Charity or Solidarity?

A tall, thin man spots us and veers towards my companion, his fingers pressed together in supplication. “Madame – ticket, ticket, ticket!”

“I don’t have any tickets with me today. No tickets, no tickets!”

The man turns away, not so much disappointed as empty.

“Why are they asking you for tickets?” I ask my companion, who volunteers for a wonderful French charity.

“I am the one who holds the tickets,” she replies. “They can exchange tickets for shoes, jackets, such things.”

The incident, although brief, shook me. This man had treated her like a vending machine, not a fellow human. It made me wonder at the difference between charity and solidarity, and how those differences inevitably affect the way we behave toward one another.

During my stay at the migrant camp in Calais, I have been treated with great respect, kindness and generosity. My home for the week was a small hut, built from wooden pallets and sheets of plastic, recycled from advertising banners. The migrants call this hovel a “hotel”. It might sound like a humble kind of a shelter, but if hotels were classified by the gentleness of their neighbours, this one would be awarded five stars out of five.

I have been teaching English in the camp, mostly to Sudanese who have escaped the genocide in Darfur. On my first day here, an Afghan somewhat bluntly asked me, “Who pays your wages?” I replied that I was not being paid at all. He stared at me in disbelief. “Why are you here, then?”

It’s a reasonable question. I am here motivated by a desire to show solidarity with the migrants, to show that not everyone in Europe sees them as animals and to share what I can with them as they transition from bleak past to hopeful future. I am certainly not motivated by wages, but neither am I motivated by ideas of charity.

Charity is something you dispense to those less fortunate than yourself. It is founded on a fundamental assumption that there are those who are above and those who are below. Charity can even be used as a weapon, to prise people apart. Think how you would feel if someone you considered a peer tucked a twenty pound note into your pocket, saying, “I can see things are hard for you, go and buy yourself a nice clean shirt.”

I bet you’d throw their money back in their face and never speak to them again! How quickly a gift can turn into something patronising and divisive.

I am not, absolutely not, questioning the motives of the humble and hard-working charity volunteers in Calais. They do great work and have acheived some notable victories against the French government for migrant welfare.

But charity as a concept is difficult to love and, in my experience, promotes inhumane treatment in both directions. Charities may treat the communities they serve as “clients”, while those “clients” may treat charities as vending machines.

So what is the distinction between solidarity and charity? How can you tell one from the other? Is there such a distinction?

To be honest, I’m not sure. There are no black and white answers to these questions. But there are two aspects of my stay here that I feel are significant.

Firstly, by living and sleeping in the camp, I am a part of the group – albeit a temporary and highly privaleged part. In contrast, all the charity workers in Calais live off-site, forcing a separation between the volunteers and the group they hope to serve.

That separation encourages a “them” and “us” mentality, no matter how well-meaning the volunteer. This separation is further riven by the branded tabards that the charity workers wear, marking themselves out in uniform as “not one of you”. I come to Calais as an individual, not as part of an organisation.

Secondly, the nature of teaching is itself one of solidarity. There is no well of English that I can scoop out in buckets and hand out like water. The English language can never be passed down like charity; it must be shared in solidarity. As a teacher, my job must be to share my knowledge, not give hand outs.

The distinction comes down to how you behave and what you offer. I feel like these two differences alone affect the way that I am treated in the camp. As I walk around, going nowhere, I am greeted with happy shouts of “Teacher, teacher!”, not “Ticket, ticket!”.

The History of John and Henry and of Frederick

Late one night, after the longest English lesson in history, as we settled on blankets in the darkness of the Calais jungle, hot sweet tea in our hands, one of the Sudanese, an intense man with eyes like light bulbs, caught my attention.

“Mr Teacher,” he says, light bulbs flickering, “I want to tell you the history of John and Henry and of Frederick.”

“Okay,” I reply, thinking these sounded like odd names for Sudanese history.

So the man fixed his bulbs on mine and this is, word for word, what he told me:

John said, “My father is taking me to Paris.” And Henry said, “Oh, you are so lucky! I would love to go to Paris.” Then Frederick asks John, “When are you going?” And John replies, “This time next Friday, we will be in the car that is taking us to Paris.”

I waited for more. There was no more. I looked at the others who shared the blanket; they avoided my eye or smirked into their tea.

I looked back at the story-teller, feeling a little embarrassed. Had I missed something about this short tale, told in oddly precise English for a man who just hours before hadn’t been able to conjugate the verb “to be”?

