The end of the road: a sketchbook of refugees in Calais
The refugee camp known as the Calais “Jungle” is in the process of being destroyed, and with it a self-governing community that belied the squalor of its environment. I went there for a week over Christmas last year, and stayed for a month. After a couple of days in the warehouse, I found a job at the Ashram kitchen where I chopped onions and served chai for three weeks. The final week was spent creating drawings for an NGO that wanted to tell the stories of the people in the camp, a bid to humanise the individual from the “swarm”. The NGO was aware that many of the migrants felt uneasy around cameras, so they wanted drawings rather than photographs.
The kitchen has now been dismantled, and the camp around it flattened by bulldozers. I swapped Facebook details with the people I drew, so I could send on the image. The majority of those I met have since been dispersed by coach to various parts of France and Germany, and their photos appear on my Facebook wall. Sometimes they are smiling in front of ornate fountains, or bored on the back seats of buses, and at other times they are taking selfies in police cells and detention centres, or filming chaotic footage of brutality from the authorities. And some have made it to Britain.
When the sun comes up, the camp is still; there is the sound of the motorway and, somewhere, a hacking cough. A quiet stream of men, women and children returning from another night on the motorways, forecourts and ports of Calais have made it back to their tents and are trying to sleep before the day begins. Here in the leafless birch and bramble forest, the southernmost tip of the camp, I sit on a pile of sodden duvets and stacks of discarded quick-cook noodles, bloated by the rain. Aside from the litter, the place is carpeted with jeans, sleeping bags, jumpers and socks, trodden into the mud, abandoned after nights of leaking tents and days too cold to dry them. I make a sketch of a large chipboard hut, wrapped in rope and tarpaulin, with the door hanging open. It is the hut of the Iraqi community leader, and has been deserted for several weeks. Had he made it to Britain, he would have texted, but since no one has heard from him, it is likely that his phone has been smashed by CRS Security and he is being held in the detainment centre at Coquelles, or, worse, making his way back from the Spanish or German borders where the police had dropped him.
When the volunteer vans arrive, the camp stirs. Transits carrying food for breakfast – beans, bread and biscuits – or larger lorries stacked with pallets, chipboard and prefabricated doors. The generators begin to hum, there is the noise of hammering, and people wheeling trolleys and barrows to the water points, filling their containers, stripping off, breathing deeply as they duck their heads under the cold jets of water to soap their ears, armpits and groins.
I am sitting on the eastern ridge, looking west over the Sudanese camp when it starts to hail. I have just completed drawing the chimney stacks of the chemical factory on the horizon, and have to scramble to gather my papers and brushes, and run for cover. I am suddenly in the picture I have been sketching, ducking under the tarpaulin porch by the lines of trainers as the ice bounces off the ground. Two heads jut out from a hut, and call me over. Their friends are cooking breakfast, and a few of them are waiting in the small space they call the office. There is a table, a few plastic garden chairs and a line of books on pallet shelves. The man next to me is reading a French edition of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. A bridge engineer in Khartoum, he has been learning French these past months, and with his fisherman’s beard and rollneck jumper he is the spitting image of the author photo on the front. I tell him this, we laugh and share cigarettes, and I am invited for breakfast.
The camp, like a city, has divided into communities of nationality, and each area bears the handprint of the culture that built it: the Sudanese camps are like barracks, with large dormitories for up to 16 people, cooking spaces and rooms built solely for people to socialise in. When breakfast is brought in, we stand around three large pots of lentils and cherry tomatoes, tearing off chunks from white bloomers, dipping into the bowls, scooping up the food with our bread. We pass salt and smoked paprika, and everyone is talking over each other. The man beside me has just woken up. He arrived from Yemen a week ago after a year on the road and was expecting to meet his friend at the camp, but cannot find him. Like me, he met the Sudanese over breakfast, and they asked him to stay.
I pick my way through the Afghan camp past trenches of collapsed sand dunes and duckboards sunk into puddles. I pass groups of European volunteers, some wearing bibs and carrying bin liners, some solving carpentry problems and some hovering at the fringes, holding their cameras protectively. The police are combing through the camp, masks on their faces, plastic bags on their boots, armed with pistols, tear-gas guns and batons. I turn on to the main street, now busy with people, and walk past the restaurants that are opening for lunch. Peering through the chicken-gauze windows, there are men toasting tobacco to pour into cigarette shells, rolling naan dough, frying onions and lighting the gas stoves for stews. Flatscreen TVs are on in some of the larger restaurants, and men stream through the open doors, out of the buffeting wind to sit huddled against each other, swaddled in several jackets, watching Bollywood films. They sit in silence.
And if they are not building a new boxhouse, or queueing for clothes, food or showers, this is what their day consists of. They sit in a restaurant as their phone charges. They might speak to friends on Facebook, call their family, watch the fight that flares in front of them. But for the most part, they sit and stare into space – Afghan chemical engineers, Sudanese Coca-Cola salesmen, Iranian teachers, Iraqi translators and Syrian electricians.
I walk to the Eritrean church to help with the food distribution, a small hut with the words “Everybody welcome” painted on the front. There is a long line of people standing in the rain, waiting for the vans to turn up and the distribution to begin. Few people in the queue know what they are waiting for, but join it anyway. How the queue fares is determined by the experience of the volunteer. He opens his van door, and starts handing out apples and bread. A tight semi-circle forms around him and soon he is shouting and pushing, pleading with people for order. More often that not, the fights are caused by the younger men. The boys whose parents sent them alone from Syria, or the boys whose parents died on the journey – these camp orphans – are quick to fight. Rocks in their hands, they are pulled apart by older men. Everyone wears a smile, because in a camp full of hammers, saws, knives and sadness, buried and compressed into anger, it is dangerous not to.
The light dims, the overhead spotlights come on and loud music starts blaring from the Eritrean bars. Men huddle around weak fires and boil water for chai. As soon as it is dark, the black market starts up in a corner of the camp by the Banksy mural – the goods are dry socks, jeans and jackets draped over the arms of men who queue daily for them at the clothes distribution centre.
There is a birthday party in the Ashram kitchen for one of the Kurdish cooks, a soldier who has fled Daesh, and the tent is filled with the Iranians, Iraqis and Kurds who help run the kitchen. There is a slack-skinned drum, beaten with a wire brush and fingertips, a double-reeded pipe and circles of men, arm in arm, dancing. In the centre, Arsham, a police officer from Iran, ducks to his knees and jumps into a dance that is cut short by his coughing.
As I leave, an Iraqi family has just arrived at the entrance. A journey of 5,000km that ends here, 40km from its destination. A father, a mother, a baby and a coughing toddler. I take them to the pink caravan, which stays open all night, handing out emergency tents and blankets. They will pitch their tent tomorrow.