My days in the warehouse have been brilliant, but I really want to go and work with and talk to the refugees. You have to be staying a fortnight to be involved in work at the camp through Help Refugees, but Dave has been in touch with Jungle Books, the little library and school on the dunes which is run by a separate charity. They are happy for us to come along.
Jungle Books was the initiative of Mary Jones, who was helping refugees in the Jungle in the early days before other charities arrived to help. This hut and the school next door were built by a group of volunteers and refugees, and the idea was for people to be able to come together and read, learn and relax in a safe space. There are English classes, one to one reading sessions and people can borrow books.This is a literary oasis in the upturned world of those who have lost so much. I am so glad we can go and share it with them.
We have to prepare bags for 5250 people today and I’m fretting we won’t finish in time to leave at 5.30. We need to get to the Jungle at 6pm and can stay till 8pm. Christine, our team leader is coming too and is as motivated as us to get done. As it happens we run out of milk and some of the bags need to be left till morning.
At 5.30 Christine, Helen and I set off with Dave and Clare. We are scrunched up in the back of their wee car which is making throaty rattles of protestation. The small, penciled map we had been given proves a little less than helpful, and we drive in some interesting circles around the outskirts of Calais before finding our way off the motorway and down to the Jungle gates.
The CRS (Riot Police) are at the gates and stop us as we enter. They take our passports and check them out “to make sure we were not criminals” – all quite jokey and a bit of ‘bavarderie’, but I am glad to get my passport back in my pocket. The CRS unnerve me. They ask for papers from Helping Refugees which, of course, we haven’t got, and then poke around in the boot. I am told later that they are looking for construction materials. Building on the site is prohibited. They find Dave’s musical equipment and ask if we are going to do a concert – a security issue. They have no idea where Jungle Books is, of course, and send us to one of the big tents.
It is 6 o’clock and people are wandering around in the cold evening light. Aromatic whiffs of spicy food waft from a little makeshift restaurant and children’s voice and music fill the Kids Cafe. A gentleman redirects us back down the street of tiny makeshift shops and restaurants and out over the cleared wasteland to the little church. This land used to house 3000 refugees before their shelters were demolished back in February. We find the library, Jungle Books, tucked behind the church.
Several young men are already there and more arrive soon after us. Christine sits down on the floor in one corner with a group of three young men. A couple of Sudanese men (both 23) shake my hand and introduce themselves. They insist I take the only chair and go in a vain search for more.
Clare sits outside in the setting sunshine. There is a lip-cracking wind coming in across the dunes and she is shivering uncontrollably. The young man she is reading with tries to give her his coat, but she firmly refuses. She can’t bear to take it. She will warm up later. He won’t.
Dave and Helen also brave the evening chill, and I wonder whether for some, the open space helps them feel freer to unburden and share their stories. Helen hears of threat and loss and fear.
Both young men I am with are well-educated, and one graduated with a degree in history. We search for a suitable book and end up with a French encyclopaedia. They are not particularly interested in learning French but the pictures lead to conversation about the invasion of the Vikings, wildlife and the sinking of the Titanic! I desperately trying to avoid subject matter that might be sensitive but they lead the conversation with their questions.
These men know the camp is closing but have not made a decision whether to apply for French asylum. They are still holding out hope of coming to the UK. I find myself talking about France as I have experienced it, trying to portray the more positive aspects. Their experience of France has been The Jungle, hostile locals and the batons, tear gas and water canons of the French National Police. This is not the France I have experienced. They want to know the differences between the two countries – cost of living, health, education, work opportunities. This is all hypothetical really. Their chances of reaching the UK are minimal.
If they are taken to one of the French “reception centres” they will wait possibly months for their asylum claims to be heard, and the outcome will be uncertain and depend on their individual circumstances. They have fled war and conflict but we do not talk about their personal experiences and loss. For once, I do not ask questions and they choose to keep the conversation light. Maybe my earlier question about whether they saw the scenery as they travelled through France was enough to show my naivety. Oh my God…they were hardly sitting in the front of a car drinking a can of Coke. One hesitates, unwraps a brightly coloured scarf from his head, and tells me quietyly that a man drove him, but no more. I feel foolish and tactless, and realise I am desperately ignorant of what is going on in these people’s countries and what they have gone through.
They talk of Africa being a beautiful continent and ask why I haven’t been there. We talk of wildlife, scenery, food, and education comparing Sudan, the UK and France. It is light conversation and good practise for their English which they speak quite well having learnt the language in school. The problem is that while they speak English, Arabic and their individual tribal languages, they cannot read or write easily using the alphabet. They write in Arabic script. They show me a children’s book written in Arabic script and write my name for me.
Eventually we read. They choose Horrid Henry and a children’s book about a mouse making a shelter in a cold, windy wood. It feels awful to be reading these with intelligent young men. It occurs to me later, over the spice bags, that the library needs books for the so-called “reluctant reader”. Simple English words and grammar to aid learning but with subject matter that is suitable for the culture and age group. It is too late now. Jungle Books will be torn down in a couple of weeks. I read on www.calaid ipedia today that the CRS kicked the door of the bookstore in a few days after I left.
The two men leave shaking my hand warmly and asking if I am coming back tomorrow. I feel dreadful saying ‘No’, that I am going home, but they ask me to tell the people back in the UK that they love us. Their only experience of the British is the volunteers they have met and the British police, who have treated them with human kindness and dignity.
Two young Afghan men arrive just as we are leaving. The sun is sinking and the only light bulb in the wooden shack does not work. We stop to chat for a few minutes. One talks of the Jungle being finished. He is going to stay in France and go to Paris. I have heard that there are thousands sheltering under bridges in Paris. They have less shelter than the refugees in the Jungle. The other man stares into his lap and fiddles with his fingernails. He cannot do that, he says. He must go to England. His uncle is there. His brother is there. He must reach them. He only speaks English, he doesn’t speak French. His agitation is raw and my heart is in knots. I want to reach out and ruffle his hair like a child, to tell him it will be ok – but I can’t and it probably won’t.
I wait until all the men have left and our only company is a few rats scuttling about in search of an evening snack, and then I take a photo of the little library on the dunes at dusk. In a couple of weeks, this little building that has offered shelter and learning and literature, will probably be gone.