COP21 and the Invisible Jungle of Calais
On December 7, 2015, while participating in events surrounding the 21st Conference of Parties regarding Climate Change (COP21), I had the opportunity to join a group that included an artist, several documentarians, activists, and Gulf Coast front line leaders Juan and Bryan Parras, in visiting The Jungle - a “refugee camp” in Calais, France.
Our intention was to witness first-hand the migrant crisis now happening across Europe, as people flee from the devastating effects caused by climate change, economic disaster, and the resulting rise in terroristic activities in their countries.
Over 7,000 people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Ethiopia and Eritrea, live in the now 15-year-old encampment. The asylum seekers usually stay for several months while trying to relocate to a new home somewhere in the world. In The Jungle, most are trying desperately to reach England, where it is rumored that applications are processed faster and work is more easily available. Calais is the closest point to that destination. Many are killed along the way.
I submit to you below my testimony as a witness to what I learned during my visit. You will see few actual people in the photos, however, I only took their image if I was asked or given permission. Many of the residents are hesitant to participate in this way because of worries that recognition in a photo could put their lives, or the lives of their families back home, in danger. Out of respect and understanding of their wishes, it was important to me to stay within those safety-driven parameters.
When we first arrived at the camp we were introduced to Amir, who had traveled over 3 months to The Jungle from Ethiopia. He seemed happy to see us, and shook hands enthusiastically. Afterwards he led us to a multi-layered, tarp-covered dwelling. The one room building was about 10 foot by 8 foot, with a small wood burning stove in the corner, and served as a kitchen/dining area for Amir and several others. Amir and his friends made us each a cup of warm tea, garnished with harvested wild mint. It was a welcome refreshment on the chilly day.
Amir spoke English fairly well, but several others who used the communal area did not. They were all men, boys really, from drought ravaged Ethiopia. Most are the children of farmers who are now unable to survive in their homelands. Eighty-five percent of the citizens of Ethiopia are living in extreme poverty. This is in direct correlation to the effects of climate change.
After speaking a bit, Amir offered to take us down to the art installation to speak with the directors. As we walked it was expressed that it was very hard traveling as an undocumented black man outside of the camp. He explained that he often felt a responsibility to the boys younger than he, who did not understand why they were sometimes met with disdain. They struggled as to “why they are not seen as brothers,” to those living in the area surrounding The Jungle.
Worse than suspicion, recent attacks on The Jungle, which included tear gassings by French authorities, had left them with little doubt of their not being wanted.
War and violence is another reason that many are in the camp. Darfur, a region of the Sudan, has been devastated by armed conflict since 2003. Ethnic cleansing within the region has caused continued displacement. Yet again we see that violence is exacerbated by climate, the region continues to suffer desertification – a type of land degradation that includes the loss of water source, vegetation and wildlife due to drought conditions. This leaves the population vulnerable to disease, poverty, and the rise of terrorism, as cultures compete for resources.
Art is everywhere in The Jungle. Everything from political statements, to encouragement, to beautiful murals meant to remind people of their homelands or of the beauty that is life. The art installation is shaped like two jungle gyms overlapping each other and covered in plastic. In the smaller dome at the front, there are photos with quotes of former and current residents of the camp. Inside the big dome are beautiful works of art by both a professional artist and from the residents of all ages. It is there where camp gatherings and some classes are held regularly.
As we were hanging around the Art installation, we learned that the ground we were on was once a toxic waste dump. “That is why the French let us stay here,” we were told. Evidence was easy to find, exposed asbestos lie on the ground in several places around the camp. A report released in September by the University of Birmingham cited health complaints among the residents, including stomach and respiratory illnesses, as well as skin diseases.
Living conditions in The Jungle are harsh. Aside from the lack of adequate shelter, food cannot be easily prepared or stored properly, there is approximately one toilet per 75 residents, and there is no way to wash linens and clothing. Water is scarce and researchers have found fecal contamination in at least one of the five communal taps. The area surrounding the camp appears to be industrial, with smoke stacks clearly visible.
“I’ve (been) coughing,” Marya, a mother of five, told me. Pointing to the smoke, she added, “It makes (the) children sick.”
I met Marya by the makeshift playground in the women and children’s part of the camp. She had traveled alone to The Jungle from Iraq, with here three youngest children in tow. Tears filled her eyes, as she explained in broken English that her two older children had been killed by a bomb, just prior to her travel. She took my hand and set it on the head of her youngest son, who was about three-years-old, pointing to the others – about 5 and 7 respectively - her voice cracked and she put her hand to her heart. “All I have now,” she said.
There are children of all ages in The Jungle. As we walked the labyrinth of paths the sound of their laughter filled our ears. Despite the harsh conditions children can be seen running and playing, like all children do. One little girl challenged me to a hula-hoop contest, which she won easily. The child pictured here was shier, and stayed close to his father who gave us permission to take a picture. Children in Calais often suffer from malnutrition, weather exposure and many continue to deal with the emotional trauma of war and violence in their homelands, as well as from their journeys to the camp.
These young brothers yelled out to us as we passed, “Take our picture!” Posing together it was obvious to see the love between them, and the lightheartedness of their nature. “Life is good,” one brother said. “We are alive and together,” added the other.
