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Dimensions of space, place and time

Calais - March 5-6, 2020

CONTEXT This week, the threat of the coronavirus added a new dimension. On top of people’s vulnerability about where to sleep, keeping warm, police hostility, the torrential rain and cold, now the virus was carrying its own weight of fact and myth and with it the further potential for the refugee population to be ostracised as ‘carriers’ of dangerous things.

This week, the twentieth anniversary of Secours Catholique’s project supporting refugees in the Calais area was marked with a series of events, including a carved stone plaque honouring all those who have lost their lives on the border during this timeframe.

THURSDAY DAY CENTRE This week, the medical team was understaffed and therefore could not take the mobile clinic out. Instead we worked across the afternoon in the Secours Catholique day centre. The doors were opened at 12.30 and there was a surge of wet bodies coming in out of the cold and rain. Notices about the virus were up on doors and windows with the same advice given to this transient population and associated organisations as for the rest of France.

Before we had finished placing the various boxes of bricks on the table, a group of men sat down and started to build. There seemed to be an instinctual, urgent, even visceral desire to build shelter - the intensity of which we haven’t seen since 2017 when we worked in another outlying day centre in Calais and homelessness was at another critical level, soon after the closure of the large camp. The building settled into a rhythm of its own with various styles and scales of structure.

We had a book by Olafur Eliasson and another of timeless black and white photographs of crossing the Sahara. Both aided conversation about space, place and time. Dimensions were discussed: ‘What is 2, 3, 4, 5, up to 10 dimensions? Look it up!’ We also had a small selection of precious stones and broken sculptural maquettes on the table which sparked conversation and curiosity - two men spending time sniffing the rocks, trying to work out together whether they carried a smell; we thought: from home, imagination, the bowels of the earth?

FRIDAY We drove twice to the tented area where people are living to try to fathom the reconfiguration of the current living conditions for ourselves. We were shocked by the new fenced off areas into which people seem to be penned in, or perhaps it was to keep them out? There were long lines of pop up tents strapped to the fence itself, no doubt against the wind. Puddles were deep and wide in the morning but by evening the sun was out and the rain water less evident.

The day centre was hosting an interagency workshop on state violence and therefore our timetable was once again changed. We took the opportunity to Interview an asylum seeker who is volunteering for Secours Catholique, asking him about his experience of our work. He described how, sitting at The Community Table for fifteen minutes, could allow him to become immersed in a world of something other that gave him a different dimension. ‘Time’ he said ‘plays out in Calais in different ways.’

Miriam Usiskin and Bobby Lloyd

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