What business do I have going to Calais?
The port of Dover is 70 miles from my front door. From there, a direct shipping route crosses the English channel to the French town of Calais for onward journeys to Europe. Traditionally a British destination for cheap wine and cigarettes, Calais is now home to 4,000 people blocked from entering the UK. The British government has decided they’re unwelcome.
40 million people are displaced worldwide, 27 million on the move. 5 million are registered in camps in the Middle East, 4,000 arrive in Greece each week and many more die in the Mediterranean sea. These are people, not numbers.
Best stay where I am and let events unfold.
I think it over and join Critical Mass in a convoy to give away second hand bikes.
Booking the ferry I’m struck by my options. Standard fare £30 each way. Pay extra for upgrades, wi-fi, seats on upper decks. Discounts negotiable. It seems the more money you have, the less you have to consider your choices. To save a tenner, we book an earlier return.
What will I do there? Leave the ferry, turn left and try and make whatever situation I find there more truthful to myself. Meet people, give them a bike. Give them freedom. The freedom of wheels. A gift of the wind.
A friend suggests I am brave as the situation could be volatile. I’m unsure. Compared to events causing people to leave behind everything they’ve ever known and the journeys some of them will have made.
A medic with Doctors du Monde tells me 50% of injuries are punctured flesh wounds to the hands, from razor wire surrounding the camp. These people need stitches. The remainder have broken bones and abscesses. I hear of a ‘black car’. Local people driving round beating migrants up indiscriminately. And police violence. Then also trucks of dead bodies. A 9 year old boy who watched his mother drown, now alone in the camp.
I read about tourists in Kos ‘looking for a better view’. And I think that’s where the problem lies.
We look away.
In an effort to escape reality and the demands of life, we are encouraged to look away from what’s not working. We choose not to see things which harm us and others and in looking away we enable situations to deteriorate and unravel further still. We know what’s happening. There are so many wrongs. We think we’re not hurting anyone but we are. Everything’s not fine and we know it. Optimism is cheap. Ignorance is a great resource for power. The uncomfortable truth is, we have played a massive part in this displacement.
There are reasons why so many people are arriving in Europe, there’s a context we continue to ignore.
They want to live their lives in peace.
They want to be safe and warm and have basic opportunities to advance their lives and they’re unable to because the places they come from are in ruins.
Our foreign policy is violent. It devastates, shatters, tears apart and destroys. What has happened to the countries of the Middle East and Africa and how have politicians justified it to us as humanitarian? Western corporate profit extraction drains Africa of resources. NATO bombings have destabilised Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq killing hundreds of thousands of people and creating massive confusion.
The thing about politics is, you’re not an empty vessel, you either adopt, are subjugated by, or resist them.
So I expect to meet people who are just like me except they’ve had a harder time. I expect to find people who have survived trauma by moving through it, to meet people who have experienced the consequences of our actions.
I wonder who exactly profits from war. Where do they live? What are their lives like? I’m certain I couldn’t walk up their streets, knock on their doors and say hello. Armed guards protect them. It’s just, we’re the ones with the fences.
We’re the ones spending 375% more on border control.
We are the ones profiting from war. And if not us, then who?
We’re surrounded on the ferry by holidaymakers and marketed relentlessly over the tannoy to visit duty free, as ‘it’s a good time to choose new colours for the autumn’. Unimpressed at being forcefully encouraged towards priorities which lack any real meaning, we arrive without need to present a narrative justifying our presence, to my idea of a nightmare of modern life.
The summer fete of Calais is a distortion of noise being amplified into a fenced off area near a bouncy castle. This seems like a town in denial.
A man from Senegal with Spanish papers and half his teeth missing tells me he loves me as he eyes up my bag. Good luck to him if he wants to run anywhere with it, it’s heavy. He’s a fisherman and wants to go to Scotland. I tell him they need fishermen in Portugal and the weather is better.
In the sand dunes of Calais way past the outskirts of town is a camp of makeshift structures. Palettes and plastic organised into streets of similar speaking districts with shops and places to eat. A shantytown of mud and puddles. People live this way in India and Brazil, under motorway flyovers in the USA. It’s called poverty. Not many children, hardly any women, mostly young men, some with no legs.
We’re greeted with beautiful smiles. They’re glad to see new faces but ‘why are we here?’
Just came to see how you’re doing.
‘Why doesn’t your country like us?’
We like you, it’s the government and media who don’t.
‘What does the situation look like from there?’
From England, it looks like the men of the Calais dunes are jumping on trucks every night. Many are not. Many have applied for French asylum. Some have heard Germany is opening up.
English is the language they speak. All waiting. All hoping for fair and safe treatment. From England it looks like most boats sink. I meet people here who arrived.
They’re resourceful, resilient and kind. Intelligent young men, friendly and welcoming. I would rather be here than any street in London on any day of the week. There’s humanity and life about the place. Open hearted friendliness. No ego.
‘What do you think about the situation?’
I explain England is expensive. The poor there struggle too. Life is hard. The same people who drop bombs on them are the same people who hold us in debt and poverty. Same fight. Same oppressor.
War and austerity both create confusion and instability. Both, drive people further into hardship. Competition for ownership, the pursuit for power and control of resources, impact and displace ordinary people everywhere in the world to some degree.
Some of the men tell me they want an education.
An education in England will put you in debt.
‘They want to return to their countries in peace’.
