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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.