You can’t always get what you want. As Calais’ shores become smaller, I can’t help but laugh at the irony of the lyrics of the Rolling Stones song I listen full blast to clear my mind from what I just experienced. Since when do people who don’t have what they want ever get what they need? They need a roof, they need food, they need attention, and a tiny piece of paper that would allow them to feel human again. They need humanity. And they try, they do try, really, incredibly hard sometime, and they nearly never get what they need. Because they aren’t part of the privileged.
Neither the music nor the wind and the fading coastline can distract me from the so-called jungle. Friends and colleagues had warned me to expect the worst, urged me to be careful. The worst is not in the jungle, the worst is that we let those antechambers of misery form in our so-called civilized land and we do nothing about that. Save maybe clear it every now and then so as not to disturb our lives.
Calais is a quiet seaside town in the north of France. By good weather, you can see the beautiful white cliffs of Dover, some 34 kilometres away, boasting in the horizon. It’s home to some 126 000 French people, to which you can add, as of July 9000 migrants parked in the suburb’s wasteland. Each day, about 44 000 legal passengers transit between Calais and Dover per ferry. It takes approximately 1h30 shore to shore. To which you can add an extra two hours for passport control, bus scan (in case undesirable guests sneaked in), luggage search (both ways, in case those undesirable somehow managed to get on the ferry en route). 55 000 legal passengers cross the Channel via the Eurotunnel daily. So that’s almost 100 000, per day. That means that in one day, it would be theoretically possible to “clear” the “jungle” by allowing freedom of movement to refugees who want to seek a better life in England (the fools). Those migrants would represent less than 10 % of one day’s worth of passengers between the two countries.
But no, that would be easy, right? Instead, let’s stare at this giant dark mouth surrounded by white fences and dug in the middle of the wasteland that is the Eurotunnel. A dark mouth which daily swallows people from all over the (poorest parts of the) world who see no alternative but to jump in the back or on top of lorries, sneak in or under them, risking and losing their lives in doing so. Just exactly why? And what is the jungle?
When I arrive in Calais, I’m late for my reportage. My colleague is already there. I wish I were a volunteer, it feels weird to be on a schedule to meet migrants, who usually lose the notion of time after countless months spent locked in one place. I grab a taxi, ask the driver to bring me to the camp. “You mean, the jungle? Oh putain, why do you want to get there?”. “I’m a journalist.” I tell him. “Ah, you report on them. It’s a catastrophe, each day they‘re more numerous”. I don’t like cliches. I usually don’t have problems with taxi drivers. This one is sadly a cliche though. He emphasizes they as if he was talking about cockroaches. But he goes on: “It’s all the fault of this crazy guy in North Korea if they’re here!”. My anger falls with that. He clearly has a very personal understanding of the migrant crisis. I give him a noncommittal “yeah” as an answer. If the world’s problems were caused by only one crazy guy far away in the East… It’s scorching hot today, and I haven’t slept the night before. The sunlight is as surreal as the scenes that pass next to me. A quiet little, residential suburbs, and migrants walking along the road, every now and then. Sitting in the fields, every now and then. And police vans, not every now and then; everywhere. The city seems under siege. It looks like a bad video game where the men dressed in navy blue would try and catch black people who hide in the fields.
My driver goes on: “And Gaddafi, had we let him there, everything would be fine!”. Thankfully, the camp isn’t far from the port, so I’m spared further political analysis and I thank him. I see a couple of prefabs in a middle of a field, just right to the giant hole engulfing lorries and cars towards Britain. I am greeted (nicely) by the police. “Passport please?”. The man is friendly as he checks my papers. He asks me why I’m here, I tell him I’m a journalist (frown, looks at his colleague) and I hand in my press card. “You’re not French?” he asks, as the latter is German. “You just checked my passport…”. “But your press card is not French.” “No, because I live in Germany.” “Do you work for a German newspaper?”. “No, an American one”. He raises an eyebrow and looks at his colleague again. Surely that’s not illegal? I think to myself that I should have said I was a volunteer. But no reason to worry, they must be so used to being lashed out in the press that my candid smile must come as the promise of a better treatment. I’m let in. That is to say, the policemen standing in front of a vast wasteland let me walk further into the wasteland.
