those on Calais’ streets as I can write. As ever, one leaves feeling a mixture of impotent rage at the governments whose inaction keeps these people in limbo and awe at the tireless volunteers who day in day out work to feed and clothe, befriend and support as many as they can.

How long, O Lord; how long.

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