Facing It —
First hand, musings on the crisis of the displaced
I spent a few months this winter volunteering to help to provide humanitarian aid to refugees across France. I feel like I can barely put the experience into words, numbed almost by the enormity of the reality that takes place across borders; so therefore it is pertinent that I try to address it. It’s important, it’s crucial, it’s happening now.
Now I am back in England & helpless as before, it feels as though raising awareness is the only thing I can do, the thing I should do. Physically away from it all, as much as burying my head in the sand would be easier now, I can’t shy away from it. The news isn’t reporting this stuff, or it’s skewed, and mangled, and smeared. I feel like I learnt more in a couple of weeks first hand than I have done in months or years of trying to piece together the insipid lies and ‘post-truths’ of British media.
[edit- after returning to this un-published post less than a week after returning from France, I can already feel how easy it is for the sense of immediacy & drive to drift into oblivion, pushing reality out of my head, not wanting to face it, preferring to focus on the selfish and the immediate – coping mechanisms or avoidance techniques for the absurd reality we find ourselves in. Modern life in Britain is set up for us to pursue a life of constant distraction and self gratification, away from the dull certainty of the day-time routine; commerce, lust, light substance abuse, social media, screens, consuming culture; at our finger tips while the world spins elsewhere. Destabilising us, injecting us into a state of inertia, a living cocoon lit up by headlights of fear. Anxiety and latent madness the manifestation of the self destructive guerrilla war-fare we readily choose over activism or engagement (political or otherwise). Without a physical network of others this walking daydream is easy to slip into,- this highlights for me the need for physical rising up, gestures of the body, coming together, walking, movement…]
I arrived at the situation post Jungle demolition. A state of flux, a state of transition, for both refugee and charity alike. Systems that used to be in place for helping refugees were dismantled along with the camp. Providing aid no longer as ‘simple’ as going to the Jungle, asking them what they need, and distributing in the afternoon. Now refugees are scattered all over France; in CAOs, in smaller fringe camps, on the streets.
Scatter the problem, make it harder to report on. There is no central hub for the media to flock to when they feel like painting a picture of refugees. It would be a lot harder for them now, a lot more work to find people. So along with the camp disappearing, as does the media reportage. With one clean swipe, the problem’s gone, right? Great news for Hollande. Great news for May. Except the problem is not gone, it’s just harder to pinpoint, and for many, it’s worse now.
An illegal settlement, like any large body of humans existing together, of course has an underbelly, problems. I didn’t visit it myself, but from talking to both refugees and long-term volunteers, I can feel how for many, The Jungle provided a community, a destination, a collective hope. There were restaurants, shops, hairdressers, children’s centres, familiar faces to rely on. People could piece together small fragments of their old lives. Barbers could be barbers, chefs could be chefs. You could hang out with your mates and have fun and laugh in the face of it all. The Jungle was not the answer. But 90% of refugees that I met in my time in France who had lived in The Jungle preferred it to their current situation.
-Settlement – Dwelling – Home – Permanence – Temporarily – Adrift
A man, woman, or child without a home is someone in constant drift. And those on the streets are hiding and constantly on the move. Hiding from the police, moved along, wearing them down, wearing them down. Another volunteer told me that the police would pick up refugees, tell them they are giving them a lift, and drop them off in the middle of nowhere. Back to the starting line. Wearing them down, wearing them down. If you make it comfortable in a place, it’s easier to stay there, right?
So when everyone is so dispersed, how do charity workers respond to the problem? How do they provide help? One of our jobs on the ground in Calais would be to ‘patrol’ the streets, the train station, the bus station, the parks. Looking for refugees who might be hiding or lost or too worn down to carry on. Offer them help, food, clothes, a train ticket, a lift to Dunkirk, simply an ear or a smile that’s not out to get them. Armed police, police vans, Policia, Gendermerie; they are everywhere in Calais. We would try to help them before the police pull them off the street and throw them into a detention centre, simply for being. Whatever small gesture we can. The help we could provide was of course, limited. We can’t get these people where they really want to be, we can’t give them a roof over their heads.
