"I had no training, yet was refusing shoes to people in sodden socks because they were the wrong age"by Frank Andrews / October 31, 2016 / Leave a comment
Over the weekend, as the French authorities moved in, the jungle closed to the vast majority of volunteers who decided to stay in Calais. We’re here in the town, working in the warehouses. But we know little about what’s happening inside the camp now, to the young people we have spent our time teaching or to those we have come to view as friends.
I came to the jungle three weeks ago on the recommendation of a university friend who thought my brand new French and Arabic degree might be useful here. With this enforced pause there’s time to think about what function people like us serve. One encounter stands out and helps to convey the dual sense of futility and hope that seems to inhabit most young volunteers.
It was my fifth day in the camp and I’d spent the morning distributing shoes to children—which meant having to refuse anyone without shoes who looked over 18. I was teaching a French class on body parts, when a tall, skinny, good-looking young man approached me as I was writing on the blackboard. He asked me if I would mind coming outside for a moment, so I asked another teacher—a volunteer from Paris—if she would carry on the class.
We sat together at one of the camping tables outside the school’s makeshift classrooms, facing towards the northern part of the Jungle. His name was Hamed, he was from Darfur and he was 23 years old—three months younger than me. He wore a T-shirt and jumper and his thin tracksuit trousers clung to his legs above his ankles. On his head he wore a woman’s hat that wouldn’t have been out of place in an Earth, Wind & Fire video. I sat beside him shivering despite my thermals, walking boots and waterproof jacket. He wanted me to listen to his story and write it down in French.
For two hours, Hamed and I sat outside in the cold. Using broken English and Arabic he told me his story and I wrote it down in my best French. It’s vital for refugees to be consistent with their stories. Their life has to have been bad enough, but if the French authorities suspect them of embellishment or fabrication they can be refused asylum.
Hamed told me, in confidence, what had happened to him, why he had left Darfur, crossed Libya and Italy, and how he had ended up in the Jungle. It clearly wasn’t easy for him and he often broke off. When he gave details of how Sudanese government forces had treated his family and how they had been forced to leave Darfur, I thought he was going to cry.
As he spoke, I became aware that I had no idea how to deal with the situation. I kept thinking about how people would laugh at him if he wore that hat on a London bus and as he told me these painful, intimate things the indignity of his situation and my own shame at focussing on the trivial detail of his hat made me feel empty.
So often during my short time in the Jungle, I’d felt like a fraud. I had no qualifications or training, yet I was refusing shoes to people in sodden socks and sandals because they were the wrong age. When Hamed took off his hat to show me the scars from his injuries, it struck me that I was listening to this young man’s unbearable story with no clue about how to respond. I was not the right person for the job. I just happened to be there.
I went home that night, sat on my bed and fought off the urge to cry. I’m never sure whether to let myself experience the sadness I often feel here, or whether to beat it back. Compared to Hamed I have nothing to cry about. I also have outlets for my sadness and can call family and friends. Most of the refugees don’t tell their families they’re living in a refugee camp. They’ve been humiliated enough, so they just tell them the country they’re in.
Hamed thanked me over and over again for having agreed to translate his story. He was so used to being turned away that someone just sitting down and listening to him felt to him like a gift. Bearing witness to Hamed felt important then. But it was, I knew, completely inadequate.
I have no idea what is happening to Hamed now. He could still be in the Jungle, or sleeping rough in Paris or Lille, or sitting in a Welcome Centre somewhere in France, handing over my scruffy rendition of his life story to a French customs officer. It will be deemed believable or not, worthy or not of the time and resources needed to give Hamed a new start.
On Friday morning, most of the volunteers on our team left Calais, either for a break at home, or to carry on working with refugees in Greece. Those of us left set about cleaning the caravan, which was littered with mobile phones and shoes that couldn’t be distributed in time. I found a pile of postcards that were written to the refugees by English schoolchildren and which, given the refugees’ worsening situation, we decided not to hand out. One of them read:
I am so sorry what happened to you. UK is trying to help you we will do anything to help you so don’t worry.
Love from Chloe xxx