Recently, we were privileged to join Alex Holmes, long-term volunteer in Calais, on one of his many visits to one of the Eritrean camps where he spends most of his free time in community with those living there. Here follows a beautiful piece of prose written by Alex. All names have been changed.
"How can their shoes be so white in this mud-packed and puddled place? 'Mister, bonbons, give us bonbons!’ Two little girls race towards me in their very white shoes. This time I’m prepared. Delving into my pocket, I give one a pink lollipop, one an orange. ‘Mister, I want pink one, and pink one for my sister too’. BMX, the larger of the two Eritrean encampments in Calais. The daily police evictions have finished and the community are moving their tents back into the apology of woodland that is their precarious base.
Alone, balancing his way along a concrete kerb, a boy of perhaps 12. He has hearing aids in both ears. ‘Kabey metsika’, where are you from, he asks me. The UK, I reply. He smiles, a warm, gentle smile. Later beside the fire, he comes up behind Saare and put his arms round him. Saare takes first one of the boy’s hands, and then the other and gives each a kiss. The children here are much loved.
A game of quiz is underway. There are two quiz masters, one asking the questions, the other helping hide the answers from view, and two teams. There are four possible answers to each question. I listen for clues in the mix of Tigrinya and English to work out the questions. Saare punches the air; his team is winning. ‘We have to do something to pass the time’. He and I first met more than two years ago.
Away from the fire, four young Eritreans sit at a round table drinking coffee. For once the air is still and they have lit a white candle. The flame is unwavering. Behind them on the wire fence hangs a framed tapestry depicting the church of Our Lady in Lourdes, and a pristine white sheet drying in the sun.
White. Milky porridge white. A charred black pan sits precariously on the fire in the firepit. Rahwa gently stirs the contents. The rain has stopped, but the wind is strong, the smoke from the fire frenzied. There’s no escape from stinging eyes. Rahwa pours the now ready porridge into disposable cups and small bowls. The bowls are taken over to where a group of women and children sit on a felled tree trunk. Around the fire, we are given the filled cups.
The porridge is sweet, thick and so hot it blisters the roof of my mouth. Beside me Aman. Seduced by the sight of the porridge, he gives up on what he’s been trying to eat, some cold rice from the previous day, and strides off to jettison it on the food dump. The large flock of juvenile gulls that scower the waste food, take to flight, a wing-cloud that momentarily deadens the afternoon light. ‘The birds are beautiful’, says Awet looking up from his porridge. ‘All animals are beautiful; they are from God’. I raise an eyebrow at the rats that scurry across the packed earth ground. ‘Yes rats are beautiful too’ he insists, ‘but you must not take food into your tent or they will make holes and come inside’. ‘Tu-um’, delicious, says Aman who has returned and is tucking eagerly into his porridge.
White in the darkness. The stadium camp. The sun has set, another day is ending. A barn owl, ghostly white in the mix of spotlight and night, sits atop the security fence seemingly unconcerned by the group of diners around the nearby fire. A sudden swoop and it disappears into the undergrowth. At ground level a chaotic warp and weft of rats are in constant motion in their search for food. Two hungry coots emerge from the foetid drainage channel and peck at some discarded grains of rice. Tonight, the full moon is pale orange; it’s a ‘hunter’s moon’.
Hamid and Yusef emerge from the darkness into the glow of the fire, their faces creased in pain. They’ve been pepper sprayed by the CRS. Handed small cartons of milk, they let the contents dribble down over their closed stinging eyes. The pain lessens, and they come and sit at the fireside. As the milk dries, their faces become a blotch of dark skin and white. And gradually they begin to smile."