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.

Two Mamas

Abdullah phones. I call him Abdullah to protect his Mama back in Sudan.

He must be twirling his phone because the wall of his youth Accommodation Centre spins, the dark ceiling akimbo, the boy entirely out of view.

‘Abdullah, I can’t see you. Show me your handsome face.’

Is he hiding something – depression, a wound from a fight?

There is a precise moment when two people connect. Both or them feel it. This moment comes when Abdullah brings his face into the sightline of the phone’s camera.

“Ah, there you are!’

His face lights up, sweet and shy, with a hint of a mustache and the shadow of ordeals that have aged his eyes, brow, mouth.

He sighs, ‘Mama Betsy.’

‘I am your Mama in California, and you have your Mama in Sudan. Do you have a Mama in France too?

‘No. No Mama here.’

‘How is your family?’

‘I can’t find them.’


“Maybe they had to leave.’

‘Your Mama doesn’t answer her phone?’

‘No, Mama Betsy.”

I don’t know what to say. The camera catches his smile sliding off the manchild face, his foot gliding along the bare floor.

“Are you wearing only flipflops? Do you have warm shoes?’

If I accept the title, I can at least keep his feet warm in the bitter French winter.

He trains the camera on a pair of black lace-up shoes.’I have shoes. You see shoes here.’

‘Do you need anything?’

‘I need help with asylum for France.’

‘I’ll try to find someone.’

“Thank you.’


‘Listen,’ I say. ‘Wait a minute.’

I pull up youtube and play songs we sang together in Calais Jungle last summer. He sings off-key, seems to have forgotten many of the lyrics to songs he performed in Calais Jungle. He seems to be running his hand, fingers splayed, along the phone, like he’s touching the image of my face, or the music that bursts from his phone.

We talk, without understanding some of the content. I am sinking with the thought that he is worried whether his mother is safe. Maybe the soldiers from whom he fled came for his Mama.

Some days, I can’t fix anything. I sit in front of a screen, a thought circling – I should be able to mitigate the ordeal of this motherless boy who journeyed alone from Sudan to France.

He wraps up the conversation, ‘Thank you for calling me.’

‘But you called me!’

We laugh. He looks, once again, like the seventeen year-old boy I knew last summer. I touch the screen.

Feeling free

Mohammed sent a recording of himself singing Bring Me Little Water, Sylvy. His voice sounded sweet, his phrasing African, his Sudanese accent strong. He’d sung it at our youth music class in Calais Jungle, France, asked for a link to a recording. I’d sent a youtube video of Moira Smiley with whom he’d performed it in Calais Jungle.

He rewarded me with a call. Soon we were video-chatting — he in the UK, me in California – about technology, his English classes, friends from the Jungle who’d been relocated to Accommodation Centers in France, and the kind man who was providing housing for Mohammed and another underage migrant. Despite videochat jerking the images of our faces, I could see the childish movement of his head, not altogether western, his tongue occasionally protruding, the sadness and joy coming into and leaving his eyes.

On my desktop, I cranked up the volume of Nina Simone on youtube. She was singing I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free. We chair-danced, arms waving in and out of our screens, laughing.

It was two am in the UK. I asked what he would do the following day. His mind wandered. I took that to mean, nothing. I suggested going to sleep, waking early, walking around his neighborhood to enjoy England, and if he happened upon strangers who weren’t rushing, practicing English.

I don’t know who he will become, this boy adapting to his new home. The terror of sneaking across the Chunnel on a truck is beginning to slip away from him. He will be pigeonholed by those who see him as an intruder. But it is too soon to define him. I want to see how he uses the language he’s learning. It will connect him with Englishmen in his new land, enable him to learn about them, to share about his native Sudan, to sing songs in Arabic for someone as he did for me and my team of Americans.

I hope people give him time to find his footing in this oh-so-new world, the country he targeted on a map. One day, he would slip in, under cold hard metal of a truck or in its refrigerated cabin. Each time he failed, police tear-gassed him, or he crashed on the pavement and got patched up in the Jungle’s first aid center.

Should we not reward his determination and openness to a new culture, this teen making a go of it in the absence of his family?

I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free

As a Calais Jungle boy, seventeen-year-old Mohammed performed with Expressive Arts Refuge and with Omar, master of Sudanese song and refugee. One song Mohammed loved to sing was Nina Simone’s I Wish I Knew How It would Feel to be Free. It was a joyful day, that concert with Moira Smiley on banjo, Mohammed proudly wearing a black dress shirt and red scarf we’d brought from California for youth performers, a day sandwiched between difficult days missing his family in Sudan, eyes sore from tear gas thrown by police to clear the road of migrants aiming for the Chunnel. He performed the Nina Simone song, clutching the mic like a parent.

Mohammed worried that he might never cross the Chunnel from France to the UK. He’d lost hope of getting clearance to migrate legally, and, like most refugees in Calais Jungle, tried nightly to board trucks.

