Hand of compassion, channel of peace

For all exiles and outcasts, the displaced, squatters and castaways, the homeless and stateless…

Two themes have established as aspirations within me for 2016; being a ‘hand of compassion’ and a ‘channel of peace’. They were both born of a sense of frustration at doing so much talking, and having so many opinions, and sharing all sorts of social media, but never really doing anything. The ‘hand of compassion’ is inspired by the 1000 armed Avalokitesvara, a mythical Buddhist figure who wants to help all beings to overcome their suffering. He is said to have 11 heads and 1000s of arms to enable him to reach further and help more people. I like to imagine myself as one of his hands. Being a ‘channel of peace’ is a concept from a heart-rending Christian hymn that always puts me in touch with the kind of person I’d like to be.

Caroline & I with donations for Calais

Somehow we got the perfect amount of donations to fill the van

With these fresh in my mind when I heard a friend talking about her experiences volunteering in the Calais Jungle, I made a promise to myself to go there. Making it happen was far easier than I’d anticipated. I simply stated my intention on Facebook, requesting donations, money, a van and company. Before too long all of which were either offered or rolling in. Fortunately my friend Caroline felt keen to come along and also to collect donations in Malvern, where she lives. It was effortless and straightforward. People were incredibly generous and eager to give. They were supportive, showering us in congratulations for our decision and efforts, which felt bizarre as we both agreed that the task felt so small and so easy it was unworthy of such praise.

Map of Dover and CalaisIn stark contrast to the channel of peace conjured up in the famous Christian hymn, the English Channel cannot be referred to as any such thing right now. With thousands of people sitting in the mud on French borders hoping to start a new, better life in the UK, risking their lives to cross the channel by any means they can find. Around which are gendarmes, riot police, angry Calais citizens, frustrated truck and coach drivers, far right extremists and probably other players who I haven’t managed to name. The big charities are nowhere to be seen. This is why independent grassroots volunteers such as us are helpful in Calais.

Note hung up in the Care for Calais warehouse

Note hung up in the Care4Calais warehouse

Normally with humanitarian aid and disaster relief, international, experienced, well-resourced charities, such as Oxfam, Save the Children and Red Cross take charge. As I understand it, volunteers are normally trained and practised in dealing with the difficulties that occur. They are also normally funded and committed to a certain length of time. At present the vast majority of aid in Calais comes from operations, like Care4Calais, that have popped up in immediate response to the need there. They are run by people, who are often self-funded, and are just moved to try to help. Most people who join them give whatever they can, a day or two, a week or maybe even a few months. Though the constant coming and going is debilitating, they have no choice but to accept help from wherever it comes. Normally in disaster situations we can send off fifty quid to Oxfam and know they’re well-equipped to take care of things. In Calais, independent support, donations and volunteers are paramount and highly necessary.

Volunteers sorting in the Care4Calais warehouse

Volunteers sorting in the Care4Calais warehouse

On arrival at the Care4Calais warehouse, we were made to feel welcome. It’s a vibrant environment with an array of fascinating and dynamic people volunteering there. I immediately knew that I’d enjoy meeting the other volunteers and that I’d find them inspiring too, I wasn’t disappointed.

Before starting work, a briefing takes place assigning everyone to teams and explaining the day’s work. The two main tasks roughly fall between sorting in the warehouse and distributing in the camp. As we’d arrived with a van, we were keen to help with distributions. It was Sunday 31st January and a big far right demonstration was planned. Clare, who runs Care4Calais, said that there were worrying reports of far right extremists hospitalising refugees, with at least one in intensive care. There had also been attacks on volunteers and threats on the warehouse facilities. We were asked to remain vigilant and to think carefully before volunteering to go out on distributions.

I wasn’t fazed by the warning (Sorry Mum) as I felt that the organisation was responsibly run and that we would take precautions to ensure our safety. Kev was there too and wanted to come. We promised to stick together and he said he’d make sure that I didn’t end up on my own in the camp. So off we went on a jeans distribution.

