Our friend was up, seated on his bed and engaged in drawing a mosque when we arrived. He responded to the energy that we brought with us as we talked about the morning’s Hung Parliament. Others joined and we talked together about politics of hope and change, and about weather. They told us that Calais has had the same wild winds and rain as the UK this week, and they were worried about the unaccompanied minors having to sleep outside in all weathers with no shelter. These teenagers are so exhausted that they literally prop each other up, depleted, barely able to function.
These men acknowledged how lucky they are to have a safe warm place to stay even if the hostel has many frustrations and they are enduring such long periods in limbo. There were not enough chairs to go around with seven gathering across the hour in the room, so two of the men sat on the floor while we all drew, looked at postcards and spent time together.
Today, most of the teenagers and men were from Afghanistan. Several told us they had lived in the UK throughout their teenage years but had been deported by the British government back to Afghanistan and were trying to make their way back to join family and friends in the UK. One boy had been in the UK care system before being deported. Some were incredulous at the injustices of this, and were wanting to know if changes in UK government might make crossing the border more possible.
Many of the men in the room were rocking as they sat, with sleep exhaustion. Many had vacant eyes, they look stretched, taut, lost.
Several wanted to talk about abuse at the hands of the French police which seems to have been notched up a few levels. One man demanded, ‘where is the UN?’ We heard that the police had pursued a large group of them into the woods where they were preparing to break fast for Ramadan. Lifting the lid on the large container full of pasta a policeman had then sprayed teargas into the food, making it inedible.
We brought out the large wall map and poured bricks onto the table. Several men engaged across the two hours. One spent the whole session meticulously building a large two storey house for a family of four. Another told his friend that using the bricks was childish and then set about building with them himself. One man had had some form of acid or toxic teargas thrown in his face at close range and his peeled raw skin was evidence of this. People were angry, despairing and confused. Some were angry with us at being able to cross the Channel. Some of the younger boys were close to tears.
The gentle session around the dining room table was accompanied by a video of Eritrean love songs and gentle singing amongst the teenagers who had come to the safe house for an afternoon of respite and a shower. Images were of boats and churches. One boy depicted himself falling off a boat on route from Libya to Italy. The boat was carrying one hundred people and he had been rescued by German coastguards.
There was an ease with which one of the boys spoke on WhatsApp to his friend who’d arrived in the UK. One boy slept in the adjacent room and his sounds suggested he was having a bad dream. All these boys were about to face another night sleeping outside.