This has been an intense bitter-sweet two days in this surreal place so close to home. It has been full of shocking details revealed in conversations with both the young people themselves and those working with them. Food distribution is no longer banned but it takes place at different times, in challenging locations while fences are cruelly constructed around woods to make sleeping at night in sheltered places even harder. On Sunday, Marine Le Pen will hold a large public meeting in the town centre. In many ways it feels like there is little left to shock.
We were in the Secours Catholique Day Centre across both afternoons having spent the morning in Dunkerque sorting our shared space with colleagues from Médecins du Monde and the French Red Cross, before journeying back to the Day Centre for the afternoon. Here there were fewer young people than usual, but from many more countries, including Chad, Guinea and the West Bank.
Across the large table-top map were made several models of people-filled ocean-crossing boats and conversations about journeys. An Afghani man painted a beautiful landscape having told us that he was due to be joined legally in Calais next week by his wife and 5 children, while a 19 year old from South Sudan explained that nothing can be worse than his war-torn country where he no longer has family, that he longs to travel to the UK to see Oxford, where one day he would love to study engineering.
This week we were asked to join the young men and women at a food distribution point up near the site of the former Calais camp and could understand better the evening routine in bitter winds ahead of whatever the night holds.
In the homeless hostel, we gathered around the bed of the man we support and watched him relate to four other men with tremendous warmth and care, and a sense of quiet gravitas, leadership and community. There was the retelling of stories, including one hundred futile journeys attempted, spoken with a remarkable ability for humour and trust.
The smell of sweat and hard boiled eggs along with the heat makes the environment very particular. Today we tried to reintroduce kites, needing to step beyond the confines of the centre and its small yard and into the nature reserve outside. A few of the young Afghani men took to the kite-flying, battling with the fierce Calais winds until one large rainbow-coloured kite broke free from its tether and drifted off across the fields. Following this we gathered back around the tables indoors, helpfully settled by a soulful song about family from a young Eritrean, before the exodus back out into the landscape for the night’s journeys.
Here we witnessed the relief on the faces of the Secours Catholique workers as they received a call from two young teenage boys who arrived safely today in the UK. This was greeted by mixed feelings from the other boys still in the house who nevertheless joined us to create a shared, playful landscape that had depth, poetry and poignancy – including a black polar bear on an iceberg, and a beautifully observed heavy duty lorry that carries one hundred people across the Sudanese desert. All the boys around the table have done this intensely demanding 2-3 week journey, legs pulled up to their chests, water and food scarce – and yet together they took pleasure in seeing the truck manifested in plasticine and worked hard to create the most effective lighting to show it off.