Chain loading up the Pink Van - the 1st port of call for new arrivals in Calais

Chain loading up the Pink Van – the 1st port of call for new arrivals in Calais

There’s quite a formula for conducting distributions and we were given instruction before heading off so that we could all get straight into position on arrival and be sure of our jobs. I was one of the furthest from the van, helping to channel a line of refugees down to the van doors where the jeans were being issued. It was super smooth and the refugees were obviously familiar with the procedure too, queuing in an orderly fashion and shouting “line, line, line” if anyone tried to push in. It made for an easy task. No pushing, shoving or aggressive behaviour at all. We were encouraged to be friendly, smile and chat to the people in the queue, something I was eager to do. Being far away from the van gave me plenty of time to chat in an unhurried, sociable way. I relished the opportunity to look people in the eye, ask how they were doing, if they were coping with the cold and the rain, where they were from and what their names were.

#weareallfree #nevergive up portaloos in the Calais Jungle

#weareallfree #nevergive up portaloos in the Calais Jungle

Over the course of a couple of hours I chatted to Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Sudanese, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Iranians and an Egyptian. They were universally friendly, though some couldn’t understand much English. We smiled and even joked about a little. Some looked well enough and, at least, seemed like they were shouldering the cold, wet, temporary-but-with-no-end-in-sight conditions without too much suffering. Others however were skinny, shivering, lacking in basic items of clothing, hunched over and staring at the ground. I don’t know if this is fair or true but I felt like the Africans were more often in the latter group. I chatted to an Eritrean man for a while and I asked about his journey.  Looking him in the eye while he told me how his boat across the Mediterranean split in half and how he prayed to God for salvation, filled with fear and desperation, was heart-breaking. He told me how he was rescued by a British Navy ship and how relieved he is not to be back in Eritrea. He had endured so much but had not lost hope that a better future existed for him.

A mosque in the Calais Jungle

A mosque in the Calais Jungle

Some have lost hope though. At one point, I looked to my left to see a man stood next to me, not in the queue. He asked me what was being distributed. He was wearing grey jogging bottoms, soaked through in the rain. I said to him that he should join the queue and get a pair of jeans. He was clearly well-educated and spoke excellent English. He told me that there was no point joining the queue because he was sure all the jeans would have run out by the time he reached the van. He said “I have very bad luck”. I tried to be positive and told him that luck can change. On hearing this, he told me that he may have believed me five months ago but that he was Syrian and had already spent five months in the Jungle. He seemed so hopeless and full of despair. Listening to his English, I imagine that prior to the war he’d had a good job and social standing in Syria. Living in the Jungle’s filthy purgatory must have felt so demeaning and undignified to him, and not to be able to see an end to his misery must feel very hopeless indeed.

Kev stood outside the Pink Van

Kev stood outside the Pink Van

In the early morning before our first day volunteering, I did a meditation based on trying to conjure loving kindness. I amended the normal practice to specifically include the other volunteers, the refugees and also all the people who I don’t necessarily agree with; people in the police, governments and those with different views to myself. In the stage relating to people I don’t tend to agree with, I found that within me also lay fear of other, trepidation towards the unknown, anger, separation, dissociation from the situation and a general lack of empathy.  I struggle to find meaning in numbers. Knowing that there are thousands of people in the camp, hundreds of thousands of people arriving in Europe doesn’t mean a lot to me. I can’t visualise what this means or even imagine that those numbers are real people, with real lives, and hopes and dreams, and worries just like me. I can’t imagine what it must be like to live through war or famine or drought, or how it feels to leave everything I’ve ever known and everyone I’ve ever cared about in search of something better. Or how bad it must have got before making that decision. It was only through going to the camp and listening to people that I got a tiny, tentative taste of how real this situation is.

Bleakness in our Care4Calais jackets

Bleakness in our Care4Calais jackets

That evening, we were fascinated by another perspective, one that highlighted just how difficult and complicated this situation is. We went for a meal in a Punjabi restaurant and met a gentle, softly-spoken Pakistani waiter who kindly spent a good while telling us about his experiences. He’d left Pakistan eight years earlier, I’d guess in his early twenties, to live with family in Manchester. A year later he moved to Calais to join his brother in running the restaurant. So he’d had experience of living as an immigrant in both the UK and France. He loved Manchester. From what I can gather, mostly because he was completely free, with plenty of interesting things to engage his time and without discrimination. In Calais he’s subject to frequent racism and finds that there’s not much he can do with his spare time. He’s longing for friends and hobbies and things to participate in. He also told us how difficult life’s become for residents in Calais. Apparently house prices are falling dramatically fast because of the situation. According to him, there has also been a history of refugees attacking citizens. Before the Jungle was established and organised, people were more desperate and this led to robberies on vehicles and people. He said that he was stopped one night on his way home from Paris but that they left him alone because he was Pakistani and a migrant too. Nowadays he said that there aren’t such attacks but that residents of Calais haven’t forgotten.

