Alongside Calais migrants
Jesuit scholastic Christopher Brolly has spent six weeks working alongside refugee communities in Calais, where, despite the removal of the 9000 residents of the ‘Calais Jungle’ in 2016, around 500 migrants and refugees remain, some of whom are unaccompanied minors, mainly from war-torn countries such as Eritrea, Sudan and Afghanistan.
“The conditions are dire,” observed Chris “basic human rights are threatened - provision of water, food, and accommodation are propped up by the humanitarian response of charities, and refugees often have their personal possessions and tents taken from them during evictions from their campsites, without being provided alternative accommodation. There have been instances of police violence.”
Chris volunteered with Utopia 56, first in a large warehouse organising consignments of donated goods, and then distributing among the refugees.
“What struck me the most,” he commented, “as well as the passion of the volunteers here to make the world a better place, was a wonderful atmosphere of tolerance and community. Around 17,000 people, mainly young, have volunteered over the past few years. The cause of the refugee communities here in Calais is clearly something that has captured the imagination young people of Britain and France and encouraged them to give their time freely.”
After two weeks Chris moved on to accompanying sick or disabled refugees to access medical help. He describes how he met “Joseph” (names have been changed), a young Eritrean, who had been run over by a car: “He was alone in the emergency department, unable to speak French and with very little English. I was struck by how young he was and how frightened he looked. We introduced ourselves, held his hand to reassure him and then took him to have his numerous wounds checked at a clinic. There was little we could say to Joseph, but I had a sense that just being there was important. As he came out of the clinic holding a large brown paper bag full of painkillers and bandages, I asked him if he had brought me a kebab, to which we had a good laugh together. From that point on, each time we saw each other he would smile broadly, and repeat ‘kebab, kebab!’ and I would marvel at how a few daft words and ‘just being there’ could help endear us to someone and make a difference to their life.
Another hospitalised migrant was “Michael” who had been shot by a people smuggler and left paralysed. Chris took a group of Michael’s friends to visit him: “it was moving to watch the guys overcome the adversity of the situation and look after their friend, taking turns to feed him, comb his hair and joke with him. I felt that, unable to enter into conversation, all I could do to help was to enter into prayer and I did so, focussing on their faces and loving actions.”
Chris also witnessed two refugee camps evictions during which large numbers of armoured police ordered the residents to leave and confiscated their tents and bedding: “I sat in the sand on the edge of the camp next to the young Afghan men, placing myself physically alongside them at this difficult time, felt the right thing to do, even if mentally I wasn’t ‘taking sides’. What saddened me the most was seeing the awkwardness in the faces of the officers, determined to do a good job, yet visibly uncomfortable at the complicated reality they found themselves in.”
For his final week in Calais Chris joined the Maria Skobstova community in which Christian volunteers live alongside migrants of all backgrounds. The community pray, prepare and eat meals, and maintain the house together. Chris describes how he gained more understanding from living alongside migrants than he had in previous volunteering in his blog.