I felt useless in the migrant camp, between worlds, and I feel useless now as they demolish it. Still ambivalent about the preservation of something that should not exist – would not exist – if Christian values were more popular among governments.
I visited as writer/director for a mission agency, a year ago, on an ordinary day.
“It’s your birthday?” the refugee from Syria asks, smiling over the coffee he just made me. “Here. Toblerone.” It’s gigantic. We’re two feet apart, sitting in his wooden shelter in the camp in Calais. I’m adamant I’m not stealing chocolate from a man living in a shack. No, sir. Perhaps if I hadn’t had so much already today...
“No, thank you.” I’m watching my weight. “You’re too kind.” But it’s tough to talk calories and diets with people fleeing warzones. It feels rude. He insists again, so I break off a big alp. They’re called alps – like the things Napoleon crossed on his way out of Europe, into North Africa. Like the things I could go skiing on, visa-free, if I chose to. He insists again. Now my refusal is rude. In the name of respect, accepting hospitality, multiculturalism, integral mission and Jesus, I eat a giant piece of chocolate. I’m a fat evangelical Gandhi.
Jessica the camera woman, Chelsea the American intern and I arrived about an hour ago by road and rail. We’ve brought only the essentials. Cameras and sound tech we could carry on our backs. Nothing too obvious. They’re not crazy about journalists here. I park nervously on an industrial estate around the corner from the Jungle. I’m making for a day among people whose lives have outrun almost everything they owned, and I genuinely say a prayer for my car. I’m afraid it will be stolen. Or ticketed. This is my primary thought as we go in.
Inside the Jungle
The camp is mostly mud, plastic sheeting and casual suspicion. It’s been raining and the ground is saying it’s taken about as much water as it can. The excess, the extra, the unwanted is lying in large, murky pools on the clay surface, awaiting entry. Donated shoes tiptoe around the edges, trying not to get wet. The sun is shining, but there are no laundries here.
Our contact is English and looks development cool and maybe a little dubious of us. I focus on the cool: the scarf, the shades justifying my own decision to wear sunglasses, which I was fretting over a little. These things are important.
I’m a fat evangelical Gandhi
She’s given us fashion advice for visiting the mostly male, mostly migrant camp. I wonder if telling Jessica that skinny jeans are fine last night will make filming difficult today. Certainly, the two pretty girls get a few loud hellos. I’d have had to carry them in in my backpack to avoid it. And it’s hard to reach the high saddle of the Smash The Patriarchy horse when the closest any of us have come to this life is the Christian festivals where we moan about the worship being too cheerful, and about the portapotties and standpipe basins that are these men’s only bathroom.
Most people just watch us quietly, anyway. Warily. Sizing up our motivations? Or skipping that step and going straight for the good stuff? Resentment? Gratitude? Shame? I see glowing points of hostility everywhere. But, then, I always do. Really, it’s things you’d expect if you didn’t think the world revolved around me me me. Tiredness, busyness, curiosity and that automatically accepting friendliness you so often see in large gatherings. Some people just can’t help but laugh and smile and shout hello.
There are shop stalls lining the puddled mud road. They’re not a million miles from the rough stalls I’ve only ever wanted a Coke from in DRC, Peru, India and Lebanon. The national flower of so many places, grown from waste wood, plastic sheets and tarpaulin. All I can think about is what I’d do for shelter in their position. How I struggle with flat packs. How I can’t do camping anymore. Later, a worker in the camp remarks that “some people just suck at being refugees.” Accountants are not always great carpenters, even if they come from countries where we expect everyone to be an artisan. War is not a bestower of gifts. That’s good stuff. Write that down.
The Toblerone man’s ‘home’ (I know, I know) is in Calais Syria. The camp is divided thus. Iraq. Eritrea. Afghanistan. Borders are so important. Habit of lifetimes. There’s a frisson of hide-and-seek excitement as we march off the broad road and step between the shelters onto a narrow path, our contact a living passport to the Real Deal. Proving we’re not tourists. We tread carefully, as if dancing behind a movie set.
Endless soft toys crowd the shelf above his narrow bed, which is strewn with blankets, chargers, aerial photos of the camp, overlaid with maps. The toys watch him make coffee on a small camping stove. I have always wanted one like it. Don’t say it, don’t say it. I vomit smalltalk to cover. Compliments are my currency with strangers, particularly poor strangers. I fill my mouth with Toblerone.
And my first thought about the coffee is where the water came from. Typhoid. Cholera. Like I’m in a South Asian slum. This is France. I’m going to buy reasonably priced wine and brie less than a mile from here when I leave. So I smile appreciatively and hate myself a little as I drink from the hot glass he’s given me. I want every sip to demonstrate that I don’t mind drinking his coffee water. My mouth says “Lovely!” In my appalling largesse, I am willing to take whatever bacteria come with his wonderful hospitality, offered from meagre means. His face says: ‘It’s a cup of coffee. Chill out.’ He’s met my kind before.
