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.

 

 

 

Extended stay in Calais Jungle: What we accomplished

In the West, we like to take credit. I could say that I, or Expressive Arts Refuge, or a joint effort with Secours Catholique accomplished the successes described below. It would be equally accurate to attribute these accomplishments to the refugees. Neither is entirely true.

Something special happens when intention and openness, vision and context coincide. There is one more ingredient, without which little of import happens.
Love.

I love the guys in Calais Jungle, and they feel it. Even the most aloof of those I’ve come to know now calls me Mother. The French directors Bertrand Degremont and Greg Barco who helped them bring their original play to the stage also love them. Hisham Aly of Secours Catholique Calais who organized their participation in a theatre workshop and subsequent Caritas conference, loves them.

And they love us, and come from cultures that generously express love.

Here are a few of the changes I noticed in refugees during my extended 3 weeks in Calais Jungle: Six refugees without backgrounds in public speaking presented at Caritas’ conference on migrants in Saint Malo, France. Two arrhythmic guys clapped in perfect rhythm on three songs in a row. Five guys who could never make their voices match a note except by accident matched notes perfectly three days in a row. Fourteen refugees who had never before acted performed a play that moved an audience of 450 – 500 and stirred deep conversations about violence perpetrated on refugees in Europe. Musicians living in Calais Jungle performed 3-4 times. They learned how to manage a sound check; share a mic; and shape a beginning, middle and end to a song. Three men who had become refugees taught language classes (in Farsi and Arabic). All the guys who had become refugees improved their French and English. Each made friends with Europeans, and soaked in some European customs. Their bodies opened wide to both the elements and fellow conference participants as they walked 15 kilometers through sand, mud and knee-high water to Mont St Michel.

What did I,as director of Expressive Arts Refuge, do? I directed three concerts, some rehearsals of the afore-mentioned play written and acted by refugees, gave a presentation with Caritas’ Hisham Aly on the challenges and rewards of working at Calais Jungle. Five people who attended our open forum session plan to volunteer there.

All of us – volunteers and refugees alike – are richer for the intentions and openness we generated, and the vision and contexts we co-created. The guys returned to their tents and 30 showers for 9000 residents of the Jungle. The second photo depicts an additional shower for a fee.

I got home to California last night, thinking about the guys singing in the bus on their way home to the Jungle from Saint Malo, France. I’m exploring spending Christmas in Calais, with my new sons.

Refugees perform at conference in Saint Malo, France

I am so proud I could burst.

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Ready to leave for the conference in Saint Malo, France

Refugee actors from Calais Jungle performed their original play for an audience of 450 at Caritas International Youth Conference. The play about their journey by boat from Egypt to Italy, their abuse by Italian police, and their tenuous relationship to France moved the audience.

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Actors from Calais Jungle perform their play
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Compare the synchronized movement of the actors here in their performance to an earlier post during rehearsal

 

The theme of the conference was migrants. Refugees from Calais Jungle stole the show, event after event: They taught Farsi and Arabic; Iranian filmmakers screened their documentary; Sudanese musicians brought down the house with a performance of traditional songs; a Sudanese leader – also a refugee in Calais Jungle — laid out the current conditions in this unofficial tent city.

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Inspiring teacher of Arabic
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Oh so talented Sudanese singer

Living in conditions that are increasingly dense, dreary, unhygienic, and underserved, they rallied.

Thank you, Hisham Aly at Caritas, for folding me into your extraordinary vision, and for demonstrating the skillful dance of mentoring people from a culture previously unknown to me.

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Celebrating a triumphant performance of the play To Be Or Not

To donate funds that will help refugees survive the cold autumn, please give to Expressive Arts for Refugees on gofundme.com

Phase 2 at Calais Jungle

It’s rare that all one’s skills and pleasures converge. I am enjoying such a convergence.

For three days, I will direct a play by refugee actors who live in Calais Jungle refugee camp. They will perform for an audience of 450 at Caritas’ conference on migrants in Saint Malo, France on August 27, 2016. The proper directors, Bertrand Degremond and Gregory Barco, return Monday to retake their place at the helm.

