THE HORIZON OF THE TABLELAND (Invisible cities, Italo Calvino) Calais
Across the three hours of the afternoon, and onto an empty patch of ground beneath an electricity pylon, arrived the Medecins du Monde ambulance and psychology van, a double decker bus for children, the refugee youth service, a mobile water system, food, clothing and bedding vans, toilets and mobile phone charging point – all to gradually disappear with dark descending.
The distribution point thus felt like a small fleeting city that grew across the afternoon and later would need to be dismantled, leaving individuals to find a place for shelter in the cold Calais winds and night-time rain that followed, hoping for a night of reprieve from the shocking police violence of the morning in response to a gathering of refugees at the port.
Within this setting we sat with young men around a table or stood with them at the map, hearing about the difficulties they face, and witnessing their remarkable stoicism. We met new arrivals from Iraq, with backpacks, alongside familiar faces.
There were several drawings of helicopters, flowers and birds. Two men seemed in competition to build the sturdiest house, one dismantling his roof to rebuild it using the other’s method. There was humour but also worried requests for help with phone Sims or information.
One man fell asleep in his chair; most looked cold. Several individuals told us about the CRS violence, one pointing to the area on his eye where he had been punched; another touching the tender points on his head and leg where he had been beaten with a baton.
At the Secours Catholique Meeting a period of transition was acknowledged as preparations for the Winter months move forward. A network of organisations is gradually growing stronger with collective activity planned although this is still somewhat fragmented and scattered.
A recent documentary about the shocking Libyan slave market was discussed amongst other topics. In the context of such problematic and worrying news, the importance of giving people dignity for a period of time was emphasised with gravitas by one of the core team members. He also spoke of the shocking reality of refugees remaining invisible to so many residents in the town. He communicated the pain of his own invisibility as an African professional working in Calais.
Our friend at the hostel who continues to face challenges on a daily basis made us a kettle full of ginger tea. He spoke about the painfulness of drawn-out legal processes while also about a genuine act of kindness he had recently experienced. The leather shoes he was given at the distribution point were not from a volunteer but from a fellow refugee who took them off his own feet, saying he could get another pair, recognising perhaps the frailty of a fellow traveller.
We heard earlier about a hugely respected Eritrean priest, active in refugee rights, who yesterday gave a beautiful and moving two hour church service in Calais for the Eritrean and Ethiopian communities, held in an ancient language that very few understood. Fewer people had attended than hoped for due to the earlier blockade and police violence. A traditional meal followed at the Safe House.
The house active across the afternoon with young people cooking up a late breakfast before heading outside, a vast grocery shop being unpacked into cupboards, a group returning from a hospital consultation, and a gentle coming and going at the table as people joined to eat, rest, chat, build or draw. The new addition of an I-pad enabled us to introduce a film app with different filters as well as to drop in backgrounds created separately from the objects. We were touched by gravity, pain, fun and warmth as planes flew above the horizon of the tableland.