Borders and buffer zones

This morning we found large man-made mounds of sand used as sea defences on the stretch of beach opposite the hotel where we stayed; and further banks of sand used to create a buffer zone around the Calais refugee camp as we entered for the day.

We were then told of the particular difficulties experienced by the MSF medical team who spoke of high tensions in the camp; people are exhausted. It’s been another challenging week: the buffer zone has been extended and a church and mosque bulldozed without warning; an Afghani teenager is unaccounted for; violence from far right groups has led to several people being hospitalized. This has raised fear and stress.

It was a quiet morning with three anxious-looking boys here with their father while their mother is still in Afghanistan. The day gathered pace with 30 men and teenage boys from midday; and at 4.00pm a mother and two young sons trying on shoes with MSF staff and delightedly carrying away portable art bags.

While there was an absorbed and supportive atmosphere throughout the session, it was at times difficult to follow what people were saying, even with MSF interpreters, an incoherence somehow linked to anxiety and exhaustion. Several men sat quietly in the warm portacabin space or rested their heads in their arms to sleep, describing broken nights in uncomfortable, cold and even flooded tents or shelters.

Today there were several drawings made of home and politics including political violence and police brutality, the latter mirrored in the camp; one young man showing us his broken hand caused by a police baton. Waiting for the doctor he simply said, “what can I do?”

After months of working on collective world maps, we today marked up a grid for a large scale map of North Africa, Europe and the Middle East, the countries where the vast majority of people in the camp have come from or travelled through. Anna spent three hours with one teenager, transcribing the country masses from a smaller world map. This helpfully framed the space, with others drawing individual maps of their own country; examining atlases or engaging together in discussion about country boundaries. There were for example a number of men from Kurdistan – north, south, east and west – but with no drawn identity on the printed map and yet an internalised sense of their own country boundary, there was room for opposing views, resulting in distortion on the large map due to differing perspectives. This led to respectful requests for them to be redrawn accurately. At the end of the day, after the session, we needed to review, erase country boundaries and re-shape countries as best we could with the help of the MSF interpreters. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the UK was drawn larger proportionately than any other country, so much the focus of people’s longing to be settled here.

The entire project felt hugely symbolic – it was difficult to mark up, we felt a responsibility in getting it right because it connected with people’s deep sense of who they are.

The day ended on a high as we walked back into the camp. We were excitedly met by Zimako, a camp resident for the past ten months who proudly showed us around the new centre he has built with friends: a children’s school and playground, an adult school, a medical room, and accommodation, including kitchen and shower, for visiting teachers and nurses – due to officially open tomorrow.

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