Spirituality is a part of the day to day activities for many living in Calais. Here you can see the Eritrean and Ethiopian Orthodox church, but there is also a mosque on premises.
Back in the men’s portion of the camp, we came across a short row of community run restaurants and small stores in an outdoor market. The Jungle has become a community of its own, with entrepreneurs hoping to raise enough to aid them in their travels. Here we bought chicken dinners for two Euros each from the chef pictured. The food rivaled the best that I have eaten in the United States.
Mothers, children and families who are unable to afford food from the market are served by volunteers from a community kitchen. On the day that we were there, the director said that she and others presently feed 300 hot meals twice daily, to the camp’s most vulnerable families, they also deliver groceries to fifty more. At one point we were asked to pass out a box of bananas to the community. Smiling children came from all around to gather their dessert.
Many of the residents of the Jungle had promising careers in their homelands. Walking around the camp, we spoke with a dentist, a physicist, two attorneys, a professor, a nutritionist, and an artist, among other professionals.
Mehti, who we met while helping in the kitchen, had been a music producer in Iraq. When we began to talk, he started by apologizing for his English, which was actually quite good. The soft-spoken and handsome 25-year-old told us of his enjoyment of music and of his hope to join his brother soon. He expressed his appreciation of reading, and how doing so helped him with his English. Unfortunately, he had no books, so a friend of ours – the artist - gave him the one she had carried with her to the camp.
He took the novel softly, opening the pages with the sort of gentle touch that only someone who has a great love for books would. We told him that we had heard that there was a library in the camp and asked if he had ever been. His eyes lit up, but he said “No,” he had not.
After a little investigating we learned where the library was, and went with Mehti to visit it. Walking into the little room, we could see many books were available, although the volunteer on duty told us that they needed more, and in particular English and French language books and dictionaries.
Mehti, ran his fingers along the shelves, from book to book. He picked up several and cradled them smoothly. That was the last time I saw him, there among the books.
Next to the library was the school house. Here adults are taught to speak and read English and French by volunteers. There is little to no education for the children, and many women do not feel comfortable joining the men in the classroom. Often small groups of women will gather with their children around a volunteer to learn, focusing on languages in the areas to which they hope to eventually relocate.
I first met Naqiv near the library. He is twenty-two years old, tall and lean. He walked up to me and asked for a cigarette. As I began to give him one he ducked to escape the camera of a documentary filmmaker who was doing an interview a few feet from us. I was still holding the cigarette as he ducked behind a building and waved for me to come to him.
“My mother,” he said, motioning to the camera.
“Oh,” I responded, “you don’t want your mother to know that you smoke?”
“She doesn’t know that I am here,” he explained.
He went on to tell me that whenever his mother calls him, he would tell her that he is “fine, going to university, living a good life with a car and surrounded by good friends,” who love him and take care of him.
It’s a lie. Naqiv had been in The Jungle for 2 months.
He had come from Afghanistan, where he had attended a university and worked as a pharmacist in an American prison.
“When the Americans went out, the Taliban came in,” he said. “My oldest brother was taken into custody and murdered. The brother older than me barely escaped, but I haven’t heard from him. We don’t know where he is.”
“My father went missing, and during this time my mother sent me away. She said ‘Run, or they will kill you.’ They stayed, my mother and my little sisters, they are there alone now.”
Tears filled his eyes as he added, “I don’t know what to do. I am alone. I did everything right. I went to school, I worked from sun up to sun down, but what do I have now? What is life without my mother? She is everything.”
His body slumped forward, lost in his own pain and loneliness.
I put my arm around him, because I had nothing to say. To tell him that everything would be okay was hollow, I did not know that.
He looked up, perhaps sensing my lack of adequate response, and began an apology. Before he was able to finish I pulled him close to me and embraced him. It was all I had to give.
He crumbled from my touch. Melted into my arms and wept like a child. I stroked his hair, determined to let him cry as long as he wanted.
“When you hold me,” he said finally, “I shut my eyes and I feel my mother near me.”
“Don’t open them then,” I said, “because I am a mother, and I know she is with you always. She loves you. I love you, Naqiv. You are a good son.”
I told him the things I would hope that someone would say to my sons, if they were alone and far away from me.
We stayed in that embrace until he pulled away and wiped his face. “Thank you,” he whispered.
“Thank you, Naqiv,” I answered.
At the day’s end, we packed up and made our way back to Paris and to COP21 - a place where the world’s leaders were gathered to discuss the climate and the actions that would need to happen in order to save our planet. Not one migrant from The Jungle attended, not one was represented. Yet these are the lambs of climate change. According to a volunteer who had been in the camp for two weeks, the population had grown by 1,000 people in that same amount of time.
When I got back to the hostel where I was staying with the Indigenous Environmental Network’s Paris delegation, I lay in my bed thinking of Naqiv, Marya, and Mehti. I did not cry, they do not need our tears. Before we left we had offered Amir 50 euros for his time and to help him provide for the boys he felt responsible to. He would not take our money, and only asked that we keep the people of The Jungle in our hearts.
It would be impossible not to.