One of the most familiar faces in the jungle for me is an Afghan man named Mohammad, who seems to be perennially striding through the camp with his backpack and mobile in hand. Mohammad is the problem solver of the camp, and a walking encyclopaedia when it comes to all things jungle. I first asked months ago to interview him, eager to acquire his extensive knowledge of the camp and its inner workings. He refused time and again. “Journalists don’t care about the jungle, I’ve spoken to too many of them already,” he protested. I protested in my turn that I wasn’t a real journalist…
Then, after months of knowing one another, stopping to chat when we crossed paths, and him occasionally soliciting my help with the children’s activities, I asked him one day if he’d do me a favour. “Of course,” he said, “anything for you”. “Will you let me interview you?” I asked sweetly. Having unwittingly already agreed, he narrowed his eyes. “I hate you,” he said. “I really hate you”. Nevertheless, he agreed to let me follow him around for a while until he had some spare moments to chat. I dutifully accompanied him to the new restaurant for the kids, sorted through donations, and sat patiently as he chatted to the other men in the restaurant, until eventually he said “right, let’s go”.
Having waited so long to pick this man’s brain, I wasn’t sure where to start. I knew he was keen to discuss the positive aspects of the jungle, and having written so regularly on its many drawbacks, I was happy to do the same. In this vein, I asked him what his favourite thing about the jungle was. “The best thing about the jungle,” he replied, “is the people, the beauty of the humans here. The refugees and the volunteers have made it such an amazing place with their different contributions, their different tasks. They have made it beautiful with their shelters, restaurants, community centres….
“People have started little business, but I don’t call them businesses. I call them community hubs. I mean people have opened shops or restaurants for business, to run their daily lives, to get money, but they are also offering very cheap services, very cheap food. For example, you can have a cup of tea for 50p, you can have a meal for three quid. These places are where people come to charge their phones, chill, talk, watch a movie. So they’re really interesting places.” Indeed, when we aren’t working, these restaurants are where everyone comes to discuss their days, share stories, smoke cigarettes or play cards. It’s a space where refugees and volunteers can relax and socialise, especially in the evenings, when the jungle really comes alive.
Most of the restaurants are run by Afghans, who seem especially resourceful, but refugees of many different nationalities sit against their walls, charging their phones or playing games. Indeed, on the whole, most of the refugees seem to get along relatively peacefully, despite differences in culture and religion. “Since the southern part of the camp has been knocked out, demolished, everyone has moved to the North,” explains Mohammed. “In the North everyone is now living mixed up, and people are making new friends. Mostly we have good relationships with one another. There are around ten or eleven different nationalities on the camp, and we do have problems like every other city. But apart from a few small issues, we have a really great atmosphere here – people are really living in brotherhood.”
I wonder who decides where people live on the camp. “Well when new people arrive, they try and find places on their own. But people are very helpful on the camp; if there is a new arrival, people love to help them. For example, this morning I was walking and the owner of a restaurant called me over and he said: ‘Do you know if we can help a family find a home?’ and I said ‘yes, we can’. And he said to me ‘early this morning a family arrived and they didn’t have anywhere so I made them sleep in my restaurant’. So, I mean, how great is that?!”
On the whole, then, the camp regulates itself. But, Mohammed explains, things are changing. “Now, we have really good community representation within the camp. There are ten of us now. It’s not really controlling, but we are trying to meet the challenge of the jungle, in terms of bringing more peace and stability, and providing better services…we’re trying to build something out of nothing.”
One of the major challenges Mohammed is working to address at the moment is providing adequate support and care for the many children on the camp. Indeed, we’re chatting on the new sofas in the kids restaurant which Mohammed has set up in the last couple of weeks.
“Unluckily at the moment, we are aware that 129 minors are currently missing from the camp, because the southern part was demolished. ‘Missing’ means they are somewhere, but we don’t know where. I’ve heard rumours that new camps have been built up and they could be there, but honestly, we just don’t know. We had about 400 plus minors in the camp in February, but now we are missing 129.
“The job the government should be doing in terms of taking care of them, the volunteers are doing. We have got a woman and children’s centre here, we’ve got a youth centre here, and we have got this restaurant where we are sitting right now.
“We are looking after these minors.”
I ask if the minors accept the help they are offered. “Yeah, they do, they need help, because some of them are really vulnerable – anyone under 12, 13, I call vulnerable. And there are many kids under that age here, and they are really worried, and these are really difficult conditions for them to live in. We’re trying to improve the situation as much as we can. The women’s centre are doing their level best, and so is the youth centre. We’ve recently built this restaurant here, where we are offering them free meals, and we’re trying to provide social activities and a community space where they can come and chat, and be busy.”
I ask why so many of them are alone on the camp. “Well, out of the original 429, some of them are with their families on the camp, but most of them are without. These kids have left their countries because of the state of war, because of danger to their lives. It’s costly to come as a family; the families often can’t afford to get themselves all out, so they have to choose someone – you choose your kids rather than yourselves to be in a safe place, you choose to give them a better life. They think, ‘we have lived our lives, so now let’s let our kids live their lives in peace and safety’.”
Families remain close though, and Mohammed explains that the community leaders and volunteers try and make sure that the children always have phone credit to call their families with. Most of these kids are waiting in the jungle, trying most nights to get across to the UK and begin the lives their parents are desperate for them to have. However, “many of them are just staying in the camp,” Mohammed explains. “They’re all trying to get to the UK, but sometimes they get really tired, and fed up of trying every day, and the legal procedure is very slow as well, it takes around 4 to 6 months. It’s too much for a minor who is unaccompanied…many of them end up just staying here.”
This is the same as many other occupants in the camp, some of whom have given up trying on a regular basis to reach the UK on trucks or boats crossing the channel. “Nobody would like to live here. But people have no option sometimes – what can they do?” People die regularly attempting the crossing. “To be honest, last week two people died. On average, between two to five a month die,” Mohammed says.
Other factors also cause casualties on the camp, especially fires. Mohammed is defensive on this point. “Well, as they were demolishing the south part of the camp, the refugees were really angry. The court decision was that the police should respect the people that are living in their shelters, and they should demolish them peacefully; if somebody was living in their shelters, they shouldn’t destroy it. But the police like how powerful they are, and they were really forcing people to leave their shelters, so people were really frustrated and many of them thought ‘I would rather burn my shelter than them destroying it for me’. So, yeah, there were fires at that time on the south part. But otherwise, no, people don’t put fires in the jungle – that’s completely untrue.”
Police brutality on the camp is well documented. “The police are always trying to show how powerful they are. We’re trying to spread the message to be calm to the police, because we can’t do anything. They are powerful, and we are powerless.”
In many ways, the occupants of the Calais camp are in the hands of others; the police, the French authorities, the volunteers, the media. And this last factor is something both Mohammed and I are trying to change. Mohammed keeps a Facebook page documenting positive milestones made in the jungle, as well as reporting on some of the brutalities that are overlooked by the mainstream media.
“Individuals are working really hard to get the message out. I know whoever is supporting the refugees, they will portray the jungle truly and accurately. But I also know that The Daily Mail, and probably The Times….they will go against us, they will try and really push the negative side. I believe everything has a positive and a negative side, but they will really try and push the negative side.”
The jungle has numerous problems and it would be naive to portray its living conditions as anything other than desperate. On the other hand, sitting on these sofas with Mohammed, and listening to him tell me about the improvements being implemented, watching the kids eat their meals around us, and witnessing the everyday resourcefulness of the camp’s inhabitants, I also feel a lot of affection for this place and its people. It does have positives, and they characterise the camp just as much as its troubles and downfalls.