Christmas was fast approaching and in the whirl of present buying, Christmas Day co-ordination, catching up with friends, boozy Christmas parties and over-eating, I had an overwhelming urge to return to The Jungle. Some of the students we taught in September still hadn’t made it to Britain, although more than half had. From whatsapp conversations with those still in the camp, I sensed a slow descent into despair.
However powerless one feels to bring about change on a policy level – or to even know what that change should look like – I saw how small acts of individual kindness can help those who are losing hope, and how much this matters. I noted in a post that I wrote on Facebook at the time, how many foreigners, particularly Brits, had traveled to the camp to help, how alive the energy was, and how I felt the true spirit of Christmas surrounding me.
Last time I was there, Salma and I had popped into the Ethiopian Coptic church, a substantial plywood structure enveloped in white tarpaulin with wooden crosses rising up above the skyline of the camp. The church had been built by Solomon, a tall, broad Ethiopian with a very white smile and a scar across his eyebrow. Solomon was the community leader for the Ethiopian and Eritrean community, attending meetings and speaking on their behalf. Solomon also maintained the church, which served hot meals on Holy Days to anyone who walked through the gate.
I wanted to show Christmas through the prism of this church and enlisted the remaining students – Saleh, Naeem and Mohammed from the film course, along with a friend of mine from London – to help me film. In fact, the Facebook post precipitated a donation from another friend in London and suddenly, we were able to provide gas cooking stoves to families; pots and pans to women; tinsel and baubles so Kurdish children could decorate the Christmas trees outside the church; throw a Christmas dinner for the Syrian boys who, like Saleh, Naeem and Mohammed, were under enormous mental strain; and give a donation towards the Holy Feast that would be happening on the orthodox Christmas on 7th January.
As ever, our central meeting place was the café and again, Maru’s face lit up when we walked through the door. Over the three days we were working in the camp, I had the chance to sit down with Maru a few times and check in on where he was at. The plan to go back to Afghanistan was dead. Too many Afghans were streaming into the camp with stories of renewed fighting, ISIS encroachment, and massive civilian casualties.
‘If I go back I’ll have to join a group’ Maru confides ‘Taliban or Daesh or a tribe. Now everyone must join a group’.
Speaking to people about Maru’s dilemma, his conclusions seem about right. At twenty-two years old, Maru is a good age to be a fighter.
But what would he be fighting for? Watching Maru as he glides effortless around the café, smiling at people as they come in, serving cups of tea, I imagine the boy working in his father’s tractor shop, happy to run errands, taking it all in so he could manage the business when the time came. Often Maru would join a table for a while, sit down with the customers as he did during our film making classes, follow the conversation with concentration, laugh along with the jokes and impart information when asked. Maru had a good grip on what was happening inside the camp. Foreigners – like myself – would go to him for information. Most people knew Maru by name.
Now that returning to Afghanistan was no longer an option, Maru and I discussed what he might do next. At the time, about three hundred people in the camp had given up trying to board trains to Britain. Like everyone else, they had their own story and their own unique reasons. In Maru’s case, it is because he worked illegally in Britain for almost four years and spent three months in a detention centre when he tried to return after traveling to Italy to renew his papers. These papers allow Maru to live and work legally in Italy.
‘Why aren’t you in Italy then, Maru?’ I exclaim
But Maru spent eighteen months in Italy and had been unable to find a job. He looks me squarely in the eyes,
‘There are fifteen million Italians working in Europe because there are no jobs in Italy, Alice’
I contemplate this fact.
As I do, my mind begins to whirr.
‘How about France?’ I declare. ‘If you registered in France, you could stay here, in Calais, which is close to Britain. You have lots of friends who would support you. Everybody loves you here, Maru.’
