The Migrant Camps in Northern France

The closure of the Calais refugee camp, also known as the “jungle”, is imminent. Those living there are being urged to leave for other designated centres in France. However, French and British authorities have faced criticism over their handling of the situation. In March of this year, half of the camp was demolished, stoking widespread antagonism. Many of the refugees living in the camp have hopes of reaching the UK. Obliging them to move from Calais, with its close geographical proximity to what they wish to be their final destination, is no easy feat.

In March, around the time when the southern half of the camp was being demolished, I went to Calais and volunteered with an organisation called Help Refugees. By that stage, I had been at home in Brussels for two months, and all that seemed to be on the news was related to the refugee crisis that Europe was facing. I had time on my hands and wished to help alleviate the suffering of these people, who had no-doubt faced death on numerous occasions. I also hoped to experience the camp for myself and attempt to draw my own conclusions about this complex and grave situation.

At the time, Help Refugees rented a warehouse in the outskirts of Calais where volunteers would sort through donations and prepare food for the refugees in the camp. I spent two days working at the warehouse. They were long and physically demanding, but satisfying also. From watching the news, I had wrongly concluded that Brits cared little for the migrants in Calais. At the warehouse, most of the volunteers were from the UK and deeply concerned about the unfolding situation.   

For the three remaining days I worked as a volunteer, I was sent both to the “jungle” in Calais and another refugee camp 40km away on the outskirts of the town of Dunkirk. Our task in the Dunkirk camp was to help move people living there and their belongings onto buses that would bring them to a better camp constructed by the organisation Médecins Sans Frontières. The situation in Dunkirk was dire. Migrants, most of them Kurdish, had been living in a field all through the winter. Due to heavy rainfall, parts of the field were now flooded. We helped move families, women and children out first, often traipsing with them through knee-deep mud to reach the buses. By my second day in the camp, the atmosphere had become tense. Every so often a tent would be set on fire or a gas canister, intended for cooking purposes, thrown on the flames causing a minor explosion. People were angry at the conditions they had been forced to live in. This was their small act of protest.

Back in Calais, the “jungle” was unlike anything I had witnessed before. Much larger than the Dunkirk camp, with an estimated population of between 3,500 and 5,500 people, it was constructed on sand dunes which prevented flooding. Those living there had built homes using tarps and rescued bits of wood. There were shops, restaurants and places of worship, and its inhabitants were from a range of different of places including Afghanistan, Egypt and subsaharan Africa. Almost by chance, I ended up in the southern part of the camp while an eviction was occurring. A fire had started and the French riot police were standing by. A group of volunteers was helping a man carry his house on some wooden pallets out of reach of the fire. The man was frantic, I was told. Despite the fact that he lived in a makeshift house in a makeshift camp, this place had become his home.

After five days as a volunteer, I returned to Brussels on the train. It was one of those late-winter evenings on the cusp of spring and a mist had settled on the fields. As the giant red sun descended languorously the train stopped in villages that seemed untouched by the passing of time. When I got home, I felt overwhelmed at having been confronted with a situation I did not want to believe was real. As the weeks passed, Brussels experienced its own tragedies with the attacks that occurred on 22 March. There are times when I think that all we can hope to achieve is survival. If I have learned anything it is that there is still good in the world. People struggle and suffer, but there will always be those willing to help them. I am an optimist in the end. I have to be.

Homage to Brussels

 

The flags outside the European Council building in Brussels fly at half-mast mourning the 31 killed and hundreds injured in the devastating bombings that befell on Tuesday 22 March. Twin blasts occurred around 8:00 AM (GMT+1) at Zaventem airport, Belgium’s principal air hub located on the outskirts of Brussels. An hour later a bomb was detonated in Maalbeek metro station in the city centre in close proximity to EU and other government offices.

Brussels is my home town. I am not a Belgian national but I was born and raised in Brussels. It is where I returned during the seemingly endless college summers and winters, it is where I live now, it is a city I will always come back to. When I heard about the attacks, I was in the house that I grew up in, surrounded by what is most familiar to me. I went downstairs and switched on the television.

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Since the Paris attacks of last November, I feared that it would only be a matter of time before some act of extreme violence occurred in Brussels. It is a city that amalgamates people from a vast range of different cultures and backgrounds. While this often results in a unique and exciting atmosphere, sometimes it leads to rapid radicalisation and the marginalisation of certain individuals.

I remember attending classes given by a professor who had lived through the Northern Irish Troubles. He spoke of the literature that emerged in those fraught times and described the way in which he became fixated with news bulletins, how they developed into an addiction of sorts. I have felt this way over the past days. I am glued to various screens and the Twitter feed of local media organisations. I am desperate to know more, while being simultaneously sickened by the situation.

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In the minutes after finding out about the attacks, after I had cried in rage and dismay, I attempted to contact my parents who work in the area around the Maalbeek metro station. I couldn’t get through because of the traffic on the phone networks. Eventually I received a message from my mother to tell me she was fine but had not heard from my father. I was nervous, but finally got news that he was well. It later transpired that he had exited Maalbeek metro station on his way to work ten minutes before the bomb went off. He never takes public transport in the mornings and did so on Tuesday only in order not to be late for a meeting.

Although my loved ones are safe and I am grateful for this, I cannot experience complete relief because many others have been less fortunate. I am disturbed that such atrocities continue to befall in this day and age. I am miserable that I only feel their full impact now that my home town has fallen victim, the place where, in my eyes, “the spirit meets the bone”, as Lucinda Williams so beautifully puts it. We live in strange times. Death can occur at any moment and seems so completely random. The phoenix rising from the ashes, however, is the solidarity that people have so courageously shown, in Brussels’s Place de la Bourse (pictured above) and further afield.

I hear fewer sirens in the distance now. Tragedies befall and we must continue, the way the sun keeps on rising and setting.

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An Ode

Dublin has made me a cyclist. Living in a suburb and unable to endure crowded buses with fogged up windows during rush hour does that to a body. I’m also skint most of the time and a bike saves a hell of a lot of money. However, these are all material concerns and this ode to my bicycle is also about its spiritual effects.

Where to begin? I bought a grey-blue second-hand man’s bicycle with an intriguing gear system from the brilliant Café Rothar on Dublin’s Fade Street in September. I stumbled upon the small shop while wandering aimlessly waiting for term to start. It took me about five minutes to invest. The people working there are great and have helped me out of many a dire strait.

That beat up old bike of unidentifiable origins has saved me. I have grown to love the commute in and out of the city at all hours of the day and night. I was a snob about the suburbs until I started cycling. I grew to appreciate their quaint gardens and deserted estates, but especially the bruised colours of the mountains in the distance, the violent orange sunset hovering beneath a lid of rain-swollen clouds.

I have become even more infatuated with the congested and bustling pot-holed streets of Dublin, the grandiose buildings and council houses, the blast of wind that hits you in the face when you cross one of the city’s many bridges and the slow river winding its away to the east and west. I love to travel from south to north and back again, from rim to rim of the Dublin bowl, a vast sky of scurrying clouds overhead.

Without that cheap piece of metal, I would be stuck and miserable. I would be unable to pretend I was in Eliot’s brother from E.T.’s gang of wayward youths. A bicycle teaches one about human behaviour, life and all that lies beyond and in between.