Sunday 11 December 2016

Migrants have lost their fear in the face of gas and hunger

Suzanne Harrington

Published 28/09/2015 | 02:30

Smoke rises from burning rubbish as migrants queue for food at the makeshift camp called ‘The New Jungle’ in Calais, France
Smoke rises from burning rubbish as migrants queue for food at the makeshift camp called ‘The New Jungle’ in Calais, France

The air is thick with exploding gas canisters and there is a drone overhead. People are shouting and running through makeshift shelters. In the distance are throngs of heavily armed men. This is not, however, the war zones from which refugees have fled, but their European haven of safety. Welcome to the Jungle.

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Actually, before the police start lobbing tear gas at close range, the Jungle refugee camp at Calais is one of the most unexpectedly welcoming places I have ever been. Almost everybody smiles and says hello. There is eye contact and open-faced friendliness and warmth, despite the desperation of everyone's situation.

Arriving a bit tentatively - a girlfriend and I, well intentioned but clueless, have driven over on the car ferry from Dover. We have been involved in a local grassroots charity 100 miles away in Brighton, where we live, and heard that help is needed in the camp (and all over Europe, but Calais is the nearest). Our plan is to see for ourselves, with a view to coming back for a bit longer, perhaps to cook food, or help with language lessons, or deliver stuff. Perhaps do some fundraising back at home, or return and stay for longer. Whatever is needed.

We are not sure what to expect - this is a reconnaissance mission. What motivates us is the idea that Europe, the richest continent of 740 million, is so reluctant to help those fleeing war and starvation; this is what is spurring the grassroots movement and its unofficial volunteers. It is a wish to do something, no matter how small.

We know that the mostly male residents at the makeshift camp are in dire need of many things - food, camping gear, firewood, winter clothes, winter shoes - and that they have been overwhelmed with generous donations, many of which have been inappropriate (high heels, women's clothing, nappies). That they have made horrendous journeys from horrific situations to get here; from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and other places they can no longer call home.

I bump into an English woman at the edge of the camp, an area of wasteland a few miles from the busy port where there are now around 4,000 people living in terrible conditions.

The English woman has been here about a month, sleeping in her van, helping out as needed.

Like most of the volunteers on the ground, she is part of the grassroots support network that communicates via Facebook. Today she is delivering firewood. "Go in," she tells us. "Walk around, talk to people. Have a cup of tea. Just interact."

There has been torrential rain that morning, making the place like some kind of post-apocalyptic Glastonbury. Men are walking delicately around the thick mud in flip flops instead of boots. There is lots of litter, but the place is clean and, pre-tear gas, the air smells fresh. There are compost loos and portaloos and a few showers and standpipes, but not enough for so many people.

The further we walk into the camp, we see little shops - well stocked and organised with non-perishable food - and a few improvised cafés. There is an air of resourcefulness, co-operation and community. For so many different groups living in such close proximity, without physical comfort or any idea of what will become of them from day to day, the atmosphere is astonishingly peaceful, sane and unthreatening. People smile at us.

Another, Samer, is a political scientist from Sudan. He shows us the Christian church built by the Eritreans and Ethiopians. Go in, the men outside tell us. Just take your shoes off outside. Inside, away from the mud and squalor, is a heart-rendingly beautiful space, lovingly cared for. Then Samer takes us to the well-stocked library - named Jungle Books - where there is a French lesson in progress.

Many of the men here would like to stay in France, but are beset by bureaucracy and language difficulties. Almost everyone is educated and speaks English.

Gani, a good-humoured man on crutches who fled violence in Kosovo, tells me that he broke his leg in four places trying to scramble onto a train through the Channel Tunnel.

"The hospital is full of injured from the camp," he says. I take a photo of his leg, the cast wrapped in a bin liner to keep out the mud.

The last time he tried to bunk on the train through the tunnel, he was with another man, who was just in front of him. "He fell on the track," he says. "There was a big flash. He cooked."

Samer, softly spoken and dignified, tells us that he left his pregnant wife and two small children back in Sudan. He walked a long way - he doesn't specify where and I don't ask - before going to sea for 12 days on an overcrowded boat.

"Many, many died," he says quietly. He will keep trying to cross the channel until he reaches the UK. Then he will send for his family. I ask what he will do if he can't make the crossing and he shakes his head. He doesn't have a Plan B. He has used up every last bit of his resources to get this far. He tells us that most people here get to eat just once a day. "Even dogs eat twice a day," he says.

Outside the library, as I am talking to an English woman who is helping with language lessons, there is a sudden kerfuffle. Overhead is a drone camera. This causes a small stampede - for many people here, drones are a thing of terror. Another woman volunteer, whose sweater reads #RefugeesWelcome, helps calm the situation.

Further away, there is suddenly lots of shouting, and loud banging noises. My throat and eyes start to burn, and I feel dizzy. Tear gas, being fired at close range into the camp by the French riot police from a nearby bridge, directly into a densely tented area. Now everyone is running from the tear gas, gasping, eyes streaming.

Waseem Iqbal is a Birmingham Muslim dedicated to helping others. Part of the Human Relief Foundation charity, he and his colleagues work tirelessly, cooking hot food, rebuilding crushed shelters, posting live Facebook updates.

"Tell the world what's really happening here," he says. "Not what you see on the television news."

As the tear gas thickens again, we are ushered into an unexpectedly cosy Afghani café made of tarpaulins and wooden pallets, the door closed behind us to keep out the gas. Inside, men are eating hot food by candle light - we are offered chairs and cups of chai.

There are scraps of carpet on the floor and even an old painting on the wall. It feels hospitable and gracious. Someone offers us tissue and a homemade opaque solution to counteract the tear gas.

Only once do we encounter hostility. "You bloody Europeans!" shouts an Afghani man as we make our way along the muddy path back to my car and easy passage back to Dover, with our EU passports, "coming here to laugh at us!"

His eyes are streaming from the gas and he is anguished. His friends comfort him as we slip away.

Outside the Christian church, Selam and Hirut, two child-sized sisters from Eritrea aged 20 and 17, sit on a plank of wood. They are educated, very polite and speak perfect English.

They too are going to try and cross the Channel later in the evening. "Aren't you afraid?" I wonder. They look at me as though I am mad. They have come from a war zone. "No, we are not afraid," one says. "Not any more."

Irish Independent

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