The UK is not peaceful, we’ve been at war for 100 years. And the weather’s bad.
We explain to a 16 year old who arrived yesterday with nothing, we need the tent we have brought for just one night, then it’s his, if it’s any use. His vulnerability is close to the surface. We give him all the reassurance we can offer and a sleeping bag as we make ready to walk.
Into an apocalypse. Mosaic tiles of hail, rain down, bolts of lightning strike. The further we go, the harder it is to go back. 2km into a 7km walk, we know the tent will be gone – washed away or we hope, in good use. There’s no avoiding this beautiful storm to Calais town. The good thing about skin is, it’s waterproof. Like the sheets on the hostel beds.
Returning next day, we pass 20 police vans outside the camp and pass through a line of riot police three deep. The French Prime Minister is in town, we are now kettled, by choice. Most people in the camp seem unaware of this further restriction on their freedom. They have nowhere to go and are busy rebuilding their lives after the storm. All finding it hard, all making the best of it they can. Those with work papers are unable to work.
We return to the now empty sand dune where 100 cyclists pitched their tents before being welcomed into migrant shelters, sleeping 14 to a space on their sides, in clouds of Afghan smoke as their tents washed away. Displaced themselves, by the storm.
The weather is a great equaliser. We all live under the same skies.
Touched by the smallest kindness and always ready with a smile, there’s simple acknowledgment and acceptance of the oil burners and candles we have brought. They will make life easier for today. We pass Doctors du Monde. They’re seeing less hand injuries. An agreement was made between the British and French governments. To build higher fences.
The distribution of wellington boots is a beautiful sight. 300 pairs of wet feet now dry. For half an hour, good boots everywhere. It starts raining, we find cover easily in this town of shelters.
Because we are not fleeing war or economic hardship, we are able to pass through the police block and return to the port. With the right paperwork anything is possible. Leaving for us is easy, yet leaving them behind, is the hardest thing to do.
Economic and political status afford me the privilege to go where I choose. This doesn’t make me a better person, it makes me a more fortunate person and with that fortune comes responsibility.
The white cliffs of Dover rise from the horizon. The Promised Land.
I imagine seeing these cliffs for the first time. Aware of the reality for the few who do manage to travel in the hold, this view is one they have no privilege of seeing and with arrival on our shores, a new set of problems will begin.
From the English Channel, the UK looks detached. Detached from the reality of the situation. Detached from the realities of life. Detached from the wishes of others, detached even… from the wishes of our own hearts.
At the heart of everybody is a desire for peace.
We seem to live in in a state of diminished consciousness. Paranoid and suspicious. A consumer society with capitalist values. We’ve adopted an economic, social system which runs without conscience, at the expense of the planet and ordinary people. War is big business. Capitalism operates for profit. It’s political. It’s a verb. It doesn’t exist outside of us. It’s something we do. And as long as we continue doing it, we have to ask ourselves what kind of karma we are contributing to the world.
It seems, the more you have, the more concerned you become, with maintaining a look, an image, a reputation, a status and then, with only finite energy available, do you have time to consider what you truly wish for yourself and for others?
There are reasons people have been forced from their lands. Our lack of concern as bombs have been dropped on the Middle East for the past 15 years has been an abandonment and betrayal of humanity. Not least, our own. We live in a state of denial. Wilfully complicit in our own dispossession and in the dispossession of others. There is no valid excuse. We have chosen to be seduced.
“Control in modern times requires more than force, more than law. It requires that populations in cities and factories, whose lives are filled with cause for rebellion, be taught all is right. And so, the schools, the media, popular literature taught to be rich was a sign of superiority, to be poor a sign of personal failure, and the only way upward for a poor person was to climb into the ranks of the rich by extraordinary effort and extraordinary luck.” Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present
Can we strip away the deceit and realise aspiring to wealth is no real ambition? The pursuit of ownership creates problems everywhere on the face of the planet. For the displaced, the problems are practical and immediate. For us, psychological. Can we start identifying beyond what we’re relating to and have more of an interest in seeing truth?
To experience true love, compassion, awe, wonder and silent moments of beauty are perhaps the best possibilities of being human. Freedom is a responsibility. It welcomes uncertainty and lack of control. Nothing to do with shopping and nothing to do with politics. Politicians do not have the answers we need.
It seems we must change in a deep way to deal with the problems of modern issues. It takes strength to disidentify from the construct we’re relating to. A commitment to that releases energy and then, all things become possible.
In acknowledging the bad, we expand our consciousness to recognise that which is not working. When we expand our frames of reference, we become more fully aware. When we’re aware, we are more fully awake. More conscious. More human.
To see people as inferior or a threat because they are in crisis is ignorance.
It doesn’t matter how rich, or successful or well educated you are. What really matters is the way you treat people.
The English channel may only be 20 miles wide but it seems, our priorities and other peoples are seas apart. We have more than enough and we keep taking. We are not free when we’re imprisoned by desires. Experience is a great teacher but we have to act differently, make better choices and choose new experiences. Only then, will we know truth differently within ourselves.
When we can be more honest about the reality of our own lives, then can we extend our concern to others.
Things are the way they are and someone else will take care of it?
‘Today I am wise so I’m changing myself’ (Rumi)
Arianny for your tent. Simon for the oil burner idea. All companions on the journey.
Dawn, Phil, Maria, Maryla, Greig and Noam Chomsky for your thoughts.