The mighty jungle
An early start
It’s one o’clock in the morning when a group of us, including Eastern Fostering Services (EFS) agency director Eleanor Vanner, head off for three days’ volunteering at the camp known as The Jungle in Calais. As we make the drive down to Kent where the ferry awaits, I’m thinking about what I’m doing, why I’m doing it and what I can possibly achieve.
If you’ve read any of my previous blogs, you’ll know that my family and I want to foster unaccompanied, asylum seeking children. You’ll also know that the agency I work for, EFS, already looks after children who have come into the country without their parents. I have met and worked with these children. I have an intellectual understanding of the journeys they’ve taken and the conditions they’ve lived in. I could recount their stories verbatim. And yet, for me personally, this falls short of enough. My motivations in going to the camp are complex and yet inseparable, like threads of a blanket. Teased apart they mean very little, weaved together they have purpose.
Here then are the threads I am clutching on our journey to Calais: my faith, my job, my children, the world that is changing around us, my desire to DO something, childhood memories of arriving in Calais fresh off the ferry, our holiday stretching before us, a gnawing fear of the Calais I’m about to arrive in, the plight of the child who could walk through our front door one day soon, the sensation of squeezing my feet into the dusty, dog eared shoes of another and that one coarse golden thread that speaks of human understanding.
I stash them away as we arrive for the morning briefing.
Bearers of bad news
Our first job is to get to the jungle and break the news that the French authorities want to clear a large area of the camp. The last time such an area was cleared, the authorities used force and many residents of the camp lost the few belongings they had to the jaws of a bulldozer. We head to the Afghani area of the camp. It is there that I meet four young boys who call me into their shelter. They are grinning and chattering excitedly as they show me their home. It’s like a delicious bubble amidst the filth of the camp. For a moment, I think that I’ve stumbled onto a scout camp, a place where stories are shared and illicit snacks are eaten and the giggles of boys can be heard long into the night. And then I wonder where their mothers are. And reality bites. The boys don’t believe me that they may lose their home. They look at me with cheeky grins and dancing eyes. Silently, I pray for them and ask they be spared from a violent eviction. I want to take them all home. Home, that place which is so near and yet so far removed from this hell. Home, where it’s clean and dry and safe.
The people we meet that day shock me. I am expecting a cold shoulder at best; violent, red hot rage at worst. What I get is this: invitations to tea, smiles and nods, handshakes and thank yous. A sorry here and there. A pat on the back. A peal of laughter. What I get is a warm welcome that shames me.
The following day, we start to clear areas of land that could be used to rehouse residents before the clearing by authorities begins. This feels like it could be something valuable. The land is badly contaminated with human excrement and pools of stagnant liquid. I weep and gag in equal measure. I rage that humans are expected to pitch a tent somewhere I can barely breathe. One of the lads helping us has some music and it booms from somewhere deep in his coat. It lifts us and it also attracts a group of teens. They are from Syria. They point out to me where they sleep in the camp. They smile and joke but their eyes have seen things no child should have seen. They come and help. But they have no gloves and I don’t want them handling this filth. They don’t listen though and whoop with the effort of pulling an abandoned tent from the thick mud. Once they’ve finished, I give them my hand gel and they look at me, bemused. Crazy, English lady. Of course. They’ve handled far worse.
Then along comes a young lad. I smile at him and he asks me what I’m doing. He’s 14 and from Syria. His parents are over there still, maybe alive, maybe not. His skin is a sickly yellow. He looks weak with illness. His eyes are utterly beautiful: green, framed with thick lashes. And incredibly, his smile reaches them still. He stands there like a ghost, watching. When it’s time to go, I walk up to him and my arms open slightly. His do too. I’m not sure who draws who, but we hug. He grips me tightly. Someone tells me later that he has his eyes closed. It’s in that hug that the threads come together. That’s when I know this is right. If we can help one child escape this, that’s everything. And I wish it were this green eyed boy who clings on so powerfully. This boy I will never forget. This boy I will pray for every day. But it most likely will be another or another or another. There are so many of them. So many.
We finish clearing land in time to see some of the guys we had met the previous day arrive with their shelters and tents. We know that something good has happened. They cheer as they arrive in this “safe zone”. This new home. Well, for now at least. As I write this, I’m in the office and I’m still weaving it all together, still processing it all. I’ve spent three measly days there. Trying to get back to normal life is hard. I see things through changed eyes. I think of the stories of the kids we work with and I know them now in a way I didn’t before. I can smell the places they’ve been. I can see what my home must look like: strange and comfortable – but uncomfortably so. I can share in their sighs of relief to be out of that place. I can picture the dreams that claw their way in in the dead of night. I barely know the half of it. But there are questions I won’t need to ask now. Some things I won’t have to wonder about. Maybe a child will sense that. Maybe they’ll feel at home. Maybe they’ll feel loved. Maybe they’ll close their eyes, even for a moment, while we hold them in this blanket we’ve woven.
The Winter 2016 edition of The Fostering Network members' quarterly magazine, Foster Care, explores the refugee crisis in Europe, how it impacts foster care and tips for people caring for unaccompanied asylum seeking children.