From Calais, northern France, January 15th 2024
Once again, we are privileged to share reflections from Alex Holmes, long standing volunteer in Calais who has just returned from another period of weeks at Maria Skobtsova safe house, with regular visits to the BMX Eritrean camp. All names have been changed.
“Calais. BMX Eritrean camp. White vans, blue flashing lights; the police are leaving. ‘This is crazy’. A new arrival in the camp, Hayat. ‘Why do they do this to us every two days? What can we do?’ The camp is being reinstated after the bidiurnal dismantlement forced by the police; tents re-pitched, tarpaulins re-roped to the bare willow trees, pallets positioned and then covered with more tarpaulins to act as windbreaks.
Neglected during the police operation, the fire is nearly out. Abel fans the embers and squirts hand gel onto the damp wood. Once more, people gather fireside. A small mirror sits in the palm of Tesfay’s hand. He stares disbelievingly at his reflection. ‘It’s two months since I’ve seen myself. What’s happened? I don’t look the same.’ He grins and passes the mirror to his neighbour.
A sudden swirl of wind spins wood ash skywards. A mini snowstorm. It’s well below freezing with a brisk nor-easterly plummeting the temperature lower still. Abel works on an empty tin can, delicately fashioning the lid into a handle. He fills the new ‘kettle’ with water and balances it on the fire. ‘Tea or coffee?’ he asks. The water is soon boiling, cups of tea and coffee are passed around the circle. The selfless Abel goes without. He has data on his phone and as a gift he shares it via a hotspot with those around him.
The flames of the fire are reflected in the two litre flagon of wine, thirty-five years old, that’s turned up in the camp. They dance across the screen of Binyam’s phone. The video he’s showing lasts just fifteen seconds: night time, an inflatable dinghy in the Channel, two guys bailing the flooding boat with a plastic bag, frightened faces briefly caught in the flashlight, sea water up to peoples’ knees.
‘It was a painful and sad moment,’ he says. ‘It wasn't that scary for us this time, for me and Negus, because it was for the second time. One month ago we were on a boat for 4 hours when it sank. There was so much water coming in the boat and not going out it was a horror. We were saved by a big boat. During that time we were extremely scared and frustrated. Thank God we came back safely. This time we didn't even panic. Instead we remained calm as we were familiar with the situation. Rather than panicking, we were the only ones calling the emergency numbers while everyone was yelling and crying, but the emergency services couldn’t help us. It's something you learn to adapt to dealing with problems. Anyway we’ve made a lot of attempts but it didn't work out. Maybe God didn't want us to go this time or at all but I am not going to be mad because our time spent in France has imparted an invaluable lesson upon us.’
The chat continues. ‘Ajoka hi-eel’. Stay strong! But how? ‘You must accept the situation you find yourself in, the weather, the conditions in the camp, the police. Accept, and you will stay strong’. Samuel. For Yoel strength comes from staying focused on your ‘project’, the goal of reaching the UK. Four times he was stripped naked by the Greek police whilst crossing from Turkey, stripped of everything and sent back. For Hayat, struggle and suffering are essential components of a meaningful life. ‘Knowledge comes from struggle. People shy away from struggle, but you can learn so much from your suffering. Life itself is the most important teacher.’ He speaks of his travels to reach Calais from Eritrea, of failed asylum requests, of life and love and a broken heart. ‘But that is all in the past; now I look forward’.”