I am just back from ‘the jungle’ – the camp at Calais where I have spent the last few days. Much of this time was spent distributing the tons of donations that so many members of the Oxfordshire public had given to Emmaus Oxford and which we took over in a van, three lutons, and a seven and a half ton lorry. As a result of these donations less people will go hungry and cold and more people will be protected from the rain and the strong coastal winds. Heartfelt thanks, on behalf of the people at the camp, to all of you for your generosity – and also to those of you who helped to sort, take over, and distribute.
The camp has changed fast since I was there just three months ago. It is still a dreadful slum –- with piles of rubbish, no electricity, inadequate sewage, people sleeping under flimsy flapping plastic, distress, dejection and despair bubbling just under the surface. But it has also evolved dramatically. New since last time is a huge expansion of the school so that lessons can now be held for 100 people at a time, a free library with maps, dictionaries, and advice, a small hotel, a shower block, many more shops, several new eating places and, most recent of all, a large sturdy geodesic dome theatre which we saw going up in one day (fund-raised for and constructed by a group from England – all within 2 weeks).
These are inspiring developments. They haven’t come about because of our governments with their obscene indifference and passivity. Whilst the French and British administrations continue an argument that has been going on for years about whose responsibility it is, the people themselves have realised the urgency of the situation and are getting on with changing conditions as best they can. Camp occupants and visitors from outside have been working intelligently and ingeniously together to use what little resources they have to improve things. Change is happening bottom upwards, despite the state, and with great creativity. And this collective enterprise is certainly bringing some hope in an otherwise dismal context. Everywhere there are big graffiti signs calling for peace and mercy, and proclaiming the equality of black people with white. The haves and have-nots, are working together in a context where the difference between them could not be starker or more extreme. At no point is there ever any doubt which group anyone belongs to but at least there are bridges being made between the two groups.
The contrast between the haves and the have-nots of course goes beyond the camp and is now evident throughout Calais. French people and rich tourists go about their business, sitting in bars and restaurants, whilst refugees huddle together in groups or walk the pavements, directionless with their small bags, sleeping on benches and in shop doorways. I met one such man sitting on the pavement flicking through a hundred odd pictures on his phone. When I asked where he was from he said ‘Syria, the country that is no more’.
‘And the pictures?’
‘My son, my son, he’s in Luton, but I cannot get to him.’
He is of course one of many. There are around 3,500 refugees in Calais now. That’s 3,500 tragic stories. Here are just a few examples
• A man from Kosovo on crutches. He told us he’d just been discharged from hospital after breaking his leg in four places when he fell from a train. ‘There was a whole ward full of people like me –limbs broken, burns … and worse’. He choked back a sob. ‘But I shall try again’. After hearing this I began to notice just how many people were limping or had limbs missing.
• In a small encampment inside the Sudanese section, we were (remarkably) invited to share lunch. A speechless man, who looked 16, going 70, had a badge on his chest showing a plane with a line through it. In answer to my question his friend explained for him: ‘He lost his whole family from a bomb dropped from a plane’.
• During a dispersal of coats a fifteen year old Afghan boy approached us and showed us damage to one of his eyes where he had been squirted close up with tear gas by French police after being caught trying to hide in a train.
• But perhaps the most poignant tale I heard came late on our last evening. As the sun was going down a Kurdish man from Iraq arrived at the Jungle for the first time. He looked late 60s, was obviously in severe pain and clutching his chest. He bent his fingers indicating 5 broken ribs. Someone got him a chair to sit on whilst we tried to put up a donated tent for him in the wind. The first tent we tried turned out to have neither poles nor instructions. The second had both but two of the poles were broken and we had to repair them using splints made out of tent pegs and tape. Throughout this process the Kurdish man seemed oblivious, staring off into the distance, in another world. Finally when the tent was up and flapping flimsily in the wind he beckoned to one of the people who had been putting it up to join him inside and whispered his story to her: Together with others he had been captured by Isis. They tied his hands behind his back and blindfolded him. Then they led him to a place where they kicked in his chest.
I find myself almost unable to appraise our species any more. We are so diverse it is as if we are splitting into two. The splitting line that upsets me most isn’t the division into the haves and have-nots, those with power and those without, the lucky and unlucky, that is so conspicuously underlined in Calais. It is something far darker: it’s the split into those that care and those that clearly don’t.
There are significant numbers of carers in the advantaged group. Mostly their caring is bottom upwards, and despite the state. This is inspiring and is having an impact and bringing some light into the darkness.
The vast majority of the less fortunate group are also, in my view, amongst those who care. Maybe it is their own suffering that has connected them with others. I was struck by the courteous friendliness of almost all the refugees I met in the camp and their generosity with what little they had. Their apparent lack of resentment and rage at how we, the rich, are treating them was impossible for me to comprehend in its magnanimity.
The British and French governments, the Isis thugs and the worst of the French police are only a small proportion of those that don’t care. The majority of non-carers manifest their cruelty unconsciously, and inconspicuously, through looking the other way, through passivity. They draw artificial lines around their own sub-group within the species. They think that charity begins, and ends, at home. They think that the lines around countries and other groupings within the species (family, class, religion etc) have intrinsic validity over and above the species as a whole. But in drawing such lines they isolate themselves as the non-carers within the species, separated by their in-humanity and lack of community in its widest sense.
Those of us who are wealthy find it difficult to care. Our wealth can provide short term relief and quasi-comfort to the sense of separateness and alienation that our lack of caring causes. Our wealth both causes our malaise and becomes a drug that provides short term relief to it. In effect we can become addicted to not caring and to selfishness. Our challenge, in my view, is to transcend this addiction. It isn’t easy and there will be many relapses along the way, but we have to do it if we are to re-join the species and hold up our heads once again as fellow humans (not in-humans!).
Many of the refugees in the camp are already doing just this. You may have seen footage of the rare skirmishes, informed by desperation, between sections of the camp and that have been highlighted disproportionately by the media. But unless you have been to the jungle you probably won’t have seen the many examples of boundaries between nationalities blurring, of people from all over the world doing what they can to live together harmoniously and to improve things together in extremely difficult circumstances, caring for and looking after one another in a way that transcends race, religion and country. One species, working together, as brothers and sisters.
We need to heed their example.