Up at 4.30 on a chilly November morning to go to Calais for the second time, hoping to interview more migrants for my script, and possibly meet up with some of the unaccompanied minors I interviewed five weeks ago in balmy September. This time the car is rammed full of men’s clothes – warm jackets, sweaters, T-shirts, trousers, shoes, donated by the good burghers of North London, who responded so magnificently to my e-mail
appeal some weeks ago. Appropriately, my first assignation is at the foot of the Burghers of Calais, (‘Les Six Bourgeois’ as they are called in French) the memorial sculpture by Rodin in front of the town hall. These six men offered themselves as a sacrifice to the victorious English at the end of the eight-month siege in 1347, to prevent the slaughter of the entire population of Calais. An iconic French story of individuals sticking their necks out, literally. A minority of French people are continuing to stick their necks out, by supporting the destitute migrants in Calais. Their actions will not meet with death, but they are constantly under threat of arrest and imprisonment, since aiding migrants is an offence under French law.
At 9.30 am, under the shadow of these six brave men and true, we meet up with tall, affable Michel, from the relatively new association l’Auberge des Migrants. We follow his Land Rover to a village 30 minutes outside Calais, where we deposit our booty at the house of Christian Salome, president of of the association. We are greeted warmly by Christian and his wife Marie, and introduced to eight French volunteers who are busy preparing today’s packed lunches for the migrants. The association does not have its own kitchen, so everything takes place in the private house of these good people. Christian shows me his garage piled high with cartons of provisions donated by a central organisation that collects surplus foods and distributes them to charities. From the middle of November they will be preparing hot food here in industrial sized urns.
Back in the hub of the kitchen green plastic carrier bags are each being filled with two enormous bananas, two boiled eggs, bread rolls, a large tin of sardines, and packets of biscuits. It being France we then all sit down to lunch – an opportunity for me to hear more about the situation on the ground. With us is Aftagul, an Afghan migrant, whom I met on my last trip and who was acting as “protector” to theyoung Afghan boys we befriended and put into a B&B for one precious night. Amazingly Aftagul popped up grinning at the Burghers of Calais statue minutes after meeting Michel. Let’s take him with us,” said Michel, “He’s had a rough night sleeping outside, and being moved on by the police.”
At Christian and Marie’s house it’s clear everybody already knows the genial Aftagul. He busies himself in the kitchen, then calls me in and indicates I should sit down as he pours me some “chai”. His English is non-existent, but now I gather that far from being 22, as he indicated last time when he attached himselves to the minors, he is the father of five children. It is for them he has made this long and perilous trip, intending to send money back home once he gets to the ‘Eldorado’ of England. From his gestures I gather he is a barber but in Jalalabad: “No work, no money.” Attentive, polite, with a good sense of humour and also a strong aesthetic sense – he picks out a vibrant scarlet sweater from the room in Christian’s house piled up with donated clothing – he beckons me to an ancient apple tree in the garden with a few small red apples still attached. That’s where he wants our photograph to be taken, peeking through the branches.
And when my husband and I finally climb into our car to drive to the food distribution centre in Calais, with Aftagul ensconced in the back, we see that he has decorated the front panel of the car with a line-up of rosy apples interspersed with giant bananas. Frustrated at not being able to hear his story I ask him to recount it into my recording machine in Farsi, so that I can have it translated on my return. When I ask him about the three youngest boys, 13 year old Ahmed and his even younger cousins, he nods and says ‘Ahmed Calais. As we head back there, with the good burghers of ‘’L’Auberge des Migrants’ leading the way, I wonder who else I will meet from my last visit. And how many times they have tried to cross the Channel in the back of a lorry in their bid for the ‘Promised Land’.
By Sonja Linden, Founder and Associate Writer