Echo Chambers and Poetic Waves

CALAIS – JANUARY 25-26, 2018

This week in Calais has been difficult for everyone, compounded by heavy rains, closed shelters, and the echo chambers of rumour and politics. At our meeting with Médecins du Monde we discussed the large influx of new arrivals in the wake of the Macron visit to Calais last week, and his subsequent meeting with Theresa May. This includes a large number of minors and around 30 women who have arrived from Eritrea and Ethiopia. Much of this upsurge in numbers has been prompted by rumours about safe passage to the UK which have quickly proved to be unfounded. The state-run night shelter was opened for 4 nights last weekend and has since been closed with long queues, shortages of food, frayed tempers, and increasingly violent police tactics.

THURSDAY HOSTEL During a gathering around the bedside, a distressing rejection from the Home Office was shared and followed by circular discussions about what next – in a context in which both the French and British governments seem to be running unfathomable asylum systems. This loop was however able to be shifted by a rich and moving discussion about value, ethics and the empowerment made possible through sharing of alternative dialogues, such as those attempted in these Facebook posts.

DAY CENTRE In the large Day Centre space, there must have been over one hundred people dispersed across tables and engaged in charging phones, playing board games and music-making. Several men joined us to build, sculpt or – as one man put it – simply play. There were beautiful shared endeavours and interest in each other’s work, several others coming to the table to discuss, support or advise.

The atmosphere in the room was generally upbeat, but also charged: an announcement at 3.00pm that the police were clearing people’s belongings from their temporary sleeping places resulted in a third of the room emptying in a matter of minutes. We left for the distribution point soon afterwards.

DISTRIBUTION We arrived to a fraught atmosphere with multiple shots of tear gas fired by the police, outbreaks of fighting and a number of people coming up to us shocked, distressed and confused. It wasn’t possible to set up our map and table with Médecins du Monde as it was too unsafe, and the various other organisations had left or were leaving.

We decided instead to visit the vast Calais beach and its imposing series of World War II bunkers. Walking towards the last one which appeared to have emerged out of a massive bowl in the sand, we saw that it had a concrete wing that cantilevered into space as if floating above the ground. And then we heard the ECHO coming off the wing – a clear and magnificent echo of the waves crashing onto the beach behind us. We were mesmerised by the beauty of this sound in this bunker setting and moved by the graffiti and oil stains on the wing that looked to us like figures on a boat at sea.

FRIDAY SECOURS CATHOLIQUE MEETING At the morning meeting there were several circular discussions about police tactics, and how to counter these. We also heard shocking news that a police flash ball or gas cylinder had seriously injured a young refugee, causing the loss of an eye and permanent disfigurement.

SAFE HOUSE There has been much sadness, disbelief and grief in the house this week due to the family and neighbours of the teenager who was killed on the motorway earlier this month staying in the house while they organise the dead brother’s affairs. The atmosphere was therefore more subdued and heavier than usual. Within this however we spent a gentle afternoon drawing alongside a small group of young men – a hillside in Ethiopia, the Calais beach and a portrait of Tower Bridge. We discussed the phenomenon of echoes and shared the beautiful sound of the sea clearly heard on the concrete bunker wing.

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