Wednesday, 16 March 2016

All The Best Stories Have A Happy Ending by Tess Berry-Hart

Video Credit: Rowan Farrell, Jungle Books

On the 29th February, 55 riot vans drew up alongside the Calais Jungle and teams of police got out in full gear. Camp residents and volunteers looked on in trepidation. Only a few days earlier a French court had ruled that the demolition of the South Zone of the Calais camp - the area containing the refugee-run shops and cafes, as well as a heavy concentration of domestic shelter and community projects - could proceed. Organisations on the ground - L'Auberge des Migrantes and Help Refugees - had fiercely contested the destruction in court, pointing out that the recently-constructed "container camp" only had places for a fraction of the camp's population, and that the French authorities had not confirmed places elsewhere in France for other inhabitants. Only the "community spaces" of the camp - the library, schools, religious and youth spaces - were to be spared from official deconstruction, and, once left alone in a muddy wasteland, even they would not be safe. As Good Chance Theatre put it on their Facebook page - "A community space without its community is dead."

Camp residents watch demolition of their home
Over the weekend the Prefecture had gone from tent to tent telling people that their homes were about to be bulldozed. However, in general, the inhabitants of the camp did not want to move, until the lines of police vans arrived on Monday. Tear gas was used and fires broke out. The above video - filmed by long-term Jungle Books volunteer Rowan Farrell - shows a woman and child emerging coughing from the gas. The Press eagerly snapped pictures of a group of Afghan boys throwing stones against a blanket of flames - giving the camp the wild and anarchic look of the Gaza Strip. However, despite extensive negative coverage, much of the camp still managed to function. Reports from shocked volunteers in the ground praised community projects even as tear gas was streaming down Main Street. "Respect to Jungle Books volunteers who seem to have been able to continue teaching the kids today!" wrote one on-site volunteer on Facebook.

Afghan children study in Jungle Books Library, Calais
I went back to camp two days later, expecting to find chaos, but instead the camp was deeply uneasy and eerily quiet. The demolition of the Iranian and the Kurdish spaces was proceeding quickly - bulldozers ripped apart shelter walls, painstakingly built over the previous six months by volunteers and refugees to protect those living on this windswept landfill site. Belongings spilled out onto the stony earth. People stood and watched in dismay. However, only a few metres away, life proceeded as normal in the undemolished part of the camp. In Jungle Books Library, right in the line of demolition fire, I met a group of Afghan children between seven and fourteen having an impromptu English lesson with Nakeeb, a former teacher from Afghanistan. We gave them some chocolate from our backpack which they received politely and set aside for later. They scrutinised the paper on which they were diligently copying lines of Arabic and English.

"Hello! How are you!" beamed the youngest, seven years old.

"How are you!" chimed in his brother. "How are you! How are you!" they all chipped in. The noise was deafening.

Nakib indicated the group of children. "They travelled on their own, from Afghanistan," he said, matter-of-factly. "It took them four months to get here, and they have been here for six." The children grinned back, unfazed, before turning their attention to the paper again. I am sure that they, amongst many other children, try nightly to slip into trains and lorries, in the desperate, fruitless attempt to cross the channel to England.

Unfortunately, theirs is not an isolated statistic. The organisation Help Refugees conducted a census of the camp inhabitants in the run up to the court-case - to find that in camp there were 423 minors who had travelled there unaccompanied - that's without a parent, although many of them travel in groups.

Iranian hunger strikers demonstrate
Outside, the Press swooped around a group of Iranian protesters, ranging in age from a 17-year old student to a 45 year old handyman, who had sewed up their mouths and started a hunger-strike in protest against the camp's destruction. "Where is your democracy?" read one sign. "Where is our freedom?"

It was bitterly cold, so we decamped to the Kabul cafe, a clapboard restaurant built by refugees and volunteers, where we sat and recharged over mugs of sweet black tea and the most delicious egg and spicy tomato you can find this side of the Khyber Pass, chased down by a large doughy paratha. The cafe itself is like all the shabby but vibrant Afghan border towns that I've visited - and I've visited a few - and it's incredible to think that this small, dilapidated but functioning community - with shops, cafes, washrooms, barbers - exists in a rubbish dump in one of the richest countries in Europe; and even more incredible to think that it will soon be gone.

I bumped into Mary Jones, the founder of Jungle Books Library, and we chatted about the camp and Mary's plans to use one of the larger shelters as a dormitory for some of the young people displaced by the demolition. Mary faced the problem with her characteristic calm equilibrium. "It's a lot quieter than it was on Monday," she says, smiling. "There was clouds of tear gas wafting down the street, and we were all crammed in here with the door closed."

"What will you do when the demolition teams get closer?" I asked, worried.
Fire in South Zone: Photo Credit: Gabe Knott-Fayle

"We'll probably have to relocate the library into the North Zone," she said wistfully. "It won't be safe out there all by itself."

On Friday 11 March Mary rang me at home. Fire had swept through the remaining structures of the South Zone, reportedly from an exploding gas canister in the restaurant, and therefore any plans to use the larger structures to house young people are off the table. "They were going to be demolished anyway," she said resignedly, "but the fire's finished the job for them."

Two weeks in, the South Zone is gone and the remaining camp awaits its fate. Tents and shelters salvaged from the South Zone have been crammed in amongst the sand dunes and rubbish dumps of the North Zone. French authorities say they plan to relocate those displaced by the demolition into other centres of accommodation across France, but with woeful official communication, and trust in the French system at an all-time low after police brutality, many former residents have left to take matters into their own hands. Reports from the ground indicate that many smaller camps and squats are springing up all over the coast, unprotected and un-supplied. Meanwhile, the French systems to protect minors are proving dangerously slow to identify and process children.

The story of the Calais camp has over the last six months has been in some ways a beacon of hope, where teams of ordinary men and women have tried with all their hearts to make life even a little bit more bearable for those living in squalor. It is a story of how love can overcome fear and mistrust, and how there could be a counter-narrative to that of government policy across the EU which seeks to build walls ever higher, and fence in our green and pleasant land against the fear of the marauding migrant. However, in the destruction of the Calais camp, we can see instead the words of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern writ large: "The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That's what tragedy is."

I can only hope that the four Afghan children that I met in the Jungle Books Library will have a happy ending - like all the best books do.


DONATE AID AND TIME: The infrastructure of aid donation and distribution, built up over the last six months, still remains. Two warehouses (L'Auberge des Migrantes and Care4Calais) process and distribute tents, sleeping bags, shoes toiletries and clothes, and they need both donations AND volunteers to sort them! If you're interested in bringing over aid or available to sort it, please contact L'Auberge des Migrantes/ Help Refugees by emailing or; or Keep an eye on the Calais Action Facebook page for London and UK drops.

BUY ONLINE: There's an online shop that shows the most-needed products for refugees sleeping rough - book here for 20% discount and free delivery straight to warehouse:

DONATE MONEY: The Calais Kitchens serve hot food to thousands of people, and they need constant funding. Can you spare some money to help? The camp may soon be gone, but unfortunately the people that it housed will not. Money is sorely needed to produce and distribute food, wherever the need may be:


Soo Rekka Lal said...

This is so terribly sad. I can't believe that children are being left in this position. What has the world come to, when we can't help people in such extreme circumstances.

Pippa Goodhart said...

Thank you so much for keeping us up to date, Tess, and for giving us ways to help. Much appreciated.

Tess Berry-Hart said...

Thanks so much Pippa! Do feel free to share with anyone you know who wants to help!

elaine elborn said...

thanks so much for this blog---will be sharing it at my next talk!!! if thats okay--really insightful and up to speed ! keep writing x