Over the New Year break, me and some friends went over to visit the Calais migrants. We brought over 200kg of clothes, tents and blankets to distribute around the jungles and squats, where over two thousand people from Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Syria and other conflict zones, live in what can only be described as icy squalor. On the 31st, we used funds we’d raised in the UK to help throw a New Year’s party for around two hundred people – migrants, activists and local Calaisians – in the Galloo squat, with dancing, fireworks and cake.
Now, though, I want to take this opportunity to inveigle my way into your brain and, using the power of hypnotic suggestion, to cajole you into visiting Calais for yourself. I promise you an experience you cannot – and will not wish to – forget.
“But there’s no point me going over – I wouldn’t know what to do or say!”
You don’t have to do or say anything. We’re all the same, we’re all humans and we could be Calais migrants tomorrow, living on the streets in freezing temperatures without food, shelter or running water. Besides, as much as I try to be useful over in Calais, I feel that I get way more out of every trip than I can ever offer. I hear stories that make my synapses struggle and tales that make my teeth chatter. The least I can do is be a friend.
On New Year’s Eve, we’re chatting to a Syrian guy who was planning to cross the Channel in a dinghy that night. “It’s my last chance,” he says. “It’s the last night of the holidays, there will be less shipping traffic, less security.” The weather is calm too; he can escape before the high winds return. “I grew up next to the Euphrates, where I would swim against the currents, so I’m a strong swimmer,” he says. “And the boat has three chambers, so I have three chances if there is a puncture.”
But he doesn’t have a life jacket. We offer him money to buy one, but he refuses our help. “I used to give money to charity,” he says. “I find it difficult to take charity.” Some activists try to convince him to stay, to wait until he’s got a life jacket, until he’s got a winter wetsuit, until he gets some sea flares, until he’s got a support team who can call the coastguard if – or when – he gets into trouble. As we talk, he tells us his story.
In Syria, he’d been tortured by the regime. He shows us deep burn marks on the fingers of his right hand. “They knew I was an artist,” he explains, “so I couldn’t do my work.” He tells us how they would force him underwater for minutes at a time, but he grew up diving in the Euphrates and could hold his breath for longer. “They couldn’t take my soul,” he says, “because I was a bigger asshole than them!” He laughs – now – and we laugh too.
Living in Damascus, he’d literally looked death in the eye. “I saw the shell coming towards me,” he says. “It was like in the Matrix, you know? When the bullet ripples the air?” We nod. “It landed six metres from me, but only my face was covered in dust.” Another time, he was standing on a hill to get phone reception to call his mother and father in a different part of the city. “I heard the thump, thump of the shells,” he says. “I waited for the whistle – when you hear the whistle, then you know that you are dead.” He looks at us urgently. “I would never wish it on my worst enemy, that feeling when you hear the whistle. I listened. Then I hear the whistle. I know that I am dead.” He survived again, one lucky asshole, and left his country to find another land where he could work without fear and live without death.
But when he got to Calais, he found something else. “I used to believe that I was better than the other migrants,” he says. “I used to have respect for the police. I don’t want to run away from them, like the other migrants.” He’s proud of the fact that he’d got from Syria to France without paying the mafia or people traffickers. “I used to think I was better than the other people, but now I see that I am not. We are all the same. The police treat us all the same, with beatings and pepper spray,” he says. “That has changed me. Now I see how the activists have a hug for everyone, no matter who you are. You can be black, white, Arab, Christian, Muslim – it doesn’t matter.”
I lower my head when I hear him say this, some wash of tears in my heart. I’ve done nothing except be there; listening, giving a shit. That’s all that’s needed. Don’t underestimate your power to be there. It’s amazing how much how little is.
“I used to want to get to England, get my papers and start a normal life,” he continues. “But my experience has changed me. Now I want to get to England, get my papers and – insha’allah – come back to Calais and be an activist.” He smiles. “I want to be a pain in the ass for the Queen.”
