Voices From Across the Water

At Calais warehouse I drop the collected donations, Lidl food shop, and hundreds of torches, batteries and candles I bought for the families. Ruth Esca Bowmer took a wheelie bin to her work with a donations list from care4calais and her colleagues filled it with shoes, warm clothes and food. After the drop, I say hello to some familiar volunteers at the warehouse and then hand the torches over to Alice Kerr who looks after over a 100 families in the camp. The Healing Centre she had created as a hub for these families to seek refuge, cooked meals, donations and love, was destroyed yesterday along with the South side of the camp and the shelters of three thousand refugees. Some have claimed asylum in France but most have now moved to the north of the camp. Alice looks tired. She has been here for seven months. The evictions she tells me have been, “horrendous.” She has lived side by side with the refugees for months on end giving her time and energy to keeping people alive. But it has taken its toll and like many long-term volunteers she seems ‘burnt out’. “The camp was always bad for the children but now it’s even worse,” Alice tells me, “The other day I saw a five year old pull out a knife. They need to leave, anywhere is better than here.” That afternoon as the sun starts to set I drive to the camp. As I approach I can smell the smoke from a mile away. The camp is on fire. Flames reach high into the sky and the smoke fills the air. A wall of riot police line the entrance to the south side of the camp, beyond their black helmets and padded vests, the heat of the ten foot flames warms my face in the cold air, adding a whole new meaning to the words ,burnt out.

The next day the scene in the south side of the camp is apocalyptic.  Tiny fires smolder among the debris where the Dome Theatre, Youth Centre and Healing Centre once stood. Most have moved North and the rest of the camp now stretches out beyond the shipping containers. This makes it feel even bigger than before and as I wander around I realize orientating my self is harder. The sun is shining and everywhere people greet me with “hello!” With a donation from actress Juliet Stevenson, the Women and Children’s Centre has a new double Decker bus. On the top deck some of the unaccompanied children sleep at night. They are having a pamper day where the women can come and get their nails done, lift their spirits and be together. I am looking for Jungle Books, a library set up for people to come and be quiet and read. I am told this is still standing in the south side of the camp-and indeed it is. As I walk back across the burned ground of the once southern camp I see the Library, the School, the Medical Centre and the Ethiopian Church defiantly standing amongst the burnt rubbish and ash black landscape.

A Gentle-Man.