In my head I saw a vision of an Afghan cafe, nestling in one of the peeling shop fronts that line the trading streets of central Calais. Apart from the occasional Bar Sportif, tucked away among semi-uninhabited residential streets, there seemed few places to sit and chill-out in the middle of town. I imagined the lilting sounds of Pashtun music and the scent of hubbily bubbily drawing the locals in. Having a drink in a bar one evening, just off Calais’ Boulevard Lafayette and hosting a distinctly local clientele, I fall into conversation with a man called Doudou from Cote D’Ivoire. He had lived in Calais for over twenty years and had never experienced racism. Now people crossed the road.
‘The people here are scared’ Doudou tells me ‘They feel threatened. But it was never like this before’
Could the people of Calais overcome their fear? Would an influx of hard-working, gentle tempered, and grateful people enable this shabby transit town to regain some of its lost maritime glory, eluded to in the grand mercantile buildings still scattered around a town now cloaked in drab conservatism.
Maru considers the idea of staying in France. The internet connection in The Jungle gets weaker every time I go. I’m aware from trying to research options for the students how much time it takes to source accurate information. But a group of French lawyers have set up an information point in the camp and are giving free advice. Maru decides to ask them. I give out the final Christmas presents, large boxes of chocolates to the two or three volunteers who have been living and working in the camp for the past six months, as well as a box for Maru and the guys at the café, before taking the last train back to London and arriving home at midnight on Christmas Eve.
Two weeks later and I’m back in the camp. The original plan had been to attend the orthodox Christmas Day Feast at the church, but a call has been put out for media to cover the situation in Dunkirk as the conditions are extreme and those working there can no longer cope. I contact the woman running the camp, a Brit called Maddie Harris, who Secret Garden festival before volunteering in Dunkirk, where she had been for over four months. On Maddie’s Facebook page I see photos of a smiling young woman dressed in fairy costumes larking about with her friends. When we meet up in the camp at Grande Synthe, Maddie looks at breaking point.
I have traveled over with a friend called Emily, and on the way we collected Saleh and Mohammed from The Jungle. Immediately after liaising with Maddie, we start filming and taking pics. The camp is populated by Iraqi Kurds. Most are young men and families. In the communal mess tent, we run a quick-fire cell phone filmmaking class. The boys then head straight to their tents to film the conditions in which they are living. This film features Maddie and includes footage shot by these boys, Hamoo, Hama and Marewan.
While dropping the guys back at The Jungle, I clock in with Maru. The conversation with the lawyers didn’t go well. He expression becomes despondent when he recounts the experience. The legal system around refugees means that once your fingerprints have been taken in one country, you cannot then register anywhere else. I ask to see Maru’s documents: if he has full refugee status then he can legally work anywhere in Europe. But the Italian authorities have given him travel documents, so Italy is the only place Maru can legally work. Sitting opposite him now, I notice his teeth are starting to brown. He smokes almost constantly, the cheap brand of cigarettes on sale in the camp, and his skin is tiring. Perhaps it is because he is recalling time in Italy or in Britain, living in detention, or perhaps because he is consumed with thoughts of home, but I have never seen Maru looking so down.
‘I used to be organised’ he tells me ‘I didn’t used to smoke’
Sitting there with a cigarette in my hand, I’m astonished at his fortitude.
‘I had a plan’ he continues ‘I knew where I was going. Now I don’t know what to do’
I remember the Pashtun code of ethics – the Pushtunwali – which includes a dedication to perseverance. I ask Maru to tell me his story after leaving home. He lights another cigarette and begins
‘I got to Turkey and sold – I don’t know the word in English…’ he describes the item to me. It is handkerchiefs. ‘Yes handkerchiefs – on the side of the road. The police would drive up and we would run. I did that for five months but it was too dangerous and so I went to Greece’.
Later, when I ask what the most frightening part of his journey had been, he immediately recalls the boat trip from Turkey to Greece.
‘I’d never seen a boat before. We have no sea in Afghanistan. Many people die on the boats. While we waiting, all the hairs on my head, they were up’
Upon arrival in Greece, Maru was arrested and put into a children’s camp. The children were not allowed to leave the camp and there was no schooling, other than in the Greek language.
