This week saw the start of our new summer programme of three sets of three day residencies at the Secours Catholique Day Centre. We were privileged to have a larger team and this enabled us to also continue our usual working pattern on Thursday and Friday.
A short documentary film being made about our work in this context offered us an additional reflective space across the three days. It also prompted us to visit the vast swathes of sandy beach looking out across to the UK, and the old (Jungle) camp site, now an unrecognisable, re-landscaped, pollutant-free nature reserve, all traces of its status as a vast sprawling camp on a town dump and home to ten thousand refugees at its height two years ago now eradicated, save for a polite, misleading heritage sign.
This week’s work coincided with record temperatures as Calais reached 34 degrees, the intense and humid heat uncomfortable even for those men from African countries used to very high temperatures. It also threw into sharp relief the inhumanity and human rights violation of ongoing water restrictions imposed by the State on refugees in the Calais area.
DAY CENTRE The Day Centre was busy and well used on all three days with those wanting to sleep out the heat indoors or charge their mobile phones coexisting alongside those with energy to engage in conversation or creative activity.
We’d planned to build small structures outside but ourselves took refuge from the heat with refugees, workers and volunteers in any cooler spots available – making work together side by side, sitting quietly, sharing conversation, moving between the inside of the Day Centre to the edges of the outdoor space.
This week the cyanotypes (sun printing) came into their own, as we could make use of the full sun and afternoon shadows, more poignant still in their dependency on being fixed by immersion in clean water.
Several men whom the team have known for some time used the slower pace across the three days to bring a range of feelings into the work, frustration, exhaustion, anger and disorientation giving way to periods of creative experimentation and even delight in the alchemy of the sun-prints.
One young man from Libya needed time to work through his incredulity at having his mobile phone and all his possessions taken off him earlier that morning by the CRS police. He also had a bottle of drinking water snatched from his hand in a context in which water points for refugees can’t be accessed outside of 9am and 5pm. His anger cooling, he finally managed to find energy in a conversation about hydraulics, trade and travel across the borders of the countries of northern Africa which used to be free for him. His mood slowly shifted and he mustered the energy to recount his story in cyanotype with carefully selected vehicles and other objects, the late afternoon sun allowing for a longer exposure as he moved slowly, placing one object after another.
A second man from Syria moved between model building, printing and basketball to show off his skills, test out science and vent frustration, the alchemy of the sun-print process managing to surprise and creatively challenge both himself and those around him.
A third young man from Eritrea also used the slow exposure of the three days and worked increasingly closely with us. On Wednesday he arrived flat but mustered three attempts at printing a cyanotype and shared at the end of the day the name of his mother’s village which he later used as a backdrop for another home made collaboratively.
By Friday afternoon he was sitting with us for over three hours, absorbed in helping us sew the hem and edges of fabrics we had printed on. The group shared moments of laughter, memories of childhood, different generations sewing in a circle. The Catholic sister in the group referred to an ‘ensemble’ which felt apt for this small group and the longer periods of creative collaboration and opportunities to work to greater depths with people made possible by the longer exposure of the three days.
DISTRIBUTION The setting of the distribution point where we work on Thursday afternoons with Medecins du Monde felt even dustier and more desolate than usual due to the heat and parched grass. A number of young men from Sudan were one by one queueing to see the doctor; recently arrived, they seemed lost in this strange place where care is offered briefly, Calais maps handed out and the scant remaining services signposted.
Touching base here at the maps, with another person alongside, allows for painful details to be offloaded, in this instance of border crossings and labour camps and the experience at the hands of slave traders. Our large maps once again became the site for journeys to be mapped out, home villages shown on google maps, a sense of deep cultural disorientation and homesickness perhaps accentuated by this alien humid heat and arid ground but the sharing with another person the weight of detail being at times urgent and necessary.
SAFE HOUSE The cool afternoon interior provided relief and an opportunity to talk in some depth about the urgent psychosocial needs of young Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees arriving in the UK. Meanwhile we heard the good news of one young man arriving legally in London that morning, and witnessed several boys returning from hospital X-rays following a confirmed case of TB and risk of exposure, the house continuing to work with such challenges, providing ongoing care and sanctuary.