I am stood outside the medical shelter run by the Hummingbird project, one of the few remaining shelters to be left amid the burnt waste of the southern camp. Down the side of the tent in large gold and black graffiti hang the words, ‘Don’t lose hope’. Opposite is the Info Centre, a base set up for people to meet and share information. I am after stories, recordings for a new idea to raise awareness and more funds. Suddenly the door to the Information Centre opens and a man with kind eyes says hello and invites me in. It takes me a second before I realized the scabs on his mouth are from thread sewn in wide stitches across the bottom and top of his lips. This is M. He is from Iran and he has sewed his mouth shut in protest over the recent evictions of the southern side of the camp. I know about him and his companions, images of their bleeding mouths and scarf covered faces were in the UK papers. I tell him my name is Leila. He has a sister called Leila but is confused when I tell him I am Welsh. ‘A Welsh Arab’, I joke and we laugh. He makes me a coffee. They are drinking fluids but he is on day twelve of the hunger strike. At the beginning only a few of them stopped eating but more have joined and there are now twelve including a British volunteer. I feel like he trusts me immediately. The negotiation of trust is quick in this place. The decision to make someone a confidant seems to by pass the normal routes of introduction and analysis. The language barrier and immediacy of the camp mixed with the direness of the situation, seems to create an unspoken shorthand, that consists of a complex exchange of eye contact, body language and openness. Soon we are sat together laughing about his over-courteous response to me begging him to have the free chair and him insisting on standing. Here you cannot linger, the sense of hospitality is acute-you will immediately be coaxed into the nearest seat. So I am sat while M compromises by perching on the arm of the chair. He introduces me to more men who have their mouths sewn shut. Some look more tired then others. As M tells me about his hunger strike I am struck by how gentle he is. I am reminded of the images in the papers of ‘tough’ looking men with bleeding mouths and scarf covered faces and I realize how surprised I am by M’s soft manner. An example of my own judgment swaying towards a prejudice I was barely aware I had. Another man joins us he has a kind round face. M translates. He is Kurdish, here with his family. M tells me the man paid smugglers seven thousand to get to England, they beat him badly took his money and now he is broke. M tells me he is starving for this man and for everyone in the camp. I speak to a British volunteer who appears to be distressed that too many people are in the shelter. I walk outside with her and she tells me M is tired and he needs his rest. But I have not said goodbye and know it would offend him not to. I say farewell and ask if he is tired. “No” he says, ‘I am not tired,’ and he wants me to record his story. I later find out that there was a meeting of the leaders of the camp. They begged the men to eat, that ‘people only cared about them inside the camp not on the outside’. But the hunger strikers tell them they are not concerned with their own lives and will carry on protesting. That night back at the hostel I get a text from M. ‘I am so sorry I didn’t tell you my story, tomorrow you will be the first I promise.’ I wonder about his need not to be left in silence with his hunger, his need to be heard. Nothing is more evident to this, than when I return the following day with water, tea and milk. M has sewn his mouth up again, he is hardly able to open his lips. “You cannot do the recording now,” I urge, “surely it’s too painful?” “No”, he insists, “I will talk”. He leads me into the back room. He will not let me sit on the floor and returns with a chair. He then kneels by my feet and I record his story. He speaks in Farsi I will translate later. I have to hold the recorder close as the words are soft and his mouth does not open wide. As he tells me his story in soft Persian vowels, someone in the distance sings the call to pray and I wonder how we both came to be in this strange situation. Myself far from the comfort of my normal life and M so much further from the comfort of his, I cannot begin to imagine.

The Syrian Brothers.

Things happen so fast here. I’m introduced to W through another Irish volunteer I meet while I am sitting with the Hunger Strikers. I explain I am trying to meet people and listen to their stories and she takes me straight to her Syrian friend. As we approach W is collecting firewood from the remains of the southern camp. He has kind sparkling eyes and a mischievous grin. He offers me his down turned wrist, “no don’t touch my hand it is dirty from the wood”, he explains in clear English with a slight American twang. I joke that I thought he was “offering me a strange cultural hand shake I had never seen, like kissing the queen’s hand.” We all laugh. I ask him if he would like to tell me his story? He says, “no he would not like as it is painful, but he will.” I do not catch up with him again until the afternoon. Eventually I find the Syrian area of tents and his shelter. He immediately apologizes for not having found me and invites me in. I step inside a wooden shed-like structure with just enough room for four beds, two on the floor and two bunk beds. It is so clean and tidy inside. On the wall two photographs of W’s children hang between the beds. “They are in Lebanon with my wife” he explains. He has not seen them for eight months. He introduces me to two men. “These are my brothers, we did not know each other before, but now we are brothers”. One man looks like a volunteer. He says he often gets mistaken for one. I think it’s his floppy curly hair and sweatshirt. He has a sad serious expression and a proud guarded intelligence that later beams into an open smile. He tells me he was an English teacher in Syria. His English is very good and acts as translator throughout our talk. The other third ‘brother’ is H, who speaks very little English. He is tall with a slim elfin face. He is twenty-five, the youngest of the men and appears shy at first. They make room for me to sit down. I do not ask for their stories straight away I sit and talk, I want them to trust me. But again I soon realize this issue of guardedness is something I carry with me from back home and for a reason I cannot explain there is an unspoken trust between us that already exists. I sit with them for nearly four hours. They each tell me their stories, discuss politics and share their accounts of the camp. H is first and he speaks in Arabic, while the English Teacher translates. He tells me his real brothers are in England and wants to go to them. How many times has he tried to get to the UK? Too many to count. He was in prison in Syria for six months. He was tortured. As he tells me his story with his knees pulled up to his chest and his eyes on the floor. I do not understand what he is saying, the English teacher tells me he will not translate this part of the story. I translate this when I get back to the UK, it is an account of imprisonment and torture. “They broke my chest” is how he finishes the story. He then asks me if I want to see his scars. I am frozen. I don’t know what to say. I tell him I believe him and that I do not need him to show me evidence. But later back in my hostel I think about this moment and wish I had said yes and allowed him to show me his scars. Because at the time I couldn’t put my finger on what it was, but perhaps he was not just asking if I needed proof, perhaps also he needed to show me, he needed someone to bear witness, to document what he had been through.

