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.
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.
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.
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