South London Photographer: With Just Shelter in Dunkirk & Calais

There seems to be so much upheaval and chaos surrounding us all today, it is very difficult to know how to write about Just Shelter’s trips to France. The team continue to gather donations which people kindly deliver when requested. As always Just Shelter takes everything over to Calais, where they transfer carefully packed boxes and bags filled with the simplest and most basic articles to a warehouse populated by volunteers who give up their time, often for weeks and months on end, in an attempt to help a situation which is seemingly helpless.

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Volunteers in the warehouse mending donations which can still be used

Thereafter the London based group travel to a field where people are living in the most appalling conditions, and try in as orderly a fashion as is possible to hand out much needed and appreciated packs of clothing, perhaps some fruit, whatever token of support they can offer.

**

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I thought the wood had been taken for firewood but I was told the police had deliberately destroyed the bridge

Each time, I aim to engage with people and I hear the same story. “The police slash our tents. They treat us like animals. The scream at us, push us, they don’t give us even five minutes to get our stuff. Then they take us somewhere. Do they think we would choose to leave our country, our homes to live like this if there was not a good reason? We don’t come here to live like this because we want to. We come because we cannot be free. But here we are treated worse than animals. If we can stay in the sports hall [an indoor space where limited numbers of people can shelter during the coldest months], we are like prisoners with so many rules, lining up, being told when we can come or go.” Another came up to me as I listened to the man and asked me if I knew who I was talking to. “Gengis Khan!!” he laughed. We all laughed. Even though it was bitterly cold, even though people are clearly bored, frustrated, desperate, there is time for irony and humour.

 

“Take my picture!” some young men invite me towards the fire they are burning. There is little wood and they are using inappropriate donations of women’s nylon underwear from another group visiting which can be worn by no-one here. I take their photos and then get them to message me so I can send them copies. A pair perform and pose with the female undergarments as I photograph them. We all enjoy the playfulness. A guy selling cigarettes stands nearby and asks me if I want to buy any. I don’t smoke, I tell him. We stand quietly and he lets me photograph his bag filled with well-known brands. “A good man. Cheap!” says one of the other guys who had been photographed earlier as he points to the seller. He then indicates to the barber, “A good man also, cheap haircuts.”

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The barber did not want to be photographed but was happy to speak to me. He made a living giving people affordable haircuts, which sometimes means free.

“I was a manager in a hotel back in my country. I had a good job. A car. A good home. But no freedom. You criticise the government. And within 24 hours you’re dead.”

When I first arrived at the car park where Just Shelter began the process of handing out backpacks, I noticed a boy who might have been in his late teens or early twenties. He sat on the wooden pole and listlessly watched people queuing patiently for the nominal packs we had gathered from people in London. “Don’t you want one, I asked?” He shrugged. He looked liked he could have done with something warmer to wear. They all did.

At the end of the day, Just Shelter travelled to a more disparate camp where there are many more groups of people. We visited the same camp during our previous visit. I had taken some photographs of boys and young men there before and they recognised me. We greeted each other warmly. Despite their smiles and friendliness, this camp feels darker, less safe. I try to engage with others but it is clear they are not willing. I don’t blame them. I head to the site where the old Jungle used to be and take some photographs to of it now so I can compare with the images I took before.

Afterwards, the group head back to get our ferry. I know we will see some of the same faces again next time.

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The area that was the Jungle

 

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The same view as an image taken at the bottom of the page in 2016

 

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When I first visited here in 2015 a man had covered the graffiti up and had become its gatekeeper. This was the first place I arrived and it was packed with tents. Two young women immediately offered me hot tea. The camp held 10 000  at its height. Now the smaller camp nearby is populated by about 300 men.  Variously sized groups are scattered all over the region and beyond making it hard for volunteers to distribute tents, sleeping bags, clothes and food.

 

 

**

While our group were there, another team of teachers had been working with children in a local building where families have been able to shelter for the worst of the winter months. The children were grateful for real lessons and their parents equally so. Please follow Just Shelter if you haven’t already so you can read about the work the teachers were able to do while they visited, and to find out how you can get involved.