The Teacher’s story is next and he tells me in English. He speaks in slow careful sentences the precipice of grief ever present in his voice. He tells me about his brother. “The power cuts come; when Assad forces are about to strike they shut the power down. There is no communication, then you know there will be a strike”. His brother was bombed and his leg cut badly. He was taken to the hospital, but the teacher and the rest of his family were stuck in their homes for two days while the bombings continued and did not know if his brother was alive. Then Assad’s soldiers came to the hospital, his brother could not run. “They took him and no one has seen him since. This was two years ago”, the English teacher continues in his a slow serious tone, his head drops and his whole being wilts with the memory of this brother. I cannot help it. I cry. H hands me a pink tissue with Hello kitty written on it. “I had to leave because of my brother, I was blacklisted and risked prison or being shot if I stayed”. I ask him about his sisters who are still in Syria, is it mostly men who are encouraged to leave? “If you are strong Assad will force you to fight so what choice do the young men have?” interjects W who has joined us and sits on the floor. “There are only Two-Hundred-Fifty Syrians in this camp and we are the only group who do not have a smuggler. All other groups have their own smuggler, but you must pay, who has this money?” He explains his predicament. “I only want to be given a chance to prove myself. I have a degree and want to work, just give me the chance to work.” He tells me people want to know why he does not stay and fight. “Who should I fight for? The Assad army who are bombing us? The Isis? How would this help my children and my wife?” Although there is anger in his voice he is calm when he speaks. “All of us here do not care about our own lives, we are here to help our families. But we are in shock we did not know the United Kingdom would not take us, that we would end up here. I would rather die in Syria than live like this in this camp.” As I leave I thank them for sharing their stories. W tells me, “We meet people and they come and bring us food, they want to keep us alive and they bring us hope.”

As I walk back across the camp the sun is setting and the sounds of the camp enter through my ears, but I am somewhere else, part of me is still sitting back in their shelter. I am changed. The enormity of what I have just witnessed and shared is more than anything my small comfortable existence back home in London could possibly have contemplated before today. They had tried to translate a saying they have in Arabic, in simple terms they tell me it means. “When you get on the bus, you are different to when you get off it”. I feel this change and it sits in my stomach like a burning lump of lava. So I return the next day. I bring them breakfast- croissants orange juice and coffee. They are embarrassed and chide me for bringing food when I am their guest. “It’s our job to feed you!” I joke that I only brought it so they would make me a coffee. They laugh and although I have already eaten breakfast they force me to eat a croissant and laugh when I pretend to be a child and hide the rest under my chair. They have lit a fire in a steel drum and we sit around this. I ask what the big blue tent is for. “That’s our solarium.” I am so impressed I ask to be shown inside. “We use to have to queue for three hours to have a shower that lasted six minutes, so we built our own shower room.” The tent is large like a long blue caterpillar. Inside the far end there is a seat made of wood with a bucket on it. They heat the water on the fire and wash sitting down. Then sit in the entrance area and dry off. “Sometimes we let people eat in there, if it’s cold.” W apologises as he shows me around insisting, “it’s not usually like this, it’s in need of a clean.” Although it isn’t dirty. When we return to the fire another man has joined them. He is very clean looking and his clothes are surprisingly neat. He is a pharmacist. They tell me his wife is in the UK with his three-year old daughter and he has not seen them in three years. He is claiming asylum in France, which should take another six weeks then he will be able to travel and see his wife. I ask why they would not all claim asylums in France. They are afraid. “There was a big attack, a large group of French men attacked seven Afghan’s, three are still missing and two bodies were found in the woods. You do not hear these stories?” W says. “If they attack me when I step outside this camp, what is to stop them attacking me if I claim asylum in France?” The sun is shining and the sky is blue and I want to know if they ever go for a walk, although I fear I know the answer. “Never” the Teacher says. “It’s not safe to walk alone, even in the day, you must always go with a big group.” I try to contemplate how it must feel to be surrounded by countryside, but not be able to walk in a field or along the beach. To wake up everyday to the same view. The rubbish, the muddy shacks and shabby tents, with the big blue sky above, a reminder of the natural beauty you cannot be in. The hopelessness of their predicament sinks in for the first time. I look around the fire at the pharmacist, the engineer, the teacher, and the technician. They are trapped here. With their haunting memories that they cannot forget and longing to see their loved ones that just grows stronger. And I realize they have run to escape one prison and now they find themselves in another.