The only place we could take them to was Dunkirk. Dunkirk is a government regulated camp with a set amount of ‘huts’- not like the Jungle, so therefore only a set amount of spaces. And it was not currently accepting new arrivals. Only people who already had a blue wristband (those who had been residents, and tried to leave) or perhaps new arrivals who were Kurdish, if they are ‘lucky’, would be accepted into Dunkirk camp, so for many even that wasn’t an option. How do you help them? How do you help? We are here to help, but how do we help? It’s frustrating, when you see there just really aren’t options. Because of course despite the demolition, more people are arriving every day, and of course the wars aren’t stopping, and of course these people have nowhere to go.
On the streets of Paris, a similar story. Here the police presence is less obvious, compared to Calais. But still putting up a tent is not an option, sleeping is not an option. If you’re caught, you’ll most likely be moved on by the police. Perhaps not arrested, but what is life if sleep-walking is the only option. In a city it’s easier to hide, to blend in. So, many refugees would head here for this reason. But the city presents itself with more problems than just the authorities. There are organised street gangs in Paris, preying on minors, pulling them off the street, they disappear and who knows where they are, who cares? There are two women running Paris Refugee Ground Support. They work during the day and stay up all night distributing aid to refugees. They too, barely sleep. They too have to be inconspicuous. One of the roles is ‘look-out’. If caught helping by the police, they too will be moved on. Helping the vulnerable has become an intolerance, because if you are nice to people they will have some energy to keep pushing on.
What else can we do? Responding to the problems as they arise, one of the jobs of the volunteers was to visit the CAO’s across the country. Answering calls from refugees in distress, or just to check how they were. Each district is in charge of the CAO in their area, and therefore there is no real consistency.
We visited one CAO near the border of Belgium, a 4 hour drive from Calais, in the cold misty enclaves of a forgotten mountaintop in rural France; ghost town. It was 4 degrees on this particular day, and we were met by a young Sudanese man in flip flops and a T-shirt, because that’s all he had. I was shivering in thermal layers. The place they were staying was so isolated that they had to walk through mountain roads to meet us. They had no idea where they were. When they asked the management of the CAO for the exact address for us to deliver aid, they were denied it. Perhaps the management didn’t want us there. That was the overall feeling the refugees had, anyway. When we arrived with donations, they didn’t want anyone to see us and seemed scared that accepting our help would have negative repercussions for them, “we fear they might suppress us, or delay our documents,” they said. Refugees staying here were predominantly Sudanese men in their 20s, some as young as 17. Some complained that they were ill and they had no access to doctors to treat them. A young man named Abdul complains of extreme stomach pain. Others say they have long – term medical conditions for which they don’t receive medicine. They tell us that they receive between 20 – 28 euros a week to live on. France is expensive and this is nothing. The nearest shop is a 7km walk away, and some of them don’t have shoes or coats.
The buildings they live in are secure, they have a roof over their heads, as opposed to a tent in a ramshackle town. But shelter alone does not make a home. Home alone doesn’t make a life. And here they have no freedom. The CAO is a temporary solution, however the lack of information and assurance for these people means they have no idea how long they will be in this exile. It’s not necessarily the case that these people would be suppressed or endangered by us being there, but the fact they were so afraid shows that a culture of fear has been cultivated. Where there are no translators, and misinformation, or no information at all is the norm, when you are thrust into the middle of nowhere away from everything and everyone you know, who can you trust?
Another day, another CAO, this one an 8 hour drive from Calais. A holiday camp converted into a reception centre for minors; 19 boys from Ethiopia. Y0u could argue that the place itself was ok, they had money, food, a social worker. But still, I have never seen a group of teenagers look so sad, down-trodden, hopeless. They didn’t feel comfortable leaving the complex. They didn’t feel accepted in the community. “They do not like black men,” one of them said. They described how they had seen their entire families killed in front of their eyes and they had nothing left and yet they clung onto the dream of landing on British Soil. They had tears in their eyes. They spoke of their dreams of England. They could go to university in England, they said, and return home to share their knowledge, to implement democracy. It was completely and utterly heartbreaking. And I couldn’t help but think back to home, and wonder how they would be received in England if they ever made it there.
Being a teenager is hard enough, but to experience what these boys had been through…how can you expect them to be happy? Translators, again, is a problem. Only a few of the boys could speak English, none of them really spoke French. Faces change every day, language barriers make the whole situation more scary and confusing. Where are the translators? Where is the mental health support?
