To coincide with the publication of Voices from the ‘Jungle’, we present a blog, introduced by one of the book’s editors, Katrine Møller Hansen, and accompanied by voices of the residents of the refugee camp and the book’s authors: the Calais Writers.
This book brings together the personal stories of people who lived as refugees, during 2015 and 2016, in the Calais camp on the northern French coast, just 26 miles from the UK: a camp that was often called the ‘Jungle’. For the authors, that have all left behind loved ones and a place of belonging, the ‘Jungle’ became home for a short or a longer time. Through poetry, prose poems, diary entries, photography, drawings and conventional accounts they narrate their personal experiences, life stories and they imagine the lives that lie ahead of them. We hear about the borders – geographical, national, cultural and religious – they have crossed, drawn or dissolved on their journeys and in their search for better and safer futures.
The authors want their voices to be heard and they call for audiences willing to listen. Aware that they are becoming objects of distrust and fear and that they have been depicted as benefit cheats, criminals and terrorists, they take control in this book, of their own representation. However, they do not speak in unison. Differences in opinion appear and the stories may ‘disagree’ with each other. Through such conversations, the book displays the human face of the current world crisis. This implies a multiplicity of truths and life trajectories rather than one homogenic narrative or life story. Their collective voices negotiate what it means to belong and to be human and their stories may resonate with any reader that queries into the human consequences of the displacements and human rights violations we witness today.
Voices from the “Jungle” is structured in a semi-chronological fashion; the writers begin with memories of their homes and the wars and persecution that lead them to leave, they then chronicle their journeys, record their experiences of the camp and, finally, write of their lives after the ‘Jungle’. Here are extracts from the Home, Journey and Living in the Jungle sections:
Everyone in the ‘Jungle’ has left behind a life, loved ones and a home. Some prefer not to write about it, as remembering what they left is too painful. For those who do, memories of childhood and home are coloured by the journey that has led them here, and their everyday existence in the ‘Jungle’. Many of the authors wanted to give a detailed and full record of where they came from and why they were forced to leave behind everything that was dear to them. On one hand, these stories help us understand why people from different countries and regions have all arrived in the ‘Jungle’ at the same time; on the other, they show us w shared between us all: the dreams we had as children.
Ali Bajdar (from Iraq):
My father and brother worked in a big city far from the village. They were the providers for the family and had to go there to earn money for our food. At times during the war, they couldn’t come back to the village. We saw them maybe once a month. We heard about the war on the radio, heard about how Daesh kills people, how old people and young women are being captured and killed. You can even see it on Facebook. When you hear and see these things, when you know what they are capable of, you also know what you need to do when Daesh arrives – you need to run. One morning at 7am, we heard shooting in the village and people were yelling, ‘Daesh is coming!’ I ran back home to look for my mother. My mother was not in the house, I could not find her. The only thing we could do was to run, so we did and I had to leave without her. We could not bring anything with us, there was no time.
Majid (from Iran):
I am interested in describing the bad situation in my country. I am so angry about it. Especially for young people, it’s very difficult.
In general, I can say that there are no freedoms in Iran. Many guys who are here in Calais are escaping from wars, civil wars and miseries which they face in their countries. But for Iranians, it is totally different. The problem of Iran is the lack of freedom – any sort of freedom: freedom of speech, freedom for your personal life, freedom of religion.
There are lots of restrictions and limitations in Iran. As examples, you can’t have a boyfriend or a girlfriend. Drinking alcohol is prohibited. We haven’t any night- club, even one, in Iran. Going to parties is forbidden. If the agents of the secret police catch you, they put you in jail.
Another example: you can’t listen to music in your car, at any volume. But your car is your own personal environment. If you increase the volume, they stop you and say it is against the rules of Islam…
The problem is that they say many things are against the rules of Islam. They interpret everything according to their opinions.
Another important thing, especially for women: They have to wear the hijab. It’s compulsory. Most Iranian women don’t like it. Young women resist these rules; they want to live freely. It’s an Islamic rule to cover your hair, but it should be optional. It’s not good; everything that is forced, does not have a good result. It’s all interpretation. If you go to different Islamic countries, their versions of Islam are totally different. For instance, in Turkey, which is over 90 per cent Muslim, many women do not cover their hair.
I have lived more than three decades in Iran. When I look back, I think that things are improving every year. They have reduced their restrictions every year. Maybe it’s because of the pressure on them.