Another difficulty that we experienced first-hand is the prolific use of tear gas by the French police. The jeans distribution on our first morning was stopped short because of it. It was pretty scary. We were coming to the last few pairs of jeans when a white mist crept up on us. The team leaders and more experienced volunteers shouted to us to cover our faces. The refugees in the line started running away as fast as they could. In the distance we could hear shots. I’m not sure if it was the noise of tear gas canisters or rubber bullets. We closed down the van and got out of there. Even though we were far away from the incident, I could feel a strong peppery stinging sensation in my nostrils and my eyes were dry and a little irritated. I found the tear gas very shocking because it seemed so aggressive and indiscriminate. We were far away and still affected, what must it have been like for those in the near vicinity?

Cranes deconstructing an area. You can make out the green cross in the middle.

Cranes deconstructing an area. You can make out the green cross where the church used to be in the middle.

One of the long-term volunteers, Joe, told us about how the police had cleared vast areas of the camp using tear gas early in the morning while people were still sleeping. They’d used the tear gas to evacuate the tents before sending in the bulldozers. There was no warning or time to gather up the meagre few possessions within the tents. I heard of a man lying on the ground sobbing because his only photos of his wife and children had been destroyed. This is disgraceful, inhumane behaviour. On our second day in the camp one of the first sights we saw were cranes finishing up on an area that had recently been evacuated and cleared. Surrounding the cranes and the area were at least thirty fully clad riot police. We watched in horror as they dismantled a crucifix from the top of a structure that had previously been a church. A volunteer seized the cross and gave it to a weeping refugee lady.

Recently evacuated and cleared land in Calais

Recently evacuated and cleared land in Calais

The evictions, area clearing and tear gas don’t seem to be appearing in British news. On visiting the Jungle Information tent, I was able to get an A4 map of the camp, which included all of the areas that have been cleared.  On the back is a write-up of plans for an organisation called La Vie Active, appointed by the French government. They are to create a new “container camp” with space for 1,500 people to live in metal containers. Entry to which will be controlled by codes and 3D hand scans will be a prerequisite for all residents. At the moment, there are upwards of 6,000 people in the camp and the document has said that they don’t want anyone else in The Jungle. What will happen to the other 4,500 people who don’t get allocated a space?

I don’t know what the solution to any of this is. I feel certain that with widespread war in the Middle East, Sudan and Eritrea, and worsening effects of climate change causing drought and famine, this problem will not go away. It may well get much worse even. We can’t bury our heads in the sand. For my part, I am immensely grateful for this brief, eye-opening and thought-provoking experience. If you’re reading this and feel moved to act, I would deeply encourage you to go ahead. Though my contribution was tiny, it was incredibly rewarding. It’s inspiring to meet other people who are helping and trying to act out the sort of world that they want to live in.

Care4Calais Logo

 

 

 

Make me a channel of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me bring Your love,
Where there is injury, Your pardon Lord,
And where there’s doubt, true faith in You

Make me a channel of your peace,
Where there’s despair in life let me bring hope,
Where there is darkness – only light,
And where there’s sadness, ever joy

Oh Master, grant that I may never seek,
So much to be consoled as to console,
To be understood, as to understand,
To be loved, as to love with all my soul

Make me a channel of your peace,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
In giving to all men that we receive,
And in dying that we’re born to eternal life

Oh Master, grant that I may never seek,
So much to be consoled as to console,
To be understood, as to understand,
To be loved, as to love with all my soul

Make me a channel of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me bring Your love,
Where there is injury, Your pardon Lord,
And where there’s doubt, true faith in You