(c)SJField 2019

 

South London Photographer: Images and video from Dunkirk

Last week I travelled to Dunkirk with Just Shelter as they delivered donations to various charities based in Northern France. One of the things Just Shelter aims to do is bring some light relief to refugees, whatever their age. On this recent visit, they were joined by Wandsworth-based musician Jake Rodrigues and artist/art teacher Emily Gopaul as well as another teacher, Rosie Gowers. Children temporarily living in a sports hall during the winter months (after pressure was put on on authorities due to extremely low temperatures) had so much fun and then afterwards Jake refereed a football match as only he could. The sports hall, albeit far from ideal, at least keeps people dry and warm but is due to close very soon. As always, thanks to all the people who shared their stories with us.

Click on the 4-minute video below to get a sense of the sort of activities Just Shelter organises or view the photo-essay below. If anyone local to Just Shelter feels they have something practical and positive to offer do get in touch with them for more information or follow them on Facebook. 

Images (c)SJField 2018

 

 

 

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A warehouse in Dunkirk
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There is a field behind a large shopping complex which separates two completely different worlds; commercial on one hand and untenable living conditions on the other
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Just Shelter volunteers
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Relatively few people are able to sleep in the sports hall  – there are reminders that many people don’t get to sleep beneath a roof all around the outside of the hall
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Jake prepares to referee a football match
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I am reminded of my own children constantly

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I am shown a card by someone who had been living in the UK but was deported.
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This wood has been cleared of tents – when I first visited this site it was full of people. They have been moved on constantly and have had to find other patches of land
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There are signs everywhere of the people who used to live here. Often the police simply cut tents down and these remnants are on many trees.
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A dried out posy

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As we leave I wonder how many young people will be getting ready to risk their lives as they attempt to cross the channel in the dark.

 

 

South London Photographer: Dunkirk

Writing about the state of education today, Julian Astle*, of the Royal Society of the Arts, expressed himself so eloquently that I start by quoting his words alongside the latest series of images taken during Just Shelter’s recent trip.

“The root causes of the West’s culture wars are many and complex. But chief among them is the fact we live on a dangerously overheating and ever more densely populated planet where conflict and persecution, flooding and drought and vast inequalities of opportunity and wealth have displaced 65 million people and created a migrant population greater than that of Brazil. Amid the backlash to this unprecedented movement of people from poorer to richer nations, liberalism is in full retreat, while nationalism, nativism and protectionism are all on the rise. And with an angry populist politics on the Right feeding off, and feeding, an intolerant and censorious strain of identity politics on the Left, our ability to transcend our hardwired instinct to tribalism — to put our shared humanity before our group loyalties — is once again being severely tested.” (2017) (Bold lettering mine.)

These photographs show the area in Dunkirk which Just Shelter has been visiting to deliver donations for the last few months. They include an image of a man who said he was beaten by the police who, according to reports, regularly tear down and destroy tents, confiscate belongings and attempt to move people on. He is not the first person to show me such injuries. As we drive to the woods after disembarking from the ferry, we pass several groups of people in and around the area. There are an estimated 1000 people living rough in Calais and Dunkirk according to Care4Calais**. Each time I’ve travelled with Just Shelter I have met people who have lived in the area for over a year, several months and some who have only just arrived.

If you are interested in supporting Just Shelter you can find out how here.

*Director of Creative Learning and Development

** 3000 across France See Care4Calais‘s latest appeal

Images (c)SJField 2017

Reference

Astle, J. 2017. The Ideal School Exhibition, https://medium.com/rsa-reports/the-ideal-school-exhibition-74cee1951c75 [Accessed 26th November 2017]

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South London Photographer: Refugees in Dunkirk with Just Shelter

This morning I read a newspaper headline which suggested it is a delusion to think we are a kind society, and sadly, it does feel more and more difficult to disagree with that sentiment, even if you don’t buy into the writer’s arguments. It doesn’t take long to find examples of behaviour exhibiting an utter lack of empathy; political rhetoric, responses beneath online newspaper articles, or comments on Twitter, for instance, which often demonstrate a callousness that never fails to stun. However, I am able to take comfort from spending time with people who are doing whatever they can, no matter how small it might seem, to contribute positive and empathetic actions in a world that appears increasingly un-empathetic and indifferent to the suffering of others. We may indeed be an unkind society but there are plenty of kind-hearted people from all walks of life out there, including those with virtually nothing to offer.

