Chris Markiewicz's Blog
Every Monday – thoughts, observations and ideas that hold up a mirror to who & how we are

Flowers in the Jungle


This week’s blog post is a little different, as I’m handing it over to a guest blogger – Clara Markiewicz, my eighteen year old daughter. She wrote this piece a couple of weeks ago, following her first visit to the Jungle refugee camp in Calais, Northern France.

I’ve been trying to write this post for nearly a week now and I’m finding it almost impossible. I’m finding it hard to condense and simplify what I saw and what I experienced in the Jungle, Calais. I’m also finding it hard to do the people I met and the wide range of emotions I’ve been feeling justice in writing, but I’m going to give it a go.

At 5.30am on Monday the 12th of October I was sitting on the first Northern Line train out of High Barnet. It was pitch black outside and I suddenly wondered if I was mad. I felt really juvenile and pathetic sitting there with my bum-bag strapped defensively around my waist and my sleeping bag spilling out of a Tesco bag. It all felt a little hilarious. I started to realise that I didn’t feel prepared for what I was going to experience in the Jungle camp. It’s one thing to imagine what I was going to find there but on that tube train surrounded by smartly dressed, early-bird commuters I realised, that in a few hours, I wouldn’t be relying on the safety of my imagination any more.

Soon I met with Sadaf, the wonderful woman who set up Musafir’s (traveller’s) Collective to help provide wood burners and food for the people there, and her friend Sally. We got into the car and started for Dover. The ferry was filled with excited holiday makers, expectant school children who’d never seen France before and families heading home. It was easy to get swept along with it all, especially as it was my first time on a ferry, and for a while I forgot where we were going.

Once in France, we started towards the camp. We knew we were going in the right direction when we started seeing small groups of men walking along the roadside. As we neared the camp, these parties got more numerous and soon we were turning left down a police flanked track into the Jungle.

From then on it’s going to be impossible for me to describe everything, there’s just far too much, so I thought I’d do what I can so I can at least paint a bit of picture for you all.

My first thought? The whole place felt surreal. I most certainly didn’t feel like I was in France. Young men on flimsy bikes whizzed past, others sat on the dunes in little groups chatting, playing music, or simply gazing out. Rubbish lined the road and was scraped up into the bushes. Piles of unwanted clothes were littered around, who in their right mind donates high heeled shoes? I realised that a lot of people just get so excited about helping that they clearly don’t think things through!

As we walked, I started seeing tents and shelters made out of tarpaulin and rope – none of which looked up for the oncoming winter. The camp is separated into smaller camps depending on the ethnicity and religion of those living there. We passed many groups of men cooking around little fires, most of whom called out a cheery ‘hello, how are you?’ as we passed.

It struck me how I wasn’t once asked for anything, no one begged. Everyone I had the privilege of meeting were incredibly polite and non-assuming. We were treated as honourable guests and never once were I made to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. We spent most of the day in a Pakistani camp of about 25 young men who Sadaf knew from her previous visits. All had fled the same town in a region of Pakistan that’s been practically taken over by the Taliban. Their lives were in danger constantly over there, so many left to try and find sanctuary for them and their families in the UK. But they can’t get to the UK.

You hear stories of the perilous journeys being made to and through Europe but it was a completely different matter to be told these testaments face to face. What do you say to a boy that left his home in March aged only 17 and who has travelled on foot through 9 countries in search of a place for his family to live in safety? What do you say when he tells you his parents went into debt to send him on this journey? What do you say when he tells of how he was put in a chicken coup for 24 hours by the Hungarian police and only fed one slice of bread?

This boy was the same age as me, yet he looked ten years older.

At one point one of the guys asked me if I was a relative of David Cameron’s. At first I thought he was making a joke that I looked like him until I realised he was hoping I could talk him into helping them. In that moment, and from then on, I felt hugely ashamed of the country I came from. That feeling was intensified when I asked the guys why they wanted to come to the UK so much, the response always was “because the English are nice people, because they come and help us, like you are.” I didn’t know how to tell them that if they got to England they probably wouldn’t get the welcome they’d been expecting.

