NORTHERN FRANCE, MARCH 9-10 2017
On arriving early in France this week we stopped briefly at the seafront in Dunkerque to look out and remind ourselves of the sea and the physical expanse of the separation between us and those with whom we work each week.
We spent time in the office preparing our materials and talking with our Médecins du Monde partners, discussing the week in the camp and their struggle to find enough staff and volunteers to keep the Butterfly House open regularly throughout the week. We are aware of the value that the space has for so many of the residents we work with, and this was acutely felt when we arrived at the camp this week to people anxiously waiting for us to open the space.
A sense of community was a strong element of this day as men, women and children used the space fluidly together. As a group of boys searched though magazines to find images for a collage, a young girl spent the day making artworks for her teacher in the camp who will soon be leaving; the anticipated loss already poignant for her.
We talked with several men about some of the very personal layers and individual struggles and risks that they face in their lives. When resources are stretched and limited in this often stymied place, we were moved that the depth of trust continues to develop here; the conversations around communal art making providing a very significant continuity.
Throughout the day we felt a connection to some of the themes talked about on Thursday as many of the men and young people we talked to told us about the lost and interrupted relationships in their lives. The yearning for the people they love and miss so painfully, the time that passes whilst separated being one of endurance, not a life lived.
We arrived at the Day Centre to find many young men making the most of the sun and playing football in the yard outside, the sense of safety that is held by the space freeing up young people to be able to relax and play. As lunch was served and eaten together the staff spoke to us about the numbers of new arrivals this week, and their particular concern for several individuals. As the meal ended we laid out our materials on the dining room tables: plates of food were replaced by paints, pastels and plasticine.
Around us young people slept on the floor, exhausted from the night before and their brutal experiences with beatings and teargas from the Police. Two girls spoke of the physical assault on them by the Police and being detained in a cell overnight. There was a sense of hopelessness about their situation, and many young people expressed their fear that they are stuck in this place and position, unable to see a way out.
The afternoon sessions were positive, despite these circumstances. People came together to find respite within the group and there was a strong atmosphere of camaraderie, support and interest in each other’s work. Many from the previous week arrived and settled into their image making. A man from Pakistan, who spoke neither English nor French, joined the group again and as before showed incredible sensitivity for his chosen medium and created a plasticine scene illustrating night and day, stars and a rainbow appearing from the cloud, working hard to find a moment for hope and beauty.
The staff also found the creative process therapeutic and worked playfully alongside the young people. They recognized the transformative quality of the process as after the session we were told about a young woman who had been in such acute distress the previous day and yet had been able to be creative and laugh along with others. She was proud of her picture and asked for it to be put up on the dining room wall.
In both places we worked today the staff and volunteers modelled a calmness and gentle strength that fosters warmth and safety for these young men and women. It is a striking testament to them that these places remain and exude such positivity and nourishment.
The Safe House this week was a very quiet and reflective space. We used the plants and flowers as a still life and this was a helpful focal point for the group to begin their making from. Initially many sat drawing and painting the flowers, experimenting with combining different materials and images, enjoying the bursts of colour.
One young man used the plasticine to create a house that initially he described as touching the sky. Others responded to the star that he had placed on top, suggesting it could be a home for a king. At the same time a king was being drawn from a postcard at the other end of the table, whilst another boy created a king out of plasticine.
Young people we had seen earlier at the day centre arrived, surprised to find us back in this space, but greeting us with a warm familiarity. They admired the work being created and joined us once more. As the group began to be excited by working together on the special place for the king, they began to explore what would also be needed. A decorative fence was created to make a compound; a camel, pig, goat and a bowl of fruit were introduced. The group delighted in taken photos utilising an earlier painting as the backdrop, the communal discussion recognizing the appreciation of this individual piece that had become shared and created by the group.