The School Bus Project, Calais

One of the beautiful things about this bike ride is that we can connect places to places and people to people. In Whitstable we spoke to Shernaz, an active organiser of support going from that part of the world to Calais and beyond. She told us that, while in Calais, we must visit Kate McAllister, who works on an educational project there. So two days of cycling later, that’s exactly what we did.
Continue reading “The School Bus Project, Calais”

Grande-Synthe & Calais: Compare and Contrast

The Grande-Synthe migrant camp in Dunkirk is to the Calais jungle as Milton Keynes is to London. Where Calais is only now having order imposed on a meandering medieval street plan, Grande-Synthe has been ordered from conception to execution. The result is that the two migrant communities could not feel more different. Continue reading “Grande-Synthe & Calais: Compare and Contrast”

“It’s time to do something” Austrian Migrant Supporter

Back in October I was in Austria, the only open gateway to the EU for migrants and refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East. I took the opportunity to speak to migrants and activists about the current situation.

These are the impressions of a young woman, who describes herself as “just a supporter”. For nearly four weeks, she had been supporting a refugee protest camp outside the police station in Graz. You can hear the story of one of the refugees, Mazin, recorded here.

This Austrian woman spoke passionately about her motivation to action. “This situation is writing history,” she explained. “When in 30 years my children ask me what happened, I don’t want to explain to them why did I just watch, why didn’t I do anything.” She sees action as a moral imperative: “I don’t see it as help,” she says. “I just see it as something you basically have to do now.”

This solidarity imperative means that, rather than becoming an aid worker, she finds herself surrounded by friends. “Everybody I met, they become friends,” she says. “It’s not like they are refugees and I am Austrian and I help them, but we’re doing something together and we become friends. That’s what it should be like.”

Unsurprisingly, she’s not terribly impressed by the governments of the EU. “They could do so much more,” she says. “If it would be about some economical crisis, they would have a solution in days.” Her laugh has real bite. “But now it’s about human beings standing around outside in the cold for hours and hours. They’re not treating people with enough humanity.”

I’m a voyeur, a do-gooder, a megalomaniac!

“You’re a voyeur, a do-gooder, a megalomaniac.”

I’ve been called many things since I first started “getting involved” with Calais back in the summer of 2014. Rather than dismissing these accusations hurled as insults, I would rather examine them to discover from where they derive their power. Because power they have: I do feel, at times, a voyeur, a do-gooder and a megalomaniac.

I don’t think many people enjoy acknowleging these aspects of themselves, but I think it’s important to do so. Hopefully I’ll show you how listening to your feelings of voyeurism, do-gooding and megalomania can make you, not just a better activist, but a better person altogether.

“You’re a voyeur.”

This accusation is founded on the idea that the migrant camp in Calais represents a vision of the world so radically different to mine that I must be taking some kind of perverse pleasure in the encounter. My favourite term for this kind of activist tourism is, rather than solidarity, holidarity.

It’s true: my warm home in London couldn’t be more different to the waterlogged shanty tents of Calais. It’s also true that my life as a middle class white Englishman couldn’t be more different to the experience of a six year-old Syrian boy, alone in an unwelcoming foreign land with not much more than the shirt on his back.

The accusation of voyeurism hits the mark. The misery and squalor of Calais is horrifying. It does, sometimes, make me stare uncomprehendingly, and thank my lucky stars that I don’t have to live through this reality indefinitely.

But this is my reality. Calais is as much a part of my life as the streets of New Cross, and we are all part of a world crowded with camps as horrifying as Calais (and many much more so). Should we airbrush places like Calais from our pretty picture? I don’t think so. The only question that remains, then, is how we should act in such a world.

Here is where we get our first insight: the feeling of being a voyeur only hits me when I restrict myself to being an outside observer. This actually happens very rarely. When I’m in Calais, I usually spend most of my time talking to people, trying to teach English, sharing food, or playing cricket. The moment I take action, the feeling of voyeurism dissolves in a shared connection with real people who react and respond themselves.

It’s simple. We can’t deny that voyeurism is part of the spectrum of human feeling, but I see voyeurism as a timely reminder that we are not here on Earth merely to observe; we are here to connect.

“You’re a do-gooder.”

The sense of “do-gooding” is undoubtedy pejorative. Do-gooders are earnest, naive, impractical, patronising, relentlessly foisting their well-intentioned, but ill-conceived ideas of betterment on people who have asked for nothing.