When I go with Just Shelter to Dunkirk, I am very lucky to be given the freedom to go off and speak with people as I collect stories, and images where possible, from men and women who tell me what it is like to be living in fields, behind supermarkets and next to motorways. I want to repeat some of the reports but I am in two minds about this. I can’t corroborate anything. I’m not a journalist and although I spend what time I can documenting the situation, verifying what I hear would demand resources I don’t have. I am also very aware that few believe much of what they read online anyway. Nevertheless, despite living in an era of intense cynicism, I know that the empathetic amongst you would be appalled by what I am told in Dunkirk.

I am also wary of revealing details about people that would put them in danger. But we need to consider our responsibility as we allow this situation to exist, without proper facilities and processes in place. And so I will write carefully about the reports of police intimidation, of brutality, bribery, extortion. I will describe a man who wanted shoes and a sleeping bag, and whose broken fingers were causing him such pain. Fingers reportedly crushed by police officers forcing him to register in one country when he was desperate go to another, for reasons that we can’t fully understand and therefore can’t make judgments about. Because we don’t know what it’s like to be forced to flee, leave behind jobs, loved ones, our own history, citizenship. I will let you know that traffickers were referred to as ‘the mafia’ by everybody I spoke with; their presence in the camp engenders such fear and suspicion. Or that it reportedly costs €5000 per person to pay someone to smuggle you across the Channel without guarantee of success, and €10 000 if you want to be sure of arriving in the UK. Or that there are rumours of collusion and dodgy deals between various authorities. Or that the police routinely visit the area with knives to destroy and cut down tents, batons to beat people, and dogs to terrify them. ‘Residents’ often mention the aggressive dogs. These are things I have been told about by numerous people specifically during my previous two visits. While in the makeshift camp during the last two journeys I met a barber, an estate agent, a lawyer, a chauffeur, a mechanic, someone who told me he worked with CNN. I met a father of young children, two girls and one boy, whose right arm was horribly bent and disfigured. He told me it had been being broken when he was tortured back home, and not set properly before healing. I met someone fleeing his government, persecuted for his work with human rights. I had philosophical discussions about the meaning of borders, religion and some of our innate animalistic traits. A few of the people I spoke with were in the camp the last time I was there, and one family in particular, I had met in the Dunkirk camp which burnt down earlier this year. Many were new though, fleeing horrors and desperation we in the West can only imagine.

I have been travelling to the area in Northern France since the end of 2015 and it has always seemed hopeless and shocking. But this latest visit somehow seemed more so than ever. We had just a few pair of shoes to hand out, and the sense of panic as our small stock ran low was palpable and frightening at times. The people there really have so little and what is given to them is often taken away by the police soon after, so must be given again. And critically they have no-where to go or to be. No-where. No-one wants them. Many cannot go home. In some cases there is no home to go to. Or it is too dangerous.

I know as I write this that there will be readers who don’t believe any of it, who believe it but say, so what? Or who think, ‘not my problem… we have our own issues.” There are also those who will be appalled and horrified. We humans are difficult creatures. We are frightened and suspicious, some of us damaged beyond repair, some of us sadly born with little hope of ever being able to cope in life, perhaps due to genetics, perhaps to circumstances. There is something very strange going on in our world at the moment, and the sort of damage I’m describing,  which negates or impinges on empathy for others, seems to be driving economic, political and social  agendas in many parts of the world, including our own, leading to world that does seem extremely unkind. And yes, we do have plenty of problems to solve here in the UK too. But dehumanising desperate people who live on our doorstep without ensuring even the most basic of human needs are met, and in effect therefore dehumanising ourselves, will not help us find workable solutions. Surely it will only compound problems in the future.

To those of you who want to know how it is possible to contribute, no matter how insignificant you think it may be (it isn’t incidentally), you can do so by supporting Just Shelter or any one of their associates.  To borrow a phrase, “If you’re not doing something to address the problem, you’re part of the problem.”

Views my own. Images (c)SJField 2017

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An abandoned animal pen and farm house next to the camp show signs of having been used by people for protection against the cold. Most people sleep in the woods trying to avoid detection. Not having a fire to cook or keep warm stops the police from seeing you in the dark.
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A river and lake is used as the bathroom…
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…and the only place to wash clothes.
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This woman has moved her tent since the last time we were there after the police destroyed everything. She has much further to walk with fresh water for her family now.

