Postcards from Calais refugee camp and the shortcomings of volunteering 2018-01-29T10:12:52+00:00

Project Description

Originally published on
September 23, 2016

Right now in Calais, France there are children twirling around a glowing neon ferris wheel, they are raising both arms (look no hands!) as they speed around an endless loop of mini-mountains in little cars shaped like frogs. There is the briny smell of freshly cooked seafood coming from restaurants filled with fine white and gold china. Well-maintained streets adorned with sundresses, small dogs, baseball caps, gauzy street lamps; all of which are casually strolling amongst a chilly sea breeze. There is a clock tower that wears all sorts of golden bracelets and public gardens with shrubbery shaped like perfect, giant green sugar cubes.

There are the remains of a battle almost forgotten; giant arched cement bunkers dotted along the beachline standing proudly, outliving so many of the soldiers it aimed to protect during World War II. Crumbling grey arsenals which bear witness to human’s continual, unquenchable thirst for war.

And there is a 4km stretch of beach that contains over 7,000 people, all of whom have traveled a great distance to reside in an illegal settlement termed “the Calais Jungle”. France refuses to acknowledge the people as refugees, so the encampment and humans inside are referred to in whispers as ‘illegals’. The settlement can best be described as a ‘slum’ or ‘favella’; people reside in structures that range from camping tents, to simple wooden shacks, to more sophisticated repurposed corrugated metal structures (although police now check everyone who enters and confiscates any building materials or tools as a means to ensure no one is able to create too nice a living space). There is little running water and electricity, people use plastic porter potties as bathrooms, and there is a general cold, damp, muddy feeling even during the peak of summer.

In Calais there exists two very separate realities. They are segregated by physical barriers and less physical barriers like the random privilege of being born to a certain skin color or area of the planet. Because of this partition, it’s easy for many of us, myself included, to remove ourselves from the refugee crisis. Governments have ensured we go about our normal living using tools like President Hollande’s newly commissioned 4 meter high, soundproof wall and banning press coverage inside many refugee camps.

Because of my own extreme privilege, I was able to be a visitor at the Calais camp. I could offer up my passport to the heavily armed French police standing guard outside every entrance and after scanning and checking my passport, I would pass freely. More significantly, I could also leave as I pleased, which in many ways is not the case for the people living inside.

And here’s the part about ‘helping’ that gets quite tricky.

I have played the role of ‘volunteer’ many times, in many places around the world. What I’ve learned and seen has been vast and vastly different, some understandings more resounding than others.

The idea of ‘sustainability’ has been one of the most important concepts I’ve learned in my years of volunteering. Is this project sustainable? If I were not present, could it exist without me? If the answer is no, we’re doing something wrong. The point is never to create more dependence, because dependence breeds hierarchy. Instead, the end vision should always be ‘working yourself out of a job’, creating independence and a system where you’re absolutely not necessary.

I am reminded of this concept in my time at Calais, which simply could not function without all the NGO’s inside. When I walked into the camp wearing my white volunteer vest, I couldn’t help but notice the hierarchy created. I am a volunteer, you are a refugee. As we exchange tickets for pants, shirts, underwear, soap, pans, you name it, the storage container for distribution must be guarded by volunteers. The people who are in control of these items, who are ‘gifting’ them to people, are volunteers (almost only white). Calais camp has existed for 20 years, aren’t the established people who live inside the settlement also capable of creating and maintaining this type of distribution? It would be unwise to ignore this ‘volunteer’ and ‘those in need’ dynamic because it’s crucial to understanding this specific situation and the larger one at whole.

Ignoring the ‘refugee crisis’ is no longer a viable option because it is a global issue; no matter who you are, where you live, if you’re political or nonpolitical, your economic standing, etc. Global warming research estimates that in the year 2050 there could be as many as 150 million ‘climate refugees’.The Calais camp itself is organized into neighborhoods of countries (there’s an Afghan section, a Sudanese section, etc) and reads like a literal map of US and EU bombing sites. These political wars are ongoing, and the people who no longer have a place to live and are forced to radically relocate are only growing. Calais receives about 100 new people every single day.

