I’ve been trying to understand the sentiments that have clogged me up since I left. Anger. Disdain. Anxiety about the future for the men, women and children who still live in this political no-man’s-land.
I stopped following the developments on the news. There was no point in keeping up any more. Drinking alcohol was a constant temptation, just as it was when I was still in Calais, as a way to numb the mental images. The days sitting on my ass at home whizzed past. For two months after I came back I did nothing. Literally nothing. My mind was still the other side of the Channel.
In the end, my exit from my home of five months was quiet and unplanned. I couldn’t face the others to tell them I was buggering off while they were still fighting. I scurried away, like an animal on the coast moving to higher ground when it senses a storm coming.
A storm was coming. The demolition of two thirds of the refugee camp, a place nicknamed the ‘Jungle’, began three days later. Thousands of people were, within the space of two weeks, rendered completely homeless. What on earth they thought this destruction would achieve I have no idea. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of building materials, forming hundreds of durable, waterproof homes, went up in smoke. The Sudanese refugees served the police tea while this happened.
The original trip to Calais was meant to last a week or so. Back in the tail-end of September, I turned up and, realising long-term volunteers were urgently needed, stayed, on and off, for nearly half a year. What was supposed to be a minor post-graduate excursion, turned into my life’s most formative chapter. When has a great story come out of things going according to plan?
I must have met upwards of a thousand people, volunteers that is, during these five months. The warehouse, which acted as the volunteer hub, was a conveyor belt of new and returning folk. As a long-termer, you experience a minor form of celebrity because many of the others know who you are, while you may not know them. It is socially exhausting. Faces blur into one. The thought of remembering names goes out of the window. You blank-out all the heads turning your way. Despite the presence of people, you become immersed in your own mind.
I pulled the plug on my time in Calais in late February. It felt like I was losing mental health. The days merged into one. One or two days off a week became insufficient. A couple of months previously, I had experienced the ‘Calais burn-out’, a phenomenon that regularly sends volunteers fleeing back to Britain in a state of delirium. I didn’t fancy going through it again. It was hard to tell whether I was more sensitive than other people, or whether everyone else was quietly going through the same thing. For their sake, I hope their inner turmoil was not as great as mine.
Moving on with my life once I was back in my home village in Surrey proved challenging. Everything was so quiet and green. It was hard to imagine a slum existing 100 miles away. Seeing the Jungle on the BBC news was bizarre. Just two days after my return, I already felt disconnected from it. It may have all been a dream. After all, nothing at home had changed in the meantime.
I don’t miss it. You can’t really ‘miss’ a place where there is so much suffering. But I had a sense of purpose there which I may never get again. Now I’m back in England, it seems that everyone is just faffing around: wasting cash on iphones and other gadgets which one doesn’t really need; wasting hours of one’s life trying to gain the elusive prize of ‘popularity’; wasting hours of other people’s lives by making them listen to one’s incessant whinging.
Meanwhile, people in the Jungle don’t have enough food or warm clothes.
There was something addictive about the intensity of Calais. The constant flashing presence of the police. The fights erupting from donation distributions in the camp. The determination of the refugees, who tried to get to England by climbing razor-wire fences and jumping on moving trains every night. The endurance of the long-term volunteers, many of whom have now been there upwards of eight months.
One of my mates said that if you were volunteering in Calais long-term, it meant you were escaping from something back home. It got me thinking what I might be escaping from. Maybe I was putting off going into the working world, so I could have one last bit of fun before I got sucked into the system. Maybe I was feeling disillusioned with western, middle-class society. Maybe Surrey didn’t provide enough adrenaline. Maybe I found the refugees far more personable than British people.
The most harrowing bit of my time was perhaps the week I spent co-running a tea shack in the Afghan area of the camp. The people there were severely traumatised from having lived in a country ravaged by war, and having travelled for months in grueling conditions to get to Calais. A lot of them had been separated from all their close family. Some of them were eleven years old.
