The Hour of Dawn

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 A certain wise Teacher asked his students “how do we determine the hour of dawn, when night ends and day begins?” One replied “When you can distinguish a sheep from a dog.” No said the Teacher. “When you can distinguish a fig tree from a grapevine.” No, said the Teacher. “Then tell us”. “It is when you can look into the face of human beings and have enough light to recognize them as your sisters and brothers. Until then, it is night and darkness is still with us.” (Hasidic tale)

In a recent BBC news item entitled “Coronavirus deepens struggle for migrants”, veteran BBC correspondent Fergal Keane travelled to Calais where hundreds of would-be UK asylum seekers are crowded into small tents and where there is no possibility of social distancing. He begins his report with these words: “For people already living on the margins, the arrival of the coronavirus has been nothing but catastrophic”.

“Have some pity”, says a volunteer with the French association Salam, “you wouldn’t do this to a dog would you? So you’re doing it to human beings who are fleeing war. I’m ashamed to be French”. He is speaking to Fergal Keane beside a swathe of small tents packed together on wasteland in Calais. This area is known as the Jungle. “We’re afraid of the virus” says one of the community living there, “but we can’t do anything. It’s really dangerous”

Five hundred metres away in the lee of the UK-funded “security” wall and overlooked by the Calais football stadium is a narrow strip of land, “home” for some of the Eritrean refugee community . Their tents are sandwiched between the wall, an ironically useful place to shelter from the rain and hang wet clothes and shoes, and a dirty, rat-infested stream. A hoodie on the washing line is emblazoned with the words “This Life is your Adventure. Stay Tough”.


The lockdown in France began on 17th March. Many of the volunteer groups working to support the refugee community in Calais began withdrawing. On March 25th Abel messaged me “We don’t get any food today. I don’t know what can we do right now. But we will see what happens next day.”  A day later Merhawi wrote “We have some food but not like past. Little bit hard but no problem God always with us and you” And a few days later, Abel again, “Today we having lunch and breakfast. Don’t worry about it. We are at the moment good. But thank you for asking. Good night. Sweet dreams”

From the end of March the talk has been about plans by the French authorities to move the refugee community in Calais to safe accommodation in unused hotels and hostels. “We are all fine. We have food. We have charge for phones. Maybe we go camp this week” Merhawi told me “I am not happy to move but I think it’s very important” Abel sounded more positive about the plan: “We have much more food and water. So far none sick for us. They tell to us that it’s voluntary to go to the hotels. I personally accept this because it’s important for me to save the life. I tell you soon what happens. Stay strong with your own family. See you tomorrow”.Meanwhile, every second day, the police continue with the policy of dismantling the camps.

“How do we determine the hour of dawn, when night ends and day begins?” runs the Hasidic tale. Michael is a young Deacon in the Eritrean Orthodox church. He is in Calais after years of being shunted from one European country to another. “It is fine. God is with us. Don’t give up”.  “Peace and love for all people of the world. Let’s stand together to fight against the corona virus. I hope the best yet is coming soon for all of us” writes Abel.

In the midst of the current catastrophe, dawn breaks through.


(all names changed: ongoing contact with the Eritrean refugee community in Calais is part of Maria Skobtsova House outreach)

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