Saturday 29 August 2015

Welcome to the Jungle: The lost people of the Western world.

Before I begin I will arrange my footing slightly; hopefully making the stance of words slightly harder to push over. I do not believe in an open door policy on immigration in the U.K, there are sixty four million people here and it is not a large land mass; from a basic perspective it is matter of space and resources.

When I first walked into the Jungle I was concerned that I would be of interest, which was foolish and it quickly turned out that quite the opposite was true. It was very infrequent that anyone paid any attention to me at all, if I did make eye contact with anyone I received a bonjour or a small wave.

The smell of the air is physically oppressive and begins a mile from the overpass that acts as gate to the camp, long before the beer kegs of the depot and the dog training centre; the atmosphere clings to the roof of the mouth in a thin coating and makes it uncomfortable.

Although it is quite easy to get lost in the camp, it has a rough circular outside route which is webbed through inwardly, with interweaving paths through brambles that lead to smaller circular encampments made up of differing nationalities and ethnicities. The road around the outside is just mud trampled firm in the heat, but retaining water from the night’s rain in deep holes. The road is clear of the detritus that otherwise covers the ground, where it is in large piles and scattered so it is nearly always underfoot elsewhere.

I realised that I was approaching the tall canvas church, which I had already done, so I headed towards a fenced organised looking area. I saw the hospital, which consists of two tents; next to this there was a white canvas labelled the Art Tent. When I ducked inside four young men sat drawing and colouring, another, who looked in his early twenties, was strumming a guitar in the corner.

A young lady in a white waistcoat with a medical logo on the side of it greeted me, and invited me to sit. I sat at the rickety camping tables and began to draw low quality cartoon animals; I was informed that there were three doctors and they could not be there all the time. The lady I was talking to was a therapist, a great deal of the people that arrive are traumatised.

She asked me, not unkindly, what I was doing on the site: I explained that I wanted to teach some English but I was interested in writing an article, I was told where the school was and that it was run by volunteers.

“You will be the next Van Gogh.” Said the tall man next to me, patting me on the shoulder. “Everyone knows these are green.” He added as he began to colour in the walrus. A bearded man stuck his head through the flap and asked to see the doctor, he was pointed to the next tent which was the triage section.

The guitar did not seem to be frustrating the man trying to play it, but he had been patiently trying to tune it since I had arrived. He occasionally squinted down the length of the neck. He asked me to play, and mostly through luck, I was able to tune the chipped old acoustic. I taught him some chords and he, on his part, listened attentively as we passed the guitar between us, although he never smiled. He fetched a crayon and marked out chord diagrams of what I had shown him. After about an hour I excused myself to find the school; he whispered thank you without looking up.

Outside the tent there stood the man who had asked about the hospital, his brow was furrowed and his hand was on his hip as he looked at the tents. I said bonjour in such a way that he asked me if I was English. I said yes and asked him how things were, he told me he wanted to see a doctor, as he was sick. “They cannot see too many people in a day, they are good, there just aren’t many of them. “You work in England? I said I worked in a school and he nodded. “I am a mechanic, is there much work in England?

“Not really no.” I told him. “A couple of hundred at least apply for each new job vacancy.” He rolled his eyes.

What is England like?” He asked without enthusiasm. I shrugged.

“Good and bad, I guess. You want to go there?”

“Not really.” He shrugged expansively. “Would it be better than here?” He gestured at the jungle with an outstretched arm.

“Probably not.” I was forced to answer. He clapped me on the back and held out his hand.

“Atifibrahim.” He said. After the introductions he told me that he was from the Sudan. “When the politics went wrong I was arrested as I had opposed the government, some of my friends disappeared and bad things happened to their families. “Bad things.” He repeated as he grimaced into the distance. “We had to leave.”He shrugged a gesture of glum acceptance. “What would happen if I went to England? Would I be allowed to work?” I shook my head.

“You would be kept in detention.”
“How long for?”
“Until they review your case.”
“And that takes a long time.” He stated.”It takes a long time here too. Would I be with my family?”
“Probably not.” I turned my face away as he raised up his palms and his eyes filled up quickly. “Mainly the children are separated.”
“Then what do I do?" This was clearly news to him, he was genuinely upset.
“Germany seems to be letting the most people in.” I said, stuck for words. He patted me on the back gently.

"We all dream.” He said. “All I want is peace for me and my family. He looked over the camp in the distance. “I think that winter will be bad.” I spoke to Atifibrahim a few times over the next couple of days, after a couple of days he allowed me to take his picture and after three days later was able to see a doctor.

The school was about twenty by thirty feet inside; mismatched desks filled it from edge to edge, apart from the small aisle down the centre, which was occupied by a narrow tree trunk that supported the centre of the roof.

The improvised school was full every time I visited.
The room was full of students with their elbows down so that they could write in such close proximity to each other. A petite woman at the front taught French in a motivated fashion. I waited until the end of the lesson and spoke to the teacher; she gave me the name of someone to speak to about teaching English but I would have to return the following day.