There is music coming from the prefabs. A makeshift school celebrates its first year of existence with volunteers and migrants joining in to share food, music and plays they prepared especially for the occasion. The afternoon goes by quickly, I have to work. When we’re done, my colleague and I go further into the wasteland. That place has been entirely “cleared” in March. A new fence has been installed to prevent migrants to try and walk into the tunnel. But when do the migrants go once their precarious barracks and tents have been moved? To prefabs a hundred meters away. You can suppress the tents, but you can’t suppress the people. Many a government must find that inconvenient these days. I’m asking a volunteer whether it’s safe. She advises us to not carry our video equipment around. “They’re fed up being filmed, they’re not clowns or zoo animals”. I tell her I’m a volunteer as well, she’s nice, but I feel she too is fed up seeing journalists. I could tell her that I’m fed up seeing the same misery instead, because it’s true, I’m fed up that it’s never looking any better. On the contrary. My colleague and I follow her instructions though and pack away our material. If I were a migrant I’d be fed up too being asked the same things over and over. As we near the prefabs, we pass a makeshift “lieu de prière”, a little mosque made of plastic sheeting rolls with inscriptions in Arabic and English. No one is there. From afar, the wind carries the sound of the cars and lorries on the road leading to England. We cross paths with lonely men, very polite, greeting us in English or broken French. Another prefab plastic house seems inhabited. Indeed, four men sit in front of it, in the shade. On the blue plastic sheeting that serves as a door, the inscription “Bienvenue à la maison”, “Welcome home”, shines in bright yellow, under a red “UK” painted sign.
The young men are very friendly, they tell us that everyone stops by since they’re the first house of the new camp. They all come from Sudan. Neither my colleague nor I want to spoil our time with them so we don’t say we’re journalists just yet. We explain we came here to follow some volunteers (we were reporting on volunteers, not migrants), and they seem happy with it. I explain the situation in Berlin. They’re happy to know more about the situation there, and they’re happy to know I’m helping out. One of them asks me if I’m German, because apparently I look the part. I have to laugh at that. My colleague is asked her age, we’re the same. When we tell them they look surprised, and sorry for us, being so old and two women, all alone. Culture clash. It’s the same in Berlin, the same in Greece. They always wish us to find a husband soon, and today the look on their faces is eloquent, they probably think the same. Beyond that, no salvation. We’ll be fine, we assure them. They’re in their early twenties, look a decade older after having endured what they’ve been through. All understand a bit of English, one is learning French and understands both. They’re Muslim and speak Arabic to one another. My colleague is fluent, so we can have a proper conversation with them. We spend two hours with them. Not as journalists and interviewees, not as volunteers and refugees, but as friends. They offer us shamali, a honey and semolina sponge-cake, and some bananas. As soon as we’re finished with something they offer us something else. They play hosts, and are perfect at it. They tell us they made this little house themselves, as they were fed up sleeping rough. It’s a two room space. We don’t go inside but they explain who they organize its maintenance. In the first room, one is in charge of the cleaning, the other of the cooking. On the other side of the house, the second room is for sleeping. Flower and herbs pots decorate the upper part of a makeshift balustrade. This house really feels welcoming, just as its people.
