We introduced community development worker Paul Bragman to our friends in the hostel with a view to supporting them in developing an idea for a social enterprise that has been hatched around the bedside – an affordable, accessible transport system for connecting people between towns in their home country. To our pleasant surprise we all drove from the hostel to the home of a Calais family who have befriended this group of men, and the welcome and generosity with which the conversation was facilitated by our French host was immensely moving.
We arrived as people were starting to reach the day centre for its new opening time of 2pm and were greeted courteously – several of the young men helping us to carry the materials and set up in the space on two tables pushed together, with the map as the usual tablecloth and backdrop for the work. We were informed that since last week some of the plasticine objects and animals on the shelves have been reworked, transformed into poignant new entities – a very long snake, a small animal being carried on the back of another.
With each week we have a more acute awareness of the seriousness of police scare tactics: “none of us slept at all last night”. It’s been raining all week and the dehumanising measures employed by the CRS police now include firing tasers on legs to temporarily paralyse; spraying teargas on clothes hanging out to dry so that they are unwearable, in a context in which there are no clothes washing or shower facilities; spraying teargas directly into people’s eyes as the police start their morning shift.
Everyone is completely exhausted – many of the men in the day centre have a haunted look in their eyes; some have sunburnt faces, several were dropping off to sleep in their chairs. Many appeared to be on alert, fractious, ready to snap. One man told us that if he read in Pashto he would start crying – people felt on the very edge.
All the while men and boys, largely from Afghanistan, sat down at the table and started to build with the larger box of clay bricks we’d brought with us. Across the two hours individuals joined the table, taking turns to sit in front of and add to the house models being carefully and even expertly constructed. Poignantly, the roofs proved the hardest to build, the mini roof tiles often falling through the rafters. There was almost a queue of young men wanting to have their turn. There was also care and attention shown towards one another, even in spite of everything.
One man was meticulous about his brick courses being in line, protective of his building, not wanting help. His friends instead gave ideas or made furniture, perhaps aware of his volatility, brought about as he told us by lack of sleep and living over so many months in this challenging environment. One of the desired things he listed for the dream house he was building was water.
Here we were greeted by the table prepared and a readiness for the group which as ever took a gentle pace, work much more about remembering home which is possible in a context where the young people feel safe and held. We used the same bricks but with the familiar addition in this context of lighting. One young man, also a talented cook, sat for the hour and a half making a series of beautiful churches, some enclosed by a walled garden. The young woman made a traditional Eritrean home where the parents would sleep, the rest of the family in smaller buildings close by.