Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Letter from Calais

The Jungle, Calais
Toni Sharpe is a teacher who lives in Shepherd's Bush. She recently took a career sabbatical and travelled to to the refugee camp in Calais - known as "The Jungle" - to teach English classes to some of the people living there.

Here, Toni shares some of her thoughts about her experience, in the form of a camp diary.

First thoughts on Wednesday (sorted out educational packs and taught on camp):
Four female undergraduate students and I were teaching sitting on blankets in the middle of 'The Jungle' today. Boys / men between 17 and 25 came over to us to learn (although some looked younger than they claimed).

All were charming - there was no sexism at all, and the lads were very friendly and full of hope. They were not as sad as I had feared, and yet weirdly more profoundly sad - as I fear their high hopes for a better life are groundless. In fact, received more lecherous behaviour from the adult French men off camp than from the migrant lads.  Just a subtle bit of shoulder squeezing, some whistling one evening (assumed was aimed at attractive young girl in street, but was only me there), and a bloke trying to talk to me when thinking on the beach...

Don't believe the press.

Thursday thoughts (spent day working in warehouse):
Good things re Care4Calais: They are:

  • utterly well meaning;
  • genuinely helpful to migrants;
  • remarkably well organised / systemised in the circumstances (despite having no permanent employees)
  • non-hierarchical.

Some of the challenges they face:

  • As they rely exclusively on volunteers things are inevitably at times inconsistent in terms of warehousing and 'container' give-out systems.
  • There is a high turnover of volunteers, and the majority are very young women who may need a steer;
  • Their established systems are very clear, and basically work, but there are reportedly sometimes difficulties on distribution days for key items which are in short supply (such as shoes, which obviously need trying on, and this apparently can create some chaos).

Friday thoughts (was security on container hand out session):
People I met on container duty:
An approximately three year old girl and mother, a long-term Care4Calais volunteer gave the girl stickers, three of which the little girl stuck on volunteer’s forehead;
A softly spoken and charming lad from Ethiopia (of the Oroma population), he hung around to talk to me after I had resolved his issue with stuff he’d received, was delighted to see the little girl and smiled a lot;
A Sudanese girl/young woman who was getting lift from the charity to the station to meet her sister in Brussels, we both agreed there are “too many men” there for her to stay;
Two naughty teenage Arab boys tried to push through the line of young female volunteers managing queue, for fun (Me: “Boys! Boys! No!” they scampered off laughing);
A young woman in a head scarf with a man (husband/brother/friend?) who looked very reserved but started nodding and smiling when she realised she was being hemmed in by smiling young women;
Naughty fourteen year old who did not get up early (Calais camp time is get up at one), go to school, or have a ticket (received a rollocking from me on this subject, to the amusement of the adult man with him);
Young Sudanese guy in Superdry top, who thought his blanket was too large, was pleased when I told him this was a cool brand in London (however, was very keen to get a smaller blanket and would keep hanging around complaining);
Bloke who claimed to live in the tent next to distribution container who said had been given no tickets to claim stuff, but had to watch distribution every day (possibly lying but funny);
Tall young guy in North Face gilet, also pleased to learn this was a popular brand in London, however he was sporting a decorated knife scabbard (white leather with silver metal embellishments, don’t know if had a knife in it or just for show);
Tall newly arrived skinny teenager who got a sleeping bag and blanket, when I asked him if he was okay he grinned broadly and said thank you (although he had no ticket for clothes other than those he was standing up in).

In summary:

The camp is a strange place, not least as one rarely sees women or children (thankfully, as most of them are in a separate area which is fenced off so even volunteers for other charities cannot go there - am sure this is a good thing for security).

I met some amazing guys though, who were frankly very impressive. Chiefly from Syria, the Sudan and Eritrea. One young bloke an undergraduate student and I 'taught' was charming, and the only moment I saw a look of ruthlessness on his face was when he talked about 'jumping' trucks and his determination to get to London. I hope he makes it, he'd be an excellent addition to society here.

I did some teaching, some warehouse work unpacking / sorting contributions and was 'security' on a distribution of stuff to people there (sounds like a joke, given am rather limp-wristed, but ‘security' basically meant talking to people who were cross they didn't get quite what they wanted, and being nice to them).

The work Care4Calais does, in terms of teaching, is essentially outreach. They send two teams of five volunteers into the camp, to different areas each day, and they sit on a blanket and teach English / chat to people. The aim is to direct keen learners to the more permanent school there: Marco’s School (which along with the makeshift Eritrean church was spared the last demolition effort in the area).

Also the aim is just to be friendly to them and treat them like human beings. It was totally unstructured e.g. we let them teach us some Arabic, which they enjoyed (apparently I'm really bad at pronouncing the arabic 'h' sound). The charity need some resources to help this work, chiefly Arabic / English picture dictionaries and whiteboards/whiteboard pens. I plan to take a collection and send some out to them.

Still slightly coming down from the intensity of it all, not least as had a mild allergic reaction when on camp. It is next to two chemical plants, and my eyes were streaming throughout container hand-out for several hours. As were the eyes of Care4Calais's translator, a migrant I chatted to a lot, who does it every day (humbling).

Despite Katie Hopkins’s piece in ‘The Mail’ last week, it was a strangely positive experience overall (I saw her on her second day at the camp, and she looked remarkably composed for someone who had been so traumatised the day before). It was the charity I was volunteering for who ‘rescued’ her photographer and her on the Thursday.

There are strong, fit, brave, charming and determined young men there. Who are keen to learn and work. I hope a number of those I met make it over, as they would be a real addition to our society. London is calling, and they are coming.

Bravo them.

The Shepherd's Bush Blog offers a personal view on life in Shepherd's Bush.  If you would like to contribute a story about our neighbourhood, email us at shepherdsbushblog(at) You can also read about the Rev Bob Mayo's Letter From Dunkirk here

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