Pumpkin lantern prepared for feast at Maria Skobtsova House by K from Iran.
Day 1 I arrived in Calais on a very wet and windy Monday afternoon, rain lashing first on the deck of the ferry, then on the car windscreen. In Maria Skobtsova House, I am introduced to the current guests, who immediately brought me plates of Iranian food. Of the 14 adults and 3 young children staying in the house, most are Iranians, one Ethiopian and one Eritrean with her little son. There is an inbuilt tension in that only women and children can stay overnight, while the men – husbands or sons – unless ill, must sleep in the jungle or at a government night shelter – they call it 115. The priority is the most vulnerable, and at the moment this is the women and children.
Day 2 Today, Alex, the other volunteer, ferried me around the outskirts of town on a sightseeing trip, visiting little and bigger ‘Jungles’. One I remembered from 2 years ago, ‘the Little Forest’, is now completely fenced off, as are others. ‘Belgium Parking’ is now walled off. There is a systematic clearing of camping spaces and closing them off to prevent resettlement.
We returned to the house and managed a lunch time prayer. Kirrilee, the Anglican refugee chaplain, who is the House manager, came around to chat. Her job consists of being parish priest to the Anglicans in the Nord Pas de Calais for half her time, and chaplain to refugees and volunteers the other half. She tried to give me some guidelines for House management, as the dynamic has changed since Johannes left in April. When Alex leaves on November 15th I shall be ‘in charge’ for the last bit of my stay. The residents are brilliant at cleaning and catering for themselves, and us. So maybe it won’t be too arduous.
Day 3 L, the Ethiopian woman, took me to the ‘big Jungle’ to meet an Ethiopian whom my nephew Stephen had put me in touch with. An hour’s walk to the periphery and we made lots of enquiries about ‘A’ from Ethiopia at La Vie Active food delivery point. A good 200 people were scattered around and helpful people asked for photos, which I didn’t have, only a phone number, which was not producing a response. Suddenly a smiling man appeared in front of me, bingo!
A was in a terrible shipwreck off the coast of Egypt. Six hundred migrants were involved, of whom 30, including A, survived. A has travelled through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and now France. None of these countries has given a welcome, some more brutally rejecting than others. He tries every night to jump on a lorry, or indeed any vehicle bound for the UK, yet he has so far failed. He showed me his tent, just off a motorway embankment, almost in a ditch. Conditions are indeed filthy, and in our walk we saw at least 2 dead rats. The rain hasn’t helped. Despite a good tent, covered by a tarpaulin, rain runs down the embankment over the groundsheet.
Day 4 In the early evening the house is suddenly filled with 10 of the residents, who have had an adventure. They had gone down to the beach but were picked up by the police and taken to the Coquelles detention centre for questioning, since they couldn’t produce any papers. The group was in gales of laughter as they showed pictures and videos of themselves in the centre. The police not only released them quickly but dropped them back in the town centre in 2 cars. ‘We are your taxi service!’ they told them.
Day 7 The BIGGEST news in the house yesterday was that J and B reached England. So much rejoicing in the house, along the lines of ‘they can do it, so can we’.
Day 21 Two days ago D came in from the Jungle saying the ‘CAPS’ (CRS riot police) had been to visit, and that M. had been arrested. Both had said they were 17 and had not been fingerprinted, but one was taken and the other left (like in the Bible). He was released later in the day after 7 hours in the ‘Deport Centre’ and caught a bus back into town, returning full of the adventure. ‘First time in prison’ he boasts, a bit dazed. His mother had been frantic with worry.
Postscript 14 out of the 17 people I met in Calais are now in the UK. I am still working out what to think about it all. A unique experience, and what am I called to do about it?
Barbara Kentish. November 2019
Residents’ Art and Textiles workshop display of hats and pictures