I remember a day at the beach in Calais when Mohammed built sand huts, Sudanese style, and explained which of his family slept or cooked in which hut. That home compound back in Darfur seemed palatial compared to his shared tent in the Jungle.

When last week’s demolition of the Jungle approached, I advised him to apply for asylum in France, to queue with 7000 other Jungle migrants at a processing hangar in Calais, and to do what officials required because “France is full of good people, and you will find them.” That night, he sent a cryptic message that he was in London. How had he got there? Two yellow truck emojis.

The demolition of Calais Jungle proceeded. It was brutal on the 1000-1500 unaccompanied minors who lived in the tent city. Police, following orders to contain migrants queuing for relocation, kettled them, and turned youth, unregistered, back into a smoldering Jungle.

Suddenly, all the adult refugees were gone, bussed to Accommodation Centers around France. Sixteen hundred children were left to fend for themselves in unheated steel shipping containers, with faucets turned off, their former teachers and mentors blocked from entering the compound where youth slept twelve to a container – some in bunks, others on tables and floors. Food was short; showers failed to work; and the school, mosque, activities, and amenities – meager as they’d been – vanished. Children wandered or tore around on bikes amid bulldozers, gas canisters exploding in fires, and smoke.

Those whom French officials failed to register weren’t allowed into the now full containers, and slept rough in the damp chill, with no adults to protect them. Riot police and security guards surrounded the container compound.

Mohammed escaped just in time to miss the fires, the kettling, the orders to sit in the mud. He texted a picture of himself standing in an apartment pointing at a jack-o-lantern on a tidy table with a matching chair, something out of reach in the Jungle.

I texted back the lyrics to I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free.

His reply: I will never aver forget this.

Today’s eviction from Calais Jungle

Through what lens do we watch the news?

Today, press focus on the razing of Calais Jungle, call it a necessary response to this blight on France. Thousands of refugees wait to be bussed to 138 Accommodation Centers throughout the country.

Europe’s largest refugee camp has become a symbol of Europe’s failure to care for its refugees. Walls and fences separate them from their dream, and create a different blight, a tall rigid sentinel over the port city of Calais.

In spite of long lines, cold, and the apprehension of too little information, no fights have broken out. The French supplied ample details to the press, but sketchy ones to residents of Calais Jungle. Run by UK volunteers, Refugee Info Bus stepped up to provide details in seven languages. Volunteers with Care for Calais and Refugee Community Kitchen gave out food and hot tea. Unaccompanied minors were turned away because plans are still not in place for their relocation. Traffickers lurk, and tonight, with no apparent protection in place, everyone fears they might pounce. This is not hyperbole. During a demolition of the southern half of the refugee camp in March, 2016, 129 minors went missing.

Four weeks ago, Linda Khoury recorded a podcast with me and Expressive Arts Refuge singer Tawfic Halaby. On the air, with the hindsight of several weeks stateside, we focused on the remarkable community created by volunteers and residents in Calais Jungle – their resilience and sanity. Until today, volunteers had offered free meals, phone-charging, first aid, wifi, non-stop classes for adults and unaccompanied minors, and a generous welcome to all who had become refugees.

Good news: Some of our friends from the Jungle were welcomed to their new town. A robust welcome. A video of the refugees smiling, their hands on their hearts. Thank you, France!

Now, protect the unaccompanied minors. Today. Before it is too late.

From a distance

From a distance, the situation for refugees at Calais Jungle can be read everywhichway.

Eighty refugees were fast-tracked into the University in Lille. Families boarded buses for Reception Centers in the south of France. On the train, a refugee translator in stylish clothes whizzes off to Paris for a meeting with Amnesty International. In the music tent, young Sudanese men sing and serve sweet smoky chai to western friends.

But only thirty-nine of 378 unaccompanied youth eligible for asylum in the UK have been reunited with family members there. Over 1000 unaccompanied youth remain in the camp. They are blocked by riot police from entering Jungle Books Youth Center, a place of refuge for these boys fat from home. At night, some cut themselves from anxiety. Where will they will go when demolition begins? Rumors place the date at October 24.

Volunteers and charities continue to run the camp – its schools,  distribution points, lunch lines, legal centers, wifi bus, tea truck, art space, and youth centers. Yet hundreds of bigoted online comments assume that France provides these services and goods. France provides water troughs, garbage removal, portapotties, and thirty showers for close to 10,000 refugees.

In California, I sit in my sun-drenched yard, orange with ripe persimmons, while 10,000 refugees wait in tents moldy from rain. They want many things, but at the top of their lists is the freedom to charge their phones over a cup of tea. They do this on power strips provided free by restaurants, powered by generators. But police have, for the final time, closed all the shops and restaurants in Calais Jungle. One of them is Jungle Books Youth Center that provides free food to youth.

By the privilege of birth place, this persimmon will make my breakfast bowl and not theirs.

