She was fourteen when she left Ethiopia for Europe, a wee girl with hair pulled tight and piled high to make her look taller. We spot her in a group of nine girls, among eighty young men, all refugees in a mini-camp near the demolished Jungle in Calais, France. Hemmed in on three sides by green fencing with no place to sleep, cry, or pee in private, watched by a CRS (police) car, these refugees try. Just try, they say, and everyone knows that they mean try all night to sneak into a truck across the Chunnel to England.
This encampment lacks the perks of the former Calais Jungle — schools, activities, refugee-run stalls and restaurants, hundreds of warm volunteers and distribution sites for clothes, tents, and food. The biggest loss is of tents and personal belongings. The CRS pepper-sprays nightly and destroys or confiscates items like tents and sleeping bags that bring comfort. This mini-Jungle is a rocky field of trash and people who harbor the suspicion of those who have been mistreated.
Hisham from Caritas asked me to work with the underage refugee girls from Ethiopia and Eritrea who live in the mini-Jungle. He promised a van, a driver, a translator, and a room in the Caritas building. Moroccan Maryam serves most of those roles. But it is the men who approach our van. We give them hot tea in plastic cups, and my heart instantly sinks with the realization that we have no food, shoes, or phone credit to offer. When they see how little we’ve brought in the Caritas van, their hope turns to disappointment. Still they chat in their few words of English, happy to shoot the breeze with Caritas staff who come daily to check on them.
I am new to this mini-Jungle, where the hair of the refugees is big and wild because the barbers in the previous Jungle have dispersed along with the other 10,000 residents. Their clothes and faces are dusty because there is no running water — that, too, vanished with the demolition of the Jungle. There is a new brutality in these conditions.
Back to the girls. Moroccan Maryam crams the nine girls into the van, enticing them with the offer of clothes and a shower. On the ride to the Caritas building, she chats and laughs with them in Arabic, calling them habibsi (darling). At Caritas, the girls take hoodies and jeans, laugh in the shower, eat, beat out body music. It takes repeated reminders to get Maryam to translate my instructions to the girls, worded carefully to convey healing messages at multiple levels. But it doesn’t much matter if some is lost in translation. Maryam’s love for them is palpable. The girls melt. The wee girl and her sixteen year-old friend teach me how to shake my shoulders in an Ethiopian dance that requires a fine isolation of muscles.
They soon tire because they didn’t sleep last night when they were trying to catch a ride to England. So we walk the pier at the Strait of Dover, and buy them Tunisian dinner and ice cream at beach stands. They show us pictures of mothers and sisters on their phones.
Before we return them to the mini-Jungle, Hisham joins us. After a brief conversation in Arabic with the slight fourteen year-old, he repeats something she tells him: This is the first day since she left Ethiopia that she has let down her guard and enjoyed herself.