Can Europe Make It?

Calais diary. Last week in the Jungle

The anger and emotion of powerlessness and attachment. A London-based French volunteer describes the torment of the last week for refugees in Calais

Sophie Besse
3 March 2016

Sunday 21st feb. Goodchance Theatre, Calais


When we arrive at the theatre, a group of men is painting squares and circles on cardboards. They explain that they are making board games "to play so we think less".

Because after tomorrow is the possible eviction of 2/3 of the camp.

3500 people. Panic. People go mental. "Can you help us paint it?"

Can I paint a board game that you will only be able to use for one day and that's only if it doesn't get ruined by the rain or the mud?

"Yes of course."

And I got the point. No talking, no questions. Just focusing on painting the little squares in blue and the arrows in yellow. Together. Let's just enjoy this moment.

I feel very moved suddenly. That's only the beginning. M, who did our workshop last week, arrives. He takes me out for lunch in the nearby make-shift Afghan restaurant.

"On Wednesday the jungle maybe finished"

I nearly dropped my tea. What can I say to that? "I know".

Silence. He looks around in the restaurant.

"I'm so angry and ashamed, M."


"Will you still come and see us?”

"Of course. But where will you be?".

Silence. He gives me his phone number.

We go back to the theatre to share the afternoon with people who came for the gathering. Amazing time with incredible musicians! an improvised refugee-volunteer couple dances to the rhythm of our hand-claps! Wow... !


There were very moving texts read as well. Liz, an ex fire fighter, who now runs the women and children’s centre, wrote this beautiful letter to J., 12 years old, alone without family in the camp.

"When I pack your bag in the evening with a spare pair of socks, food, 5 euros that I put in your pocket and a torch, I'm so scared J. I'm so scared that I might lose you. Please don't go in a refrigerated lorry. Give me some time J. I am doing my best so you can go to the UK without risking your life. Please give me some time. I love you, J."

Not one dry eye in the audience. Yes, J has been trafficked, beaten up and brain-washed. He's the oldest son of his family and his only obsession is to get to the UK. He is 12 years old and tries jumping on lorries every night. You can hear liz's voice trembling when she reads her letter. And believe me Liz is rarely shaken. I’ve said that already: she's an ex fire fighter.

Another letter was read by a migrant remembering the long walk back to the camp after another unsuccessful attempt to cross the border. A 3 hour walk. Arriving near the camp, there was a puddle on the road. "I heard a police car. I heard them speeding up. My clothes were all wet. Even my eyes got wet."

And so did ours. Again. Oh my god I'm so ashamed. Not that I blame all policemen though. I hate cliches. They’re obeying orders I guess...


It's this situation that I hate. Anyway... That's when I suddenly notice Mohammed in the crowd. The 17 year old boy who tried to destroy our exhibition with a razor blade. Mohammed who needed attention because he also is alone in this camp. A big smile lights up his face "You're not in the UK?" "I came back for the gathering" The hug came very naturally. Just like when there is not much time left. Oh.... Thank you Mohammed for having put the razor blade away. Thank you for not mixing everything together. I am so so so sorry. It's not in my name, nor in that of so many others. I hope you will remember that and will stay safe, far away from any uncontrolled desire for revenge that would hurt you more than anyone else.

What a day...

Oh!... my phone just beeped while writing this article. M. is texting!... I'm suddenly so grateful that technology exists - and I never thought I’d hear myself think that. He is checking how I'm doing. He wants to know if I arrived home safely...


25th of Feb. Verdict.

The eviction is happening. Speechless. A judge visited the camp, it was not just a file on her desk. And she still gave the go-ahead. She's from Calais and it’s said that she might have had external pressure applied. Can't believe it. They call it a “humanitarian operation”, meaning they won't destroy the places of gathering, like the schools, church etc. They will only evict the people. Interesting concept: empty gatherings.


Friday 26th of Feb

M. just called. "They came and said I have to go away. My house it's the first one, Sophie. Near the entrance. All refugee standing near their home. They are very much sad Sophie. The Jungle is finished."

I’ve never felt that powerless in my life.


Monday 29th of Feb.