It only occurred to me recently that I myself may be suffering from post-traumatic stress. It’s something you always hear about happening in soldiers returning from combat. There are certainly periods of time where I don’t do anything. Hours unaccounted for. What I’m going through, however, is a tiny fraction of what each resident of the Jungle is experiencing. I don’t forget this, every night when I’m lying on my expensive memory-foam mattress. However healthy I may feel on a given day, there are people in Calais suffering.
You learn about the plight of people all the time on the news, but somehow it doesn’t touch you until you’re in the middle of it. The news can add filters and narratives to turn it into sub-reality. I’d like to see how well an anti-immigration Brit could hold up his arguments after spending a week in Calais. Several volunteers I know had existential melt-downs after just days there. Supposedly concrete paradigms in their thinking collapsed. Controlling the movement of people is a very recent phenomenon in the passage of human civilisation. Tight restrictions on who can enter the UK have only been around for the last few decades. Of course, as a rule, no such controls exist on Brits entering third-world countries. You feel guilty when you wave a passport and slip easily onto the ferry back to Dover. Many of the Jungle residents also have close family, and some of them all of it, on British soil.
The volunteers would go and drink at the pub in town every night. I’m not sure to what extent this was drowning sorrows. There would be a lot of talking shop: how many shelters they built that day, refugee antics, violent incidences by the police. We long-termers felt invincible. We thought we were creating a new little society on the northern tip of France. We had a vision of the future where everyone would just get along.
Stories of refugees getting killed on the train tracks in the tunnel, or having the living daylights beaten out of them by the police, became routine. One Afghan had been hit by police truncheons so badly that he had to have elastic bands put in his mouth to keep his jaw shut. He had to sip blended food through a straw. Of course, the state didn’t provide any food for the refugees, so without us bringing him specially prepared food, he would have presumably starved to death. I heard a report of a policeman firing a teargas canister at point-blank range into the face of a Syrian lad. It blew a hole in the bottom half of his face. My friend took him to hospital, where the staff made him wait for four hours to be treated. During this time, he sat vomiting blood onto the floor of the waiting room.
Contrast this with residents of my village complaining about their newspapers not getting delivered on time. It has certainly been a bizarre transition. Here now feels more surreal than Calais.
You become so concerned about the refugees’ plight that you start to forget you are only one man. There was very little I could do in the grand scheme of things. This fact was hard to swallow. Many of us ended up working ridiculous hours to maximise our impact. You forget that you have a duty towards yourself. If you’re not in good shape, you get less done, and eventually crash. One of us, after working for a month in a donation distribution point on site, told me he had become completely desensitised to other people’s problems. I told him to get out of Calais as soon as possible, before a full-scale burn-out took hold. Ignore this advice at your peril. After my burn-out in November, I spent three weeks crawling around at home, my sleep tormented by crippling thoughts and images. When I returned back to Calais, I chose to work in the warehouse and all but stopped visiting the Jungle, as it was ever more unsettling. The longer you spend in this kind of place, the more real and inescapable it becomes.
The refugees don’t want to be in Calais. Locals don’t want refugees. If the border to England was opened, it would at least solve one of those problems, as the refugees would reach their destination. You can interpret the situation as you like, but, at the end of the day, by shutting the border, we are simply dumping the problem on France. The locals are understandably angry at the UK government. We are taking advantage of the fact that we happen to be an island. Don’t think for a moment that this is anything to do with the ‘common good’.
People in the UK are generally unaware of the fact that someone cannot seek asylum here without entering the country illegally. The asylum centre in Calais was decommissioned over ten years ago. I’ve met unaccompanied children in the Jungle whose entire family is in England, but they are stuck. It seems that so long as there’s no media coverage, the government simply doesn’t care.
I’ve been listening to ‘Money Trees’ by Kendrick Lamar on repeat since I left Calais. They could do with a few money trees in the Jungle. Migrants have to pay a people smuggler several thousand pounds to get an almost guaranteed passage to England. Every now and again one of my mates makes it through. I see a picture of them in front of a British landmark on facebook.
