Syrian artist Nizar Ali Badr depicts the refugee crisis.
I recently spent a brief week volunteering in an encampment for displaced people – migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees – in Calais, France. What follows is the first of a few short blog posts in which I aim to connect my experience to an exploration of a spiritual-ecological view of this seemingly anthropocentric crisis. The beginning may be a bumpy in this regard but I’ll get there with a bit of a warm-up, I hope.
I traveled to Calais from Southwest England, where I had been living and doing a work-exchange at Schumacher College . Me and a small group of caring women, a farmer, a Steiner teacher, and a gardener, left on a chilly morning and returned about a week later with decidedly expanded perspectives. Still limited of course, by brevity and privilege.
On that note, there’s something I want to acknowledge: with the barest glimpse of a complex constellation of human-ecological tragedy and resilience, I write from a very privileged social position: as a white, middle-class, Settler-Canadian woman. Unlike the many displaced people in our world, I’ve never encountered the persecution, violence and tragedy that at least 60 million displaced people now endure. Their resilience is incredible. I hope to represent my experience in a manner that honours those I encountered in what’s known as the Calais “Jungle”.
And so my story opens in England, after our return from France, when I began to reflect more fully on and write about my experience. After this brief intro, my narrative journeys back to describe events in the Jungle interwoven with my learning about the situation. Learning about the migrant and refugee situation in Calais and beyond is new learning for me, and so I encourage you to respond to this post with your own knowledge and understanding in order to create a fuller picture.
It’s late winter in southwest England and rain has been a loyal companion to both day and night. January’s storms live on the land through the archetypes of air – wind – and water – rain – reminding me why the ancient forces of ocean-and-earth are the gods of old. During the winter, I have often watched outside my window as sturdy once-leaved trees are shaken from trunk to tip of branch. Just as often I have felt an easy gratitude for the comfort of those indoor moments. I’ve sat with a tinge of guilt for my glad domestication, and for my feet, warm and dry within socks and walls. Now that tinge is mixed with humble awe, as I think back to an old landfill site 5 kilometres from the centre of a city on the Northern edge of France; a place I found myself working as a first aid volunteer.
An Ode to Socks in the Jungle
“You need socks!” exclaimed Leila, a nurse from Paris, sweetly admonishing the young man seated on a bench across from her in the first aid caravan. “And a scarf. You must stay warm, tadaffa’a, tadaffa’a”. She emphasized the Arabic word for warm. He nodded. I looked down at his feet, bare inside sneakers. I rustled about in a cardboard box, and pulled out a pair of men’s dress socks. They were one of the few large pairs we had. But they were too thin. After years of treeplanting in Northern parts of Canada amidst vast wetlands – the boreal forest is replete with bogs atop some of the most ancient rock on Earth – I have a keen appreciation for good quality, thick socks. I could write a love letter to socks. An ode to socks is especially relevant in the Calais Jungle, where warmth is desperately needed.
Like southwest England and Vancouver, it rains a lot in Calais. When I first arrived in the Jungle, I was struck by the enormous puddles of water and pathways of muck that line makeshift streets, requiring the displaced people living there to inevitably get their feet wet. At the location of the first aid caravans – my job site – a veritable moat, littered with plastic waste, spread out in all directions. Steve, an epidemiologist from Scotland – a chap keenly familiar with rain – spent his volunteer days engineering trenches with a shovel. “Ay, I’m working on ya problem” he’d said to Leila and I, “I’m hoping to put doon gravel, but d’ya know I’ve got to put me shovel to draining water at peoples’ tents thare”. Despite Steve’s best efforts, the problem was stubborn and the equipment inadequate. Water returned as rain to gather in enormous mucky puddles with seemingly infinite determination. I couldn’t help but imagine an excavator and a focused crew of folks making short work of Steve’s repetitive labour. But nothing seemed easy in the Jungle in winter, where dry ground, dry feet and the right equipment were elusive. As the days progressed I came to see how good socks – well deserving of poetic praise – were a kind of symbol for basic comfort and conditions that largely lacked it. As drying facilities in the Jungle are non-existent, people often simply do without socks, or carry on with wet ones. But it’s cold in early January, and dry, covered feet are a vital part of staying warm and well. This is to say nothing of the need for a warm and dry place to sleep.
The Calais Jungle has been notorious for disastrous conditions. A recent environmental health report written by researchers at the University of Birmingham details them: desperately inadequate levels of toilets; contaminated water; poor shelter; standing waste of all kinds; the threat of physical assaults upon migrants by police, fear of sexual violence for the small number of women in the camp. While I observed these conditions ‘on the ground’, I had to dig into others’ reporting to find out the Jungle’s decades-long history. And to gain a better understanding about why French and EU governments, and the UN, have been so waylaid in response to this growing crisis – and a shantytown beneath a motorway – in the midst of a developed city.
