IN A year without public celebrations of Easter, Eid Mubarak included an invitation to tea. The venue was a derelict warehouse in Dunkirk, and the hosts were Kurdish refugees aged from 15 to 60 — survivors of persecution who were desperate to risk the journey to a land that they could see some day, and where they hoped to find family, or at least a place of refuge.
They were surrounded by wind-blown rubbish, a supermarket trolley raised on a pulley to keep out mice, and some broken and some inhabited tents. Two men sang a hymn while another prayed on a perfectly kept rug. Outside, volunteers had set up a charging point for the phones that kept the refugees in touch with remaining family members, and distributed food. The hope, as more agencies returned, was to provide underwear and shoes; for, when the pandemic struck and other agencies pulled out, all the energy went into food provision. As one refugee said, it was hard to concentrate on Covid-19 rather than death by hunger.
Shortly afterwards, the warehouses were demolished; then, on the eve of a visit by the British Home Secretary, the camp was “cleared”, and its occupants were bused to distant parts. With some families living here, this was not the most brutal of the evictions: that was reserved for the young men living in woods around Calais. Raids there started at 5 a.m. one day, when they were forced on to buses, with no social distancing, and their tents and possessions confiscated, and were dispersed to distant parts. A few managed to remain, but were denied access to food, water, or shelter.
The “Jungle” was “cleared” some years ago, and the unaccompanied children were abandoned in actions that shame us. Refugees are still drawn to the coast, seeking reunion with anyone, however distantly related, and willing to risk the icy night attempt on the Channel. Every one of those 1800 or so people “cleared” from the camps this month has a story. The times of terror are not far below the surface of memory here, and, sometimes, the physical scars and mutilations of the journey and its captivities are on view. The eyes of the young, full of hurt and hope, are searing, however much we place protective barriers around the soul so that it is not overwhelmed.
IT IS not illegal to be a refugee, to seek somewhere safe; and they deserve support. The provision of safe and legal routes to another country is urgently needed: a task for politicians of good will. While both countries sell arms that permit the contributory conflicts and oppressions, France has taken in far more refugees than the UK. Most refugees seek to register in the under-prioritised systems of either country, and to contribute; and yet they find themselves trapped, unwanted.
As the climate crisis deepens, more will come. Until the pandemic, the French authorities provided some basic facilities, and then permitted voluntary work to continue. Not all the military police were brutal, and many Calaisiennes showed tolerance.
There is solidarity among refugees, even when there is no common language, faith, or culture; and there is courtesy towards humanitarian workers. Even when fear, frustration, and the effects of ravaged mental health are uppermost, the human spirit surprises with its generosity. And, in spite of new arrivals, the squalid conditions, and the inevitable damage to their physical and mental health, Covid-19 has, so far, not spread.
The stories are well-known to those who choose to inform themselves: the need to flee; the dangers of the Sahara and Mediterranean; extortion and torture in Libya; hostility and exploitation in Europe; all that drives people here. We hear, too, of the faith that holds lives together, amid the horrors.
IN TERMS of Covid-19, what draws people to volunteer, other than a sense of duty and solidarity, and shame for their nation? It is hardly cheap: all pay their own way, and most self-isolate beforehand, and afterwards as well. The hours are long, and, for some, the experience was emotionally overwhelming.
The volunteers were mostly younger British citizens, who used the time of unemployment, gaps in study, or furloughing, to work in northern France. There was a speaker of Kurdish and Arabic; a church organist and scuba-diver instructor who offered first aid; another first-aider furloughed from mine-clearance in Cambodia; a dentist newly recovered from Covid-19; a businesswoman; and some remarkable undergraduates. Behind them were thousands who supported their work with money, prayer, and publicity.
The reasons for volunteering were, for a few, a practical expression of faith. This motivation gained bemused acceptance by those who respected the faith encountered among refugees, but had otherwise viewed it as an activity for the elderly, or something presented brazenly as instruction, not exploration. The Church of the future will need to engage respectfully with the spiritual wisdom of outsiders.
THE experience of Covid-19 requires us to resist a return to those aspects of the former status quo which are immoral or unfeasible. Political will is needed to tackle the refugee crisis: our laws were designed for the period after the Second World War, and then refined during the Cold War, when the numbers arriving were small.
As the world heats up, more will be uprooted, and treating them with brutality does not work. We have exported our border controls — from the UK to northern France, from Europe to Libya — and ducked responsibility for what happens.
The pandemic shows that a virus crosses borders in days. With governments astray in a world that puts business before people, taking our crises seriously might show that people of faith have, after all, the will and courage to serve, speak out, and be part of the future.
The author (who has asked to remain anonymous) volunteered with the charity Care4Calais.
Darkness is coming, not twilight,
nor the eclipse
but a place in the soul grows silent,
over Europe, overseas.
In places where most live in fear,
our brothers’ tales stay unheard.
When he came
across the desert of bones
that will not flesh again;
when he was a slave, like Joseph,
scarred by lost labour,
imprisoned with no stars;
he longed for the land of promise.
He crossed a poisoned sea
in a hungry sunset,
packed in a boat that foundered.
Fishermen drew up skulls, socket-dark
facing the promised land.
Used with permission