Voices from Calais: “The ground that doesn’t want you”


You wake to this cold, hard ground, with footsteps moving along it, to move you along. Slashing your tent, your blankets. You walk to the food distribution, to the clothes distribution, to keep warm and for something to do. You hide in the woods. You try to avoid the police with huge guns and tear gas and muzzled dogs and you ask “Are we not human? Why do they treat us worse than animals?”. You’re ‘illegal’, you’re in limbo.

Winter on the ground. The cold ground, the hard ground, the ground that as a family you’ve been moved to from the winter outside. Side to side with barriers made from camping beds for a sliver of privacy, you wait: For food. For clothes. For medical attention. For news of family and friends. For the lights to go off. For the lights to go on. For another families baby to stop crying. For your smuggler. For the world to see you. For the choices that others have, who weren’t born where you were born.

"The ground that doesn't want you". Calais, Winter 2017-18. Photo: Futuro Berg.

“The ground that doesn’t want you”. Calais, Winter 2017-18. Photo: Futuro Berg.

 

You show us your arms that you’ve freshly cut and you call us and cry and say “this is bullshit” and ask “what’s the point?”. You show us your beautiful country, your group selfies, your Grandparents, your wedding photos, I don’t have a husband? You will find me one from your country that you love and you hold my hand when you laugh. This cold, hard ground, carries the sound of small feet running across it, immediately calling new kids friend and us: who knows what they think of us. They’re babies and children who dab and flip bottles, who love music and art, who play chases and football, who smile easily, hug clumsily, and cry with all their heart. But they’re illegal, they’re in limbo.


Winter on the ground. The ground that as a family you’ve been moved to from the winter outside. T
he ground with a thin blanket, that you show us with excitement, your face mainly cheeks that shine up like spotlights. “Very good!”, you say. Your sister kisses us on each cheek and goes back to heating her feet over a portable electric hob. Your brothers and Dad shake our hands and your Mum holds us so tight our souls touch. We’ve travelled an hour and a half to visit, to give you duvets and clothes and to chat: it’s late, it’s New Year’s Eve, and we try not to show how tired we are. “You like?”, the eldest brother asks us, his arms gesturing that we look at the room. “It’s lovely!” we say. Amongst a conversation of mainly smiles, body movements, attempts at Kurdish and far better English, the sounds and smells of a feast travel from behind a closed door. Another day will end with bellies full to burst, fed with the most delicious of foods and watered with the sweetest of teas.

Tea in Calais, November 2017. Photo: Futuro Berg.

Tea in Calais, November 2017. Photo: Futuro Berg.


The next week we visit, “No good”, you say, yet cheeks still big and bright like spotlights. Your Mum shows us her torso riddled with scabies, soon to spread to the whole family, and her burned leg, soon to be infected. “No good. Dirty, no good”, the oldest brother frowns, his eyes roam the room. We try not to scratch the instant itch that crawls over us and focus on trying to piece together what happened when you went to the doctors, why you left with nothing, where to get burn treatme
nt, if your Dad’s inhaler can get filled up, what’s wrong with your sister’s phone, why you’ve been told you need to leave the accommodation soon. Why. Where. What. Why. You’re ‘illegal’ you’re in limbo.


Winter on the ground. The cold ground, the hard ground, that somewhere feels the drip, drip, drip of damp and everywhere sees nothing of sunshine. Clouds of condensation rise from the bustling volunteers, clad like they’re at the airport triumphantly wearing as many of their (and their extended families) clothes as possible (shove your luggage weight allowance!). Topped off with a huge high vis jacket from the huge high vis jacket pile, seemingly donated by kind giants. Th
is multi-generational bundle of layers navigate the warehouse like ants, each with their own role, order amongst disorder, creating a nest of solidarity and essential functionality.


This cold, hard ground hosts a hive of human compassion. Crucial material donations arrive from all over and in a time of time poverty (for some), people give what time they have. Jumpers, shoes, blankets, sanitary towels, socks, scarves, nappies, gloves, teddies, duvets, trousers, jackets, pants, bras, chosen in someone’s home, washed, folded, packed, posted or hand delivered, then unpacked, categorised, bundled in to trolleys, unpacked to the correct area, folded, then searched for, found, packed for distribution, then, finally, in the hands of their new owners. What needs fixed finds itself at The Repair Station where skilled shoulders hunch over the persistent drumming of needles, proving the human capacity to solve and to save.

Volunteers at the warehouse in Calais, November 2017. Photo: Futuro Berg.

Volunteers at the warehouse in Calais, November 2017. Photo: Futuro Berg.


On goes the warehouse: the sounds of music, of someone humming along, of shuffling feet at an impromptu dance, of huddled urgent conversations, of “Yes!” when that long top is found, of “Where is the sticky tape?”, of squeaky trolleys, of boxes slamming and bags rustling, of old vans reversing, of introductions and inductions, of “Should I pack the size 42 shoes even although they’re the last pair left?”, of “The baby would look so cute in this!”, of 2500 meals being cooked per day, of “Argh, I can’t find small leggings!”, of salut and ça va and hello and hugs.


The cold, hard ground of winter is juxtaposed by the warmth of the volunteers. They have wrapped themselves up, determined not to let in the mainstream narrative and systematic oppression that stares them right in the face, taunting them, challenging them to look away. Eyes fixed, heads high, hearts true: they will win that stare-off.

 


This piece was written by Paddy McKenna, who spent December and January with the Refugee Women’s Centre in Northern France. This post was originally published on their blog.

Help Refugees, in partnership with L’Auberge des Migrants, has been present in Northern France since 2015. Our work has long depended on the generous donations – of time, materials and funds – from people who can help. Please, if you are able to help, do so here. Thank you. 

 

 

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