A Mother.

It’s my first time in Dunkirk. I drive up to some volunteers on the entrance to the camp, I explain I am looking for a friend and have some tools to give him. They usher me in and tell me to park anywhere. “Anywhere?” I ask. “What about the car is it safe to leave it? Can I just park up?” “Sure” they shrug. As I drive in I realize my apprehensions based on driving into Calais camp, are unfounded here. This is the new camp. It feels a world away from Calais and I am told it is a million miles away from the old Dunkirk camp, basically a muddy field with little else but sinking tents. Dunkirk’s Green Mayor Damien Carême, who has been deemed a ‘Hero’ for his fight against the French government, to allow the MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres) to build a new camp with wooden shelters for all the estimated 2500 refugees. You can just drive in and park up anywhere. No mud, no riot police and lots of building going on. I find my friend Rob Crook, who runs Building Support. They have been doing an incredible job, raising money and building shelters. They are busy and Rob has little time to chat. He is in the middle of building one of the many large kitchens from which food can be cooked and eaten, making it a communal eating places as well as aid distribution. “We want the refugees to be able to cook for themselves and take owner ship of the kitchens.” I have brought him some tools from home, an electric wood saw and some drills, as well as picking up more tools on route. Later I meet a teacher who has set up a temporary school tent, whilst the wooden school shelter is still being built. He tells me there are many children here. He wants the fourteen, fifteen and sixteen year olds to catch up on their education. “ There are huge gaps in their learning, education was interrupted, many have not had schooling since they were ten”. I have brought some balloon modelling and some stickers, which I hand out to a group of kids. “They are bored, there is nothing for them to do all day”, the teacher tells me. I then meet the ‘Mother’. She is waiting while her fifteen-year-old daughter is finishing a lesson. She has another five-year-old son with Downs Syndrome, who is very much in love with a balloon purple dog I make him. I spend the rest of the afternoon with the Mother and her two children. She show’s me her new shelter, which is very small, but dry and she has a stove inside. She is Kurdish. Her husband died on the boat on the journey here. She is “tired” she tells me. Her five-year-old daughter has been very ill with flu they have been in hospital. I help as she tries to feed her daughter the antibiotics the five year old does not want to swallow. This is aided by some sweets I have in my backpack. We are joined by the fifteen year old, who is brandishing a medal she had just been awarded for her schoolwork. The mother tells me she has a brother who is in London, she “runs for the train,” every night she tells me. “What about your daughters?” I ask. “Here” she says as she mimes pushing her son in a pram and holding her daughter under her arm whilst running. She even mimes the rain and wind as she runs clutching her children. She is “tired” she repeats. Then she starts to cry. I tell her “I am sorry”. And we both know there is nothing more I can say. I later speak to her brother on the phone. He tells me she was in the paper, a journalist did a story about her and her son was on the front page”. Later she wants me to see if I can find it, I tell her I will look when I get home and send it to her. I don’t ask for her story, she has already had to speak it once and she does not even have the article to show for it.


One comment

  1. rowena crerar · April 6, 2016

    your care and integrity go beyond ….more like you are needed !…These blogs are recorded with respect , sensitivity compaction and although hard to read , such sad content , I am glad to be made more aware of these individuals plight.


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