Looking back at Calais Jungle

When Tawfic draped EAR singer Kym in an Afghan scarf bought from a Calais Jungle entrepreneur, boundaries slipped away. Kym had let the Calais wind tousle her hair and Tawfic had untethered his Arab roots, hugging strangers and translating Arabic day after day in the refugee camp.

At the moment the green, red and black scarf rippled around Kym’s shoulders, Tawfic was about to deescalate a conflict.  It was July 31st, 2016, and Omer was finishing his set with Sudanese backup singers and youth from EAR’s music class for refugee youth.

A hundred fifty residents of Calais Jungle were clapping and smiling to Omer’s soulful melodies, straddling bicycles or sitting on mats we had lain over the gravel path, kicking aside a discarded sweater and shirt. Finding a place to sit outside the language school was a rarity.

As Tawfic remounted the converted horse trailer / wifi bus / stage at the close of Omer’s set, Kasper the Iraqi rapper was about to take the mic. Just then, an Afghan started banging on our rampstage, “No one likes us Afghans! Why do you not sing Afghan songs? In the lunch line, they serve Afghans smaller portions!”

I had studied conflict resolution, and worked in a Bosnian war zone, but could think of no intervention. Kasper took the mic, put his hand on his heart, and addressed the Afghan. “My brother,” he said. “We are all one family here in the Jungle. All of us.” The Afghan quieted, then pumped up his rant.

Tawfic slid down the inclined ramp of the horse trailer to face the Afghan. He extended his hand and smiled, “Salam alaykum.” Peace be upon you. Was he publicly shaming the man into civility, because in Muslim cultures, you must answer Salam alaykum with Alaykum salam. One hundred fifty people in the audience watched to see if this would escalate. If the Afghan stormed off, he could return with compatriots armed with knives and guns, repeating the brawl a few months earlier that landed eleven Sudanese in the hospital.

The Afghan hesitated. His eyes shifted around the audience. Finally he answered Tawfic, ‘Alaykum salam.’

Tawfic said, ‘We want you to share a song in Pashtun. And we’d very much appreciate you waiting until Kasper sings the songs he’s prepared.’

On our last night in Calais, we cried and embraced a dozen young men as we prepared to re-enter lives in the States that would no longer include kisses on the forehead;

knee-to-knee circle singing in Omer’s tent; laughter; love songs; and surrender to a particular kind of love that buoys us now that we are stateside. We hope it lifts the friends we left behind to start lives in France — some at university, others in accommodation centers. Some of our EAR team will visit them in France next summer, but they cannot visit us. For migrants, boundaries are more than metaphor.


Author: earefuge

I direct EAR (Expressive Arts Refuge) whose work focuses on refugee youth in France and Greece. At home in Oakland, California, I direct World Harmony Chorus and World Harmony Ensemble.

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