It was the day before the bulldozers moved in when I joined a group of London volunteers and walked the mud streets of the notorious French refugee camp known as the ‘Jungle’.
The Calais Jungle is home to an estimated 2,000 to 5,000* refugees described in recent months by UK Prime Minister, David Cameron as a “bunch of migrants”.
There is little doubt that life in the Jungle is brutal with harsh living conditions that swirl in a cauldron of mud enclosed by the razor wire security fencing paid for by the UK Government.
The Jungle sprawls out from under the French motorway flanked by two chemical plants pumping out noxious-looking clouds over a ‘new camp’ of converted shipping containers planted on a toxic industrial wasteland.
This ‘new camp’ will be home to some 1,500 inhabitants that French authorities plan to “contain” after the bulldozers have torn down any last vestiges of dignity, resilience and hope for those displaced by war, conflict and persecution.
Will bulldozers pull down makeshift church in the Calais Jungle?
Video by: Yee-Liu Williams
St Michael’s makeshift church, a symbol of resilience and hope
Sister Natalia Gomes from the Comboni Missionary Sisters has been instrumental in taking London volunteers to the Jungle since 2012. In those early days she recalls they were the only ones who visited, bringing food and clothing.
She has witnessed the significant rise in numbers but little has changed in need. She said: “They simply yearn for a future in a land where they can experience safety and have access to the basic necessities of life.”
But in recent weeks, there have been reports across social media that a Kurdish church and mosque have been bulldozed by the French authorities “clearing up” operation. Fears for the Christian Orthodox Church being saved is resigned to prayer.
French authorities destroy church + mosque at Calais refugee camp.
– official blindness to religion masks hatred https://t.co/WpoejHU6gW
— Martin Hughes (@MartinJHughes) February 11, 2016
Christian Mesnil, a French aid worker on site confirmed the report. He said: “I am of course ashamed, sad and angry but the bigger one is still open with young Eritreans praying inside – I was in the church with them this afternoon.”
Although uncertainty hangs over the St Michael’s makeshift church, it still stands as a symbol of resilience and hope for those who attend regular Sunday service and daily prayer as a focal point to help keep spirits up in inhumane circumstances.
London team serve up Eritrean feast
The London team from the International Centre for Eritrean Refugees and Asylum Seekers (ICERAS) prepared an Eritrean feast for 500+ inhabitants to be served after the Sunday service.
A long queue formed that snaked around the church where the rain stopped briefly for this unexpected treat. Tension rose as the team realised there was not enough food to go around.
According to Mesnil, there is daily provision for 2,000 meals supplied by the French authorities although the majority of residents, at its peak, with estimation of up to 6,000 can still go hungry.
London artists in support of refugee solidarity
Londoner Caroline Burraway is typical of a new wave of activism using art to explore the issues of the displaced and marginalised.
Burraway scans for possible faces who could be willing subjects. As a London artist, her aim is to “confront” the everyday “lived experience” of refugees.
The hope is that through her art and filmmaking she is able to raise awareness and acceptance for refugees in “confronting socio-cultural issues” that lie at the core of modern society.
Most well known are the recent Banksy murals that have popped up between London and Calais in solidarity with refugees across Europe.
Captured by Anna Bosworth on Instagram, the Banksy Les Miserables artwork was covered up within hours that criticised the use of tear gas on people in the Jungle.
A photo posted by Anna Bosworth (@annabosworth) on
Volunteers do what they can
While many refugees have fled war-torn countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, and dictatorships like Eritrea, the Jungle is also the last stop for those coming from countries like Algeria, Egypt and Jordan desperate to make it to the UK.
But with little support from the authorities for the despised, abandoned and displaced it is left mainly to the volunteers to do what they can.
Public groups on social media such as People to People Solidarity with just under 35,000 members; Uniting Volunteers with over 2,500 members or Calais Crisis Crew from East London and CalAid provide solidarity and support to the refugees stranded that have no place to go or call home.
The film Lotus Flower by The Worldwide Tribe is a moving, honest picture of real life and hope in the Calais Jungle.
You can take action:
London2Calais: Refugee Solidarity Summit 2016 will be held at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) on Saturday, 20 February 2016.