SPECIAL REPORT: A look inside Calais refugee camp The Jungle as Hitchin church group offer supplies – and a little dignity
- Credit: Archant
Comet reporter Layth Yousif joins a Hitchin church group’s trip to Calais to deliver food, supplies and a little dignity.
In the shadow of bargain booze warehouses, a mile from the Calais ferry port and the Channel Tunnel, is a 21st century humanitarian crisis that horrifies and inspires in equal measures.
Just 21 miles from Dover is a landfill site which doubles as a refugee camp, housing between 4,000 to 8,000 men, women and children. They call it The Jungle.
On Sunday a team from Hitchin’s Hub Church crossed the channel with food, sleeping bags and other supplies – and to keep a promise.
Leader Dan Drew, 29, explained: “We want to focus on the humanitarian side of things rather than the political. We’re trying to raise awareness of the people who are living in terrible conditions right on our doorstep.
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“My passport allows me to travel pretty much wherever I want to in the world. The people in The Jungle don’t get to do that.
“If I want to get a job in another country it is possible for me to do that – just because of where I am born.
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“The vast majority of people in the refugee camp in Calais want to better themselves through a job, an education or simply to live in safety – to live without fear.
“It’s really easy to sit on your sofa watching graphic images and say: ‘How terrible’ and then do nothing.
“I’m not criticising anyone – but what we want to do is something practical.
“We paid a visit here a few weeks ago and met a man called Solomon who helped run a makeshift church here.
“We asked him: ‘What can we do to help?’ He replied immediately: ‘We need a carpet.’ So we made a promise we’d bring back a carpet to him.”
With help and support from Hitchin businesses AZ Autos and Charles Wilson Carpets, that’s just what they did – a 12ft by 8ft offering to help worshippers observe their faith with a little more dignity.
Solomon’s church, St Michael’s, is a makeshift construction fashioned from tarpaulin built by Christians from Syria, Ethiopia and Eritrea which featured last month on BBC1’s Songs of Praise.
A refugee called Ali from Syria talks to me in broken English.
Around us the contents from torn black bin liners are scattered on the dusty track. Everywhere you look there are tents. And people.
He tells me he is 30, but he looks 40. If he told me he was 50, I wouldn’t doubt his word.
“It took me six months to get here from Syria,” he tells me.
“My country is dangerous. Many of my family have been killed. I also know people who drowned on boats.
“I’ve been here three months, and every night I try to reach the UK.”
How, I ask? He looks at me benevolently, as if answering a small child with the most obvious answer in the world: “Through the tunnel.”
An impromptu game of football is taking place with a tattered ball, as a younger man called Sami grabs my arm and tells me urgently: “Many of my family and friends were killed in Syria. I have relatives in London and I want to come to England to work and make my life better.”
Out of the corner of my eye in the middle of endless piles of scattered rubbish and abandoned clothes, I see a small creature moving.
At first I think it is a large rat, until I focus more clearly. It is a young child.
He’s about four years old, sitting on a broken toy car, legs astride, pushing himself forward.
It takes me a moment to register what he is doing.
This little lad in a filthy tattered red top – a kid younger than my three children – is playing in the dirt.
Riddler from Sudan invites us into his makeshift home, constructed of thin wood, cardboard and tarpaulin. He makes us sweet delicious tea. “You are most welcome”, he says as many people drop by.
He shows us the burned legs of his friend Hasan, whose ship caught fire and sank in the Mediterranean.
“Many people died,” Hasan tells me, before tailing off.
As the group of good-natured people increases, two small, traditional Sudanese drums appear and the crowd and the Hub Church members join in a joyous jamming and singing session.
The look of happiness on the crowd is as happy and inspiring as their situation and living conditions are bleak.
Incredibly, next door to the church is a makeshift library. Sikander from Afghanistan helps to run it.
He says: “Books are so important for people – to help their imagination, and to help them learn English.
“The most popular books are Agatha Christie. Why? I don’t know!”
Inside the makeshift library two Sudanese men pore over the shelves. Ali from southern Iraq tells me: “I want to improve my English.
“I just want to get a better life in England and make my children back home proud of me.”
When Dan and his crew deliver the carpet the look on Solomon’s face is one of utter joy as the three long and heavy rolls are revealed.
Solomon says: “Dan and Hub Church have helped give us dignity. I’m so happy they returned with the carpet. They kept their promise to me and our church. I thank everyone in Hitchin for their help.”
Dan then holds an impromptu service in the church decorated by a few religious posters as images of the angel Gabriel, asking for help and intercession, look down.
In a voice shaking with a mixture of empathy, pride and emotion he asks the group to pray, saying: “In the midst of brokenness, there is hope.”
The sun sets and hundreds of refugees start walking to the port and tunnel to try their luck again.
The party from England are able to return to their vehicles and plan their journey back to Hertfordshire.
And the stark contrast is not lost on anyone who made the trip. As Dan says: ‘The difference is we can go home. The people here can’t.”