I won’t repeat the unfavourable comparison I’ve made before between charity and solidarity, but I do feel that the difference is hierarchy and intention. (Please note that I’m not talking about all insitutional charities necessarily, but the fundamental concept.)

Charities are classically and intentionally hierarchical: a material need is identified and filled by an outside group. The power resides in the charity. Clothes, food, or bikes are handed out from those who have to those who have not. At its best, this is nothing more than resource re-distribution; at its worst, however, the recipient is turned into a beggar for aid.

The concept of solidarity is very different in structure and intention. Solidarity recognises the natural and fundamental equality of humanity. The intention is simply to stand side by side with your brothers and sisters, in the good times, as well as the bad. What is yours is theirs, and vice-versa. It is similar to a friendship bond, rather than an institutional or paterfamilias bond.

I have always left Calais feeling like I was an equal beneficiary from whatever exchange of humanity took place between me and the people I met there.

So when you are accused of being a do-gooder, it’s a signal that perhaps you have assumed more power than you should in an equal relationship. The solution is simple: check your privilege, and surrender any top-down control you have.

“You’re a megalomaniac!”

A megalomaniac is a pathological egotist, conceited, self-obsessed, with an exaggerated sense of their own importance. What has this to do with activism and Calais, you might wonder. Well, there are a couple of ways a megalomaniac might become involved.

A pre-existing megalomaniac might see in Calais and the migration crisis an opportunity for his own self-aggrandisement and fame. I’m not going to talk about those kinds of people; they have a lot more work to do than I can help with here.

What I will talk about, however, are the heady megalomaniacal feelings that an activist might get when they get media or popular attention, when they are part of something awesome, or when they start to feel possession over “their” action.

Since the middle of 2015, there has been a lot of attention on Calais, not just in the media, but on the street too. Back in 2014, no one was particularly interested in what I did in Calais. One mention of “migrants” and all I’d get was a dirty look. This autumn, however, those same dirty lookers were clamouring for tips on how to “get involved”.

My small part in the success of the Calais Critical Mass over the August Bank Holiday also meant that I ended up speaking to all sorts of national and international media, in print and on TV. A couple of things I’ve written about Calais on this site have gone viral, sending thousands of people to a blog that usually gets about 50 visits a day.

At times, it’s been hard to come down from the megalomaniacal high.

When I get this kind of attention and appreciation, my heart rate rises, I feel light-headed, and my voice goes all squeaky. It’s a pretty great feeling and it would be tempting, indeed understandable, to chase that megalomaniacal high. But I know that it is not a productive emotion to indulge.

I call these feelings “megalomania”, and not something more positive like “enthusiasm” or “ecstasy”, because they always result in me turning inwards, chasing the feeling, not the results that I would like to see in the world. The antidote to megalomania is modesty.

As we rode down to Calais in an eighty-strong mass last August, I kept telling myself (and anyone who’d listen) of the modesty of what we were trying to achieve. This was not a grandiose expedition, I kept telling myself. It would be a success if just one person made just one other person smile across the battlelines of our border.

Whenever I felt myself being carried along by incipient feelings of megalomania – “This is the beginning of the borderless revolution, and I made it happen!” – I would refocus on that one little smile, and give thanks that I was able to be a tiny part of a much greater positive force.

Megalomania is another useful signal, telling me that success is making me turn inwards. The solution is to appreciate our smallest imaginable achievement, and give thanks to all the others who make this possible. Megalomania is a call to acknowledge the higher purpose we share with the rest of the planet.

Yes, I am a voyeaur, a do-gooder, a megalomaniac (sometimes)

Occasionally feeling like a voyeur, a do-gooder, or a megalomaniac is an inescapable part of being an activist (by which I mean “human”). I’m only human; I’m bound to get swept away sometimes by feelings of horror and power, fame and pride.

I see these feelings, not as enemies or insults, but as signals, important reminders to reconnect with the real reasons for why I’m doing what I do.

  • When I feel like a voyeur, I must remember to stop being an outside observer, and to connect.
  • When I feel like a do-gooder, I must remember to check my privilege, and surrender my top-down control.
  • When I feel like a megalomaniac, I must give thanks to others, and acknowledge my small role in our shared higher purpose.

As activists, we must learn to take our own temperatures (or rely on a trusted friend). When you feel yourself getting too hot, dial the temperature down by refocussing on what exactly makes you feel good about what you do. What makes me feel good is the community, being able to make a personal connection with people from Sudan, Eritrea or Syria. That’s what’s important to me.

