I spent a week volunteering with Care4Calais. While the official refugee camp, known as The Jungle, was demolished in 2016, hundreds of refugees remain across Calais, as well as in Dunkirk and Brussels. They get no support from the French government, and the British government funds the French police who repeatedly raid the makeshift settlements. While Coronavirus is suddenly affecting our freedom to move, work and live normally, for many, those freedoms have already been taken away.

There’s one other foot passenger on the ferry from Dover. She’s going for training with Border Force. The attendant in the yellow jacket chuckles. “The opposition,” he says.

The guy at the youth hostel says they’ve had a host of cancellations. People are starting to cancel trips. There’s no soap in the bathroom.

In the warehouse, tea, coffee and biscuits are lined up on the left. A circle of picnic chairs. The walls are lined with notes and posters, and the huge space is filled with mountains of cardboard boxes.

I came to Calais a few years ago with my brother, back when going to the jungle was fashionable. We turned up with two cars worth of donations, chatted to people and were invited into lots of tents for tea.

It made a big impact on us both, but then it dropped out of the news and we’ve never been back. Weekenders, the team leader says they called us.

In 2016, the police burned the jungle down.

In 2017, it burned down again.

Now it doesn’t officially exist, but lots of people are still there. Some people get across to the UK in a few days, but most have been stuck for months, some even years. The UK government are much more favourable towards some nationalities than others, though generally hostile to all.

They say that the police slash people’s tents so the rain gets in.

They say the police steal one shoe, so that people don’t want to stay.

Rumour has it there’s going to be a massive clearance of the main Calais camp soon.

We go through the incoming pile of donations. Useful: warm men’s waterproof jackets, small cuffed joggers, ready made food packs in large numbers, size 45 waterproof boots, gloves, hats and warm scarves in large quantities.

Not useful: dressing gowns, handbags, suede shoes, neon clothes, reusable sanitary pads (where would they wash them?), hair straighteners. Too many people use donations as a way to get rid of their crap.

My first distribution outside the main camp. We give out blankets and set up the charging board and the urns for tea, which they make with more sugar than water. I like you, one guy says, you are long.

South Sudan. Kuwait. Iran. Syria. Morocco. Eritrea. Afghanistan. Iraq. Senegal. Nigeria. Mali. Burkina Faso.

The police watch as we set up the generator. A group of guys are playing football and the ball touches the van so they step out of the vehicle. They stand with arms folded, looking like they’re waiting for an excuse to beat someone up.

A ten or eleven year old cycles round on an older boy’s bike. It’s newly fixed at our makeshift repair shop, where everyone’s hands are oily and scrabbling round in the plastic boxes searching for the right nuts and bolts. We need more good mechanics. The team leaders tell us about the best mechanic in the world. He got to Liverpool a few months ago.

The sea is rough outside when I walk home and I am nearly knocked over by the wind.

The youth hostel normally does food but with all the cancellations, they’ve stopped. I get another pot noodle.

Our drive to a distribution in Brussels is punctuated by news of countries closing their borders. Ireland’s closing all the schools. Italy’s telling people not to go outside. We wonder how we’ll all get home.

I’m sorry, no sleeping bags. Only food and blankets.

I’m sorry, no shoes today.

Sorry, no hand sanitzer.

We set up a little barbershop. They take their time. We’re delayed from packing up by one guy painstakingly grooming his beard. A little over the upper lip. Just below the chin. On the left by the ear. We’re going to be late back. A bunch of Eritrean men ask for conditioner for their curls.

No sim cards, I’m sorry.

No paracetemol, we’re not doctors.

Sorry, no more small, only large left.

Everyone wants hand sanitzer. A refugee camp isn’t exactly the easiest place to self-isolate.

We make up snug packs in the warehouse. 300 gloves, 300 hats, 300 socks, 300 scarves, 300 multivitamins, 300 mini bottles of shampoo. We box them up and make a conveyor belt to put them into bags. Someone takes a time lapse and we look like little bees. I’m bundling up gloves and one pair has the union jack on them. England is good, yes? one man asks later. I don’t know how to answer.

France bans all gatherings of more than 100 people. This means the French police could stop our distributions with legitimate reason if they want to. The next night they close everything unnecessary, including restaurants.

It is unclear whether the French government deem us necessary or not. 

Do you know of many happy stories? someone asks in the pub. Not yet, he replies.

We line everything up for the van to go to Dunkirk. Generator, charging board, tarp, tea and coffee, barbers, football. No speakers today: we don’t want to attract the police’s attention.

Two men are laughing by the edge of the motorway. One puts on the jogging bottoms we’ve just handed out on top of his trousers. When one leg’s in, his friend pushes him over and he wobbles but stays upright.

They are so young and they have travelled so far.

