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My Days With The Refugees In Calais, France

On the forecourt of Liverpool Street station in London sits a memorial to the “Children of the Kindertransport”. The plaque says it is in thanks for the 10,000 unaccompanied, mainly Jewish children who were allowed to escape to England shortly before World War II.  The look on the children’s faces is one of grim determination, pain and suffering and in spite of all that a sense of profound personal dignity.

We all know what happened subsequently to those left behind. Millions of people died particularly children.  Eli Wiesel talks about being haunted by the small frightened face of his beloved seven-year-old sister as she, with her mother, was separated off by the Nazis from him and his dad to what we eventually learned was her death.

World War II was such a horror we hoped we would never see it’s like again. Ironically, World War I before that was supposed to be the war to end all wars.

Racism, bigotry, extreme nationalism, we all know what that leads to: – war, death, pain and suffering.

Yet we let it happen! We sit by and let it happen!  Like Pontius Pilate we sit on our hands and let it happen.

Perhaps one reason we let it happen is because we don’t go out and stare that suffering in the face. We prefer to stay at home, read the newspapers or watch television and, out of our comfortable circumstances, make comments. Full of our own problems, we don’t want to look any further.

Others prefer the abdication option. That is to ‘leave it to our leaders’, assuming they will do the right thing….. Wrong! Many of them love this stuff.

Look at The Balkans, Vietnam, Myanmar the list since 1945 seems endless.

Over the past few years I’ve almost lost count of the number of times I have gone to Calais in France to sit with the refugees there.

In the past week alone, I have been there twice. This last visit for me was pretty harrowing.

We drove to what looked essentially like an isolated, open, poorly maintained car park. This was beside a lake and was surrounded by a winter denuded forest of leafless trees, their grey trunks and spindly branches stretching up depressingly into an even more grey sky.

I had been told it was near a gymnasium which had recently been opened to only 200 refugees but that there were hundreds more sleeping in the forest and surrounding area.

Any unaccompanied kids, I was told could stay in a government run institution, but they prefer not to because conditions in them are so harsh.

So, these refugees just sleep in the open.

In the few days between my first and second visit I had been told there had been a “clearance” so I didn’t expect this time to see as many as previously and yet, it seemed within seconds of us arriving hundreds of people appeared as if out of nowhere. Many were dressed in gear that couldn’t really keep them warm. It is such a sobering experience to witness this happening.

I volunteered to be the one to keep a sense of order amongst the hundreds of refugees so they wouldn’t all at once rush our van to get the provisions it provided.

We got them to form a queue in front of me and in order to slow things down I personally welcomed each refugee by shaking (mainly) his hand and looking him right in the eyes. That way each refugee would stay with me until it was his turn to move forward and in an orderly way collect the parcel.  Most of them, this time were mainly Kurdish from Syria, Iraq and Iran.  Many simply said they were from Kurdistan and most had stories of Daesh or, as we know them, Islamic State.  The haunted look in their eyes anyway told their story and will stay with me until I die.  So many of them had such a terribly haunted look I just hugged them.

 

One refugee brought me to tears when he said, looking me in the eyes, “Thank you for caring about me”

Quite a few said to me they were trying to keep hopeful.

There were hundreds and it exhausted me. The youngest was a boy of 12.

They all seemed to be very slim short males. They ate the food prepared, took the parcels of clothes and blankets, had their hair cut, played football, charged any mobile phones from the myriad power boards connected to a generator and tried to keep warm around fires created by burning any available flammable material. They were all trying to look happy in appalling circumstances.

         

I noticed a police bus would drive up to the edges of the car park, stop for a period and then turn around and drive off.

I then walked into the denuded forest where, in this area hundreds of refugees sleep out. It was raining and so cold.  It was so cold that the cold had in those few hours seeped deeply into my very bones. The grey clayish mud was very slippery and I slid everywhere.  The mud stuck to my shoes and clothing. In this bitterly cold wet God forsaken environment people had been sleeping out unprotected for countless months. These people are finding themselves bullied and harassed all along the way to somewhere where they hope to be able to find safety and freedom. Deep in the forest I came across a band of people around a fire. They had a largish communal tent set up. They motioned for me to stay away. I could see they were very watchful and distrusting.

I was told the going rate to “jump a truck” was $4,000 and very few had that sort of money and there was no guarantee it would get you there anyway. The Police can search the trucks and arrest anyone caught. One fellow had tried a couple of times and had no money left. He was losing all hope.

Uncaring authorities are determined to move these refugees on and break them up so another “Jungle” does not occur. Decent people look the other way whilst these people have their tents slashed, their warm clothing and bedding shredded or confiscated and their mobile phones destroyed by police and security “officials”.  If too many refugees congregate in one place they are rounded up and bussed in all directions over 50km away to nowhere; only to have it all happen over and over again.

I had previously witnessed it myself on the railway station I had got off on my way to Calais. The train was swooped upon by police and security guards. They escorted “away” two small frightened boys almost hidden under their winter jackets. All I could see of them was their large frightened eyes almost popping out of their young dark faces.

I made sure these authorities knew I was watching.

Later that day we went to another refugee area where there were a lot of tents but the police had been through the site the day before, throwing everything out, destroying the tents and moving many of the people on.

“Why do they hate us?” was a common refrain.

One man told me he and his wife and two children had tried to get on a dinghy for England. It sank and they had spent time in the water.  His wife and daughter had got very sick and he was really worried about them.

This is all happening in one tiny part of a Europe which is being flooded with refugees.

Surely by now we know hate, bigotry, racism, any sort of supremacy based on power and might is not the answer yet, we let it happen over and over and over again. Wars have only begotten succeeding wars since the beginning of time.

Empires based on power rise and fall. Yesterdays subjugated nations become tomorrow’s conquerors and vice versa.

You would’ve thought in the last hundred thousand years of history we would’ve learnt something from all of that.

Yet, even now we are hearing it all over again and again. We close our ears to the ugly people glorifying power and status and let them get on with their bullying sadistic behaviour either by trying to grab power in their own country, take over other countries or drive out others because they are “different”.

“Leave it to us” they say and get on with their sadistic work.

This then allows ordinary decent people to die all alone in the snow or in some other Hell hole.

I like to think in most families we all care for each other. We would not allow a family member to go cold, hungry, homeless or medically untreated.  Evolution teaches us we all carry, in an unbroken line the genes of the first woman, Mitochondrial Eve, within us.  She is the mother of us all.

We wouldn’t allow this horror to happen to a family member, so why then should we allow it within our wider family?

Rev Bill Crews

13 January 2019

 

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