SOAS Goes to Calais Writing Group: Frances Grahl, Leonetta Luciano Fendi, Laetitia Sanchez Incera, Maria Vittoria Salvatori, Donata Pianon, Surani Himasha Weerappulige, Will Young, Olivia Qasir, Anna Fox, Sara Selleri, Ed Emery, Mohammed Omar
It’s a one-and-a-half hour walk from the centre of Calais to what is known as the Jungle. Invisible to local residents, the camp has become a segregated city of about 6000 people, with shops, bars, churches and mosques. People are here from all over the world; Afghanistan, Chad, Egypt, Eritrea, Iraq, Kurdistan, Libya Somalia, Sudan, and Syria. Living conditions are appalling, with people queuing under the inclement weather to meet their most basic needs. There is no further shelter than the one provided by tents, and residents rely on gas bottles and garbage bonfires to keep warm. Living to survive, some people want to cross the border to the UK, to seek asylum in France, other are considering their options, but all aspire to start building a life. A group from SOAS visited Calais and shares their experiences here.
Last month, on 30th October, a SOAS group of about 40 people, including the Ceilidh band and professor Ed Emery, travelled by various means (coach, train, hitch-hiking) to the French city of Calais, known for one of the largest refugee camps, the so-called ‘Jungle.’ Most of us stayed in a youth hostel for 2-3 days, with daily visits to the camp, and are already planning to return for longer periods.
The Jungle consists of more than 6000 people, with a disproportionate male predominance (only 500 women), with tents distributed in various neighbourhoods from different countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Sudan. It is located 7 km away from the city centre, at the end of a disrupted highway. On our arrival at the camp, we made our way around but it didn’t take long for us to find a place that needed our help. Our activities included the following: cooking and handling out meals in the canteens, sorting and distributing clothing donations (including queue supervision), working shifts in the library, picking up and bagging rubbish, giving out books (including requests for Plato and Aristotle), organising shopping runs to Calais, visiting the camp hospital and the Médecins Sans Frontières hub, helping to build the camp school and doing activities with children.
Furthermore we also focused on helping in a psychotherapy centre for people with trauma, looking at what kinds of legal advice and information could be useful, studying how things are organised in the camp for future reference, speaking to families to see what family-assistance can be offered for immigration to UK, and noting and understanding issues related to corruption, crime and gender problems in the camp.
Most importantly throughout we had being chatting with people about life, hopes and possibilities, extending our solidarity with their cause. For this reason, on Saturday night the Ceilidh band organised a concert in the Dome theatre, which ended up in a combination of beautiful performances from various ethnic groups, including the Palestinians, the Iranians and the Kurds, singing and playing together under the unifying love for music.
Beside our involvement in the Jungle, we had engaged in other related activities. Firstly, on the very first day of our arrival we made a peaceful demonstration at the city market, after hearing of a march of 600 people protesting against the refugees early that morning. We showed our solidarity with the migrants by performing various songs and dances that entertained and involved the audience.
Furthermore, we also had the chance to meet a local activist with whom we shared ideas for building a community in England, as well as for developing a supportive network. For most of us, the trip finished on Monday as we travelled back to London filled with thoughts, emotions and stories. Our return back home however has not been really the end of a unique experience, but rather just the beginning of a new project. We are willing to take further our involvement with Calais and the refugees’ crisis, not just by going regularly back to the camp but also by building an active (political?) movement in the United Kingdom. In fact, we have set up a group discussion list and an internal group Facebook page, posting materials on the ‘SOAS Goes to Calais’ website and we have begun to organise the next trip, which will take place on 16-18 December.
Photo Credit: Himasha S. Weera