A Brief History
In the evening and minutes from the city’s only hostel, the Port of Calais blazes with industry. Across the English Channel, the Port of Dover matches with its own blink and twinkle. Calais is a mere 60 kilometres away from Dover, and its close proximity to England has made it a major port for centuries. Indeed, its 17th century heritage as a smuggling port holds true today. Many migrants camp on the very edge of this land because they seek to smuggle themselves across the English Channel and land safely in England. This has been happening for years and years.
In 1999, a refugee camp for asylum seekers arriving largely from Iraq and Afghanistan was opened by the French Red Cross in the seaside town of Sangatte – less than 1 km from the entrance to the Eurotunnel between France and England (about 10 km from Calais). Contested from the beginning, Sangatte closed in 2002 due to conflict between the British and French governments over responsibility for border control. Since 2002, hundreds and thousands of migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees from Africa, Afghanistan and the Middle East, have continued to gather around Calais, settling on unoccupied land in as many as 9 encampments. According to The Guardian, the ‘Calais Jungle’ or simply the ‘Jungle’ is the largest encampment. The Jungle has grown nearly exponentially over the past year, as more and more people flee armed conflict, persecution and poverty. As many as 5000 people now live there, waiting to smuggle themselves or hoping for resettlement. Women and children represent only a small minority of people in the camp: 80 – 90% are men, mostly young men traveling alone, like Ami, a 24 year old student from Syria.
Syrians in Calais urging UK to accept them, November 2014, (Bauke Schram, IBTimes UK).
Leila and I met Ami on our second day volunteering in the camp. We were out walking its muddy makeshift streets, familiarizing ourselves with its geography and searching for the Médecins Sans Frontières clinic, a place we frequently referred our first aid caravan clients. Ami was gregarious, and immediately offered to help with Arabic-English translation. “Take my number” he insisted, scribbling on a scrap of paper, “and I’ll come when I can”. His English was excellent. We called the next day but he was busy building the wooden frame and pallet structure that would serve as his living and sleeping quarters. He had been living in a bargain basement tent – akin to the state of peoples’ socks, those who had socks, that is – for 3 months until that point. At last, supplies and volunteers were adequate to provide him a warmer, drier, temporary home.
After those years of treeplanting and living in a tent in all weather, I had a tiny glimmer of how it must have been for many people in the camp, sleeping night after night on cold and wet ground. But the ground they sleep on is not only cold and wet but also polluted. The Calais Jungle is located on an old landfill site. It’s what is known as a “Seveso site”, an industrial area classified as low or high threshold based on the type and amount of pollutants present. While the camp itself is apparently in a low-medium threshold site, it is next door to several chemical factories classified as high threshold. Not the most environmentally hospitable of places.
While treeplanting, I spent nights sleeping atop ripped up ground amidst kilometres of stumps. The violence of that clear-cut scene, likely felt in my body in ways I wasn’t even aware of, is something comparable to the wasteland of the polluted ground beneath and around the Jungle. The land and the other-than-humans that inhabit it have been damaged and desecrated in the interests of industrial production and consumption in a comparable manner. But of course, life in the Jungle for a migrant is an altogether different thing than the life of a treeplanter. The struggle to live and sleep on that land made itself apparent in the sickness that I saw at the first aid caravans (I’ll speak to this in a later post).
Listening to Place
Perhaps it was the bleak weather of January. Or the greyness of Calais’ industrial cityscape, razed to the ground during World War II. Likely it was the knowledge that thousands of displaced people are trying to survive in a polluted, cold and wet shantytown on the outskirts of this developed city. Whatever it was, I did not feel a welcome from the city nor from the land there. The mood of the place was grim; the suffering of humans and of the land seemed to speak as one complex living being. According to Craig Chalquist, “when [a] human system joins with those [parts] that characterize a place – its ecology, its geology, its plants and animals, its history and architecture, politics and artwork – we face a truly complex ‘presence of place’ we must understand on its own terms.” In the next blog post, I will explore the ‘presence of place’ of the camp in Calais, and aim to dive more into story and ecology.
In the meantime, I am grateful for warm feet and good socks; for the luck to sleep in a clean and warm bed tonight. I hold knowledge of the migrant situation in the Jungle, and my conflicting reality, in my imagination to stay connected and to remember my steps into acting in a good way.
 Dhesi, S., Isakjee, A., & Davies, T. (2015). An environmental health assessment of the new migrant camp in Calais. University of Birmingham.
 ‘At night it’s like a horror movie’ – inside Calais’s official shantytown. Angelique Chrisafis, The Guardian, 6 April 2015. Retrieved 10 February 2015.
- Ami is a pseudonym to protect anonymity