Mrs. Sheppard, where I come from, there is a saying: 'The patient man will be patient until he dies.'
- Anon, pharmacist from Afghanistan living in the Jungle in 2015
The Calais Migrant Jungle was similar to many slums - similar to Trinidad's slums in some of its architecture, economy and vibe, so it felt a bit like home for me. The people there divided themselves into loose neighbourhoods by religion and language, and many spoke some French with a smattering of English. We were handing out three vehicle loads of sleeping bags, tents, split peas, rice, seasoning and other goodies, knowing full well that it would have been better to have given them to an agency who could distribute them as an when needed rather than just handing them out to the strongest, pushiest and least needy. The economy of a slum is based on power, and the trickle down effect does not work there - similar to the way in which giving tax breaks to large companies does not help the neediest in society but only enriches the rich. The power in the Jungle, as in many slums, is held by strong men. But our planned contact in Calais had fallen through, and handing out goodies seemed to be less tragic than returning to the UK with all of that good stuff. I'm still not sure if it was! But since I was personally there for fairly selfish academic reasons, I thought I could at least interview a few people in exchange for sleeping bags. We hooked up with some young ladies from Secours Catholique who were valuable allies, they had experience and spoke the language.
We had a scary moment. At one stage we ran out of the best goodies and mob mentality took over. The crush of angry men threatened to destroy vehicles or worse. Why didn't we have more? They had waited in line nicely (not really), for nothing? What about in the front of the van? What was that stuff? Whose bag was that? I pushed into the mob and grabbed one man by the shoulders, made him look down at me, and said "Can you help me? Ask your friends to be peaceful. Ask your friends to let us look and see if we have anything else. We need your help." The light of the mob faded from him and he was a human again. Next man, next plea. Next man, next plea. Look at me, I'm small, I'm a woman, I need your help and I won't be giving you anything in return. Gradually we had peace and humans again. But we were all humans to begin with. There were no troublemakers there, wanting to punish or make war. It was a risky tactic for me to assume that every man there was going to cool down and walk away empty handed. It was sheer luck in action. There were no police or any sort of security nearby and the UK and French border controls had both said, tight-lipped, that we were not at all advised to go and did so at our own risk.
An hour later, we were kicking a football around in the dirt with the same men. Somalia VS Dorset!
The Calais Jungle residents have been moved on, so who knows where they might be now. Whenever the weather is cold, I think of them, and all those landfill sleeping bags. Thanks to my trip to Calais I have ideas, which drive some of my research. When I started my degree, I thought finally I would have some answers. All I have, it seems, are more questions.
If you'd like to keep up-to-date with the latest news from Calais, there's a facebook page to follow.
(Photos: Me, Kitty Forester, Sharon Carr-Brown)