Perhaps the general term ‘refugees’ also hinders our ability to sympathize. In fact, the people I met at Calais spoke multiple languages, were doctors, lawyers, bratty teenagers, dancers, artists, poets, footballers, complex, simple, individuals. During the evenings I went into the camp to teach and tutor English and was hit so forcefully by the kindness of my students, I carry the blows with me today. On two separate occasions, during two extra long classes, I had students leave and return with food for me. The entire class stopped and demanded I take a break, eat and drink before resuming our lesson about direct objects. These people are humans, they are exactly the same as us and all of our friends and our families. Except that they happen to be struggling with profound hardships we will never know.

Separating ourselves from the refugee population, in fact, serves no one. We must require from ourselves and our government full and total liberty towards integration. History proves time and time again that when you remove all rights, liberties, and common humanities from someone, they will do whatever they need to survive. Many times these actions are not pretty and can be to the detriment of all those around them.

The inhabitants of the Calais settlement are almost only men because many women and children can not make such an arduous journey. Walking thousands of miles, paying thousands of euros to smugglers, swimming, taking tiny plastic rafts across the sea, hiding beneath busses, running from police, sleeping on the streets– these conditions make it almost impossible to travel in a group. When I introduced myself and my family to one of the people there, he immediately erupted into tears, began tightly gasping for air, and had to excuse himself. Once calm, he returned to apologize and explained the idea of a family together is something he will never have the privilege to know.

You might imagine that about 7,000 men, who many times can not communicate with one another due to lack of language commonality, are in the hardest, least dignified trial of their lives could prove for a slightly tense atmosphere. I do not hesitate to say that the French people of Calais, who refuse to assist the newly settled people in any way, are so lucky that the people inside the camp are far more humane than themselves, or perhaps the city would be burned to a crisp.

And this is only one small camp out of hundreds and hundreds in Europe. Why are we waiting for this situation to come to a boiling point?

We need to totally change our way of thinking about this ‘refugee crisis’. A small but incredible example is one of my favorite memories from my time at the settlement. My brilliant partner proposed to some of my English students that after class they instead become the teachers and teach him Arabic. The result was an almost 3 hour class of all-around exuberance, despite the lobster-like sunburn on the face of said partner. An equal exchange, the acknowledgment that everyone has something equally valuable to offer.

A dear friend of mine has a farm in Ocata that I regularly visit; a day of farm work for a week’s worth of veggies. While he is from the USA and his business partner is from Catalunya, the other people who work on the farm are all people who have come to Catalunya because of unlivable conditions in their own countries. The farm could not function without these people and in return Catalunya was gifted with their citizenship, these workers receive work contracts, Catalan and Spanish lessons, and infallible friendship from their employers. Everyone who works together on the farm has the equal ability to work, live, eat. I have had the luck to be a part of many holiday and group farm dinners decorated with tables full of food that is as diverse and delicious as the people sitting around them.

These are two very small illustrations of ways it’s possible to approach relocating on an equal basis. And while I understand the urgent necessity to provide people-on-the-brink with human basics, I do not think ultimately structures like volunteering will lead to a sustainable future for anyone involved.

In the Calais camp, the only visible aid France has provided is by tearing down a section of the settlement and installing a fenced off area of shipping containers for people to be housed. People coming in are given the option to give up their identification and the chance to be reunited with their families in England in order to be packed into metal shipping containers. Even those living in the containers of Calais are not ensured French citizenship. As someone with family who survived the Nazi concentration camps, these are eerily reminiscent of the boxcars used to ship people during the Holocaust.

Instead, we need to be demanding that the EU and our own governments are actively seeking and accepting new citizens. Opening up the southern border with Africa would mean people would have a direct entrance to Spain and Catalunya, rather than risking their lives and suffering tremendously. We need to insist news agencies regularly report and give honest answers to what is actually happening inside these refugee camps. Make sure the newest members of this community have everything they need to thrive, integrate, and feel welcomed. Listen to and take advantage of the knowledge and resources these new citizens have to offer.

And most importantly we need to address the warmongering our tax dollars support and the environmental impact that drives people from their homes. Every single person I talked to at the camp wanted nothing more than to return to their home country, if only it was liveable.

The situation in Calais should seem deplorable to you, as the conditions are absolutely haunting. But sooner than we can imagine, it will not be necessary to travel to a refugee camp in Calais or Greece, because the crisis will be at our doorsteps (wherever your ‘doorstep’ might be). The footsteps are steadily approaching, but this rush should not distract us from focusing on immediate sustainability. When the walls and laws and inhuman regulations come knocking, on which side of history will you be?

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