Eventually, we tell them we’re journalists. They don’t want to be interviewed but they’re happy to tell us their stories. At least one of them is. The others would rather not talk about what they’ve been through. And because we aren’t here for that, we just want to talk with them. The talkative one, Hajeed, accepts to tell us a bit more about himself. He looks healthy and is tall. You could easily mistake him for any young man walking around Paris’ suburbs (in a fair world I would have written Paris’ streets). He left Soudan more than a year ago. There, he suffered droughts, famines and war. He saw his own brother being killed in front of him. My colleagues hears it all first, then translates it to me. But I look into Hajeed’s eyes, we’re talking, the three of us, there is no language barrier. We express our condolences. He dismisses it, with a smile “oh it’s normal, don’t worry”, he says. It took him five months to come to France. He was enslaved in Libya. Come to think of it, the taxi driver was right: I would probably not have heard this story had Khadafi remained in power, as Hajeed would most likely have been enslaved never to escape. After that ordeal, he lost all his companions to the sea. One after the other. That’s the politically correct way to say “every single one of his friend and family drowned because his life doesn’t count as much as ours”. He crossed Italy by train, being thrown out of it and left out in Italy’s dry countryside when controlled by the police. He somehow managed to reach France. Was disappointed. He points out at his face “look, how can I not be noticed with my colour?” he says. That’s the reason why most of them want to reach England. Because they know that in London, no one is going to look at them twice in the streets. Unless what has happened to them every since they reached France. Some also have relatives who made it, they want to be reunited. Whatever their reasons though, they are confronted with an impenetrable wall of police vans, forbidden accesses and official hostility. Hajeed has been there for the past 8 months. He has made all the necessary steps to be granted asylum in France. He wants to stay, and studies the language. I ask him whether, with hindsight, he’d take this 5 months journey again. “Of course”, he replies. “There is nothing left for me in Sudan, everyone I knew is dead anyway”. He talked at length, his story is slowly sinking in our minds. I talk about how in Berlin I see more Syrians than Sudanese, and I tell them about the situation there. They ask me whether it’s easier to learn German than French. Plague or cholera, I think, but French seems easier, I reply.Some wanted to reach Germany. For now, they are all gathered on France’s shores with no perspective of a brighter future. We get some tea. That’s the best I drank since Lesvos. I tell them and they laugh.
Too soon, we have to go. They ask me where I’m going. I’m ashamed to say London, where I keep reporting. Hope sparks in their eyes, they look at me expectantly. I have never felt this useless before. They rapidly exchange words between themselves before looking at me again and trying: “Could you take us with you?”. I do really, really wish, that I could make their lives easier, and that I could magically help. But I tell them that we couldn’t even make it outside the camp without being arrested. “How about with a car?” they ask. “I’d need a really, really big one for you all”, I say. We all smile sadly at each other. An invisible barrier as suddenly grown between us. There are those for whom everything is possible. And there are the others, something we’re all acutely aware of just now. I was never asked directly to facilitate a passage, and it feels worse than I had imagined. In a few hours, I’ll show my French passport again and be let into England by an officer who won’t look at me twice; as a matter of fact, this time round I never an officer’s gaze while crossing the borders. The only black passenger of the ferry though was carefully scrutinized.
For now, we say our goodbyes. We had shaken hands when we arrived, but now we give warm, long hugs to each of them. When I’m in Hajeed’s arms, he sighs deeply. I hold him tight, and wonder for how long he wasn’t held by one of his loved ones. Among other stupid things I think to say on the moment, I remember “Stay strong ok? Do not ever give up. Please learn French because the more you understand, the easiest you’ll get by”, I tell him. But he knows, he’s a survivor. One of his friends asks us when we’ll be back. Soon, very soon, we promise. But we hope they won’t be here anymore, because that could mean they have reached their goal. This one was asking because he needs a pair of glasses and asks if we could bring one over next time. I had planned on taking a break from helping but I can foresee my next “time-off” destination: Calais, again, and for much longer than a botched day.
My colleague and I each go our own way. As we leave the camp, two ambulances drive past us and get in. It reminds me of the Lageso, in Berlin, many months ago. The incessant ballet of anti-riot police and ambulances. Somehow, I end up on the ferry again. On the deck, I’m alone for a while before being surrounded by laughing German teenagers taking selfies. I can’t bear this careless happiness they show just now. I want to be alone, or with Hajeed. The music keeps playing, and loud. The next song that comes up is Gimme shelter. It says: war is just a shot away.