It’s called ‘The Jungle’. A patch of dirty, grey sand on the edge of an industrial estate. When you first see it, it brings to mind many things, but absolutely not the exotic verticality of a jungle. The makeshift buildings – some caravans, some tarpaulin stretched across wooden frames and many just basic camping tents – are low to the ground. The sand undulates, but from an elevated viewpoint it’s possible to see the entire sweep of the camp. Unpaved roads and pathways wind between the tents – appearing organically, in the way they might have in medieval London: ad hoc and unplanned. Under the sand is discarded asbestos, because the site used to be a dump for toxic materials. It’s nothing at all like a jungle.
There’s some degree of order, however; a product of the camp’s longevity. One tent functions as a barber’s – men sit outside on camp chairs and queue for a trim or a shave, as they do across the world. The larger structures with colourful, painted exteriors are restaurants, offering fresh flatbread and spiced vegetarian dishes, served in ubiquitous polystyrene takeaway trays. You can buy sweet green tea from a hundred different places. Small shops in caravans or wooden shacks offer up soft drinks, sweets and, occasionally, fruit. There are places of worship, and prayer calls echo across the canvas roofs. People carry jerry cans of water from communal stations, some walk with school books tucked under their arms. The sound of middle eastern music or American hip hop leaks from a hundred cracked smartphones. The order is a shock. It’s possible, with your first, superficial glance, to see this most unnatural of jungles as a place of peace and calm. Except that the cracks appear as readily as the rivers that sweep around and into the tents after a rainstorm.
Every night, men, women and children who live in the camp, try to escape. Not all of them want to reach the UK. In fact, around 60 per cent hope to make their home in France. This is not a writhing pit of anglophiles, yearning for the land of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. Of Theresa May’s ‘Go Home’ vans. But people risk their own lives and the lives of others to escape that place. And that’s because it simply isn’t a place where anyone should live. I spent a week in the camp and I should make clear that there are many people with much more knowledge and experience of the motivations and histories of its residents. But there are also plenty of stories circulating in the UK about the camp and its residents that are based on no first-hand experience and amount to nothing more than a reflection of a peculiar type of nationalistic prejudice. I’m not going to explain at great length how the camp is a degrading and miserable place to live. I’m not even going to tell you about the tireless volunteers trying to improve the lives of people living there - although they are many. I’m going to try to explain what I think I’ve learned. The rest of it is easy enough to find out about, if you look.
I arrived armed with excuses – for myself, more than anything else. That I didn’t have a position on the politics of migration and I wanted to help on a human level. That I was there for the children of the camp, above all else. That I understood the fears stoked in people about what the camp residents represented and how they could be seen as a threat. I left changed – as I think everyone does – and not entirely in the way I expected.
What struck me most, on my first visit to the camp to distribute food parcels, were the handshakes. Everybody tries to shake your hand, even if there’s a queue of two hundred hungry people behind them. Some shake with an elaborate grasp, twist and snap (which I struggled to master – just not cool enough), some with a quick touch to the heart. It was clear as I handed out the bags of rice, oil, sugar, chick peas and spices that there were residents who have, to a degree, adapted to life in the camp – made friends and built a routine. But more obvious are those that struggle – whether with a burden they’ve carried with them from Syria, Afghanistan or Sudan, or through the steady filing away of their soul by the grey camp sand. Shoes mismatched and torn, clothes ragged, eyes sunk and skin raw. But they all shake your hand. It’s a simple, universal, human gesture. It’s about respect.
Over the next five days, I must have shaken hundreds of hands. And it came to mean something to me – probably more than to the residents. It meant, ‘I get it, we’re the same.’ And this is what changed me. Not the sudden realisation that these are people, rather than statistics, or an army at our shores – I hope I knew that already. But that there’s a very basic human instinct at play in all of us, and we should try to understand that it manifests itself in different ways in different lives.
Khalid is sixteen. He’s from Syria. He has neat, short hair and deep brown eyes. He lives alone in the camp, but he has family settled legally in England. He’s entitled to come to the UK, but the process is so painfully, cruelly slow, that after months, he’s only just been granted the leave to stay in France (the first step to receiving asylum in Britain). He wants to go to school, to improve his English, to work and build a life. I waited with him for an hour while he prepared for his interview with French officials to get that leave to remain. We couldn’t talk much, because he’s very shy and his English isn’t great and my Arabic is non-existent. But we stood in the sun and nodded and smiled at each other a bit. I tried and failed to talk about football. I’d love to be able to tell you his story – his experience of the war in Syria and the devastation of a once-proud civilisation. But I don’t know it, so I can’t. You can find those stories everywhere, from real journalists who are looking for them. All I can tell you is that when I was sixteen, I was worried about girls, and school and friendships and spots. I wasn’t thinking too much about civil war. Being sixteen is tough anywhere, but for Khalid, it was unimaginable.
But – and bear with me on this – I don’t want you to look at Khalid and think how awful his life is and how brave he is and, Jesus Christ, what horrors he must have seen for one so young. Or to focus on the fact that he was living alone in a disgusting camp, surrounded by strangers. Or to wonder how his nights must be, turning over in his mind how he has ended up on a rubbish dump in Northern France. Because when you think about that, then it becomes impossible to relate to him. Everyone’s problems are important to them: the disastrous haircut that you think has ruined your life, or the battle to find a lawyer who’ll get your case for asylum heard. It’s all the same, really. It matters to you; it matters to him. If you try to put these issues in some kind of order, of course you’ll lose out to Khalid – nothing in your life is as awful as what he’s gone through. But that’s giving up on him. It’s saying, ‘I can’t imagine how bad your life is, so I won’t.’
In that low, treeless jungle, there are kind people and there are angry people. There are young children and old men. There are mothers and daughters and young guys who care about their clothes. People you’d like and people you’d rather avoid. Remind you of anywhere?
So, what will stay with me forever from my time in the camp is that it’s full of people. I’ll remember the dirt and the acrid smell and the way the smallest tents were crushed by the rain. But most of all, I’ll try to remember the people. And I will miss those handshakes.
(I volunteered with Care4Calais and I would recommend it to anyone - #care4calais)