I walked around the orbiting path, past the church again and then the tents that act as cafes and shops; cooked chicken stood exposed in the sun amongst the cans of Sprite and bags of potatoes. I headed back to the art tent; I was going to leave the camp for the day and thought it best to say goodbye. The young man was still practicing guitar and I made a positive comment; he shrugged without looking up.

The next day it was raining heavily; one benefit to this is the smell of the camp is not present until you are actually there. This turned out to be of little comfort; the mud got everywhere. Puddles of ten foot diameter and unknown depth had to navigated, along with the industrial metal that sticks inexplicably and immoveable from the sludge. The stand pipes that provide water now stood in such deep mud that no-one on site could possible get clean. I couldn’t find the woman that I had been told to speak too, so I headed for the shelter of a tent with music coming from it.

The end of the tent was curtained off, a friendly bearded man stood in there chopping onions. The rest was taken up with tables and chairs made from pallets. I asked for a coffee; I was told it was Arabic coffee and given a circled finger and thumb signal of recommendation. I sat at a table and a tea pot and a shot glass were brought to me.

A lady with red rimmed eyes was sat at the other table; She asked me for cigarette, where I came from and what I did, then told me everyone calls her Baby because her brothers are all older than her.

“I don’t normally smoke. But in the circumstances.” She laughed a little and made a gesture at the sky. “You like England?” I shrugged. “I liked Ethiopia. But there are problems there.” The coffee was thick and soup like. “I was a lawyer, and thought if I protested about the killing of women then there would be a change.” She shrugged and and shook her head. “Some of my friends that just turned up at the protest started to get sent to prison, some for five years. Maybe it would have been better to stay.” She watched the rain silently pour into the already waterlogged ground of the camp. I asked her if her family were there. “My husband is in Libya, it was very bad there when I left, I was pregnant so he made me go when I could. Even without him. Sometimes I think he might still be alive.” She looked at the ground for a while.

“Do you have trouble raising the baby here?”

“I lost the baby when I was arrested Paris.” She apologised as her shoulders shook slightly. “I have hope because god knows that I am strong.” Her words sped up. “I had a drink some days ago, and was angry because I was weak. God will forgive me if I am strong. I don't know if my husband is alive or dead. There is always hope, but I am lost in the Jungle like everyone else. Baby let me write down what she said and really didn’t care if I took her picture or not.

I headed back to the school and was informed by the woman that I was told to talk to, to talk to the other one, as no-one seemed to be in charge. I agreed politely to return the next day as I was a little exasperated but determined to teach if I could. I was receiving more waves, hellos and friendly shouts of Englishman than I had before as people got used to seeing me around for a little more.

There were very young teenagers hunched around the small tables in the art tent; I drew cartoon landscapes for the others to colour in. I explained to the therapist that I might not be able to teach as I might not have time to organise it. She told me just teach then and there; to the people that were present at the time. I managed to teach my name is and I am from, before a queue started to form outside and they went to see what it was for. Despite the pouring rain a long line had formed: It was for socks and books of the gospel.

Lots of people had retreated under shelter so I went back to the café. Baby was still there, crying quietly. I sat at the only other table, which was also occupied by two boys. They spoke to me about England and asked if the schools were good. They asked if they would be allowed to go to school there, they told me that they had not been to school for a long time. They both looked like they had already been crying.

Michael claimed to be 21, which I would have questioned as a barman, his brother, Sian, to my left was 16. I didn’t know whether brother meant being from the same country, someone one trusts or being actually related, but I had learned within the camp that it made little difference. Sian sat staring at the floor, if I did make eye contact with him he quickly looked away again.

“Why are the English government so cruel?” Michael's voice became louder and he began to cry. “Can I sit on a train in Germany like a human being? Without anyone hitting me?” We cannot go back to Syria, me and my brother cannot go back to Syria, they are still fighting. Me and my brother know that most of our family are dead.” He paused, looked at his brother, who looked at the floor. “We want to go to school and people hit us and spray us." He paused. "I want to sit on a train.” He repeated. “Why do all these things happen?” He genuinely seemed to be asking me. He just sat looking at me; making me wish I had an answer. “You must have hope.” I offered feebly. His whole body slumped and he looked exasperated and at me as though I was mad.

“Where is there hope? Every country should have human rights, where are they?” He sat and looked stunned for a moment. “Where am I?” His face did not expect an answer. They both stood and I asked where they were going.

“To the train station.” I asked them not to get hurt; there didn’t seem a great deal else that I could do. They hadn’t wanted me to take a picture of their faces, but dismissed me taking one as they walked up the track. I looked for them each day at the camp, but never found them again. I doubt very much they made it to the U.K.
Michael and Sian in search of a home.

The following day was incredibly hot and Calais proper had some impressively armoured police swaggering around it; I didn’t pay them more than a passing thought as I headed to the camp.

It was about midday: I was talking with a Syrian who laughed and shrugged as he told me he did not know if he was 21 or 22; Ahmed Kino told me he was hoping to stay in France.

“I have sent off the paperwork.” He did not look overly optimistic. I asked him how he felt about migrants being told to go home. “My home is a hole in the ground, it is gone, and still they fight over it.” He smiled a little and shrugged, even trying to find the humour in this.

