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Why we went to Calais

Premier Youthwork’s Jamie Cutteridge and a bunch of youth workers went to Calais to visit the refugee camp. Here’s what they found…

The first person I met was Abdul. He left Iran after his father tried to make him join the army. He had no interest in killing other people so he ran away, slowly making his way across Europe before arriving at the camp two days before us. He doesn’t know anyone in the UK, but he can’t imagine anywhere else offering him a better chance of re-establishing his life. He also knows that the UK doesn’t deport to Iran, which for him is crucial: if Abdul ever went back to Iran, he would be killed. As we stand and chat we’re joined by Abdul’s Syrian friend whose English is broken but whose story is familiar: he fled for life and now has nowhere to go. His brother lives in Harrow – it’s North West London or bust…

Sometimes it’s better to ask where Jesus would be, rather than what he would do. Take the recent episode of Songs of Praise: where in that show would we find Jesus? Interviewing Matt Redman? Unlikely, he’s more of a Tim Hughes guy. Singing songs in church? Possibly. Up to his ankles in other people’s faecal matter, doing what he could in a dire situation? Our suspicion is that’s where we’d find Jesus. So if we’d find Jesus there, we should probably find the Church there. So as we stood in that camp alongside our brothers and sisters, we were just trying to be faithful to the life Jesus showed us.

David is Ethiopian; he fled the country overnight after the government discovered he was a member of an opposition party and gradually made his way to Calais. He plans on staying in the camp till he’s successful, because what other choice does he have? The Ethiopian government would kill him if he returned. Every night for the last three months he’s attempted to get across the tunnel. The day I met David was a rest day for him. Trying to cross the Channel is hard work, so once a week he gives himself a night off. His friend sitting next to us won’t be trying that night either: he’s on crutches after a failed attempt the night before.

Migrants aren’t really talked about as people. When people die trying to cross the channel, their name and story is never reported. Instead, we’re told a ‘migrant’ has died in the tunnel, David Cameron apologies to holiday-makers whose journey has been disrupted, we sip our coffee and move on with our day. But we know that isn’t how Jesus views people: every single one of those 5,000 refugees in that camp are beautiful, unique human beings, perfectly created in the image of God; if our vans full of sleeping bags, sanitary towels and underwear could preserve that spark of the Holy inside some of those people in the camp, it would be well-worth the trip.

Our visit was a bit last minute. What started a week before as me and a couple of mates in a car quickly escalated into five vehicles, 13 people (including three young people) with tonnes of supplies and over £2000 in donated money. We were, as the BBC hilariously called us, an aid convoy.

Mustafa has an infectious, broad laugh and a beaming grin. He speaks brilliant English in a weird Brummie accent, despite never having been to Birmingham. His brother lives in the ‘second city’ and he’s picked up all his English from chatting to him, hence the Brummie accent (and typically dry English sense of humour). He fled Afghanistan a year or so ago and has been at the camp for a few months. When we meet he’s helping his neighbour, Abdul, sort his tent out, because that’s what life in the camp is like – if something needs doing, people muck in and get it done.

Here’s the thing: the migrant camp in Calais is seen as a political crisis, but that’s nonsense. It’s a humanitarian crisis: thousands of people, living in temporary, ramshackle conditions, with food distributed once a day and not getting anywhere near close to feeding the whole camp. Sanitary products and shoes are equally scarce. Calling it political is a ‘get out of feeding’ free card, played by governments who want to push responsibility elsewhere. What might happen to these people in the long run might be political, but their immediate plight is both urgent and ongoing.

That’s the weird thing about the camp, it feels painfully temporary, yet it isn’t going anywhere. People aren’t building a home; they’re unpacking at a Travelodge. People are drawn there but no one wants to stay there. People are still turning up and some have been there for months. Almost everyone is desperate to get into the UK, but no one has a plan B. It’s so unlike the way we live in the UK that it leads to a kind of emotional numbness – walking round a campsite that looks like the last day of Reading Festival doesn’t feel like someone’s life, it feels like the end of a heavy weekend.

Another Abdul’s English is poor but his welcome his huge. As I walked past his tent he chucked me a shovel and told me to come and help. Mustafa looked on, laughing that English people’s brains are bigger than their biceps and that I’d be no good. Unfortunately, Mustafa was closer to the truth. I did my part, clearing off a few plants and flattening some ground to give Abdul somewhere to pitch a new tent to live in. Not many people on the site put this much effort into flattening ground, but Abdul’s neighbourhood made this essential: living next door to the camp’s nightclub means you need a flat ground to get anything like a good night’s sleep. Abdul is from Sudan, he left because of the war, saying there was no life for him there.

