Two months after my first trip to Calais with the Skipchen and Embercombe on a refugee food rescue mission, the media storm catches up. At the time I was finding it almost difficult to get stuff published about the humanitarian crisis but it’s certainly become the flavour of the month now. Don’t get me wrong, this is joyful. I think, though, as I open today’s newspaper or flick through social media, how la mode effects so much what editors will and won’t publish and what people will and won’t care about. The humanitarian crisis in Calais is heart-breakingly shocking now, but it was when we went. And long before that. I’m not in any way trying to suggest that we are more moral or superior for going and writing about it before most others but, it dawns on me, basic humanity can be wholly subjective.
Thinking back on my four days in the camp, memories of smiles are what dominates. Before going I was a little hesitant – scared even. I didn’t know what to expect. Would the people be hostile towards us? Or would they – worn down by endless stories of sadness and hostility themselves – welcome us with open arms, deeply appreciating our humble gesture?
It was the latter, several thousand times over.
Hailing from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Syria and Pakistan, the majority of men possessed an unyielding inner strength matched with outer gentility. Mohamed from the Darfur region of Sudan, who saw bellies of his pregnant neighbours sliced open by the Janjaweed, told me that once you’ve experienced so much atrocity and pain, you have no choice but to be a nice person – adversity takes you to the core of your soul and to carry on without breaking you must exercise your empathy.
One of the things that struck me most about the transition of the men inhabiting the Jungle was – despite hailing predominantly from patriarchal countries – they had taken on traditionally female roles in their stride. One lunch time I was struggling to wash our gargantuan saucepans with a broken wrist, two gentle Afghani guys with fatherly, kind eyes called me sister and insisted they took over from there.
As David Cameron reels out new policies regarding ‘security’ I think back to the human beings his blind and callous tactics are effecting. Retired PhD’s forced out of their country by terrifying ISIS militants who are deeply ashamed by the loss of dignity that comes with living like a dog in the camp, let alone illegally entering a country – thank you Mr Prime Minister, their lives are now made even harder.
To explain a little why that’s so, the Dublin Agreement is, some may argue, a nonsensical and contradictory policy which essentially means that the UK will extend their humanity to granting asylum to refugees – but only if they break into the UK illegally. Is it just me or is that ridiculous or what…?
Right wing protesters have argued that some of the people in the camp might be ISIS. A rational fear for those who are strangers to the men of Calais. Having met them myself, befriended them and heard their stories I know first hand that these are the people who are more terrified of ISIS than anyone. A refugee friend of mine shows me a YouTube video of ISIS beheading Ethiopians. “The guys being killed were just behind us on our journey through the Sahara!” He said. “They are Christian and I am Muslim but that doesn’t matter, we are all human. ISIS are very evil.”
The threat of ISIS using the illegal migrant routes, however, is possible. Although in an ideal world I would like to see all borders removed with equal opportunities globally, I would not really like to see a suicide bomber in my back garden. I think if we’d never had borders or inequality in the first place it might not have come to this but we live in an imperfect world. A sensible solution would be for the UK to process the asylum claims of refugees in Calais, quickly. They could focus time spent on sending people to Yarl’s Wood training the civil servants they (hypothetically) send to Calais to spot potential terrorists hiding among the normal people.
My head is spinning at the thought of the policies, political attitudes and their effects on people’s lives. I think this while sat at home in a cottage in the English countryside, my family safe, well and happy. It’s unbearable to think of the policies effecting your whole life, health, dignity and family. Unfortunately many people choose just not to think about it, I can understand that… It’s easier that way.
One way to get around the guilt of knowing your fellow humans live in squalor is to imagine them as somehow other to yourself; poor uneducated foreigners possibly or even ‘bad people’. Hearing English accents from those who had been deported after up to 10 years of living in the UK was an eye-opener. Some people had been to university in the UK, some were the same age as my grandparents, some had kept servants back at home, some were Michael Jackson-obsessed teenagers who kept doing the moonwalk; all images very far from the ones we are given by right-wing press.
Owen Jones’ article was very poignant and got the right message across factually. He did not, however, truly befriend these people over several days by helping them or reaching out to them on a human level. I felt it was a discredit to his piece given that he used the quote “they forget we are human” as his main focus point. These journalists are busy though, I know…
The whole group of us who went to the Jungle in May felt proud of ourselves for providing a pocket of support for the very special people we met but as the nations play cat and mouse with thousands of life stories, time goes on and more refugees arrive there every single day, we have to accept that from a grass-roots level there is never enough to go round and our help was just a drop in the ocean.
The left-wing media storm has dispelled so many bigoted myths about the migrants and is encouraging more and more people to realise how easy it is to get crowdfunding and support to take supplies and smiles over to the grateful recipients. As the Daily Mail is enjoying getting away with being almost as prejudiced as it was during the Nazi era, the compassionate backlash is very warmly welcome. Little by little politicians and far right wing thinkers can take away liberties, freedom and justice but at the same time compassion and kindness can, little by little, push against the tide.