Ellen's Story

Some final thoughts on leaving Calais (for those who are not bored by what I have to say):

1. We left the camp with heavy hearts, so many fond memories and familiar faces etched in our minds. Everyone I know who has been to Calais has returned saying the same thing, and it seems cliche, but we too experienced such incredible kindness, warmth, generosity and sincere welcome from those we met and got to know. Before going I had never drank one cup of tea, not liking the flavour, but I couldn’t keep refusing all the offers of a cup I was getting in the camp. So I had my first cup of tea with a group of men from Kuwait and Iraq, collectively we spanned generations and laughed over our improvised language of communication. Tea with a ridiculous amount of sugar was the perfect drink to share sitting in a caravan with our hilarious friends from Afghanistan, who stuffed us up with delicious bolany as we practised French, Farsi and English. During every class with a group of young men from South Sudan in their wooden shelter they would bring out tea and biscuits and their generosity was too sweet to turn down. So I left the camp bursting with all the tea, food and kindness we’d been given. 

2.In the other status thing I posted before I’m not sure if I stressed enough a really important point which is the main idea that underlines my thoughts and actions in relation to all of this - That those on the move and those seeking refuge do not need our solidarity, help and support because they are not able to help themselves or are incapable of doing so - they need solidarity because they are now the victims of racist state policies and borders which kill, laws which crush hope and suck the life out of people, and policies which make living such a struggle (as well as the unlivable conditions which made them leave their home countries). Laws, policies and borders which are man-made and can be changed. The resilience, resourcefulness and strength of those on the move cannot be stressed enough.

3.People we met in the camp made it to the UK while we were there. The struggle doesn’t end there of course - too many people have to live without documents and security, too many won’t be granted asylum, and too many face cruel deportations after surviving such difficult journeys because their situations, the countries they’ve left, the violence they are fleeing is deemed not bad enough by European governments. Deportations which rip families apart, destroy lives and dehumanise everyone. The same cruelty those who make it to Ireland and live without documents face here. The same cruelty those living in Direct Provision face here. We met people who have children in the UK who had been deported back to countries which are not safe to live in. 

4.We had so much fun, we laughed so much. It was confusing being in the camp because at all times for me, being there must be underlined by the conviction that it is a completely unacceptable situation and place that should not exist and that nobody should be living in. Those living there do not have the choice to up and leave. It is not a nice situation. It is unacceptable. But at the same time it is a nice place that we loved being in everyday because of the people we met and the spaces we were in. Despite all the problems, the conflicts, the police violence, the dangers faced daily, the rats and deplorable conditions there is so much beauty. But being there and sharing in those positive feelings must always be fully framed within a deep non acceptance of the situation and a deep awareness of my privilege as a white, middle-class, Irish woman with documents and freedom of movement. Because behind the beauty there is so much desperation, depression and despair as a result of living in these conditions and all the struggles that have been overcome to make it this far. 

5. We had to say too many goodbyes. The only words available to us - sorry and good luck - felt weak and pathetic and fell flat between us and those we were leaving. They are no comfort, they cannot help. The inequality and discrepancies in privilege are so stark when you can walk out of the camp and fly home. There is no sense to all of this. We didn’t get to say goodbye to all of those we’d spent time with as some people we couldn’t find during our last days - maybe, hopefully, they’d gotten out. The sweet face of one 19 year old boy is burned into my memory - so young, travelling with his older brother from Afghanistan, he was always in the school learning French and English. We’d usually do a class with him and one or two other men who’d just sit down and join the class. For the whole class he’d let out bursts of laughter and shout out answers and was so kind to whoever else would join us that day. I didn’t see him in the last few days before leaving and hadn’t gotten his contact details. I feel a wave of sadness and anger well up inside of me when I think of him, undocumented, rendered invisible by our laws and policies, forced to risk his life trying to get to the UK because of our racist borders, and if he gets there he will probably have to live “illegally” in that secret underworld which props up our hypocritical societies with low wage workers, because his chances of being allowed to stay legally are slim. Every moment I was with him I could only think that he was too soft, too soft, too soft to be going through this shit. That they are all too soft, too soft, too soft to be going through this shit. That they all deserve freedom and safety. I don't know how people survive this and eventually get to a place where they can begin to heal from all the accumulated trauma from the lives they have had to leave and the painful journey across Europe. 

6. France’s policies and extremist secularism is causing more problems and pain for Muslim people in these situations who have been through enough. The right wing has hijacked the concept to target Muslims in France. We met many people in the camp who had decided to stay in France and apply for asylum after giving up on trying to get to England. But we met many others, women, who were too scarred physically and mentally by their experiences in France to stay there - by the riot police, the conditions of the camp and the general anti-Muslim atmosphere and policies which are implemented in France in the name of secularism. For many of the women the fear of being forced to take off their headscarves was pushing them out of France. They didn’t care that we didn’t wear the headscarf but they want to and for them it is a form of comfort, safety and is deeply personal. They said they didn’t feel safe living in a country that seems so unwelcoming to them and which bans their clothing. They don't want to live in a country which is trying to “liberate” them by dictating how they should dress and by forcing them to strip of their preferred clothing so they can be “free” to be exactly as the French state says they should be. One of the women who told us about these feeling of anger and discomfort was in the camp with her three children and husband. She had been trying so much to get over to the UK and had too many horror stories of the hours spent in trucks, stuffed in with her family. One time they ended up in a container in a truck for 16 hours going in the wrong direction. They were with a few other families and could barely breathe, had no food and little water. Eventually the police stopped the truck and they got out. They found out the container had been destined for the Philippines, a journey which would have taken weeks at sea during which they all would have died. She said she was going to keep trying for one more month to get out of France, taking the same risks again to get over to her family in the UK and hoping to live in a country where her headscarf won't be such a problem. It would be great if all those people who are so obsessed with what women wear on their heads and bodies could stop pretending they care about women’s liberation. If they actually care about helping the women (and children and men) in these situations they could start by actually trying to target the conditions which make it so difficult for people to live a safe, good life and by trying to change the terrible conditions people are forced to live in in our own countries and the laws and policies which force people to live “illegally”. While people are pretending to care about women’s freedom and analysing their clothing they - along with their children, husbands, friends, families - are being oppressed by our government's policies and risking their lives because of our borders. Their headscarves are not the problem. Our laws are. 

7. A lot of people living in Ireland and the EU have said they are angry, upset, ashamed and that these policies do not represent us and our views. But it’s not enough to just say they don’t represent us. They are being carried out in our name even if we don’t want them to happen. We have to do so much more.

8. I try to be vigilant and constantly aware of the unfair privileges I enjoy as a white Irish person which are socially, economically and historically created, constructed and maintained, but it really smacks you in the face when you get to walk through airport security and get on a flight with no problem while others are risking their lives to do the same thing. Borders don’t exist if you come from the “right” place and have enough money. These borders are racist. 

9. I've been given so much and learned a lot. I will remember the sounds of music flowing through the camp, the smell of fresh naan bread, the shouts and whoops coming from football games. I will remember the young men who liked Socrates and flowers, who came here searching for peace and freedom. And the blood-red poppies growing defiantly amidst the weeds and discarded tear gas canisters. 

We plan to go back at Christmas and raise money, but who knows what will be happening with the camp then.

Amy Callan