They told of us of the trip they make every night to the Euro-tunnel entrance. Hundreds of them walk for 2 hours to the tunnel, dodging police, climbing high fences and ultimately trying to jump onto the train to try and get to England. They said how they have to time the jump just right, how there’s a small window of time in which the train is going more slowly before it picks up speed. One guy made a fist with one hand that represented a person, pretended his other palm was the oncoming train and showed us what happened if they got the timing wrong.

Many of their friends had died whilst trying and I’m surprised how easily they told us, even with some humour, and it occurred to me that most of them had seen so much death already that it’s the only way they can deal with it now. The young men I talked about above told me how he only thinks of his family as he tries for the train, he told me that they are the reason he’s doing it, so he can bring them to safety.

We spent the day walking around the Jungle, meeting amazing people (both refugees and volunteers) and learning a little more about life there. The media can do a pretty good job of giving the refugees a bad name and labelling them as intruders and as a threat. The fact of the matter is, the Jungle is a community and communities are always going to be full of a variety of people. It’s made up of over 6,000 people so of course some will not have such good intentions of coming to the UK than others. In truth, I was apprehensive about being a girl there when the camp is 90% young men but I never felt unsafe. I’ve felt more threatened when walking home from the tube in London! Every single person I met there shook my hand when they met me, asked me how I was and gave me a huge, kind smile. The Pakistani guys we were with treated me like a little sister and told me they were perfectly ready to defend me if it came to it.

In the Jungle library (a large tent filled precariously with shelves of books, 3 or 4 laptops and a central table), me and the Pakistani guy my own age had a written conversation on paper as he wanted to practice writing English. When we’d finished, he folded it up and handed it to me saying in broken English that I must keep it safe until he makes it to England. It was like a promise.

As it got dark, we headed back to the Pakistani camp as the Jungle isn’t safe to wander around in at night. We passed a small patch of white flowers growing out of the sandy ground and one of the men bent down and picked one for me, saying it was a thank-you present. I had never been more touched. Here we were, standing in the middle of a flood-prone wasteland that was strewn with make-shift shelters and rubbish, and yet here was a beautiful flower being given to me as a gift. The gesture pretty much summed up everything I felt about my visit to the Jungle – kindness, both on the part of the volunteers and the refugees, was everywhere.

We all squeezed into one of their tents and sat around a single candle, talking and showing each other photos of our families and homes. We started to realise it was time to head back to the ferry so we tried to find enough WiFi connection to look up the times. It struck me then how sickening it was that our biggest issue was trying to get enough internet to plan our journey back to England, our home, when the people around us put themselves in mortal danger everyday for the same thing.

When we got back to the car we had to say our goodbyes. I got big hugs from all of them and we made jokes that they better come and see us in England soon. I said “promise you’ll come and visit us in London when you can.” And the guy who gave me the flower repeated the word ‘promise’ over and over so he wouldn’t forget how to say it.

A part of my heart broke in that moment and I’m not sure it’ll ever be fixed because right there, right then, after everything I’d seen and everyone I’d met and all the stories I’d heard the total enormity of it hit me. Right then we got to drive away in our warm car with the comfortable knowledge that our UK passports were snuggled safely in our bags and that in a few hours we’d be back in our happy homes, surrounded by our families. And as we drove away we left them there, to spend yet another freezing night in tiny tents, thousands of miles away from home with no way of knowing what was going to happen to them or if their families were OK.

The only difference between them and us is luck. We are the lucky ones because we don’t have to worry about being killed when we step outside our front door, we don’t have to make the agonising decision to leave our family and home country in search of a place where we can live without fear, we don’t have to travel for months through country after country that doesn’t want us with no idea where we’ll end up or if it’ll all be OK.

Yes, the situation is dire, there are millions needing help and our government isn’t doing its fair share to any extent. But in my short visit, I’ve learnt how amazing human beings are. From volunteers from all over the world joining forces to help those fleeing war, to the gratefulness and strength of the refugees themselves, I’ve been blown away.

.

You can subscribe to Clara’s blog and read her account of her subsequent visit to Calais last week, by following this link: https://flowersinthejungleblog.wordpress.com/author/claramm97/

She has also set up a Just Giving page to raise funds for to help her refugee friends keep fed and warm through the coming winter. If you feel moved to contribute, this is the link: https://crowdfunding.justgiving.com/clara-markiewicz

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