Demolition of Calais Jungle announced

On Monday, French president Francois Hollande announced the demolition of Calais Jungle by the end of the year, possibly as early as late October.
Our friends who live in the Jungle lie sick in damp or leaky tents. Getting to a meal, a shower, a French class entails navigating puddles in shoes with questionable soles.

It would be easier and more compassionate for France to allow volunteers and NGOs to improve this shantytown than to disperse its 10,000 residents to uncertain conditions. Cheaper too. Installing thirty more showers, and reopening the demolished southern half of the Jungle would cost the French less than staffing accommodation centers and providing necessities for dispersed refugees. The government could remove restrictions on building supplies in Calais Jungle, enabling refugees and volunteers to erect shelters. It could allow shops and restaurants run by migrant entrepreneurs to continue operating, rather than shutting them down en masse as they do from time to time.

France won’t admit that it is ill-prepared to take on the services currently provided by hundreds of volunteers and NGOs in the Jungle. The informal network of volunteer-staffed organizations provides food, French classes, wifi, phone credit, free tea, legal information, entertainment, friendship, acculturation, and sanity. Large off-site warehouses sort sleeping bags, clothes, and tents. Organized distribution of sorted items happens in spots and at times known to refugees. Fights break out, but, all in all, the system works. It provides basics, and would be able to do more were it not for the efforts of the French police to curtail services. The theory is that the more miserable the refugees, the fewer will cross the Mediterranean to come here.

Refugee communities help each other by walking to each other’s tents, sharing a meal in a cheap restaurant while charging phones, studying French or English together in a language class. They pass the time playing chess at a tea truck, reading donated books and dictionaries in classrooms, and making music with donated instruments. Refugees listen to leaders from their own communities  – Sudanese, Eritrean, Afghan, Ethiopian, Syrian, Iranian, Ethiopian.

The rudiments of what the French Welcome & Orientation Centers (CAOs) claim they will provide already exist. Outreach and exposure to European customs are embedded in genuine friendships with volunteers and NGO staff.

Since volunteers manage most services, the French government pays little except for police who carry out a dubious mandate.

After the demolition, France will wake up to thousands of migrants looking for services they can no longer find. Those who don’t trust French authorities will evade the CAOs. Some will sleep, eat, and defecate wherever they can. This will bother the French more than if refugees stayed in an improved Calais Jungle.

The demolition of the camp is short-sighted and ill-conceived. The number of CAO beds may fall short. Communities of support in the Jungle will be broken up. Human traffickers wait in a white van.

If the French want to allay fears, if they are proud of their plan to move refugees to new homes and integrate them into society, they would disclose the details of their plan. Refugees wait for reassurances to counter their experience of harassment, tear gas, and beatings at the hands of French police. Who will monitor and protect over 1000 unaccompanied minors vulnerable to traffickers? Where will refugees awaiting asylum live? Will they be able to live with friends from the Jungle? What actions can they take to increase their chance of asylum and decrease their risk of deportation?

The French have a legitimate complaint. It is not that migrants curtail tourism. Tourists visit interesting and beautiful cities. Calais has a few stately historic buildings. That said, it has made poor aesthetic choices like allowing dog poop on sidewalks, and displaying huge ugly plastic animals, and blasting mediocre outdoor rock concerts. Its taxi policy of pricing the upfront meter cost based on the passenger’s distance from the train station is an unwelcoming slap to tourists. Much of its population is bigoted toward migrants, and that sourness spills over onto tourists such as our Expressive Arts Refuge team.

Their legitimate complaint is something else. Refugees and their smugglers deliberately cause traffic accidents in order to slow trucks they then board, hoping to sneak into England. This makes roadways around Calais unsafe.

There is not a simple answer to this serious problem on roads by the Chunnel, the tunnel to England. Refugees inform one another of conditions, work opportunities, and prejudice in the countries where they land. Those who’ve made it to England report work opportunities and treatment that bests those in France. So refugees in Calais aim for England.

France could treat its refugees better, and develop a plan to integrate and employ them. Many thousands in Calais Jungle could contribute a cheap work force as they do in Germany. Some are educated, and with training, could contribute to the economy. Some musicians have already recorded on a chart-topping World Music album called Calais Sessions. Others run restaurants or volunteer.

Our recommendation: Unaccompanied minors cleared for family reunification in the UK should immediately be transported to England. Additional staff in France and England should collaborate to quickly process asylum claims. The Jungle should remain with improved conditions. 

We don’t expect this to happen.

Instead, Expressive Arts Refuge has prepared a 13-page document to advise French CAOs in best practices to integrate the Jungle’s 10,000 refugees. We seek leads to disseminate it through proper channels to French CAOs.

We also created a sample Questionnaire to help Jungle residents prepare for asylum and integration in France. It has been translated into French and Arabic.

This is not what we want to be doing. We’d rather be planning Christmas in Calais to build shelters, put on a concert, and visit friends who will soon be dragged out of the Jungle to an unknown location or forced to hide in someone’s yard, without a tent for fear of disclosure.