I faced another problem: changing my religion. This is so dangerous. If you were born in a Christian family, this is no problem for you. But if you were a Muslim and changed your religion, this is a problem. They will kill you, put you in jail, or make lots of problems for your family – sisters, father, mother.
For this reason, lots of guys who have changed their religion have gone to other countries. Last year, when Angela Merkel opened the German borders, it was the best opportunity for them to leave the country and reach a safe land that respected their religion, their thoughts, their attitudes.
The dangerous and circuitous journeys undertaken by migrants and refugees to reach the so-called ‘haven’ of Europe have been documented at length since the summer of 2015 – broadcast over 24-hour rolling news coverage and social media platforms, replete with bold red arrows showing the trajectories of migrants and refugees from across Asia and Africa as they converge on Europe.
However, this version of journeys undertaken often fails to acknowledge the ways in which refugees are held up and forced to find more dangerous alternatives. It conceals the people and organisations responsible for the life-threatening conditions under which refugees move across into Europe. Over the course of the first eight months of 2016, the number of people who reached European shores via journeys across either the Mediterranean or the Aegean Seas stood at over 268,000.
While sanctuary from conflict and persecution is often found in neighbouring countries – 86 per cent of all refugees are located in the Global South – finding social, economic and political security for the displaced is not guaranteed. This chapter draws attention to this shortfall, which propels refugees on to more journeys. The accounts that follow describe some of the constraints which refugees face. The authors vividly describe the exposure to continued violence and risk of life that confronts them on their journeys.
Shaheen (from Afghanistan):
So the day came. They took us to the beach – that was around midnight. Then they pumped the boat. The boat was just for five people and they put 22 of us in it. There was a small engine on the boat. They started the engine, and we sat in the boat. Then they showed us a light glimmering in the distance. They said, ‘That is Greece, and you have to go towards that light’; and we started our journey.
After two hours and even with the best of luck, we found ourselves at the midway point and out of fuel. There was 20 litres of petrol with us at the start that the agents had given us, and we put in the petrol; that was at around three o’clock. The sea waves were very powerful and scary. There were two women and three children with us; they were crying. So we started the boat engine again. We moved towards the small flickering light.
We had been travelling for an hour after we re-started, when we realised we had lost our way. Someone was saying we should go to the right, and another was saying to the left.
Then, unfortunately, the air from the boat began seeping out. Someone shouted, ‘Hey, the boat is going soft!’ Right away, I knew that there was a hole in the boat. Everybody started checking their life jackets.
With a sudden powerful wave of water, we were submerged under. In a minute, we lost each other. The water was cold and my jaws started shaking; I couldn’t even shout and water had gone in my mouth; I started choking. The water was extremely salty. After about twenty minutes, I saw some people in life jackets, so I shouted out at them.
That was a very hard time for me. There are no words with me to explain that situation. May Allah save everyone from that situation. Finally, I was thinking that these were the last moments of my life. I said, crying, ‘I can’t save my life; now I am dying, Please God help me for my children, help me for my good deeds and good dealings with people.’ I even lost my voice.
After an hour, I saw a light in the distance. I thought my head was spinning, but really the light was coming toward me, and thanks be to God, it was a Turkish police boat. I just raised my hands and they shouted in a loudspeaker. Again, I raised my hands and they saw me, and they took me. It was only when they put me in the boat with them that I closed my eyes.
I saw when I opened my eyes after two or three hours that there were only five of us. I was surprised that we were a group of 22 but now only five. I asked the policeman, ‘Where are the others?’ He said, ‘We just found you five boys.’ I shouted, ‘We were 22 persons!’ Then they started searching again, but unfortunately they didn’t find anyone else. I cried so much, and then I asked them about one of my friends by the name of Haroon. The officer asked the boys on the other side, ‘Anyone by the name of Haroon here?’ Haroon shouted, ‘I am Haroon!’ I heard the voice, and then I became happy, a little bit.’ Thanks to Allah, one of my friends is saved.’ Then the police took us to the hospital, because some of us were a little bit sick. treated us well, and two days later, they left us in Istanbul.
Mohammed Ahmed (from Sudan):
I travelled to Libya by car through the desert for 15 days; then we reached Libya. We tried to find out how to get a job, and then we got a job, but the country is not safe and does not have a government. It just has militias and rebels. Sometimes when they see you on the street, especially when you are Black, then they stop you and check your pockets, and take all that you have got, and they tell you, ‘We don’t want to see you again in these places.’ Sometimes, when you go to work, after you did your work, they just tell you that ‘We don’t have money for it.’ If you talk, they just kill you for no reason. And also, they call Black people slaves.
