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Countering Inhumanity with Acts of Kindness Amidst Sub-Zero Temperatures

Calais, November 30th – December 1st, 2017

This week’s work took place against the backdrop of ongoing and disturbing CRS police abuses in freezing cold temperatures. There had been shootings earlier in the week, and an unsettled atmosphere as we arrived to deliver our work. Workers expressed their dismay that nothing has been put in place in advance of the cold weather coming: the French State apparently waits for it to be -5 before it does anything.

The inhumanity in the way refugees are being treated by State and police is in direct contrast to the valiant and enduring efforts from the organisations on the ground to support, counter and protest against this. It also contrasts with the individuals we work with who manage to express grace and humanity towards each other, in spite of what they encounter.


HOSTEL Our friend in the homeless hostel shared with us a situation in which he had stepped in to calm a fight and then recommended some positive changes that could take place in the hostel to ease the boredom and relentless tedium of the average day of those living out the winter there. We were deeply moved by his intelligence and compassion in his neighbours’ predicament in spite of his own struggles, and we were ourselves bolstered to step back out into the cold.

DISTRIBUTION POINT The location of the distribution near the old ‘jungle’ camp is probably at the windiest and most physically hostile place possible. The Calais winds were indeed bitter. Hundreds of individuals are still living outside with no shelter and nightly have their bedding and belongings removed at force.

Individuals asked us: why is this happening to us, who is putting us in this situation? As a Secours Catholique worker put it, ‘they can’t understand: different thoughts become quite muddled up.’

The Medecins du Monde psychologist had earlier told us that police violence, journeys from home and the freezing cold are everyday issues spoken about in her psychology van.

As we shivered together around the outdoors table for three physically uncomfortable hours, young men joined us to have similar conversations, one or two angry and at their wits end. Others managed to make or draw houses, remember favourite meals and recount recipes. One young man sat for the whole afternoon, building his own house then helping to build another. In spite of the thick gloves he was wearing, we were struck by the immense delicacy and patience he exhibited, along with his warmth and good humour.

FRIDAY At the Secours Catholique meeting we were once again impressed by the team’s ongoing capacity to respond with huge dignity towards the refugees in the Calais area.

This team wants to work in dialogue with refugees they encounter so as to support getting the culture of what they offer fit for purpose. Several forms of collective protest and means to bring the police to account were discussed. One nun also spoke of the importance to remember different networks and contacts, such as other nuns doing this work across Europe.

We ourselves spoke about the cold, and the police tactic of removing clothing and bedding in these conditions as acts of criminality. Active and sustained sleep deprivation is indeed a form of torture, and we spoke about the need to actively engage with these issues in the public domain so that they are not hidden. We also introduced to the team British sculptor Ian Wolter who will be working on a collaborative project over the next few months.

At the meeting the father of the Safe House spoke about recent visits from two British bishops who put out an appeal to the UK government and the Catholic press to act in response to the human rights violations they had witnessed. He also spoke about an open evening at the house earlier in the week at which 35 people came to dinner and other positive news.

SAFE HOUSE The afternoon session got off to its usual gentle start but quickly the table was filled with Eritrean and Ethiopian churches and homes, drawings and warm interactions as 8 or so teenagers joined us. As is the culture that has been developing in our work here over the past year, the session ended with lighting, photography and film – a warm, supportive atmosphere in which play is possible and creative periods of absorption are gifted by the teenagers to themselves and each other.

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