I was apprehensive. How will I find it? Had it changed much? Had the attitude of the refugees there hardened? After all, three months had gone by since I was there last and the fear always was that if these refugees found themselves stuck in one place for too long with no hope over the horizon, trouble would ensue. I was therefore glad this winter there hadn’t been as cold as we feared.
All these thoughts were flowing through my head as I got off the train and headed there.
As I was waiting for the taxi to take me as close as it was prepared to go I began feeling quite vulnerable and stupid. After all, several months had passed since I was there in October and during that time, many more refugees had arrived. I’d also read the newspaper reports of trouble there, I’d also seen the reports that many goodly Calais citizens wanted those refugees gone.
This wasn’t helped by my being passed by two armed gendarmes “escorting” what seemed to me to be two perfectly dressed neat, tidy and respectful young men into a Police Van.
“This is the beginning of the road to The Jungle” the taxi driver told me.
She really needn’t have, because just like last time, I could see all the people walking along the side road, just walking. All with back packs, some pulling travel bags with wheels. Some walking toward the camp and others walking away. But what I did notice was how proudly most were walking, straight and erect. Like I’d seen in so many African countries.
We drove another for two kilometres or so before I got out and began walking too, with my backpack.
As the camp lobbed into view it didn’t look too different from before. As you approach from the road, the camp is framed by the freeway overpass under which is the entry is situated. Walking in I immediately noticed the thick, white mud. The camp is on a flood plain and an old chemical waste dump. The mud was what I remembered from last time, it’s thick and white and clings to your shoes like putty and is hard to remove. It looked to me as if nothing had changed there.
The “roads”, if you can call them that, are really mud tracks, lined on both sides by all types of structures of wood and plastic and as you enter they branch off in a fork to the left and the right. I immediately saw that with the passage of the last few months, the structures hadn’t become any more permanent but were more solid. The wood was mostly nailed together and it was getting that “Shanty Town” look. It kind of reminded me of how “Sergeant Majors Row” at the early Sydney Town would have looked before it became George St and then Parramatta Road.
There weren’t too many shops, etc. the last time I was there. Now I found there were many. Some had intriguing names like “Cafe’ Kabul” or “Baghdad Express”.
Most of these shops had thin clear plastic for windows and almost everything from Coke to 4G top ups for sale. All manner of biscuits, fruit, soaps, shampoos and tinned goods were for sale there, too.
The “Restaurants” were something else! They were large tents with make shift flooring of patched together whatever wood could be found. Many also had a further raised flooring area where people could sit crossed legged.
At the entrance of one place I noticed a sign “Staff Wanted” and another had a “For Sale” sign on it and it got me wondering how these business started and the processes by which they got started and were kept running.
By now it was cold, wet and raining and so, I walked into and sat down in one. “Would you like a cup of tea?” I was asked for the first of many, many times throughout the day. The tea is always sweet in Afghani fashion and sometimes I was handed a tea bag (usually Liptons) and sometimes the tea came a large teapot.
The room I entered was filled with young males with nothing to do but sit and wait. Whilst this group was primarily from Afghanistan there were young males from several African and middle Eastern nations in there as well. I’ve learned the best thing to do in situations like this is to sit. Just sit. After a surprisingly short while you become part of the furniture and people start chatting. I did this in three or four such “Restaurants” during the day.
I reckon I must have come into contact with people from every source of conflict in the Muslim world today. All were fleeing the violence and looking for a safe place to settle and bring up their children. Most, I found were males who had gone ahead. Many of the wives and children were in camps in Turkey or on stop offs from there. All I met were polite, engaging and terribly, terribly vulnerable. One young person had lived in Australia for a while. He knew Ashfield, the suburb I come from and then ran off a list of Sydney suburbs, “Parramatta”, “Merrylands” and “Auburn”. “Why did you leave?” I asked. “My visa ran out” he replied.
They were very kind and generous, sharing what they had and offering endless tea.
Everyone was impressed that I had come all the way from Australia. They all offered me food. When, the first time, I asked what he was cooking, I couldn’t understand the reply. It looked to me like some sort of meat being fried. He ended up pointing to his liver and I understood immediately. I felt a bit stupid for not recognising it.
All had stories which I’m sure you’ve heard over and over on TV and other media outlets.
I had just walked out of one tent when a young man caught up to me and beckoned me. He had followed me out. “I think I can talk to you” he said. “I was watching you in the restaurant and followed you out. You’ve got a kind face.” He said “I got all the way to England but suffered from terrible depression there and they threw me out. They threw me out because I’d lost my papers. I have all my identity numbers and they are checking but it’s been months and months. They agree my numbers are right and I am who I am but they are taking so long. My family paid $4,000 for me to go from Afghanistan but say they will kill me if I end up back there, so I am very afraid”.
I heard story after story like that and it made me feel very sad and angry too, that the world can’t get its act together and sort this mess out.
