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Short Circuits, Breaks in the Line and Mending Frayed Edges

CALAIS – FEBRUARY 21-22, 2019

CONTEXT The political crisis on the British side of the Channel and the complex tensions and violence on the French side are increasingly having an impact. Brexit is brought up in many conversations. The Border is feeling it acutely.

At the Secours Catholique team meeting there was a discussion about national identity, borders, systems and patriotism – if these things are no longer agreed with, what and who are we now? There was also talk of a sort of crisis of shame amongst the organisations at not being able to change the situation.

In this complex context, emotions are frayed and frustrations felt. There are a lot more refugees in Calais than the state says there are, people are being pushed beyond their physical and emotional limits and are psychologically exhausted.

Refugees accessing the day centre have generally not been keen to engage in activities as their energies are so depleted and they have started to ask for more psychological support. Pushed from scrubland to roadside, clearances of tents happen daily, new camps finding a way through the gaps again in a cycle of destruction, and redistribution.

Teams are asking themselves: should we respond to a demand for respite in a context in which the State is so badly failing people?

It’s so hard to work in this context when bolstering hope is no longer such an option. As a UK team we no longer hold promise for people. Yet in the Day Centre itself there was a tailoring cabin offered by volunteers in which clothes could be adjusted,holes patched or torn cuffs repaired.

In another part of the room the usual barber activity continued across the two days, a round table laid with a tablecloth for a game of cards, love and care shown amongst the refugees for each other, simple acts of care and attention offered by the team.

DISTRIBUTION The day had begun with sunshine and there was now a sharp cold wind as we joined the Medecins du Monde team at the edge of town roadside. Police intimidation and hostility had again taken place there that morning, CRS police vans still circulating the area.

With the large map on the ambulance we were given permission to draw on the vehicle itself, extending the map to the West, South and East, bringing the vehicle itself into the artwork.

We also took with us Connect, a route/track board game from the 1960s with 140 pieces, thinking it might add opportunities for play and conversation, and allow for people to join for as long or as short as they wished. We were surprised by the range of uses and functions given to it. One man was clearly fascinated by the game and told us he is an electrical engineer based back home on power stations. He was concerned that, not set out correctly, there could be short circuits and that, by having all pieces side by side less problems would be encountered and the circuit could be closed. A second man to join us explained that he is an interior designer, and showed more concern with the aesthetics of the overall layout. With us initiating playfulness around the table, both men talked about their work and their families and small children, both subsequently calling home to speak to them.

DAY CENTRE The room filled up across the remainder of the afternoon with an atmosphere of sweaty bodies, phone charging and tea drinking. Those young men who joined us at the table we have known in this context over many weeks, even months, sometimes years. In addition to the board game we introduced wooden blocks and sheets of cardboard onto the table. Structures were built with ramps, decks, a sailing boat. A couple of men wondered if this was a port.

FRIDAY DAY CENTRE The Connect game came into its own at the table, serving to provide a network of roads and road bridges, sometimes ending in cul-de-sacs, sometimes in short circuits. Around the roads various shapes and sizes of buildings were constructed. The overall scene reminded one man of a children’s playground and another of a checkpoint area with observation towers in other countries such as Pakistan.

One young man from Sudan who has joined us on a few occasions, worked throughout the afternoon, focused and patient, seemingly able to block out all surrounding distractions, building and rebuilding until he achieved a house that was just right, walls straight, windows brightly shuttered, roof tiles in place.

SAFE HOUSE The last hour was spent touching base at the safe house where similar questions as had started the day were being asked, facilitated by the board game tiles taking their routes and tracks across the tablecloth.

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