I also keep listening to ‘Swimming Pools’ by Kendrick Lamar, in which he meditates on his relationship with alcohol. I stopped drinking a few weeks ago. I don’t know if the way alcohol affected me took a turn after my stint in Calais. It seemed to have changed from an infrequent source of relaxation, to an essential coping mechanism. A lot of the refugees would visit the bars, (marquees with speakers), that some of them had set up within the camp. When your family are inaccessible or dead, alcohol can provide a welcome comfort. Through strobe lighting you’d see lone men rocking on chairs sipping beer. The vast majority of the refugees were Muslim, and some had never touched alcohol before they arrived.
Several well-known figures visited the camp during my time. Jeremy Corbyn and Jude Law are the two that come to mind, but there were more. I always seemed to be on a day-off when they pitched up. Neneh Cherry helped out for several days in the kitchen where I was working. I had no idea who she was. I hadn’t even heard the name before. But I guess I wouldn’t have treated her any different if I had been a big fan.
In Calais, every volunteer was the same – a human being that wanted to help other human beings. Everyone crowded into the warehouse at one o clock for a group lunch – vegetarian of course. On Saturdays and Sundays there would sometimes be two hundred present. People bonded for an hour and often never saw each other again. Most of us had lives at home we had to get back to.
I guess it is inevitable that the Jungle will get completely destroyed. If there’s anything you can count on with French people, it’s their obsession with cleanliness. They see the Jungle as an eye sore. Of course, barely any of the locals have actually bothered to visit it. The presence of a load of refugees miles away from the town centre probably has very little real impact on their lives. But anything foreign to blame all their problems on is welcome.
The irony is, the refugees were generally far more friendly than most Brits and French people I’ve interacted with in my life. I’d happily live alongside them, and deport everyone grumpy and self-righteous who rants about how awful their life is because the council only collect their bins every two weeks now instead of every week. Nation is an abstract concept. The older British generations seem to be clinging to every remaining piece of out-dated pseudo-loyalty. When they’ve passed away in twenty years time, everyone might look around and wonder what all the fuss was about. I have lots of foreign friends and I don’t see them as particularly ‘different’ from us.
The refugees would often ask you why the UK doesn’t want them. It was probably the most uncomfortable I’ve ever felt. What do you say? You try to change the subject as quickly as possible. You don’t understand any better than they do. However much you try to persuade them that attempting to enter the UK is fruitless, they always endeavour. New migrants arrive in Calais every day. It’s a one way street. Don’t think for a moment that demolishing the Jungle will dissuade anyone. The remainder of the camp will soon be destroyed, but whilst this might end a chapter, the book is far from finished. I feel it won’t be finished for decades.
Whether I meet up with any of the Calais volunteers again remains to be seen. In a way, I want to cut off all connection to the place. We will have a special bond that I don’t have with anyone else. We’ll be on the same page. Then again, we will possess the same sadness. We will have seen horrors that most others at our end of the world haven’t. Spending time with each other is in one respect indulgence in something that might be best left buried. I yearn for the sense of unity we had, but life moves on.
Perhaps the most lasting effect of my time in Calais will be a change in attitude towards money. A year ago, anxiety about avoiding an empty bank account pervaded my thoughts. Now, my ethos is that money comes and goes. Unless you’re up to your neck in debt, the number that appears when you check your balance won’t make a big difference to your life. As long as you have your basic physical needs met, you can’t have much cause for complaint. The penny dropped when I realised that the Sudanese guys in the camp, whose futures couldn’t be more uncertain, were more relaxed about life than I was. Ask them at any time of day how they were doing, their answer would be the same. They’d prop their head up in a dignified fashion and say ‘I’m FINE’. Some of them made brilliant banter. Once I was carrying out a distribution, where the refugees would line up to receive donations, and a Sudanese chap came up to me and asked whether he could skip the queue. ‘Go to the end of the line’ I said. He said, ‘But line is long’.
When I come home from Calais, I get bombarded with questions about it. I do my best to describe the situation, but you really have to go there to understand what is going on.