The man clearly felt a little put out that his story had not had the earth-shattering impact that he felt it deserved and so moved swiftly on, to a story about Ellen and Helen and Margaret and Lauren.

The gist of the narrative was that, while Ellen was busy looking after her mother and Helen had gone out to buy a loaf of bread, the indolent Margeret was sitting in her bedroom listening to the radio. Lauren, our story-teller added, was at work.

Again expecting some sort of moral or narrative turning point, I waited for more. Again, there was no more.

I couldn’t bear the tension that was building around my incomprehension of this man’s clearly significant stories. “I don’t understand,” I said.

“You don’t understand me?” he cried, light bulbs flashing in exasperation. “Then why are you still here?”

I hurriedly corrected him. “No, no – I do understand you, but I don’t understand the purpose of your stories.”

“Ah,” he replied. “They are two histories that I lose in the boat.”

Slowly it dawns on me. “They were stories in a book?”

“Yes, English book. Somebody throws them into the sea.”

Now I understand. This man, one of the keenest of my students, used to have an English textbook. The “story” of John and Henry and of Frederick was clearly a model dialogue used to teach the future tenses.

I imagined my student, on the deadly Mediterranean crossing from Libya to Italy, reading and re-reading his beloved English textbook, until he had memorised its teachings perfectly.

The irony was sharp. The future tense is our way of envisaging and describing our hopes and dreams. My story-teller’s long journey from Darfur to Calais was fuelled by hope and dreams alone: the electricity that powers those light bulb eyes.

A story of hope and a future of dreams. Until both are tossed overboard.

Very Short Film: “The Wind is Free” – Calais June 2015

This very short film shows the basic living conditions of the migrants in the windswept “jungle” of Calais. Currently over 3000 migrants are surviving on one meal per day, in self-made shelters that vary from the miserably basic to the downright ingenious.

Filmed 21 June 2015.

The Open Air Prison of Calais

Riot police look down over the camp from the flyover. From below it looks less like a flyover than a prison wall. Five riot vans stand guard, half a dozen riot cops in each, just looking down on us. I take a piss into the bushes underneath their machine gun gaze. It makes me feel safer.

At the entrance to this open air prison, off rue Garennes, there’s a driveway of asphalt, where two games of football, a set of tennis and a cricket match are in progress, each game modified and adapted to the conditions. Spectators range the banks on either side, while the riot police keep score and umpire (maybe).

Saving four on the leg side are a range of new hire toilets, installed just a couple of days ago in response to a battery of complaints by migrants and by French charities on the migrants’ behalf. Before these new arrivals, toilet facilities were located in the bramble bushes, or a 15 minute walk over sand dunes in the Jules Ferry Centre.

Drinking water taps have also recently been plumbed into the arid ground. Three months of traipsing to and fro for basic facilities such as toilets and water are over. But to call the conditions satisfactory for human existence would be a grievous violation of the definition of the word “satisfactory”.

4,000 people live here, in a bewildering ingenuity of tents, wire fence cages and pallet wood houses. One man from Senegal has even managed to build a traditional house, complete with thatched roof. Another skilled carpenter has constructed a two-storey house of wood, with a twin room, kitchen and balcony that overlooks the road to the Jules Ferry Centre.

But most of the denizens of this sorry open air prison survive in throw-away festival tents, held together with gaffer tape and rope. The wind blows hard enough to rip open my shelter on the first night. The rain soaks heavy in Calais.

These people need proper shelter, they need many more water taps and many more toilets. Above all, they need proper nourishment.

The Jules Ferry Centre, the French government’s concession to humanity, provides one meal a day at 5pm. No breakfast, no lunch, just a kind of a supper, doled out at the end of a three hour queue. Many migrants rise above this desultory charity, preferring to fend for themselves, sharing large communal meals with their communities. Sacks of potatoes stand sprouting in the sun.

Many of the migrants here are Muslims, currently observing Ramadan, not breaking their fast until sundown, long past the 5pm cut-off time for Jules Ferry. From somewhere, the internal economy or networks of solidarity, my Sudanese friends summon up a traditional meal of stew, grilled chicken and hot harissa paste, with rice pudding for dessert, all laid out on a carpet covered with a bed sheet.

We sit and wait, clock watching. My neighbour offers me a date to break the fast. Then the call to prayer bursts out from somebody’s mobile phone. The sun finally dips below the motorway and the Calais sky blushes in embarrassment, silhouetting the riot police as they look on through binoculars.

We can eat.

