When Rebecca Coley joined the Jersey Calais Refugee Aid Group and travelled to the makeshift Calais camp, she discovered a lot of people with nothing but hope for a better life.
With so much in the news about Calais, I wanted to see the real situation there. I joined the Jersey Calais Refugee Aid Group – hats off to them for such a well-coordinated effort – to help take in what was needed and make sure it was distributed properly.
I must admit I was apprehensive and a little sceptical travelling there. If there are 80 per cent men, where are all the women? Why do these refugees want to go to the UK so much?
What I found was an area similar to a slum. It reminded me of the situation in Indonesia when I had been there after a natural disaster more than 10 years ago. But this isn’t a developing country dealing with a natural disaster; this is France, a European, supposedly ‘civilised’ country, dealing with political disaster.
“You don’t risk your life over and over again unless you’re absolutely desperate.”
The thing is, the people living in the camp they call the Jungle don’t want to be there as much as others don’t want them there. Conditions are terrible. We were lucky the sun shone when we were there, but as soon as the rain and cold hits it’s going to be an even more desperate situation. They are in makeshift tents with sleeping bags and apparently they are now being thrown out of these. Where is the humanity? Where are they supposed to go?
Yet there’s a peaceful atmosphere, and we found people studying, cooking or trying to make their homes better. The things all people do. When you chat with the refugees, look into their eyes and hear their stories, you can see they’ve come from desperate circumstances. They’ve faced horror and terror. They’ve lost families and friends and livelihoods and are left with no choice but to run. Any other human being would do the same.
I spoke to people from Sudan, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and Ethiopia, all desperate refugees. And these are the lucky ones. We met a civil engineer, a lawyer, a teacher, a professional cricketer: these are the entrepreneurial types, the young fit ones who are brave and strong and hope that by helping themselves first they can then help their families later. You don’t risk your life over and over again unless you’re absolutely desperate. They want the problem to be fixed in their own countries. They didn’t want to have to leave.
At the end of the day the cause of so many of the conflicts they are running from boils down to oil, that miraculous money-making essential ointment turning the cogs of our society. That’s why refugees are turning up on our doorsteps and we have to deal with the consequences. It’s not so easy to ignore anymore when the problem is arriving at your own front door. We have to do the right thing. If we stop living in fear and let people in and help them to integrate properly, they can help our society; they will enrich it. We can turn this negative situation into a positive one.
In the Jungle, I met Mia Konforti, an amazing woman from Calais who has been working with the refugees since the crisis began. She set up L’Auberge des Migrants, who visit the Jungle every day supplying food, distributing aid and helping build shelters for the winter.
As Konforti and I were talking, refugees came up and thanked her, calling her mama. It was genuine warmth and appreciation as they showered her with affectionate big hugs and expressed their gratitude. All the people who are in Calais have survived very difficult traumas, escaped dictators, horrific regimes, war, family dying: incredibly traumatising experiences.
Konforti explained that, the way she sees it, these refugees have three ladders: “The first ladder is to arrive in Europe – that’s hard enough and then you’re at the bottom of another ladder. Asking for asylum is the second ladder and they need support as that takes a long time and it’s very complicated. Then, IF they get their papers, the third ladder is integration, which is also very difficult.
“People who want to help refugees should pair up with one refugee, one family for one refugee. You invite them to your house, have a meal from time to time, talk about your cultures, show movies together, share your cultural music so it’s a rich experience for the family and a rich experience for the refugee. I think that’s what’s really needed. When we have integration like this, we’ll have a whole new continent where people are together and function well.”
The thing that struck me most was how the refugees are normal people just like you and me. They mostly had a mobile phone and not a lot else. People in mud huts in Africa have mobile phones these days and if you were off on a journey you’d take your mobile, too. Other than that they had nothing else – just hope for a better life.
One young man from Sudan had just arrived and was shocked at the camp. He had dreams of Europe and he didn’t want to call his family or tell anyone where he was. He didn’t want to put up a tent and settle in the camp as he felt it was admitting defeat; he wanted to keep moving, to try to make his dreams come true.
Another young man joked that he used to be good-looking before. We assured him a wash and a haircut would get him back to his usual self. People just want their dignity, food and shelter, and a chance. A chance for a better life. The same as anyone else.2487 Views
Rebecca is a writer/director hailing from the island of Jersey. When she’s not trying to make films, she likes exploring, drinking tea, visiting as many islands as possible and getting in the sea all year round.