Meanwhile, I use my background in psychology, performance, stage skills, and cross-cultural communication to shape a play that both informs and connects audience with actors.

The refugee actors created the play to tell their story – a treacherous boat ride from Egypt to Italy, abuse by Italian police, the long walk to France. It’s moving, rhythmic, visually compelling, and pulses with Sudanese and French music.

At rehearsals, I have the pleasure of sharing insights and authenticity with these new friends — men in their twenties and thirties from Sudan, Iran, and Afghanistan. We dance, sing, and do haka in rehearsal, sit knee to knee making music and talking softly in their tent and at the beach. I receive as many hugs as a person from a northern land can soak up.

Of course, cultural differences challenge all of us. We’re riding a beautiful, bumpy road, creating something together, experiencing power, art and the respectful sharing of ideas. And for me, convergence. image

Last days in Calais Jungle

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Omer thrills the crowd

Moira Smiley, Sudanese singer Omer, Iraqi rapper Kasper, EAR singers, and refugee youth sang and stomped our hearts out at two concerts. Thanks to Calais Sessions, the wifi bus, and Hisham Aly at Caritas for organizing and recording the performances.

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Moira Smiley captivated the crowd
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Sudanese singer Omer with youth

We spent two final evenings in riveting singing, clapping, and drumming knee-to-knee with our Sudanese guys in their tent and at a School for the Arts in the camp. I have grown accustomed to the constant din of guys chatting and charging phones, and the School for the Arts is no exception. Omer leads Sudanese call-and-response with Zane on a funky out-of-tune piano, in front of a poster of the 1998 movie Jungle Boy and the smell of dead rats.

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Men wait for lunch before we perform for them

What surprised us about the School was what happened in front of it at the end of our impromptu music gathering. The next day, we would leave our new friends in Calais Jungle. By the side of the road, they cried and heaved in our arms, and we, in theirs. How do they stay so open, to let in yet another set of volunteers who will head home to lives devoid of multicultural circle-singing in the music tent and kisses on the forehead and love that defies categories?

I miss a connecting flight, consider flying right back to Paris. But I book a room in an airport hotel to press on with responsibilities in the States, poke out my French sim card, and insert my US number. A text from one of the guys says that the School for the Arts burned to the ground.

I am feeling nostalgic for the guys, their school, even the smell of the rats.

Concert tomorrow!

We’re ramping up for tomorrow’s concert at the refugee camp in Calais, France. We’ll perform on the slanted ramp of a horse trailer converted into a wifi bus. Three short sets will feature Omer the outstanding Sudanese singer, Kasper the Iraqi rapper, Moira Smiley, and the American and Belgian EAR singers.

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Omer (yellow scarf) needs no coaching. Every day, he uplifts the Sudanese community by leading traditional circle-singing. Yesterday, they sang and danced to celebrate the arrival of 100 migrants from the camp to the UK through some mysterious smuggling feat. What joy they express for their friends who will now have a better chance of work and safety!

Expressive Arts Refuge has shifted the focus of our daily music classes from learning and sharing songs to performing them.

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Palestinian-American Tawfic (blue shirt) and Sudanese Bakree (middle) discuss how to share the role of MC. People from twenty countries live here. Many won’t understand the lyrics; the music will have to carry a message, a narrative, a feeling.

Sahlee never shows up for rehearsals. Just when we decide he’s opting out of guitar accompaniment for our youth singers, we find French volunteer Mathieu coaching him on I Wish I Knew How It would Feel to be Free. If Sahlee is not hunting down a door for his tent or a hammer to secure the door, his guitar practice should result in a solid performance. Two months agom he picked up a guitar for the first time. For weeks he’s said, ‘This is hard,’ to which we reply, ‘You can do it.’

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We’re working with the generous musicians, producers and sound engineers at Calais Sessions, and the wifi bus for power and recording. Among the missing amenities in Calais Jungle is electricity.

How can we thank the people who make this concert and so much else in the camp possible? We start by thanking them here.