I’m going to buy reasonably priced wine and brie less than a mile from here when I leave
“Jude Law sat where you’re sitting,” he tells Chelsea. “Really?!” If this were a cartoon, her behind would be glowing. It is not. He offers lunch and we accept. It’s served in a little courtyard between the shacks these days, after a request to stop handing it out from the backs of trucks. Dignity. Steaming vegetables are doled into compressed cardboard bowls a lot like the specimen vessels you need to use before being released from hospital. Chick peas and thin sunshine, standing around an oil drum fire. Back in his room, he is distracted and often silent for long periods, leaving every now and then without explanation, staring at the doorway where 'liberte, egalite, fraternite' is carved into cheap pine.
A glimpse of God
There is disparaging talk of journalists, writers and camera crews from the Western activists who all arrived for a few days several months ago. Yeah. I nod and make disapproving faces, appropriate noises. Wonder whether raging against the world ignoring you and against people telling your story is pragmatic. Wonder whether we’re losing daylight to film. Wonder about my car.
We’re picking our way between caravans and shacks, corrugated passages and pallet courtyards and the sun is warm on our faces. I have stepped in my third puddle, watery filth filling my shoe. I don’t mind. Hero.
Two boys lounging in a wood frame doorway, sharing some headphones, whistle once, twice at the girls. Shout “Hey!” It is not unfriendly. Not without an edge of aggression. Smiling, bored. Ninety per cent of the people living here are men. The forward guard; or the rear: those less likely to be helped in the West. Patriarchy has its downsides, I think, and am immediately reminded about what must be happening to their sisters and mothers, wherever they are. They watch us pass, the unwavering gaze of nothing else to do, and I make a show of smiling, man of the world, wave and laugh and shout something confident back at them. Walk a little closer to the girls. Wonder if this is what prejudice looks like.
There’s a crack in everything: that’s how the Leonard Cohen gets in
Our contact says she sees a new glimpse of God almost every time she comes here. Something beautiful and serendipitous. She tells me about small, welcome miracles of mundane assistance, and Jesus showing in people who aren’t supposed to know Jesus. Unprovable, undeniable personal stories to make a post-evangelical sing Hallelujah without irony. Small, bright fissures in the dreadful, monotonous suffering. There’s a crack in everything: that’s how the Leonard Cohen gets in.
Inside the Calais church
We trek towards a cleared area – formerly shops and dwellings filled with people, now just dark mud and mateless shoes, a vast no-man’s-land between trenches.
A sign in a wasteland: Jungle Books. I laugh. The library and community centre: a small cluster of structures still standing in a vast area recently ‘cleared’. They are smaller than the Ethiopian church that rises white out of the black mud like a simile or potential publicity nightmare. The mosque nearby did not survive. A jovial man in middle age emerges from a shelter near the entrance to greet us. We ask if we may see his church. It’s your church too, he says, and doesn’t mean it. It’s his, and he is happy to share it. We take off our shoes. They filmed Songs of Praise here once, you know.
The tannoy mutters a sermon. It’s in a language I don’t understand, which is a mercy. I’m trying not to feel as cynical as I always do in a new church. And an old church. There are carpets on the wooden floors, icons on the walls, a cross in the centre. The icons are posters: some traditional gold and red-brown mugshots, Greek engraved with symbolism I miss; some Mormon or fifties Catholic. White Jesus, blow-dried and clean. He and Mary have no expression in any of the pictures. 2,000 years of dispassionate watching from the walls. That’s a long time.
It’s quiet. We’re moving through the church at museum pace, gallery pace. Polite and unsure of what to do. Our contact kneels. Lights a candle. I ask the jovial man’s son if I can sit at the foot of the cross. There are plastic chairs. I pray a little for the place, the people out there in sensible shacks and mud and separated from the people they love, unsure what to say. What can you ask for in any kind of faith? I ask God to fix it. To show me if there is something I should do. I pray then, for the first time in months, in adoration. It feels peaceful and unhurried. Unemotional, like the Spirit always feels to me.
This place is terrible. And beautiful.
“It’s a holy place,” our contact says outside. It’s almost certainly true.
We sit for a while with the jovial Ethiopian and his boys, on logs and rusted garden furniture around another oil drum fire. They make us coffee and we talk football, church, Africa. At the threshold of the holy place, we talk about the promised land. The Ethiopian church father looks like Moses. Says when he’s in England he’ll give us coffee in cups of gold. You think I made that up, but I didn’t.
The coffee is bad; the coffee is the best I’ve had. The sun is shining on our faces and the smell of smoke is sinking unauthorised into our clothes, ready to stow away to England. I feel happier than I have done in weeks. Years, perhaps. Because it is my birthday and I’m in France, doing necessary, ambiguous work. Because I’m seeing things and talking to people I’d never be able to were the world better. And this place is terrible. And beautiful. And, honestly, I can leave.
And now, this week, they’re demolishing the Jungle. Should I be sad? Should I be angry at the larger injustice? Should I stop measuring things by how they make me feel? Probably.
On the way out of the camp, we are accosted by two children who try to pick my pocket. They are terrible at it. Comical and tragic. I worry about their future as we pass the big white police in their big white armoured trucks, and then sigh in relief. My car is still there.
Praise the Lord.
All images (c) Langley/Brenden/Stone
Premier Christian Radio's Rosie Wright visited the Calais Jungle yesterday. Click here to listen to her report