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Living on the edge in Calais


OCTOBER 12-13, 2017

In the morning we made a visit to Rodin’s sculpture The Burghers of Calais that is located outside the Town Hall / Hotel de Ville. The sculpture was unveiled in Calais in 1895, depicting six members of the French bourgeoisie towards the end of the British siege of Calais that took place in the 14th century, part of the Hundred Years’ War.

Rodin portrayed the six men, not as proud nobility, but as they might have looked after eleven months of siege, drawn and emaciated, and the resonance with contemporary Calais wasn’t lost on us, the feet naked, clothes worn, faces bearing expressions of exhaustion.

A little later we walked across a nature reserve nearby the Day Centre and found the residue of refugees’ washing places by the lake. Here there was something biblical.

DAY CENTRE The afternoon got busier across the three hours with a focus postcards of portraits from across the world, as well as the usual building blocks. The postcards included one of The Burghers of Calais which serendipitously seemed to attract interest and the story was retold and redrawn in different ways during the afternoon.

Several drawings and buildings also emerged including a beautiful strong brick structure. However on completion the makers noticed one room had no door, making it impossible to get inside. The building also sat on the very edge of the table leaving it vulnerable to collapse. Other buildings were made with an artistic sense of colour and form, and followed by the drawing of a home. There was a flurry of animal and bird drawings, some made through communal effort, with friends taking it in turn to add landscape or feathers.

Two young men wanted to draw the story of the thirsty crow. They explained that the crow was determined to get some out-of-reach water from a vessel, the canny crow throwing stones into the vessel and drinking from the splashes the stones created. The tenacity of the crow seemed symbolic and pointed to the resilience of most of these young men, echoed by the collaboration and turn-taking that was happening around the table.

EVENING DISTRIBUTION The challenges for people trying to survive in the Calais context are never starker than at the evening food and clothing distribution. Gathering around our large map taped to the Medecins du Monde medical van, we heard from people of their deep concerns about winter approaching. Some are feeling that it is just too difficult to stay here, they are literally living on a knife edge.

There are urgent issues relating to keeping warm, getting enough sleep, keeping clean, feeling safe; getting access to food, clothing and information. Police take people’s shoes which is infuriating for everyone. A network of prostitution and trafficking is likely to exist but it is hard to comprehend how it operates in this already complex and volatile context.

One man explained clearly and with deep gravity that sleeping in the woods night after night is becoming intolerable, with ongoing regular police raids accompanied by kicking and gas and colder, longer nights. Everyone’s mental health has deteriorated significantly and people are now talking to themselves in their wakeful sleep.

FRIDAY The Secours Catholique team meeting touched upon issues of responsibility, ethics, protection, ethnicity, culture and morality in this work – an important and honest discussion amongst a large team struggling to provide support and containment for people living on the edge, particularly the women.

Discussion recognised the importance of individuals having access to forms of expression as a means of self-empowerment, including advocacy work through cameras. The valuable role of art making in the day centre was acknowledged.

SAFE HOUSE We briefly joined the core staff for a late afternoon cup of tea before heading back to the Eurotunnel. Here they had been preparing the house for the following week by cleaning it from head to foot.

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