The Ghetto of Calais

Almost the first sight I saw on my return to France was three Afghans making the walk of shame, back out past the barbed fences, trailed by a crawling Port of Calais car, window wound down.

Not a good sign, I thought.

But the sky was cerulean blue and the wind just freshening as the sun made out like it was going to be here until Christmas; the Afghans looked unbothered and the port authorities merely bored.

Cycling back into Calais town centre, though, I saw no more migrants. Compared to last summer, the streets were empty. Good sign or bad sign? The numbers of migrants here is already supposed to be higher than last year, four thousand by some estimates – so where are they all?

At the beginning of June, numerous camps and squats in the town centre were evicted and closed down. Gone are the Leader Price camp, the Galloo squat and the Egyptian house. These join the earlier evictions of Tioxide and the Afghan camp in the Zone Industrielle des Dunes. Chased from the town centre, their former inhabitants have no more cause to be in Calais. There is nothing for them here.

The mayor’s plan to cleanse the town seems to have worked.

I can’t help but feel a small corner of relief for the people and businesses of Calais who rely for their income on the clean tourist image that the mayor is so eager to portray.

Over the past few years, the people of Calais would struggle to feel pride for their town. Every street corner wore the badge of the failures of French welfare, UK immigration, EU foreign policy and the failures of humanity in general. Now, with the migrants largely corraled and confined away from the town centre, the effect is diluted and visitors can start to forget the “migrant problem”.

So I couldn’t help but feel a little glad that Calaisiens appear to have “their” town back.

But the greater part of me fears for what that absence means. It means up to 4,000 migrants are being forced to live in ever more restricted areas, more tightly controlled by the police and much, much more densely packed.

I fear because I know what happens when you squeeze more and more air into your bicycle tyres. Already this year, fights have broken out between groups of migrants, living in difficult conditions and in unnaturally close quarters in the Jules Ferry camp grounds.

(I won’t call these camps “jungles” because this light-hearted gallows humour name, given to the various wild camps of Calais, has been seized upon by the right wing press and used to promote their portrayal of the migrants as little more than animals, fit only for the jungle. The truth is the other way around: our governments are treating them as animals.)

Recently, tents were set on fire in the camp, in a dispute over control of the parking lot where many migrants try to cross into the UK. A wooden church was also burnt to the ground. The dispute, however, could have been over almost any real grievance or imagined slight – disrespect, drunkenness, a misplaced word – because increasing population density alone causes increasing incidence of violence.

Remember how fractious you get on long coach journeys, confined, packed close together with your fellow travellers who go from being charming strangers to stinking, inconsiderate, corpulent, greedy, selfish freeloaders in the space of just 9 hours.

Add to that the migrants’ growing frustration at a life interrupted by war and blocked by bureaucracy and you have too too much air squeezed into your bicycle tyres. It’s going to burst sooner or later.

I cycled, via the boulangerie, to Richelieu Park, in the centre of Calais. The sun grinds its heel into the yellowing grass. Two young boys share a bicycle, one pedalling, the other standing on the footholds on the back wheel, hands on the shoulders of his mate, looking for all the world like a Roman emperor. This is their empire again. Palm trees stand in rows, while the young take the sun, the elderly the shade.

A year ago, this park, and parks like it, would have been filled with lounging migrants, waiting for the evening and their chance to cross into England. Police, too, would have been strolling the grounds, moving people on in a haphazard, half-hearted manner. Today, both are gone. So too is the Salam food distribution that used to take place on a field behind the nearby town hall. Anything that might attract migrants has been excised from the town centre.

So I cycle for half an hour, out of town. The parks and polished streets of central Calais start potholing as the houses straighten up into apartment blocks and then abruptly flatten out into red-roofed bunglows. I overtake a boy carrying a fishing rod lance-like on his bike. Shopping centres skulk past, warehousing all kinds of cheap comestibles, from rack to ruin.

I cross the river and the wind hits me. Nothing but forty-foot lorries, factories and not much else. The rue Garennes is long and straight, built to service the industrial parks that line its verges. Some are still operational, choking fumes into the evening, others bear only the air of dilapidation and neglect.

This is where the migrants start to appear, on the side of the road, traipsing, schlepping, some carry boxes and bags, baguettes and energy drinks. Some coming towards me, heading into Calais, to try to cross at the Channel Tunnel. Others walk in my direction. I follow the trail underneath a motorway bridge and into the camp.

Here is where I shall sleep tonight. With those four thousand others, out of sight and out of mind.