 

 

South London Photographer: Dunkirk

Yesterday at 6am I set off with Wandsworth based organisation Just Shelter heading for Dunkirk to deliver donations to families living in and around the area. Since the demolition of the Calais camp (the Jungle) last year and the burning of the official Dunkirk camp, there is nowhere for people to be. People are still arriving nevertheless, or being ejected from one country and sent back to another only to be rejected by them too. So, as predicted by charities and media, there are now smaller unofficial camps springing up and life is unimaginably hard for anyone living there. Just Shelter have published a moving and informative account of our time in Dunkirk, which describes very well some of the challenges people face as well as the woefully inadequate provision just about being allowed in.

Here are a selection of images from yesterday. As always I have avoided revealing any individual identities due to potential risks to people escaping terror.

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When we arrive a midday meal has been delivered and people are queuing. This process is often disrupted by police and for a long while until recently could only be done illicitly.
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This is the only way to wash and this contraption has just recently arrived.  Four to 6 people can fit at a time, although there are an estimated 600 people staying here. Sixteen hundred people are believed to be living this way in the Dunkirk area.
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We spoke to a number people who had just arrived here with absolutely nothing to their names. Sleeping bags and blankets are handed out by Care4Calais wherever possible, but there are nowhere near enough tents for everyone, so many people must sleep with no cover at all.
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I took this photograph in a wood where a small group of families were sheltering.
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There is nothing to do here but sit and wait
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The surreal manicured motorway landscape is changed by the people who find themselves trapped here.

After we had been in the camp for a couple of hours we went to the nearby supermarket with two truly amazing young women, who have been supporting people. There we bought some additional provisions with money donated by residents of Wandsworth.

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These women are extremely generous with their time, guiding and supporting us. Read more in the Just Shelter blog.
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Just Shelter volunteers making sure the people we had spoken to in the camp receive what they have asked for.
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Just Shelter funds are used to buy small parcels of treats for children living in the camp.

 

After our visit to the supermarket we return to the camp and hand out parcels as well provide activities for the children.

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There are several families struggling to exist in the area we visit.
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Blankets are laid out above a stream to collect and filter water.
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A man I met wanted me to see where and how he lives. As we walk to his tent he talks of beheadings, his own injuries and lost family members.
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In this section of the woods I am told about police brutality, suspicion of corruption between various authorities, heavy-handed threats from smugglers and again, the loss of family members. Most of the time I get on with my job, but it is more difficult when someone describes how they lost their daughter in a bomb blast, and how he, his wife and their two surviving children nearly suffocated in a lorry.
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Staying connected is critical. So many people I spoke to asked me if I have a charger. There were electric points availabe in the camp that burnt down but here it is only available sometimes and not everyone is able to make use of the generators that arrive.
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At certain times in the day someone (not official) brings electricity. This image was taken on my previous visit.
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I spend time talking to various people and am reminded of the links people have. These mementoes are significant to the person wearing them as they are gifts from family he has left behind.
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Not everyone has tents but those who do are grateful. It rained heavily the night before we visited.
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I am careful to avoid identities.
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Camp fires burn all day keeping people warm and will certainly be needed by evening time. On the day we are visiting, despite being August, we feel the chill later when we wait for our ferry.
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By the time we leave a second meal has been delivered. I am always overawed by the charity that provide these meals. It is run entirely by volunteers and one of the most positive aspects of this ongoing situation.
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As we drive to get our ferry back to the UK I think about all the people we have spoken to during the day. Many, many talked of police dogs attacking them, one man showed me a video of himself being held in a van as he watched the ferry leave Calais port. Another man told me how he was restrained with four belt-like contraptions in the UK and shows me the marks left on his body. His companion tells me how he was hit in the eye by UK border police. Some people have broken limbs and there are sick children. And without fail, each person I spoke to told me about the loss of family members, or their homes, and their desperate desire to live in safety. Every time I drive past this extraordinarily expensive fence near Calais, I think about how the money could have been spent helping people fleeing wars and climate change instead of turning this part of Northern France into a strange prison landscape.

