Stories from Calais

A group from SOAS visited Calais in reading week. Here are some of their stories, and a poem from the ‘Jungle:’

“I was speaking to a man from Afghanistan named Adel, about what it was like to live in the ‘Jungle’ and how long he’d been living there. Then I asked him about his family and where they were and if he missed them. He replied, “My family – all gone”. Then he explained that back in 2001, his home was bombed by British or U.S airstrikes, and his whole family was killed. He was the only one to survive as they dug him up from underneath the rubble of what used to be his home. He was nine years old at the time – two years older than I was when it happened.”

“Khan, an Afghani, had an amazing way with words. Talking about the mess that has become of his country he rightly accuses Britain and the U.S: “They started a fire there, and left it to burn”. He continued to talk about the total lack of humanity among the West’s politicians: “If I pinch Obama it would hurt him. If I pinch David Cameron, it would hurt him. When we are pinched, it also hurts us – but they do not care.” Referring to border control and nationality he said, “A passport shouldn’t represent who a person is,” then pointing to his tongue he said, “the way the person is, how he speaks to you, his kindness – that is what should represent a person”.”

“I was surprised to find that more people in the Jungle knew about the Sykes Picot agreement than most English people I know. This was a secret agreement made in 1916, between Britain, France and Russia (and later only Britain and France, as Russia pulled out after the Revolution in 1917); it was meant to carve up the Middle East and divide the territories amongst each other. The only reason I know about it is because I’m a history student – to people in England (if they have even heard about it) the Sykes Picot agreement is history. Whereas for those we met in the Jungle, they are still living it, still living the horrific consequences of imperialism. It has been almost a century since the Sykes Picot agreement, and yet the Jungle is a testament to how its ghost still lives on.”

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“We made friends with a group of Kuwaiti men, and asked them why they were there, what they were running from, as one doesn’t hear of much political instability there. They said that they were ‘Bedoon’s’ (not to be confused with Bedouins) which means ‘stateless people’. In 1961 when Kuwait gained its independence from being a British protectorate, tribesmen in the region lacked the necessary documentation or were neglected by the government to sign up for citizenship, and since then have been considered illegal immigrants. The men we spoke to have no rights or privileges that Kuwaiti citizens enjoy.”

“As a teacher for seven years, making people stand in line is one of my skills, but it felt very awkward and problematic working as a queue monitor for the distribution of trousers, shoes, socks and so on. Often many more people were waiting than the number of trousers we had and the distribution took hours, but there was very little we could do except try to stay friendly and cheerful. In the queue, there were a lot of jokes: a very small man with little English asking for XL; a guy who quipped ‘I want underwear- but only Giorgio Armani!’

A man who was waiting asked me about the trouser sizes: what did 34, 36 and so on mean? I replied ‘I think one inch is 2.6cm.’ He immediately said ‘No, it’s 2.54cm. In Iran I was a mechanical engineer: if you get that wrong, bad things will happen.’

I said to another boy ‘You want trousers? You need to get in the line!’ Line is one of the words everyone in the camp understands, like tent and police. The boy – he was around sixteen – pointed to his knitted hat. ‘Hat: line!’ Then he went through his whole outfit.

‘T-shirt: line! Jumper: line! Jacket: line! Jean: line! Shoes: line!’ Even his underwear, he showed through sign language, had been procured in a line. ‘I Mister Line!’”

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Call Me Dream: This Is My Name

M. Omar A.K.A Dream

Black

Moonlight in the dark night

Fabulous

I cannot see the way

For moon rays reflecting

Of myriads of stars

In this I feel the colour

Purple

As rich as vineyards

With the flavours of rose

That sweeps around my face

In a corridor of green grapes and seashells

So sad and melancholy

Full of tilting and deluding

Everything is satin

Yellow

Mirrored in my life’s memory

Circles of joyous carnivals

Interrupted by friends left behind

Forever playing with the dolphins

Among the tempestuous seas

My sights are to return

To my heart made of ochre

Straw wood and clay

I see my lifetime’s spirals

That appear as a night’s dream

In midsummer, I awake

To find the veil of cloudy morns

Full of dew soaked serrated green

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“Everywhere we went, people smiled and said hello. Many people in the camp had serious injuries after failed attempts to climb the fences, hop a train or a lorry. An Eritrean boy on crutches was standing with his friends playing Bill Withers’ Lean on Me on his phone. I recognised him from the distribution line and stopped briefly to sing along with him.”

“Ahmed had lived in Ilford for 5 years, which made him my neighbour. Every day he took the 25 bus to his work in a Central London restaurant. Now he has been deported twice, and has recently handed himself in to the French Police to be sent back to Afghanistan. They will call him in the next 20 days: until then he can only wait in the Jungle.

He is ready to return to Afghanistan, but has no more family there, which means because he is a single, healthy young man, he will have to join a militia, either with the government or under a warlord . He said, in his East London accent ‘I just hope I will get the chance to choose the right side to fight for.’”

“I was talking to a group of older Afghan men as the sun set. A young boy, only thirteen or fourteen, turned wheelies on his bike around us and occasionally veered in with a screech of brakes to listen to the conversation. His name was Khaled but when I said hello, he giggled and simply replied ‘No English.’

‘He’s crazy,’ the men told me. ‘Every night he rides to the trains. Every night he spends all night trying to get on one. He sleeps all day. He never thinks of anything else.’ They were too old to try the dangerous attempts to climb fences and jump trains. Khaled whizzed around us, smiling.”

“I met someone who had studied in the British Council in Cairo, on his three-year journey from Sudan to the Jungle. I taught there on one of my several years abroad, trying to study Arabic. When he added me on Facebook I saw we had shared friends, in Egypt, in the UK. How ironic that I can go wherever I like, when I like, and my former student now lives in a freezing tent, his life on hold.”

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“In the free restaurant I did some drying-up. The plates kept coming and coming for what felt like hours. The man washing the plates didn’t speak any English at all. I signed to him to wash slower. We both hummed tunelessly as we worked, him in Kurdish, me in English. Then suddenly he turned to me and sang out loud: ‘Hello! Is it me you’re looking for?’”

“One day we were exhausted so we took a taxi from the Jungle. It’s about 5km back to Calais town. I asked the taxi driver if he came this way often. ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘Today I’ve been here and back around 20 times.’ I was surprised: there didn’t seem to be that many aid workers in the camp. ‘No,’ he explained. ‘I take people who arrive at Calais Ville Station: new migrants.’ I worked out 20 Euro times 15 every day: it seems the Jungle is contributing to the Calais economy in no small way.

One the other hand, all along the long walk from town, we saw new arrivals who didn’t have the means to take a taxi. Often they spoke very little English. They asked us for directions. As we left on the last evening, a small group of men and boys were sitting on the pavement, about halfway between the town and the camp. They looked utterly exhausted.”

All photos: Himasha S. Weera

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2 Responses

  1. M.omer A.K.A Dream says:

    We should all be thankful for those people,(SOAS) group who rekindle the inner spirit for welcoming refugees and narrated the real stories of Calais, any how that is our current fate we must accepted, so thank you so much indeed and may God will bless you greatly for for your kindness and your generosity, really I do appreciate that indeed and I wish you every future success due that you are a fruit of a rooted success keep up

  2. M.omer A.K.A Dream says:

    We should all be thankful for those people of SOAS university whom rekindle the inner spirit and narrate the stories of Calais, may God will bless you greatly for your kindness and your generosity, it was a reall privilege to meet you and our pleasure to welcome you, so I appreciate that indeed and I wish you every future success due that, you’re a fruit of a rooted success, keep up and sky is the limit…..!!!

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