The "Jungle" in Calais

"What will become of them?”

The stories of a small group of Londoners who visited the refugee slum on the French coast. From the surprise of a simple "welcome" to lunch together. But now the bulldozers have begun dismantling everything...

The decision was in the air. And it came. The court in Lille, northern France, has issued the order to dismantle the "jungle", as they have nicknamed Calais refugee camp, where migrants are waiting for the best opportunity to leave for Britain. Four thousand people, probably more, are being invited by French police officers to leave the barracks, while two bulldozers have already started tearing everything down. A few days ago, a small group of young people and a few adults from London were in the French town on the coast of the Channel. Here is what they wrote on their way back.

I had not been able to keep up with all the news about the refugee crisis, so I had no idea what to expect, I was simply open to dealing with the situation, whatever it was, willing to help them in any way I could. So when I took my first look at the huge "jungle" of the refugee camp with all its graffiti, mud and squalor, I really expected the worst. I began to feel a bit terrified at the idea of entering a camp full of desperate people, who had risked everything to get to England. But I was still open to reality, so I followed Fr. Pepe and Anna, who were leading us, having already been there. On the contrary, I soon realized that there was really no reason for fear: in fact, all the inhabitants of the camp were absolutely welcoming, friendly and very human, very far from the typical figure of the refugee portrayed by the media. This was the first big thing that struck me: the fact that those people were exactly like us, they were trying to make the most of the time they spent there. And in fact, in a small impromptu restaurant where we had lunch, there was a poster that said: "We are not dangerous... We are in danger". So, knowing that all those people were extremely welcoming, I felt really safe, even safer than in places more open to the public, like the City of London, as if these people had already accepted us into their community. A community that seemed so fraternal and supportive, probably one of the few places in the world where Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Jews live absolutely at peace in such close proximity and promiscuity. When we asked a refugee from Sudan, named Sadiq, if he was a Christian, he told us that it did not matter, that for him they were all the same and he thought that everyone believed in the same God. What really surprises me is the impression that all of them, sharing the same reality, seem to embrace it together. You could also see it from some graffiti: on one of the huts made of rags there was the inscription: "we are strong together" and also "truth, love and unity". It is so incredible: having no other distractions in life, they can see the truth more clearly, that the important thing is to help each other and tell the world the truth. But, of course, I did not only have positive thoughts: many of them had been there for three or five months. Which means three or five months without a proper shower. Five months in the same clothes, five months without any real certainty of entering the UK. Five months in which, if you get muddy, you stay muddy until they give you new clothes; there is no proper medical care, but the worst of all is living in a jungle of 6,000 people without any help from the government: all they have is a series of forced begging gestures. These people are really brave to still be so happy and full of hope in such a situation. I would have liked to help them all, but what little I could do by passing through the crowd was to give them a big smile, to try to show them that they are not forgotten by everyone; but how can a few sacks of potatoes be enough to help 6 thousand people, including at least 300 defenceless and homeless children. Tomorrow perhaps many of them will be snatched from their shacks, evicted from the "jungle" just as happened six times already to Sadiq. What will happen to these people? They could be crammed into white containers, without ever being able to see the white cliffs of Dover! I do not think the British Government understands these people, who are certainly not a threat; but the depressing thing is that, in the mass of millions of refugees, at least 6,000 of them could have a secure future in the UK within a week, if our government would allow it. This expedition has been a wonderful and moving experience for me, an opportunity for my faith to grow. I hope I have not been too protracted, confused or ungrammatical, as I have lost my notes.

In the Eurotunnel, on the way back from visiting the refugee camp, my brain had not yet fully processed what I had just witnessed. These people, these structures they call houses, the experiences they shared with me, are all real. Very real. It is difficult to understand, because the speed of the situation you are in does not allow you to grasp it deeply until you have time to look back and reflect. Reflect upon what you saw and heard. Every person we met never failed to smile or greet us with a "Hello!" or a "Welcome!". It was really hard to understand. After so much suffering, separated from loved ones, forced to abandon their homeland and everyday life and end up in such a tragic and desperate situation, how could they still be so welcoming? Much more welcoming than anyone you meet in everyday life. During that whole day in the "jungle" we had the opportunity to talk to many different people, and everyone recounted their experiences very openly. But one story struck me most of all. It is the story of a young man named Sadiq. He told us how he came from Sudan after a long journey, and Calais was not the first refugee camp where he found refuge. The "jungle" was the sixth camp where he has lived, and he had reached every camp he had stopped at on foot. On foot, for hundreds and hundreds of miles. Sadiq explained to us that when he talks to people who come from Sudan, no one really realizes how serious the situation there is. He tells us again: "Everyone is always worried about Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, but they know nothing about the atrocities that are happening in my country". He also showed us an image of the conditions in which he lived in Sudan. In the picture his ankles were chained. He had been chained by his government, then somehow managed to escape and now he was in Calais. The hospitality of all the inhabitants of the camp was incredible. Every time we passed a makeshift restaurant, or a ramshackled shop, everyone who was there shouted at us, "Hello! Welcome, come in!". I will repeat it again: even though the conditions in which they live are desperate and sincerely disgusting, they are a very proud community that has never lost its sense of welcome. Speaking of this camp in this way, perhaps I am giving the impression that the refugees are in a good situation. Believe me, they are not. The fact that these people appear so happy on the outside, despite their situation, leaves me with great concern about what is really going on in their heads. Are they really doing that well? And this smile on their faces, is it also in their hearts? Or perhaps these smiles they are addressing us are just fearless smiles, simply a way to react to the atrocities they are experiencing today? It is simply impossible to imagine the conditions in which these people live without seeing them with their own eyes. It is only by seeing all this live, in front of me, that I really understand how desperate their situation is. Seeing these people suffering, deprived of all the essential services that I normally take for granted in my life, generates in me a desperate desire to help them. I desperately desire to be able to go back there, to meet the refugees in the camp one by one, to talk to them, to listen to them, to give them some kind of relief. I know that it is not possible, and yet this is an incredibly strong need that I feel inside me.

In the relatively short time since my last visit I had almost forgotten the warmth and openness of the camp's refugees. Their smiles. More dirt, more mud, more mud. I was happy to see the beautiful little church still standing, but for how much longer? You can clearly see that lately the French authorities' intention is to dismantle the camp, piece by piece, leaving only the cold, aseptic white prison-like containers, safe behind the fences, the only shelter left for the refugees. The containers placed here and there in a dirty parking lot, monotonous rows lined with large white metal boxes. If the refugees move in here, what will become of them? Calm now reigned in the camp, no police in riot gear or armed with tear gas like last time. I wonder if it will still be like this next Monday, if the bulldozers will really come into the camp and raze everything to the ground as planned. I pray it will not. I simply feel powerless, desperate and angry because these poor human beings have nowhere to go, and I wonder what will become of them.