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Mental Health on a Knife Edge

Calais – February 8-9, 2018

CONTEXT Last Thursday afternoon saw high levels of violence in Calais as has been well documented in the press, and the teams on the ground reported back to us what it had been like from their perspective, and that it has been much quieter since Saturday. Most associations have returned to delivering their work, while some had been heavily exposed to the fighting and everyone – workers and refugees – were still coming to terms with what took place and its repercussions.

HOMELESS HOSTEL After discussing important issues at the bedside about last week’s violence, the dismal weather, asylum and its complexities, the subject moved to daydreaming and whether this is possible in Calais when so much time is taken with other pressing concerns. Our friend surprised us by saying that Calais is full of daydreamers while his friend explained you can utilise experiences from your memories to build ideas, many of which others will have had before you, and through these, survive better in the present.

DAY CENTRE We arrived to a calm atmosphere with gentle, respectful activity taking place across the tables. As the afternoon progressed, individuals new and familiar joined to make plasticine animals and objects.

One young man from Afghanistan made a few animals, copying others, before finally making his own object which seemed to give him courage and through which he found his voice – this was a well-supplied boat that would take himself and a group of refugees across the English Channel to the UK, equipped with motor, steering, oars and rain cover.

A beautiful series of camels were produced in amongst dominoes and conversation about hopes and dreams, art galleries and designing electricity circuits. As we left, one young man was in the process of constructing an elaborate bedstead, while another handed us a tiny plasticine model of a baby buffalo to look after.

DISTRIBUTION The area was calm with people gathering in small groups queuing for water and food, standing around a fire, or talking with us at the large map. A community meeting between refugees and volunteers was taking place while we ourselves met with two French journalists to discuss the impact of the conditions in Calais on refugees’ mental health. It was very cold with high wind chill by the time we left, and we were moved by people’s good grace and their capacity for survival and stoicism after so many challenges and in face of yet another bleak night ahead.

SECOURS CATHOLIQUE MEETING At the meeting there was much discussion about the importance of the associations working together to mobilise around the critical situation in Calais, including protecting vulnerable minors from exploitation and trafficking. Greater coordination and online information about activities would create better interagency working and a greater international profile.

Disbelief was expressed that in a free country such as France people can shoot with guns without repercussions; it has been hard to make sense of it all, with a small number of young people left with life-threatening injuries, and many more deeply affected on an emotional level, as well as physically injured. The doctors in the hospital have also been affected by what had happened.

Other more positive things were discussed such as the refugee Radio Station which has started in the Day Centre, and exhibitions planned in Calais and beyond.

SAFE HOUSE We were joined again by the two journalists. Gathering around the dining room table, staff and volunteers contributed to the discussion about how to support refugees’ mental health in this context, while we looked together at the Sudanese truck and the boat that crossed from Libya to Italy, both carefully made from plasticine many months ago and kept safely in a box in the house.

The house has returned to calm now, having been hugely disrupted by the events of last week with many extra young men and women sleeping there, requiring care and rest. A few of the longer-term members of the household joined us to build and draw, one young man making a poignant image of a sharp knife – the scene of illness, incarceration and distress at one end, and the hope of Europe at the other where he explained, even though there are things that are bad here, you can find medicine through love and friendship.

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