 

All images (c)Sarah-Jane Field 2017

South London Photographer: Dunkirk

I was incredibly pleased Just Shelter invited me to accompany them on Saturday to the Dunkirk Refugee’s Children Centre again, and I’m grateful to all involved for allowing me to document the day. Since first going to the Jungle in Calais in December 2015 I have been mindful of respecting people’s privacy and have avoided posting images of recognisable faces online. However, a part of me really wishes I could share more of the images I took this weekend, but of course safe-guarding means that isn’t possible. If it were you would see children just like yours and mine, playing, laughing and enjoying a fantastic day. We are all used to seeing some incredibly powerful images in the news, as journalists cover the crisis, but often those images emphasise and re-inforce difference. During all of my trips to northern France I have tried to focus on aspects which I recognise as deeply human regardless of any of the categorisations we apply to each other. For example, an innate creative response in all and every social group. This morning, as I looked through and edited photos from Saturday, it was extremely clear the children I photographed in Dunkirk and those I might be employed to capture in south London are exactly the same. Although the former aren’t living surrounded by all that we take for granted, they are just kiddies doing what kids do. The people who set up and run the Children’s Centre in Dunkirk have done a fantastic job making that a possibility.

If I could show some of those other photos I took, the ones with faces, you would see joy in the smiles of the girls who had been singing and dancing to Let it Go from Frozen several times, just like my friends’ daughters might have done, before playing All About That Bass as loudly as they were allowed to. You’d see the eager faces of toddlers who enjoy showing off artwork or toys they are particularly fond of. And perhaps you’d be able to recognise and connect with the physicality of the little boy who skipped through the camp in exactly the same way my own four-year-old son does routinely. The delicious hysterical laughter triggered by Earlsfield based performer, Jake Rodrigues, was, as always, wonderful to hear. Perhaps one of the best things from the day was the genuine, utterly spontaneous laughter from so many young children, and we were rewarded with plenty of it. Jake thoroughly entertained everyone, including a journalist who insisted on joining him with a guitar he somehow found during the second half of the day, which led to an impromptu mini-gig for all. I’d hope that rather than difference my photos would show you how very similar we all are. But even though we had such a lovely time the seriousness of the situation could not and should not be ignored. For instance, you can’t help but notice the rashes and bites some children have on their skin, an inevitable and common problem in refugee camps, as it would be for anyone living in cramped conditions without adequate facilities. I have nothing but admiration for any parent living under such conditions while bringing up their children.

During our time in Dunkirk, it was very hard to conceive of anyone wishing those children harm, or of being unable and unwilling to offer sanctuary; yet there they are, stuck with their families in a refugee camp that is woefully inadequate, despite being a far cry from the first Dunkirk camp, shut down last year. The officials who allowed the current camp to be built have done so with some risk to their political careers and should be applauded for that at least. Even so, families are in dire circumstances and the help they receive is deeply appreciated. I know Just Shelter and the Children’s Centre have expressed their huge thanks for all support they receive.

Just Shelter are hosting a coffee morning on 10th March in Earlsfield at 9.15am to raise awareness, garner any further interest and help, as well as raise funds or donations. I will be giving a short talk and showing some more photographs from my various trips to the area. Please get in touch if with me or Just Shelter if you are interested. Numbers are limited so don’t leave it too late.

Best, SJ

Views my own.

Images (c)SJField 2017

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South London Photographer: With Just Shelter in Calais and Dunkirk

Yesterday I visited what was the Jungle in Calais. It was chilling to see. Here are just a few images from our short time there. After we left the demolished camp we visited another camp, founded with a greater degree of state-empathy than was evident in The Jungle. We met an amazing school teacher who has devoted her time for the past several months to taking care of extremely traumatised children in Dunkirk. She works under truly difficult conditions fulfilling a crucial full-time voluntary role. She was an inspirational human being. Just Shelter, the organisation I accompanied, will be  aiming to raise funds in the next few weeks to support her and the charity she heads up, Dunkirk Refugee Children’s CentreAs well as documenting we also delivered food needed for the Dunkirk site and learned about plans to feed people who are now living on the streets in and around Calais as well as in Paris. The Jungle may have been bulldozed. The issues have by no means disappeared. Look out for updates from Just Shelter in the coming weeks.

I have documented the area in Calais which was known as the Jungle periodically for a year and you can see more images here.

(c)Images SJField 2016

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