There aren’t really enough volunteers today. Another person is going home early. I do tea and coffee and the sugar runs out quickly. A 25 year old Nigerian guy offers to help me. His dad, brothers and sisters were killed by Boko Haram, so his mother told him to leave.

I am beginning to know where things go in the warehouse. I see the appeal of volunteering here long term.

There are a lot of broken wrists around. One guy a year younger than me shows me how to cut an ‘L’ shape into a tarpaulin covering a truck. He says it gets cold in there, minus twelve. Last time he tried, he got found at the border and chucked out. He’s just paid a smuggler three grand for a space on a small boat.

There are so few of us that a young Kurdish guy comes and helps me out with the barber’s. I have a friend in Sheffield, he says, and I admit I’ve never been. First thing I’m going to do when I get to the UK, he says, is I’m going to go to all the cities and all the villages. I want to travel it all.

The sky is clear and the rain holds off tonight.

France is starting to shut down. Britain drags its feet but gradually starts to close up too. I need to get home.

Rumours have it that the government funded organisation who give out two meals a day is going to stop because of Coronavirus. I don’t know how or if they’re going to get food.

Volunteers are dwindling and media attention is elsewhere.

I pack up my stuff and get the ferry home. Even with all the borders closing, it is so easy for me to leave.

See you next time, I say. No, he says, I’ll see you in the UK. 

Care4Calais need donations now more than ever. If you’re able to help, please consider donating here. I can’t express how much of a difference they make.

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A collection of thoughts about the refugee crisis, theatre and Valentine’s Day.

hands

Yesterday it was announced that half of the Calais migrant and refugee camp, known as the ‘jungle’, was to be knocked down. Last week the French authorities started the process by bulldozing the church and mosque camp. Both sites of comfort and hope were made by hand by people with next to nothing. To be separated from someone you love by thousands of miles, violent police and unsympathetic governments and then to have a remaining source of comfort destroyed- well, it’s just not very nice, is it?

The police outside the camp have a coldness to them. You can completely believe all the stories about them- that when it gets dark they attack the innocent. Reports have been coming out of injuries to those in the camp, with one charity documenting fifty incidents in the last week alone. When you’re in a life-threatening situation to begin with, the last thing you need is being beaten up by those who are supposed to be protecting you.

If this is a day for celebrating people, then I feel like we should spend some time thinking about the ignored. While most of us will spend our day either complaining about or celebrating Valentine’s day, there are millions of displaced people just trying to stay warm, dry, alive. It makes that box of chocolates feel a little superfluous.

***

There’s this bit in Jane Eyre (the BOV version that transferred to the NT) that I can’t get out of my head. It’s where Rochester kneels by her side and puts his hands on hers, and she recognises him. Like, she just knows. She can’t see him but can tell from the knobbles of his knuckles and the warmth of his fingers that it’s him. I thought that was pretty great, something to look forward to. That comfort, that understanding, just from the holding of a familiar hand.

***

When I visited the camp in Calais, a lot of people didn’t want their photographs taken, understandably. If their picture was seen by authorities on French soil, they would have proof that they had been in France. That would mean they’d have to stay in France. I took a lot of pictures of hands.

I made this video while visiting the camp. The poem, ‘Home’, is by Warsan Shire.They couldn’t have been lovelier to us in the camp. Though they had nothing, they offered us tea, smiles and stories. The media present to us the idea of migrants and refugees ‘swarming’, like a flock of violent animals coming to claim what we have to offer. The only major change came with the photograph of Aylan Kurdi on the beach, when even the most vile papers couldn’t find something mean to say.

The loveliest article: Me and My Syrian Refugee Lodger

All this contrast between violence and tenderness makes me think about the way we choose to show force in theatre. A few years ago I saw Kiss and Cry at the Barbican. It was, and I think remains to be, the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. It was all about hands.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P7L3ZSHyFLI

Last week I saw An Elephant in the Garden at BOV. Although it’s about the Second World War (and elephants and the circus and love and stuff), I came out unable to stop thinking about the refugee crisis today. An extract of the review:

This little girl, her mother and the elephant are all refugees, fleeing their home for fear of wars and violence. When Elizabeth and her gang are desperately hungry after a few days walking, it is hard not to think of those going with nothing for weeks in camps and boats and in the backs of vans across the world. We know the outcome of the Second World War. The end of the ongoing refugee crisis seems less certain. It might be a children’s show, but An Elephant in the Garden makes us see these refugees as individuals. It makes us sympathise, laugh and fall in love with them. Perhaps Reade’s adaptation of Morpurgo’s book is a sign that we should all be trying to do the same.

***

On a day when everyone is talking about home and love, strolling down the street holding hands and the comfort of it all- it somehow felt important. It’s just a horrible thought that all this- government decisions, civil wars, hostility and violence- means two people who love each other might not be able to hold hands again.

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