Never Think This is Normal

CONTEXT

The situation in Calais continues to assault the senses. The weather has turned and temperatures are cold. With rain on Friday it was uncomfortable being in the open air for more than a few minutes. These conditions are difficult for people to endure day after day struggling with living outside.

The huge automated Calais dragon of two weeks ago stamped a big footprint onto the collective morale of the organisations, with refugees and volunteers explicitly excluded from the town’s big arts spectacle, and food distributions in the town centre prohibited. The positive counter cultural response is that Secours Catholique is welcoming associations and refugees together this weekend in an alternative festive gathering.

The recent death of the young man in his tent from carbon monoxide poisoning two weeks ago is felt very acutely. Those friends and volunteers who wanted to pay their respects at his burial attended the Calais graveyard at the appointed hour only to find that the burial had been brought forward.

At the Secours Catholique meeting there was a question as to one word that sums up what volunteers and staff think they are doing here. The most striking word was ‘resistance’ – we must resist the idea that this situation is normal and draw attention to the injustices taking place on the border.

DISTRIBUTION

The ambulance was parked at a distance from its preferred pitch as there were several police vans occupying that space. Close by, a kilometre long trench was being dug in preparation for a new fence. This excavation work made visible the tents that had been hidden in the woods, another space becoming inhospitable.

It was very cold yesterday and instead of taping the large tablecloth map to the van, it doubled up as a wind break, tied to the MdM tent. This contributed to a relatively more hospitable place for the men visiting the doctor to sit, offered homemade cake and hot drinks by a local volunteer.

The first young man to talk to us at the map said it’s all about his attitude – ‘I need to surround myself with other people who are positive and to take this experience as if it were an adventure.’ The magnifiers once again brought brief moments of shared delight, distraction and shifts in perspective.

FRIDAY

DAY CENTRE

The day centre was packed full with at least two hundred people using the space that itself became hot with bodies and dense with the smell of sweat and wet clothes. The atmosphere was generally good natured though there were signs of frayed edges.

We set up the table with map, bricks, projectors and magnifiers and it was busy and engaged throughout the afternoon, with us introducing the idea of science, looking and ways of seeing.

Several men greeted us from the day before. A few bright young individuals expressed their despair at being stuck on this border for the past four years and not knowing how to shift this position. One teenager recognised us from the Jungle camp when he had had no beard and only spoke his mother tongue. On the upside he said that now he speaks nearly four languages learnt ‘on the street’.

One man from the border between Syria and Turkey built a Roman bridge that was close to his home and then placed it on top of Syria the tablecloth map alongside a photo on his mobile phone. He delighted in using the large magnifier to focus in on the bridge and then moved onto an elaborate construction of a larger site, ending by mapping out a brick journey from Syria to Calais.

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