By Dr. Shirley Graham ([email protected])
All the photos were taken by Shirley Graham
‘Can you take me to Ireland in the back of your car, please teacher?’ This was the request I received from a 16 year old Sudanese boy as I was leaving the Calais refugee camp in early September. We had spent time together over the previous few days speaking English. During our lessons he shared with me that in his previous life he had been a farmer in Sudan, that he herded cows, and that he loves sunflowers. His pop icon is Rhianna and he is a fan of Chris Brown, Eminem and Snoop Dog. In many ways he is just like any other teenager but of course in one crucial way he is very different, because he is a refugee. This gentle boy travelled alone from Sudan to Calais without even a phone to keep in contact with his family. Luckily for him one of the older men (a 25 year old!) in the camp has taken him under his wing. Every night he leaves the camp to try and stow away on a lorry to the UK. Two weeks ago a 14-year-old boy from the camp was killed when attempting to do the same thing and neither the lorry he was on, nor the car that hit him when he fell off, stopped. Recent reports state that there are over 1,000 unaccompanied minors in the camp and the youngest is only eight years old.
This is my story in photos…
The photo above is of the main street through the camp called ‘Theresa May Street’!
Along with two friends I spent the last week in August in the Calais ‘Jungle’. Our aim was to raise awareness of the dwindling resources in the camp, raise funds, and volunteer. We worked with Utopia 56 a French volunteer-run organisation that focuses on keeping the camp clean and vermin and disease free. This is a huge task, as there are approximately 8-10,000 people in the camp with limited access to proper sanitation facilities. We noticed that a lot of people in the camp had bad coughs. It is crucial for people’s health and dignity that they can live in a clean environment
Here I am with the Utopia volunteers getting stuck in!
The routine for many of the refugees is to spend all night trying to find ways to get to the UK and then when they have been unsuccessful (99.9% of the time) they return to the camp in the early hours of the morning exhausted, and head to bed. The afternoons are spent queuing for food, blankets, clothes and other supplies. Later in the day, many attend French or English language classes.
The photo below is of the school’s ‘resource centre’ containing donated books, pens and other materials.
After the big clean up in the mornings we headed over to the ‘Jungle Books’ school where we spent the afternoons teaching English. French is the more popular language as most people have accepted that they are going to be in France for a long time. While there are people in the camp from Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia and Eritrea, all of the men I taught were Sudanese.
The photo below shows the white shipment containers housing those seeking asylum in France
We were told that there is a two-tiered system within the camp. Those who are applying for asylum in France live in the white shipment containers you can see in the background of the photo above. They are protected by a wire perimeter fence. Those who are not applying for refugee status in France remain outside in their tents and huts.
The graffiti on the wall in the photograph below was painted by children in the camp
We were never in the camp at night, but we were told by several men that they find it scary, as tensions rise due to the stress of the situation and violence can erupt. To provide protection and community most people group together in national clusters such as the Afghani section or the Eritrean area of the camp, etc. One of these groups is made up of 150 Sudanese men who have set out strict rules for living peacefully together: no fighting, no littering, and communal living. Most of the men I met were very young (teens/early 20’s) but I also met some older men who told me they have been on an asylum seeking ‘conveyer belt’ between the UK and Afghanistan for several years.
The photo below is of a makeshift cafe in the camp
The camp was tear-gassed by the police when we were there. Two men had tried to stowaway in a lorry and refused to get out, other refugees went to their aid and a violent clash between the police and refugees broke out. On another occasion a tear gas canister exploded as we were heading to the school, we were blinded, coughing and wheezing, it was a very scary few minutes!
The picture below is of a plastic ship I found stuck to one of the walls in the camp made out of empty tear-gas canisters!
A daily occurrence in the camp is the arrival of the mobile phone van that appears every afternoon and is quickly surrounded by a swarm of men who want to charge their phones and make contact with the outside world. We were advised not to take photographs of individuals as it could affect their asylum process.
The photo below is of the Humming Bird trauma & medical centre
The Calais camp is being threatened with demolition by the end of the year. We met so many people who have lost loved ones, homes, livelihoods, in fact just about everything. There were times during our conversations when their pain was palpable and tears did flow. It is hard to imagine the trauma of what they are going through and what they have yet to endure.
The pictures below are of the Eritrean church
We raised over €7,500 for the camp!
During our week in Calais we raised over €7,500 and the money is being used to provide food, medical supplies, clothes and bedding. We prioritised an organization that looks after children and unaccompanied minors and their specific care needs. Thanks so much to everyone who supported this cause it will make a huge difference to the 16 year-old Sudanese boy I befriended, and all of children and adults in the camp.
Some of the team in the ‘New Kabul Cafe’ in the Calais ‘jungle: (L to R: Jean Rice, Audrey O’Reilly, Shirley Graham and Mary Kate O’Flanagan (not pictured).
If you have been thinking about volunteering at any of the refugee camps I would urge you to go ahead and do it! It means so much to the people there that we show up in solidarity with them and help in any way we can. Everywhere I went I was met by smiling faces and greetings of ‘bonjour’, ‘thank you’ and ‘hello sister’. It was one of the most rewarding decisions I have ever made.
To date only 311 refugees have arrived in Ireland out of the 4,000 pledged by the Irish Government, for more information about the current situation contact the Irish Refugee Council’s website: http://www.irishrefugeecouncil.ie/news/one-year-on-government-needs-to-act-fast-to-keep-its-promise-on-refugees/5144
If you would like to donate or volunteer with any of the organisations working directly with the refugees in the camp, below is a list of excellent volunteer-run organisations.
To support the kitchens supplying food to all the refugees: http://refugeecommunitykitchen.com/ and http://www.calaiskitchens.net/donate.html
To support the Women’s and Children’s bus: https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/junglewomenscentre
To support ‘Jungle Books’ school: https://www.facebook.com/junglebookslibrarycalais/
Volunteer to help clean up the camp: http://www.utopia56.com/en/contact