“The papers are supposed to take three months aren’t they?” I was curious as I received varying reports, Ahmed looked at me as though I very naive.

“There are many people that have been here longer than that.” He looked at me quizzically: “A whole universe and I am not allowed in some of it. Are these places special? Why are they special?” He looked around the camp distractedly. “I worry though.” He looked at me again. “Sometimes, when people are poor you see the animal in them.”

There was a chattering, near the gate, more quick and active than the normal background atmosphere of the camp. There was a shout from the direction of the underpass and Ahmed and I went to look. The police were on the road of the overpass and on the road to the left leading up to it. There were more in the distance. Ahmed headed back to the camp.

“This won’t help.” He said. “It won’t help me.” He put his hand on my shoulder briefly before heading back into the camp.

Some people were walking up the embankment and blocking the overhead road; I went around the embankment, so was behind a thin line of police who were stood before an equally thin line of protesters. Behind me were many vans with plenty more. A chant of “We are not animals” was clearly audible from where I was.

The number of protesters swelled until there were between thirty and forty, including some of the aid workers that I had previously been speaking to. It escalated and calmed down very quickly; I noticed that people were jumping the fence sliding back down the embankment.

Riot police had approached from the other side sandwiching the thin line of protesters between the authorities, despite the fact that the protesters had not tried to move. A plume of tear gas arose on the right hand side of the road and caught me on the left hand side of the face. I slid into the foliage down the slight incline of the embankment and out of the way.

I went back to the entrance, people were chanting, but none made any further move to occupy the road. Among those having their faces wiped and being told to close their eyes I saw the sixty year old white woman who had made the sharing sign. I spoke to a 41 year old wedding planner from London called Liz; her face was red and I asked if she had been gassed. She hadn’t.

“When the police hit the refugees protected me. I feel quite humble. I wasn’t expecting the police to do that.” She looked very distressed. “Everybody deserves to be happy and safe.” She began to cry again.

I wandered back into the camp and two people from the Sudan asked me what was going on: They were not the only ones. I explained over and over again too many faces that an English minister was inspecting security in the camp but not the camp itself. Most shrugged; I saw none join the protest as a result. Many people were fixing tents and queuing for the hospital as though nothing was happening. The protest remained in the gateway and out of the way for the rest of the day. Thirty to forty people had protested out of a possible three thousand. They had been kept out of the public eye both physically and by being ignored by the media. Despite the poverty, none had shown the animal in them.

On my last day in the camp I had a beer in the café tent and looked for Michael and Sian, but without hope and to no avail. I was walking up past the church and was thinking about leaving for the last time. I heard my name called and I turned.

“You taught me guitar the other day. You remember?”
“Of course. Have you practiced?”
“The owner took it away. Sorry I did not speak much, some days I am sadder than others.”

“Like everyone.” I shrugged. “Are you trying to get to England?” He shook his head. “I have applied for paperwork In France and I never wanted to come here.” I asked how that had happened. “I left Darfur after our car was shot and we crashed, I broke my leg, but we were very lucky. We were not rich, but I had work as a vet, we had food and we were safe. I lived better than this in my country, but they killed my friend and said that they would kill me. So I went to Khartoum, the people of Khartoum don’t like the people of Darfur, in the same way that people of other countries don’t like foreigners.

The police beat me and burned my arms with cigarettes, they told me they knew where I slept and if they saw me they would kill me.” He shrugged. “I had to leave there too. Italy would not help me, nor Greece. You have to move on.” He looked at the floor for a while. “I wish these things had never happened.” He looked as though he might cry. I asked him how he felt about English politicians not trusting the people of the Jungle.

“David Cameron needs to ask himself if there are bad people in the jungle why did they not stay and be bad in Syria, Darfur or Afghanistan, or Iraq? There are plenty of opportunities to be bad people in these places. There is very little that can be done here, good or bad.” He shrugged and looked as though he might cry. I said goodbye to Rashid, he firmly shook my hand and I left the Jungle.

I said at the beginning that I didn’t agree with open door immigration, but that has nothing to do with what is happening in the Jungle. When these people fled Eritrea, the Sudan, Darfur, Syria and Iraq they were refugees and worthy of help. Now they are near our borders, they are migrants and worthy of nothing but contempt.

There are children without enough food, clothing and completely missing their education along with adults who are willing to work, from backgrounds that many English people would struggle to empathise with. They are deep in filth, despondency and an hour from London.

From the protest that most people in the camp didn’t know of and that most people in the U.K never will. As we examine the firmness of the fences and the ferocity of the dogs we force mere children to take risks that we would not wish upon ourselves.

If there is to be pride in your nation, it is to be taken only in the behaviour of the inhabitants themselves; there is no reason not to be proud of your forebears, the actions of your grandmother and father in times of difficulty. The question is only this: would they, and will your grandchildren, be proud of us?

As I button up my shirt and go to work on Monday, I will look at my reflection in the window of the bus as it ponders through suburban Wokingham. As the rainy season approaches what is normal for others simply should not be. If we do nothing but ignore the suffering of the innocents, whatever reason we give, we are the lost people of the western world.

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