The “Jungle” area was the same only more so. More tents, more structures, same few toilets and facilities. Rain water puddles mostly cover the ground, more so when it rains. Most tents would get waterlogged if they’re not careful so the occupiers build mud walls around the tent to keep the lake-like settled water out or try and raise the dirt floor to above flood level which you can see often fails.
The sense of irony and abandonment is everywhere apparent. No more so than a laneway named “Rue David Cameron”. Nevertheless the signs and graffiti are very loving and world peace oriented.
Hope is still there.
I came across a sign saying “NA meeting here today” and I decided to go to that. Most of you know I am a great advocate of the twelve step movement and couldn’t think of a better place to hold one than in a refugee camp that is always under threat.
I kept following the signs and along the way came across a large compound with a large Christian Cross on it. In a largely Muslim camp it really stood out. It looked Orthodox, or something like that so I went inside. Inside the plastic walled off compound was a large tent. As I went to go inside a voice out of nowhere told me to take off my shoes. That was quite a job as they were caked in mud. Anyway I did and entered into what had been made in this tent to be an orthodox church. The floor had been carpeted and there was a small alter and large paintings hung above and to the sides of it. “A make shift traditional Orthodox Church”. I thought to myself.
Then I noticed a small woman on her knees before the Altar. She was obviously praying. Then I watched as she got up and slowly moved from painting to painting. She touched each one so lovingly and delicately it took my breath away. She would ever so sensitively run her fingers over these icons in a way that I had never seen before. It was simply magical and deeply moving to watch her. Now I have never been one to have much truck with Icons before. But this, watching this solitary, small defenceless refugee woman touch each one so lovingly has made me see them in a very different light.
We talked. She was hard to understand. She told me her name and that she was from Ethiopia and was hoping to get to Europe. I said I’d try and help.
I really hope she does get there. But then I pray they all do.
I finally found the NA meeting. It was being held in a half tent half structure. The structure part contained the door. So I went inside. I’ve lost so many close friends to drugs I feel no hesitation in going in. These people have taught me so much about good ways of living I am continually in their debt.
I went inside. There were probably 20 men and women sitting on rugs, Middle Eastern style in a circle. The “doorman’ motioned for me to take off my shoes and welcomed me in with such a big warm hug it brought tears to my eyes. I knew this was going to be an emotional time for me.
Space was made for me in the circle and I sat down. I could see every Middle Eastern and African nationality there. They were sharing their stories. I couldn’t understand a word and it didn’t matter. It was written on their faces and in their actions. As each person shared their story in their own language the leader or a nominee translated it into French.
I just sat in the warmth and fellowship. Then the leader looked at me and I realised I needn’t but wanted to speak. I began in English “I’m a Christian Minister from Australia” I said. And the whole stress of getting there and what I’d seen overwhelmed me and I told my story of the friends I’d known who’d died from overdoses and the miracles I’d seen from people who were now in recovery. “There is hope” I said as I told them about being at a NA convention in Sydney where 6,000 people in recovery proves there is hope. They let me talk for a while. My tears were actually because I was in a warm loving environment where I could simply be “Bill from Ashfield” and not only share the pain I was feeling but offer help, too. The leader apologised for not realising I couldn’t understand what was being said. I simply said it didn’t matter as I didn’t need language to understand what was going on anyway. Healing speaks all languages.
Afterwards one of the women came up and told me that the core of the group were from Paris and came down regularly to run groups in the camp. Everyone welcomed me and there was lots of hugging. And at the conclusion as we all stood holding hands each saying the serenity prayer in his/her own language, this western Christian Minister in a sea of middle eastern Muslim recovering addicts in a God forsaken refugee camp on the other side of the world, came home. As I was leaving, the leader told me his story. He was Iranian and became seriously addicted to heroin in Greece. He pointed to a man just leaving the room. “He saved my life” he said “He came to Greece to rescue his brother who was addicted. His brother died of an OD. But he save me”
I’ve heard that story over and over.
It was getting late and I was starting to worry that I would be leaving and not seeing Clare who was working at another camp. But eventually she turned up and I accompanied her as she gave out much needed clothing to those who were too poor to own anything.
We ended up in what was little more than a large packing crate with plastic extensions talking with an Iraqi man I had met the last time I was there. Strangely enough, he remembered me. “You were here in October” he said. Nothing for him had changed. His wife and child were still in Turkey and he is still waiting.
He and Clare talked a lot and Clare indicated she’d tell me when we went outside.
Clare told me that “the authorities” intended to bulldoze about 20 percent of the camp and move the people on. “Where will they go?” I asked. She shrugged. I could see if that happened there’d be trouble.
As Clare drove me to the train I felt so helpless.
These people in this camp, refugees, the flotsam and jetsam of Europe. The not wanted, the other. The threat to the Western world has for an instant in time formed a community that many of us in the west spend all of our lives fruitlessly looking for. A community where one is accepted as one is. There is no in or out. There is just us now. And it’s under threat which is why it is thus and why it has so much to teach us which is why we in the west are so afraid of it.
REV BILL CREWS