We do manage to convince him to join the New Year’s Eve party at Galloo. He’ll be trying to cross the Channel again soon – this time with a life jacket, he promises.
What can we do now?
If you want to go to Calais, then go! Get in touch with Calais Migrant Solidarity on +33 7 53 47 51 59 or with me directly in the comments below. Tents, sleeping bags and shoes are the best things to take over there right now.
BONUS: The Daily Mail Migrant Solidarity Tour!
This is the funniest shit that has ever happened in history. The Daily Mail are kindly offering to support activists going over to Calais to help migrants. I know, right?! Hilarious. If you go to http://dailym.ai/1HnZmkE, you can get a massive discount on return ferry tickets from Dover to Calais – £1 for foot passengers, £15 for a car and four people or £17 for an overnight return for a car and four passengers. Plus you get a free bottle of wine to share with your new migrant friends!
I’m definitely going to take advantage of the immigrant-hating perversity of The Daily Mail before the offer expires on the 1st of February. Give me a shout if you want to join us!
Happy New Year!
12 thoughts on “Humanity is Easy: Supporting Migrants in Calais”
I have some shoes, blankets and warm coats and sweaters. Where is the best place to take them in Calais for distribution ?
That’s great Philip!
Your best bet is to get in touch with Calais Migrant Solidarity on 00 33 75 34 75 159 (English speaking). They’ll know the best place to take them right now. If you have any trouble getting in contact with them, then go down to the jungle on Rue Garennes near the port. You won’t be short of cold people to help out!
Nice one mate!
Hi, I came across your site today- thought you’d be interested to hear that the Bristol Skipchen (a restaurant in Bristol that serves only ‘waste’ food rescued from going to landfill, where you pay what you feel) are planning on going over to Calais soon. They’re trying to raise money to fund the trip. I am nothing to do with the skipchen but thought it sounded like a great idea, and my brief internet searches about getting involved in Calais keep pointing me back to your site! Thought you may be interested, or know people who will be…
Thanks Jess! Someone you probably know just emailed me about this today. It’s a great idea and I’ll offer all the encouragement I can. Thanks for the tip! All the best, David
Thank you so much for this. I see from one of your articles that you taught English in the camp at Calais. I’m an English teacher of migrants in Dublin I was wondering whether you had anyone I might be able to get in touch with about perhaps volunteering for a long period as a teacher. Or even whether there is the infrastructure/need to do so?
Hi Redmond – I’ve sent you an email responding in detail, but I’d highly recommend anyone to go over there and see for themselves, whether that’s through formal teaching or just sharing stories and friendship.
All the best,
Hi, I am passing through Calais next week and wanted to take some blankets, coats and shoes with me. How do I make sure they reach the people who need them? Any ideas?
Great you want to get involved. It depends how much you have to take. If it’s just a backpack, then I’d go to the camp and make friends with some people first. Just be normal, be nice, be curious. You’ll meet lots of people, I’m sure. If you feel moved to offer them a gift in thanks for their hospitality, then go ahead.
If you are taking more substantial donations, then your best bet is to take them to the Vestiers des Migrants who distribute clothes on a more industrial scale. But I would highly recommend NOT taking any charity if this is your first visit to Calais.
You can read more about my reasons for this here and here.
Hope that helps you and anyone else reading this. I urge you to go, but go first as a normal human being, not as a charity worker.
All the best and please get in touch if there’s anything else I can help with.
I have lots of clothes and shoes, winter stuff and mainly for children, that I want to send them.
Is there any dropping point in London that I can take them to?
Sorry for replying to this thread as I couldn’t find anywhere else to write!
No problem – I’m happy to answer questions. I don’t know of any dropping off points in London for donations. Perhaps look for groups on Facebook who are going with vans and ask them if you can add to the pile. I can’t help much more because I’m not on Facebook myself, but I know they exist!
All the best,