He called again. Just as I was dropping the children off at school.

"Sophie... it's finished"

"What? What is finished? Let me call you back so you don't pay ok?"

Let me have a few seconds to take a deep breath to be able to hear what you have to tell me.

"My home. They destroyed my house at 8.30 this morning"


They did it. There was a rumour going around that it would happen in 3 weeks. I was clinging on to that. The charities were mounting an appeal. Who knows, maybe with another judge, the verdict will be different?

"When are you coming?"

Yes true, no time for the "what if?" the reality is here and now.

"Can you come tomorrow?"

Tomorrow?? I can't do that, I have 3 kids, work commitments and many other things that seem suddenly very futile but I can't throw everything away. That's my life I guess.

M. would love to have one as well. He left Afghanistan 8 years ago aged only 15 and has lived all over the place since, trying to settle somewhere. He now speaks 7 languages. He learned them talking with volunteers. He’s a very clever man who'd love to have a life but who for now is focused on surviving. He is stuck, rejected everywhere, with no home to go back to. Indeed the Dublin treaty stipulates that you have to seek asylum in the first EU country you arrive in.

He asked for asylum in France but his fingerprints are already in Italy. Too bad.

How convenient this treaty is for rich European countries.

It makes me want to give Syrians a proper boat to make sure they arrive safely to the UK as a first country. They can't do that with a dinghy. They hardly manage to get Greece safely. Do you remember the picture of the little boy dead on the beach? There are actually 2 children who have drowned every day on average since September 2015 trying to cross the eastern Mediterranean (UNHCR). 2 a day.

"I'll come on Friday ok?"


I feel like shit and all torn up. Of course, a week is never-ending when you’re in survival mode. Our time-frames are just not the same.

"Thank you and Inch Allah I will see you on Friday"

Why does he say Inch Allah? How I hate that!...

Back home I understand why. I see the pictures: fire, guns, tear gas. Oh my God. In my country. With a left-wing president. I am so ashamed. Friday suddenly seems endlessly far away for me too. "3 nights" as my mum used to tell me when I was a kid. "3 homeless nights" for M.


Wednesday March 3rd

S. just texted. He’s on the road to another European country. To be kicked out again I guess. My god… it’s like a gigantic European football match. Football can be fun, but not when you’re the ball...

“Don’t you want to wait until Friday? I’m coming. Do you need anything?”

“I am fine don’t worry about me ok? I’ll inform you every time everywhere. Thank you”

Thank you? Thank you for what??? All you’ve had from us is shit, S! And even that we’ve taken away from you. In the most barbaric way... How can you still thank me? I know I’m not France, nor the UK nor Europe. And you’re so generous to remind me of that with your message. Tears run down my cheeks. Thank you?


Yes, I shouldn’t feel guilty I guess. I’m a good person, like millions of others. Let not the shit cover us, bury us; it is so destructive. There’s a whole other side to Europe that we then tend to forget.

I’ve been helping out now and then at the Jungle for almost a year and what I found there was a beautiful Europe full of energy, initiative and solidarity. Let’s talk about all of that: thousands of volunteers coming from everywhere bringing so many donations, warmth and good will. All that fantastic online support: Juliet and I raised £9000 in just one week! We bought a bus to shelter the children from the Jungle thanks to over 250 donations and I don’t know how many “Shares” on Facebook!. And honestly I didn’t do much. The buzz just happened.

We mustn’t not forget all of that, or we’ll fall in a dull and dark place. We should post pictures of all these people to counterbalance the ones of shelters being burnt. Thank you Goodchance, Help Refugee, Citizen UK and l’Auberge des Migrants, to name only the charities that I am involved with. You are amazing. You are doing incredible work. A work that bulldozers can’t destroy, even if it doesn’t feel that way right now. Keep faith.

For the children, for M. who has been walking the past two nights because he’s too cold to fall asleep, for J, for S. who is somewhere on the road, for all of them, we now need to use our energy to change laws and build a new Europe. I know it will be a very long journey. But if they can do it, we can … That's our challenge.

Juliet Stevenson and I are fundraising for a bus to shelter the children who are at the camp. Please donate here if you can.

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