If you can’t find any good in that moment, then it’s time to take a step back altogether. Relax, go home, clear yourself out.

Thoughts on Saving the World

The other day, someone accused me of “trying to save the world” through my activities in Calais, the English teaching, the UKHIP cricket match, the bike ride.

I’m not, I can’t and I don’t want to try to “save the world”. I don’t even want to try to change the world. Changing the world is not something that you can approach directly. Like happiness, any direct approach only ends in disappointment.

So my only aim, both in words and in actions, is to help people think about the world. That’s it.

I can’t change what people think, I can only invite them to think about the world.

Sneaking up on change

The best form of thought is experience. Words (like these) are good, but never enough. To think about the world deeply, you have to seep yourself in the reality, the physical reality. One experience of Calais, one connection, will always be much stronger than any news story or blog post. Words can be a catalyst, but that’s it.

So I invite people to join a cricket match or a bike ride. My sole aim is to lower the barriers to action and try to make the experience rewarding.

If that invitation is accepted, then I’m happy, because as soon as someone does something, their reality changes and that change inspires change in their ideas, thoughts and future actions.

In turn, that change in the individual will create ripples throughout their social groups, as they talk to their friends and share their ideas and actions. Eventually, in enough numbers, those ripples might influence change in our wider society. And, maybe, just maybe, that’s when the world changes.

It’s a long road, but it’s approachable, one invitation at a time. My method is certainly not saving the world, and neither is it changing the world directly. At best, I’m sneaking up on change, hoping to take it by surprise.

Process, not results

For me, none of my trips to Calais have been about what the migrants “need”. The trips haven’t been humanitarian missions or any form of charity. They have always been about forming solidarity and connections between different people, between people in this country as well as with people from Sudan, Afghanistan, Eritrea – wherever.

The Critical Mass bike trip was the grandest expedition that I’ve ever had the pleasure of participating in. Dozens of strangers came together and formed strong bonds of solidarity, helping each other, sharing their knowledge, skills and optimism. Even close friends discovered new sides to each other during the journey. Before we’d even left the country, the “bike ride” was already a success: it had already galvanised people to exchange and connect.

Before we’d gone one mile, I was already delighted. A healthy and happy process is always much more important than achieving what we’re tempted to think of as “results” – how many bikes distributed or how much aid delivered. My favourite results are almost immeasurable and I have to take them largely on faith: sharing, smiles, stories. These three Ss are what cause ripples in society.

Be there

The primary importance of process stems from the idea that, in my opinion, no one can say what any other human being “needs”. What do I need? I’m not even sure I know myself.

The people who live in Calais are hugely resourceful; one more tent here or there is far, far less important than the smiles and stories that one more human connection can provide – on both sides of the interaction.

Whenever I have gone to Calais, I have always learnt and discovered far more about the world and myself than I feel I have contributed – yes, even when we brought over a huge van full of tents and sleeping bags.

Everyone who I have seen go to Calais has come back inspired, their lives altered, sometimes dramatically. Many have gone on to encourage their friends to go over and bear witness for themselves. At the very least, everyone has returned with a more nuanced impression of Calais, of migration in general and with deep memories of the people they met in particular.

Those impressions and memories will hold far stronger than a whole barrage of bigoted media coverage. Nothing beats being there, planting yourself in the kinaesthetics of the reality that, to some, is just another news story.

Whatever you do, be there.

The message

So my message is very simple: go over and see for yourself. That’s all.

Go and see for yourself, try to understand, exchange stories, find out why these people are coming here and what they want. I don’t mind if you go there and decide for yourself that you still want borders and immigration controls – as long as you hold that view from a position of knowledge.

In my experience, however, people tend to return from Calais inspired to tear down these fictional boundaries between mankind. It is usually obvious, once you’ve experienced the reality, that to militarise and strengthen the border is to put yourself in the same position as the builders of Hadrian’s Wall, the Great Wall of China or the Berlin Wall. Not only will it create more problems than it solves in the short term, but in the long term, sooner or later, the people will be free.

So I urge you to go to Calais and see for yourself. Obviously, don’t go as a tourist, camera clicking – it’s not a zoo. But don’t go as a charity worker or a humanitarian crisis worker either. Go as yourself, be yourself, be curious. Share your stories and your experience and be open to hear the stories and experience of others.