Un Peu D'air / A Little Air

CALAIS – APRIL 4-5, 2019

CONTEXT With various teams we discussed the situation in Calais. All reflected that nothing has changed for the past two years, indeed things are much worse. A United Nations special representative for housing visited the area on Friday and was particularly interested to talk to the refugees themselves about a number of issues, with the Calais organisations filling the information gaps.

The weather was bright with blue skies, but cold out of the sun. This border at the moment feels strangled and this is something we saw in so many of the interactions – a sense of urgency that nothing has changed but the desperate need for something to shift, which makes offering any support very challenging. It’s like being stuck on a permanent treadmill, one young man commented.

The excruciating ongoing backdrop of Brexit is having a profound impact on all of this, with people taking greater risks, for example, to get to the UK before a deadline, and others finding escape in drugs and alcohol. It’s difficult to know what to write as this is such a time of uncertainty mirrored both sides of the Channel.

THURSDAY DAY CENTRE The centre was slow to fill, and across the two hours we gently introduced materials, at the table with our colleagues from Refugee Rights Europe. One engineer from Iran started to build a train in plasticine, which then shifted to a watch tower, a project which had to be abandoned as time was short. His grace was notable. He was interested in the fact that two of our team are called Miriam, a popular name across cultures, and leading to other references to mothers and sisters and wives of the same name.

And, as we left to join Médecins du Monde team, and in the true manner of the day centre’s affirmation of creativity and cultural links, eminent Sudanese author and campaigner for children’s rights, Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin, arrived. Exiled in Austria, he was welcomed into the centre to talk about his work, during which he affirmed, for the group of Sudanese men gathered, support for both their home country and a successful life in Europe, regardless of which country someone settles in.

DISTRIBUTION The usual roadside site for the ambulance is now being completely fenced off with the large pylons now caged in, further changing the landscape and reducing living space. This has left access to spaces to camp, hide and rest in the day increasingly limited and any intrusion into such space is met with resistance. This week the Médecins du Monde ambulance was parked next to the food and water site and between this and an area used for camping. Our large map, once placed on the ambulance’s side, was met with both curiosity and hostility simultaneously, with one young man from Eritrea crossing out the UK with black marker.

We judged that setting up a table for cyanotype making was worth trying in this setting, and it too was met with a rollercoaster of mixed responses – from humour to ridicule to anger to interest in the process, to disinterest. We were struck by the sense of hopelessness, with people communicating feelings of being shut out, disrespected, abused, and of overwhelming exhaustion. The young men asked us not to smile. One said, ‘Why are you bringing this material? It’s child’s play’. And alongside all of this, photographs of landscapes from home were shared, and striking sun prints were created.

FRIDAY After the Secours Catholique meeting we spent the afternoon in the day centre which filled up to accommodate around one hundred people. The weather outside was bright and warmer and this was reflected in the atmosphere inside. Conversations felt more possible, even those about politics, and experiments with cyanotype on different materials were able to be undertaken outside in the sun and alongside a game of football. A five year old joined in both the sun-printing and ballgame, encouraging a playful gentleness from those around him. Ladders, tracks and trucks.

SAFE HOUSE We spent the last couple of hours in the safe house, discussing the situation and the general echo of what for, where next, why are we here. As ever we were impressed by the rituals of the house, by the breathing space it offers, however much it feels that the air around is ever smaller.

On leaving the area one young man struck up a Brexit conversation, closing with a caring and humour-filled send off to us of “good luck!”

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