There I was, fresh from middle class Britain, crouched in the back of a van: Doors shut, pitch black, surrounded by boxes. Huddled next to me in the darkness, Hamid, a Syrian refugee.
As the van picked up speed, jolting and rocking us to and fro, Hamid began to mutter a joke about how our journey was good practise for him: Learning to hide, to keep his balance. The laughter didn’t last long though as a distorted, pained expression began to stretch across his face. Hamid confronted me: “Do you know what it’s like to spend three full days hidden in a lorry, no food or water, scared and afraid?”
That was November 2015, ‘The Jungle’ – Calais, my first face-to-face experience of the refugee crisis engulfing Europe.
Moments earlier, Hamid had been helping me distribute sleeping bags to hundreds of others facing his situation: Mud drenched tents, freezing weather, awful sanitation, little food, frustration and despair.
Their number included four young lads brand new to The Jungle. Looking bewildered and lost they asked me in broken English to follow and see where they were living. After fighting through a forest of torn tents and fording rivers of overflowing sewage, we eventually reached our destination. A square patch of mud. Their proud home… Returning to the van I reached into our collection of donated fodder from the UK and elsewhere for a tent large enough to house them. Hoping that the one I picked would contain a full compliment of poles and pegs. Sadly, many did not.
At one point an American accent emerged from behind us pleading, “please can I have a sleeping bag?” The man explained that he was from Afghanistan, but had worked for the U.S. Army for 7 years, managing the distribution of aid. Boy, did I feel ridiculous digging out a donation from our mini operation for him.
Admittedly, not all of the refugees were pleasant: Upon being told we had nothing more to hand out, one man hurled abuse and began to kick the van. Any bitter feeling this left me with was soon tempered by an old pensioner however: Addressing me as “sir”, he asked for a roll mat, explaining he had been sleeping on the floor. When told that I could not help him, he thanked me, said he understood and walked away. As he turned his back, a dagger of embarrassment cut deep… How had things come to this?
At this point it’s worth remembering that we’re not talking a distant land here. This was Northern France, a few hours from London.
I returned to Calais in Feb 2016, to find that much had improved; the volunteer kitchen was running smoothly and many refugees had been provided with semi-permanent accommodation. Sadly, this was the same month in which officials decided to bulldoze the southern half of The Jungle. Home to thousands, including hundreds of unaccompanied children.
The brutal dismantling of this community, a thread of a lifeline to many, has already begun. A make-shift school, women’s and children’s centre, library, church, mosque, theatre and kitchen will no longer be available to those in need. It will also be harder to monitor the most vulnerable, especially children, with exploitation of all kinds a major concern.
Do not be fooled when/if The Jungle disappears. The problem will not have been solved, just moved, hidden from view for a time.
In truth the issues at play are far bigger than the camp at Calais, more than a million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe in 2015. Faced with this scale we may feel as though there is nothing we can do. We can all do one thing though: test our thoughts.
“They need to go back to their own countries and solve their wars and problems” was a recent statement from an educated and well-meaning friend of mine. It is estimated that 470,000 people have been killed in Syria’s conflict so far, and many refugees are fleeing from other nations such as Eritrea, who have appalling human rights records.
Can Hamid and others realistically “go back… and solve their wars…”? I doubt it.
So why are we so apathetic about these people and their plight? Why are we not more heart broken by their suffering?
Perhaps it is because we are more concerned about our own security than murder and death in a distant land? Perhaps it is because we prioritise keeping those migrants with false intentions out of our nation, over making sure we reach those in genuine need?
Here’s my theory: All too often, we forget that life is a gift.
Think about it… Our breath, our heartbeat, our senses, cognition, dreams, friendships, family, imagination, creativity, laughter, consciousness, planet and so much more have been given to us for free… So why then, do we live as though we are owed something? Or start to believe that we have earned our position?
The only difference between Hamid and myself is where we were born. Why then do I expect security and fulfilment, whilst he contends with squalor, uncertainty and fear?
A wise teacher once said that even if we have all the knowledge and power in the World, we are but nothing, if we do not have love.
So what are the lessons/messages that I would want to pass on?
- We must save the children – There is a genuine argument that giving too much support to migrants would encourage the problem, and there is some solid sense in that. We cannot however, ignore the children. That is not an area for debate, it is an area for action. Recent reports highlight that many have suffered rape, and in the chaos of this situation, we can only guess at what other abuse and exploitation occurs.
- Don’t make assumptions about those whom you have not met – If you want to generate an informed opinion on this topic, you need to get out there! Speak to the refugees yourself; make your own mind up.
- Volunteer! – I had the privilege of serving alongside the most amazing volunteers: They ranged from bankers and scientists, to teachers and doctors, retired folk and set designers to full time hippies and UN Advocate employees. Labour followers worked alongside Conservatives, Christians alongside Muslims, young alongside old… There’s a moment when you’re in the thick of it, that you start to forget the bubble of your daily worries, and remember that life is bigger, and a gift not to be wasted.
Even if we have all the knowledge, power, money and security in the World, we are but nothing, if we do not have love.