So many of the people in the camp share a similar story for Abdul; many of them are from Sudan, but even those from elsewhere share a similar story. They’ve fled a war-torn country where their life was in risk either in a general sense or, in cases such as David or the Iranian Abdul, specific threats on their life. These aren’t economic migrants – they’re refugees, asylum seekers. If you ask why they want to come to the UK, no one mentions our benefit system, instead they talk about jobs, they talk about family members over there. They don’t see the UK as a ‘soft touch’ they see it as a place to build a home.

Mima runs the church in the middle of the camp. He, like many, came to the camp in the hope of making it to Britain after fleeing Ethiopia, trying for a while to get across the tunnel. As the church community began to grow, his theology degree saw him take a lead in the community, facilitating services and supporting others. The church is simple but a beautiful, holy place; after we’d prayed in there Mima told me that while he came to the camp to try and get to the UK, he’s decided to stay there: ‘I'm happy. I'm not going to the train station to try. Maybe Jesus has brought me here. For me it's better than to go to England.’

On the ground the organisation is…minimal. We take our five vehicles to an old Catholic church, the distribution centre for the Secours Catholique charity. As we walk in we’re confronted with mountains of clothes, shoes, tents and cardboard boxes. There’s no shortage of physical generosity, there’s a shortage of time. Pascal and Maya are our two contacts out there and absolute heroes. They spend their time in the camp, talking to people, discovering needs and doing what they can. But for that distribution centre, they’re pretty much it. That room full of stuff is sorted through two afternoons a week by a small team. Pascal tells me they have two kind of volunteers: ‘Old volunteers and elderly volunteers. People ask why we do it; it is because we have eyes.’

It feels like that team are constantly playing catch up. The centre is open to those in camp every few weeks. You can only go if you’re given a ticket for a specific need, and you only get those tickets from Pascal or Maya, and as loving and faithful people as they are, they can only do so much. We meet many people throughout the day in need of shoes or clothes, and when we tell them about the centre they’ve never heard of Pascal or Maya.

What amazes me is the lack of just about any kind of organisation or charity in the camp. There’s a medical charity who work in a clinic, there’s a day centre that also distribute some items and run showers (one shower per person, per week) and another charity, L'Auberge, runs the food distribution, which is as essential as it is chaotic. As I stand in the back of the van handing out bags of bread, oil and milk, the queue stretches all the way down the road and out of sight around the corner. By the time the van is empty, I still can’t see the back of the queue; handing out the last bag of food is heart-breaking.

There’s not just physical need on the ground. As a team, many of us are told about people’s plans to get the UK, and many involve traffickers. Those taking that approach boast of how much they’ve paid people to smuggle them across the Channel. As much as you warn them of the risk - of trafficking, or slavery - they ring hollow. What other choice do these people have? Smuggling offers a hope, as forlorn as that hope may be; in the camp, leaving is the only hope. Apart from Mima, no one wants to be there. We leave amazed at the lack of aid agencies on the ground and at the failure of anti-trafficking agencies to set up a hub and prevent the camp becoming a breeding ground for slavery.

The camp is home to creativity. Alpha’s home stands out as you’re walking around, there’s a colourful sign declaring ‘home’ at the entrance, and as you walk towards his house you see his political artwork everywhere. Once he finds out we’re British he springs into life, mainly talking about David Cameron: ‘He calls us a swarm, but we are people.’ One of his pieces includes this phrase, ‘David Cameron you are a swarm; you care just [about] yourself and your friends, rich billionaires.’

Before we went to Calais, we expected it would the first of many aid trips, travelling in vans to distribute more tents and supplies. That’s not what’s needed. Organisation and logistics are needed. Charities are needed. It’s a disgrace that this humanitarian crisis has been turned into political discourse, that groups are afraid to get involved because it’s seen as ‘too political.’ The reality is that this story, this camp, isn’t going anywhere. David has been there for months, Abdul arrived the day before. The camp is going to grow unless the EU can put together a coherent plan. The conditions might feel temporary, but the problem seems permanent.

There’s a need to re-humanise those in the camp. When the news calls them ‘migrants’ in a pejorative sense, we must call them people; even refugees would be more reflective of their situation. While David Cameron talks about a swarm I’ll talk about Mustafa and his Brummie accent, Abdul’s laugh, Mima’s heart for the church and Alpha’s artwork. When we put it in those terms we don’t need see a political story, we see a humanitarian crisis. 

Want to help? Your youth group can #lovecalais this winter by sponsoring a temporary shelter before the cold sets in. Learn more and access free, downloadable resources to get you started!

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