LIVING IN THE JUNGLE
After long and hazardous journeys, all the authors of this book arrived at the ‘Jungle’ refugee camp outside Calais in northern France. In this chapter, authors present their accounts of their early time in the ‘Jungle’: a place no one wants to live in, yet also a place that camp residents made into a valued temporary home.
Habibi (from Afghanistan):
My parents are in Afghanistan. I didn’t tell them, ‘I’m living in the “Jungle”.’ When my mum calls, I say, ‘Actually yeah, they gave me a very nice house here.’ Sometimes they tell me, ‘Send me a picture.’ I go to a volunteer’s house, taking pictures of it, sending them to them. As if I have a really nice house. I cannot tell them the truth, that I’m living the ‘Jungle’ life. And the tent: for four-and-a-half months I was living in a tent.
Safia (from Afghanistan):
When we arrived, I said to my children, ‘It is so dirty’, and I told them we were not going to stay for a long time, that we are going to the UK. When I had the baby and I went to the Jules Ferry Centre2, I got a big room and many women came together to live. But still I prefer to live in a caravan because there are not too many people. In the Jules Ferry Centre, there will be 14 or 16 women all together in one room with the children. I chose the caravan for the little one, so the baby can be quiet, and I can be with my husband, which is not possible in the Jules Ferry Centre – he has to live outside it. You need your husband close to you to he you. It would be harder to be without my husband.
Africa (from Sudan):
It was big trouble for me when I came to Calais. I couldn’t believe that this is Europe. Is it true that this place exists in Europe? Where is humanity, where is democracy? Where is all this bullshit? They just write it in the paper. I think, because we have come here, we are not human beings, we become animals, a new kind of animal. A new kind of animal that has developed at this time; it’s known as ‘refugee’.
We came here to see this really ‘dignified’ European life. Yes, I like it; it is a good life for the people. I don’t want to talk about differences between white people and black people. It is like we have been deserted. Because this is Europe, a place of humanity.
Many people ask me why I haven’t applied for asylum in France. But this situation, here in the ‘Jungle’, is not likely to be one that encourages anyone to get registered in France.
Babak (from Iran):
It is me who is making this world and no one and nothing can help it better than myself.
All it takes, is to believe in myself and confront my fears!
I remember during the first week that I arrived in the Calais camp (the ‘Jungle’), after two horrible nights, I went to the Dome, a place where physical exercises were being conducted by volunteers. People were singing songs and everyone was going on the platform in turn. I always hated my voice. I had never sung before, but that night, I went up, closed my eyes and sang a song. Everyone enjoyed it, and I won a prize. I realised it was easy. For doing this, I only needed to believe in myself and break the fear inside me.
All the troubles and fears we create for ourselves are the products of our thoughts and it is us who make demons out of things. In reality, life is beautiful. We make it difficult; we build walls and are scared of facing them. If we believe in ourselves, we can make impossible things possible and prove that there is nothing impossible!
We have the power to achieve what we want. You can be a great footballer, a fantastic actor, perhaps a successful vendor or even a good writer! I managed to receive a prize although I had a horrible voice.
All it takes is to close our eyes to our fears.
The book’s final chapter explores the lives of refugees once they have left the ‘Jungle’. Some managed to reach and settle in the UK or other European countries, others claimed asylum or were taken to a new shelter in another part of France. There are many different realities of camp life to be explored and this is only a minute selection, but contained within the pages of the Voices from the “Jungle” a vivid picture of struggle, survival and human resilience is painted.
Voices from the ‘Jungle’: Stories from the Calais Refugee Camp by the Calais Writers is available to buy from Pluto Press.
The ‘Calais Writers’ include Africa, Riaz Ahmad, Eritrea, Ali Haghooei, Babak Inaloo, Mani, Milkesa, Shaheen Ahmed Wali, Shaqib, Teddy and Haris Haider, who are all former inhabitants of the Calais refugee camp.
Credits for embedded images:
Stencil by Mani (from Iran)
Caption: My mother: You are so far, so far. What can I say? Just, ‘I miss you’, not more, not less.
Photos by Zeeshan Javid (from Pakistan)
Caption: Some camp residents’ views of police and journalists.
Photo by Habibi (from Afghanistan)
Caption: All over it’s full of water, it’s like a river here. Nobody can pass, because it’s too muddy.