November 2023, BMX Eritrean camp, Calais, France.
We are delighted to once again share a reflective text and images from Alex Holmes, long-term volunteer recently returned to the UK from a month in Calais. All names have been changed.
“Orange, gold, yellow, colours of fire. The relentless rain has stopped and the perimeter fence transforms into a multi-coloured drying station for wet bedding and clothes. A saucepan of lentils and tomatoes hot-spiced with berbere, precariously balanced on burning timbers, tips over leaving an orange sun on the ground. Beside the fire, Almaz is cutting away the upper part of two yellow Wellington boots to make shoes for her seven year old daughter Lula. ‘Look a rainbow!’ Almaz’s face lights up. She picks her way delicately through the mud wearing just flip-flops. Reaching her tent she gathers up her two barefooted daughters, Lula and Rahwa, and deposits them on a wooden pallet. The children gaze in awe at the sky. Later, Lula is drawing first the rainbow and then the fire.
Black. Charred black the kettle. Blackened pans. Black, the night sky in the flood-water. Broken pieces of black tarmac that the guys have collected and laid over the mud as crazy paving. Black Tigrinya script on the sodden pages of Haile’s bible that he’s trying to dry over the fire. ‘I like the Old Testament best’, he says. ‘And look, I have holy oil from Jerusalem.’ He puts down his bible, pulls a small jar from his pocket, opens it, dips his index finger into the oil and puts a cross on my forehead. Adonay joins the fireside circle, also with a rain-soaked book. ‘Will you dry it for me?’ Three hundred pages to be carefully prised apart. Days later, as the drying progresses, his black and white drawings emerge: a cross, a church, a stairway, and boldly written in English capitals the words ‘Jesus Christ’.
Green. Rain-washed green the grass where the drakes pad. Still green the leaves on the stubby willows. Haile offers me his green apple. ‘Take it, please. It will freshen your mouth after eating, and anyway I have a toothbrush’. ‘Caring is sharing,’ adds his friend Eyob in near perfect English, ‘and an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Listen, I have a story: There was an engineer and a doctor. Every day the engineer’s wife told her husband that she was sick and that she must see the doctor. So off she went, each day, to the doctor. Seeing that these visits were not curing her sickness, and fearing that she was in fact cheating on him, the engineer wondered how to rid his wife of this doctor. He suddenly remembered the old saying ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’. ‘I have the cure’, he said to his wife, ‘you don’t need a doctor, just eat an apple every day!’ Finishing the story, Eyob grins. ‘Take this’ says Haile proffering a tissue, ‘you have food on your face. Don’t forget, your friend is your mirror!’
Blue. Bare feet in blue plastic bags and flip-flops. Blue the carton of milk warming on the embers. Blue tarpaulins covering the tents. Lula is sick, lying inside her tent. She indicates with her thumb and forefinger that she is only a little sick. Rahwa, told by her mother to stay with Lula, proceeds to dance in the doorway, jigging and twirling, arms in the air, her young face lit with a smile. The tarpaulin that acts as a roof over the compound where the tent is pitched atop a double-decker of pallets, has been rolled back. The rain begins, a heavy staccato. The tarp is hurriedly pulled over. Dawit clutching one end of it tries to channel the water away from the tent. Twelve year old Negus stalwartly stands in the rain holding down the other end. Soon he is soaked. The still-dancing Rahwa catches the rain drops dripping from a loose tie in her hands and drinks them. Then come the flashing blue lights. Ten police vans roll into the car park. ‘Gendars, gendars’* the cry goes out. The rain is torrential. Regardless, the camp must uproot, all tents must be shifted away from the campsite onto the road, a ritual enacted every two days to unsettle, to destabilise; anything not moved will be taken away by the police. But there is one concession: the tents where there are children can stay. Calais.”
*‘Gendars’: Gendarmes, the French police.