The media is full of reports about the refugee camps across Europe, and not a week passes without news of disruption on the Channel Tunnel service because migrants have tried to get through it to England. It’s easy to consign them to anonymity through use of the vague label “refugees”. What’s not so easy is to think of them as individuals – as men, women and children with hopes and dreams, ambitions and back stories more vivid and inspiring than any X Factor or Great British Bake Off contestant. To really understand what’s going on, you have to experience it first hand.
Last weekend my son, Daniel, and I went on our second trip to “The Jungle”, the refugee camp near Calais, with the Swindon Calais Solidarity group. Our first trip aimed to provide as much material support as we could and we took sleeping bags, tents, toiletries and food. This time we were more interested in connecting with people in the camp on an individual basis, and we have come away with many new friends who have extraordinary stories to tell.
Like Barry, a mad keen Arsenal fan from Eritrea who wants to come to the UK to continue his studies. Barry, who speaks perfect English, was lucky enough to be allowed to study to university level in his homeland, and he has a degree in applied physics and specialist knowledge in laser technology. However, under Eritrean law he was then enlisted as a teacher, earning just $10 a week. He enjoyed teaching but wants to follow his passion, which is to gain a doctorate in science. The only way he can see to do that is to risk his life every night trying to get to England through the tunnel.
Or Aziz and Afredo, from Afghanistan, and Ibrahim, from Pakistan. These three entrepreneurial guys tried for months to get to England but have now decided to stay in France and build a business for themselves. They are partway through constructing a restaurant from branches, pallets and plastic sheeting. These men have so little, but offered us tea and conversation and promised to cook us the meal of a lifetime when we return.
Finally there’s Ridwan, another Eritrean who I would dearly love to take under my wing. Aged just fourteen, Ridwan’s parents sent him away from home before he could be recruited into the brutal military regime that awaits every young man. Travelling alone, he went by foot or illegal vehicle from Eritrea to Ethiopia, into Sudan and up into Libya, where he boarded a boat across the Mediterranean to Italy. Another long journey then took him up through that country and into France, eventually reaching Calais two months ago. He wants to come to England to continue his education, make friends, play football and feel safe, and every night he packs his bag and walks the two miles to the tunnel entrance where he tries to board a train. He showed us a bandage on his leg where he’d fallen from the fence, cuts on his hands from the razor wire. Ridwan is intelligent, resourceful, resilient and funny; he has a baby brother back home he’s never seen, and once a week his mother calls to check up on him. I can’t begin to imagine how difficult it was for her to send him away to what she hoped was a better future.
The day after our trip I flicked on the TV and caught a couple of minutes of the Jeremy Kyle Show but I quickly turned it off. Seeing people who, simply by an accident of birth, have access to education and health care and so many opportunities to make something of their lives, throwing it all away whilst those like Barry, Aziz, Afredo, Ibrahim and Ridwan struggle across the channel made me feel physically sick.
Photo Caption: Daniel Brown hands out sweets at the Calais Jungle