During my time in France I also helped in the kitchen at Dunkirk refugee camp. An amazing community of German anarchists at the time were running it. The writing on the walls of the camp struck me, the messages of resistance amongst the regulated ‘sheds’, etched into wooden planks, painterly strokes of black outline a womans face, a childs toy hanging from the roof, ‘I dont need the sex cos the gov fuk me everyday’, signed off each time, Mavro.
— The Return, What Next? —
Back on the soil of the ‘promised land’, with new eyes to see the cracks and the glory all at once. London. From an elevated view on the coach I can observe the shoals of people moving in synchronicity. It is rush hour and the workers are returning home, walking with purpose, lost in thought, thought to be lost. Everything as it seems, as I left it, tuned into smartphones, on call, sleepwalking in paradise.
Across the waters the shoals move in a different way, but also with purpose, through the night, skulking bushes, pavements, highways. Preparing to risk everything and nothing all at once. (Because how much is there to be lost now, when this is your last hope?) Pay a smuggler everything you’ve got, jump into the abyss. A locked lorry; 3 minutes, 2, time is everything. Single men, children, families. Just one night, one last border, one last hurdle, a dark expanse of water separating life from nothingness. To walk the soil to which we were birthed, the soil that gave us freedom, to touch the soil that made us lucky. Most of them won’t make it; arrested, thrown into detention centres, back to a camp, onto the street – to try again another night.
I met teenagers at a CAO who described how they had seen their entire families killed before their eyes, and their only hope left was the dream of England. Ethiopians, Eritreans, Sudanese, Afghans, Syrians, Kurds. ‘Where do you want to go?’ ‘England. ‘ The land of hope and glory – right? The empire has consequences, the ‘universal language’ has consequences. We’ve taken taken, taken and now somethings gotta give… right?
We were born ‘lucky’, and lucky doesn’t mean more worthy or talented or clever. It means right place, right time. And just like everything else luck is precarious. The homeless once had homes, the addicts once were sober, the displaced once, placed.
Once someone is ‘othered’, fallen through the cracks in society, isolated, they become invisible, or annoying, or scary, or sub-human – in the eyes of the state, in our quietly diverted eyes. An unwanted reminder of the inhumanity & inequality that is all around us. Another volunteer tells me of how they saw a French man spit on a woman and child refugee sitting at the station in Calais. What kind of society spits on the weak? A society is the measure of how it treats those at the ‘bottom rung,’ and we all walk the same dull thin line. Between sanity and insanity, belonging and isolation. And how the mighty have fallen.
I’m not sure that its OK to just sit back and feel lucky. I don’t know what we should do. The problem is massive and overwhelming and easy for us to ignore on our safe little island when the news barely reports on it, and when we can’t see it with our eyes. But maybe if we stop diverting our eyes, stop feeling safe and lucky, choose to see. Start giving time to the isolated, to the othered, to the ‘noone’. Face up to the problems (that have been caused by us, the lucky ones, a lot of them). Those who are included must include the excluded. Don’t just say ‘i’m with you’, but walk with the oppressed. Born into the ‘promised land’, we do have a duty to do something, something, I don’t know quite what. But to recognise is the first step to any change, right?
I’m not pretending that I have really done anything, or really changed anything, or that I even will do anything with what I’ve gained. How can I? I went for selfish reasons. Feeling lost, lost feeling. We are a depressed nation. I mean that literally and figuratively. Paralysed, unable to act, overwhelmed by the problems and the guilt that is intrinsic within us despite our pretty comfortable lifestyles. It’s hard to see through that to any kind of light a lot of the time. Having fun in spite of it all, pushing on in spite of it all, that can be hard sometimes right. How can I enjoy myself when the world is so fucked? Part of me going to do this was in order to try and find that light. I did meet a lot of people who are working together on things, in the shadows with those who have been ignored. Something that struck me about a lot of the refugees was the humour that they had, in spite of it all. A cheeky, light-hearted humour. Resistance through humour and the physical rising up of bodies. The physical coming together of people. We live in dark times, Anyway, everything is pretty bad, bad, bad. What you see on the surface isn’t even the condensation on the window of the surface. But people are also good, and willing to help and risk and show care for the ones whom society has forgotten, and to work together for that common goal is worth it because you can make a difference, on a human level.