Calais Blog – Part 5
A few streets away from the food distribution centre, Catholic Aid is giving out second-hand clothing in a church hall. Migrants form a long queue into the street, once again mostly young Afghan men and boys and a few Africans. They are allowed in half a dozen at a time. Catholic Aid volunteers, mostly retired people, stand behind long tables piled with clothes, encouraging the young people to make their selection. Shoes are organised in sizes, there are coats, jackets, jeans, all in good nick. The atmosphere is welcoming.
I step outside and there they are – the three young boys I met in September: Ahmed (13), and his two cousins, Jawad (11) and Fawad, (10). I have already spoken to them on the phone from England – they managed to acquire a mobile phone after I left. But the last time I called them, they were in Belgium. Now I found out why. Despite the fact that Ahmed had been adamant that they couldn’t risk their young lives getting into a lorry, this is in fact precisely what they did. Unfortunately the lorry was headed for Belgium, where they were arrested and put into two different shelters for young people. Ahmed escaped from his shelter and made his way back to Calais. He then started a search for his cousins. Resourceful as ever, he got on to the internet and e-mailed every young persons’ shelter in Belgium. He soon tracked them down to a shelter near Brussels and after two visits, driven there in a car by a supportive French couple, he managed to get their “release”.
Now he was in a dilemma. His cousins had been so frightened during their 12 hour ordeal without water or toilet facilities in the lorry, that they did not want to risk it again. But how else would they get to England, where they hoped to find their long lostfather/uncle? Despite the kidnap threats against them in Jalalabad, their mothers were now telling them to come home, terrified by their ordeal. Yet they had come so far. Claiming asylum in France was an option, but for Ahmed, top of his class back home, and keen to become a doctor like his disappeared father, that meant “losing three years” while he mastered French. “It’s so difficult to know what to do. But I can’t spend my life here, because I want to be an educated person.” Already speaking moderately good English, and desperate to achieve his study goals, he knows he will make much faster progress in a country where he speaks the language. We say goodbye and promise to stay in touch. At least this time I know that the three of them will not be sleeping rough. They are being put up by No Borders activists in their flat in Calais.
Early the next morning we take a turn in the park and come across a tent covered in black plastic sheeting. Minutes later the sheeting is removed and a couple of young Afghans emerges. A French woman wants to know why my husband is taking photographs. She is protective towards the migrants. We assure her of our good intentions and she tells us she often visits the migrants in the park, bringing them hot tea. Other people from Calais, she tells us, bring them clothes, hot food, sweets. She feels desperately sorry for them having to sleep out in the cold but the law prohibits offering them shelter. She likes talking to them, she says, “It’s enriching to meet people from a different culture.” They are always polite and very grateful for anything that is offered them.
We talk about the harshness of their lives in Calais where the most basic facilities are denied them – water, toilets. Some of them are using the canal sluices to wash in, hazardous for their health. The few toilets put up for them have been closed down by the municipality. And as the winter closes in, and they have nowhere to go during the day apart from bus shelters, and nowhere to sleep at night apart from under bridges and in parks, it’s hard to imagine how they manage to endure in such hostile surroundings. And the more inhospitable the environs of Calais, the more rosy their image of England becomes. When dreams are their chief sustenance, it’s hard to shatter them with a more realistic picture of England and what may lay in store for them, should they reach the other side of the Channel.
By Sonja Linden, Founder and Associate Writer