A letter from Mike about his time in the Jungle Camp, Calais.
This month, Mike and Anna made the trip across the Channel to Calais, volunteering with Good Chance Calais. Below, Mike Shepherd shares his experience from the camp and gives us a glimpse as to what life is like in The Jungle.
"We arrived at the worst and best of times, the weather was dangerously cold, the gendarmerie stood in lines with riot shields and tear gas at the ready as bulldozers cleared swathes of no man's land around the Jungle. It seemed that the authorities, as well as creating areas of increased surveillance, were deliberately unsettling this unofficial community of desperate humanity. Refugees gathering the semblances of "home" and looking for somewhere else to pitch up, unavoidably shaking up the self-regulating communities within this sprawl of humanitarian crisis. The authorities were clearing trees and valuable brushwood, stony-faced and non-communicative as refugees appealed for firewood to combat sub-zero temperatures.
Then, as their appeals were ignored, of course someone hurls a rock at those dispassionate ranks of riot police. Is the immediate discharge of canister after canister of tear gas the only option? Surely not but that's what happened and continues to happen with very little provocation required.
The best of times? We went to Calais to offer support to Joe Robertson and Joe Murphy two heroic guys from up north who have created the Good Chance tent, a village hall, arts centre, theatre and, most importantly, a safe space within the Jungle. The commitment, passion, diplomatic skill and downright bravery of these young men with the young women volunteering alongside them is inspirational. We arrived at a time when the Good Chance tent had been forced to move from the calmer, gentler Sudanese and Eritrean areas to the Afghan area.
So there we were amongst the boys who along with their fathers and their fathers before them had only known war. A whole new challenge for the Good Chance tent.
We arrived at a time when yet another generator had conked out, most likely sabotaged, so no power or heat source. The Kneehigh team were myself, Anna Maria Murphy, virtuoso musician Ian Ross and genius engineer and inventor Rob Higgs. It was immediately apparent that our more "artistic aspirations" should be put on hold as we got our hands dirty with practical help.
We set off for the local bricolage to gather materials to create a false roof in the tent to help raise the temperature, on arrival at the superstore we opened the back of the van to discover two brothers smuggled away in the hope that they might arrive in the UK. They had fled the Taliban, survived weeks in the Jungle and started each day with fresh hope of escape, we took them back to the Jungle. Two days later they had disappeared, maybe one dawn they had managed to scale Mr Cameron's £6,000,000 razor wire fence and smuggled away to a new life somewhere. There is much talk in the camp of when and where the "good chances" are.
Throughout the next week we installed a lowered roof and a door in the Good Chance tent, we built a shed and secured a new generator, Rob, with great persistence, negotiated the building of an adventure playground in the austere surroundings of the new temporary shipping container accommodation for families; we fixed kids bikes; made a shadow play of the story of Tom Bawcock's Eve; installed a shadow screen and light; dug soakaways; went to the warehouse to help build shelters and built an insulated charging station for power tools; theatre games for fun and to keep people warm; quick scenarios exuberantly performed by the two Joes alongside and amidst those Afghan boys (remarkable!) shadow plays; attempted to sing songs; juggle oranges and dance flamenco; then there were the games of cricket with an imaginary bat and ball.
It was a remarkable and deeply troubling 6 days, throughout the world how many people, officially or unofficially, recognised or unrecognised are living in such dehumanised, desperate conditions? This is an ever spiralling humanitarian crisis without clear solutions but, for sure, the unofficial refugee camp, self-named the Jungle, shouldn't be there-nobody wants it to be.
I'm very reluctant to cast an opinion on the situation as very little is clear cut but these are some of the things I observed.
In the camp there is a great spirit of survival.
There is hope and delight amidst depression, desperation and disease.
There is scabies and "Jungle lung" and daily injuries from dawn raids on the razor wire fence.
There are Calais houses rented by French fascists whose "sport" is to beat up volunteer helpers as well as wandering refugees.
There are delicious shanty bars and restaurants with witty hosts in the Jungle.
The women and children are safe in compounded areas.
49% of Calais residents voted for Marie le Penn and the National Front.
Municipal Calais has spent £20,000,000 on temporary shipping container accommodation.
Municipal Calais provides buses for refugees to travel to different parts of France and Belgium to gain asylum.
Almost everyone wants to go to the UK.
Almost everyone distrusts France Probably because of their treatment by the Gendarmerie and CRS.
There is remarkably little crime in the Jungle but there is a degree of people smuggling profiteering, it's much worse in Dunkirk.
No-one wants to be there.
There are many fantastic volunteers, official and unofficial, doing a fantastic job.
Practical, diplomatic and organisational skills are vital.
The best of times.
The worst of times.
There's sabotage, cruelty, tear gas, desperation and alarming dehumanisation.
There's the wonder of youth and humanity, there's great enterprise and resilient hope.
Thank you Joes, thank you Jungle.
In hope too,