Honouring traditions in uncertain territory

This has been a notably unsettling week on both sides of the Channel with a spate of deeply disturbing knife and gun crimes in London, and new tactical police brutality in Calais which has made its way into the press. As a team we often think about the violent and hostile territories that young men have to constantly navigate in Calais. For these young men anticipating life in the UK, distressing news reports from there must add to their sense of vulnerability.

A new UN report out this week has outlined the shocking and systematic violation of basic human rights and needs of migrants in Calais and across northern France, which also denounced abuse of NGO staff and volunteers.

The result of the ongoing police brutality has been to force segregation and fragmentation between groups of refugees.

Small encampments have been dismantled just at the time that people have been collecting their food from the distribution points. Responding to an increase in numbers and scattered locations, there has been a lot more distribution recently but also an interruption to people’s ability to access services and in particular water. Refugees are fearful to leave the areas to reach the distribution points. This has in turn impacted upon people’s traditions and structures.

Yet these past two days we also witnessed a quiet determination, perhaps aided by the warmer weather, both on the part of refugees and the local NGOs supporting them. There is currently a large Eritrean and Ethiopian community in Calais due to celebrate their orthodox Easter this weekend. Following a request, we ourselves arrived with our van loaded up with 200 injera (traditional Ethiopian flatbread) from East London to contribute to the planned Sunday meal.

Thursday HOSTEL In amongst chat with our peace loving friend about the changeable weather both in the UK and in Calais, we discussed the increase in inner city violence in the UK, and in turn heard about the male tradition in his country of carrying a knife, his refusal to do so and his attempts to mediate potential conflict situations both when he was there and now he is here.

DAY CENTRE There was a large delegation from the French government which had been taken by Secours Catholique staff to the various small ‘jungle’ sites in and around Calais to finally see the situation for themselves. There were more volunteers, and fewer refugees present in the day centre due to the recent police destruction of property and need to stay close in case of further police activity. Those who joined us at the table were from Syria, Egypt, Sudan and Afghanistan, both new arrivals and men who have been stuck in Calais for almost two years. A geological World map that doesn’t have country borders marked on it provided a backdrop for both political and personal conversation.

DISTRIBUTION Later at the Distribution point with Medecins du Monde our large map taped onto the ambulance once again drew interest from individuals and groups from across the scrubby area. We’d also brought a box of plasticine with us and, in the early evening sun, a small group of young men gathered around the table playfully making together – an immaculate football stadium, the traditional Eritrean coffee pot and associated pots and cups; a boat at sea…. There was humour, care and attention to detail, a touching hour of focus in an unsettling location.

Friday At the Secours Catholique meeting there was a rich discussion about the importance of trying to understand the different and nuanced cultural and religious traditions of diverse populations, and specifically those refugee groups living in the Calais area.

SAFE HOUSE The brighter warmer air meant that many of the young men were outside. There was a quiet calm in the house, the Sunday feast in planning and some young people praying or observing the Good Friday fast. As we sat around the table with staff and volunteers, a careful depiction of Jesus on the Cross was produced across the afternoon by one young man – honouring faith and tradition in this safe house.

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