Keeping Possibilities Open In The Long Shadows Of Early Autumn

Calais

CONTEXT

The numbers of refugees remain stable with between 350-450 people currently in Calais, while faces continue to change with new arrivals most days. The refugees are supported by small, committed and experienced teams of staff and volunteers across various organisations. The summer influx of short term volunteers has reduced as the autumn term has begun. We as a team are welcomed back as a regular fortnightly presence bringing some space for creativity and reflection.

As the weather changes, thoughts are turning to winter planning. The Secours Catholique team realises that they cannot simply accept the progress of events this winter and that they must ‘agitate’ for change to avoid the sense of wilful negligence on behalf of the State that puts people’s lives at risk.

This weekend they will embark on the ‘Festival of Tents’, an eight night sleep out of refugees and volunteers together to raise awareness of the refugee situation and to question and reflect upon the role that the volunteers and associations play – a response indeed to the confronting question from refugees themselves: ‘Who are You, and what is your purpose?’

This week there were disruptions to our usual pattern as the safe house is currently closed due to essential maintenance, and our visit to the distribution site was cancelled due to a shortage of volunteer doctors at MDM. This meant that we could spend two undisrupted five hour sessions at the Secours Catholique Day Centre. Both days were sunny with beautiful light and ferocious winds. We were joined by intern Elodie Cousin – trainee Art Therapist from Paris, and Miriam Nabarro.

THURSDAY There was a notably depressed atmosphere, with many young men sitting in isolation, focussed on their mobile phones. We began the session by unrolling our large piece of black rubber which bore the traces of the last session’s work. Across the afternoon we worked as a team to gauge the tone in the room, and responded by shifting the physical landscape, changing the dynamic by raising the skyline of objects on the table away from the flat two dimensionality of the surface.

Towards the end, we offered small balls of brightly coloured plasticine to those young men on outlying tables. This small intervention resulted in a series of beautiful animals, which touched the right chord, visible because the young men took the material up in a playful way, and offered a momentary stress relief from their mobile phones.

One young man sat with us for much of the session talking about his journey, his plans and hopes. Eventually he settled into making a detailed Sudanese house, with separate kitchen, traditional tukul in the compound, and a chicken shed. His artwork grounded the map amid some of the colourful chaos and was much referred to by other members of the group, acting as a great anchor for the second day’s making.

FRIDAY High winds overnight meant that those who gradually made it to the day centre were particularly tired. But the day was bright and filled with interactions, with more individuals joining us to continue the mapping / building work with bricks and plasticine, and to experiment with Cyanotype, catching the long late summer shadows and noting the longer exposure times.

This afternoon we had an extended interaction with an educated man from a country he would not name, who arrived in a stressed state and needed to talk. He began telling us angrily about the failure of capitalism, how he had been let down by western promise and passed from country to country, how here in Europe he and others are treated like animals.

Finally he noted the activity on the table in front of him. He was reminded of a family friend from home: the son suffered from mental health problems, could not settle and was put in an asylum. The doctors could not help him, and eventually his grandmother asked that he be sent home. She collected creative materials which she spread across the table and each day sat and created with her grandson; little by little the child got better. Telling this story, with all his agitation and frustration, the man at the table began to create a shelter from the materials.

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