‘I was with Iraqi, Kurdish and Iranian children. We lived in containers, like the ones they make here in The Jungle. There was a TV , a bed and a small playground with some grass’
I’d visited the containers in The Jungle, newly erected by the French authorities to house around 1,500 inhabitants of the camp. Huge, white, industrial boxes – they sit surrounded by wire fences and a moat. Through the mesh it is possible to see people moving silently from box to Portaloo and back again. They look like miniatures in a game of whitewashed Lego, the containers towering above them like metal warehouses devoid of colour and life. One man sits in the corner of an open box, huddled, looking out.
Surrounding the container site, the make-shift huts of The Jungle are filled with humans sharing space together: sitting around a fire talking; taking cups of tea in tents; standing aside while others step across the narrow paths that line the muddy thoroughfares. In the containers people are warm and dry. But seeing this man sitting as he was, alone against the sterile wall of a white metal box, I shivered at the prospect that, quite soon, he might go mad.
Maru stayed a year in the Greek children’s camp and then he ran away.
‘They said they would give us papers. But no papers ever came. We thought they are waiting for us to become eighteen and then they will send us back home.’
Through regular contact with his uncle, Maru knew it was not safe for him to return home.
In Thessaloniki camp in Greece, Maru lived in a tent with thirty other men: Albanians, Romanians, Kurds, Iraqis. There was no shower and the camp was very cold. Looking at pictures of the camp on the internet, the conditions seem frighteningly similar to Dunkirk. All thirty of the men pooled their money and fed each other. They cooked using wood from the nearby forest
‘At 4am or 6am every night the police would come and check our papers’ Maru recalls ‘They would arrest the people without papers and put them in prison for a week. When you come out of prison they give you papers for a month. After that month was over, they arrest you and you go to prison again for a week. Then they give you another month. It just keeps happening like that’.
I’d read about ordinary Greeks handing out tea and food to refugees sleeping in Victoria Square in Athens and I asked Maru what the response was from the local population.
‘If they saw you, they would report you to the police and you would get arrested’.
Maru lasted two months. Then he took a boat to Sicily, where he was arrested by the Italian border police. They took his fingerprints and his destiny in Italy was sealed.
Again, Maru found himself living in a container, except this time they were allowed to leave the camp from 8am until 8pm. From time to time, Maru would embark on the four-hour walk to town. I asked him what he did when he finally got there. He shrugs
‘Sit in the gardens for a while. Then walk back’
And so Maru spent another year of his adolescent life sitting in starched iron containers, unable to cook, but with access to showers and toilets: the interminably slow drudge of wasted days while he waited for his papers. However, Maru did take advantage of the language classes that were offered to him, and learned conversational Italian. When a year later, his documents came through, Maru began job hunting.
Going from shop to shop, he offered to work for any wage, however low. In Naples, Rome, Venice and Milan he tried to get work, but there was no work. In February 2012 he traveled up to Calais and got himself across to Britain. It was while working illegally in Britain that Maru’s mother back in Afghanistan fell ill. Through doing sixteen hour shifts, Maru was able to send money back for her medical care.
‘I thought your mother died in the fire?’ I ask Maru, confused
‘My father married twice’ he tells me rather awkwardly, conscious this is not common practice in my culture ‘This was my other mother.’
It didn’t seem appropriate to ask if this was the biological one. When Maru left Britain to renew his documents in Italy, he was arrested coming back. The UK police put him in a detention centre for three months and then sent him back over the border. He arrived in Calais to the news his mother had died.
‘ I couldn’t hear anyone for two days’ he tells me, recalling that time ‘That was when everything changed.’ He holds up the smoking cigarette, ‘That was when I started this and when I start to think about dying.’
‘Come on, Maru!’ I exclaim, ‘You’re young. You can’t think about dying!’
‘Maybe its better to go back and die in my country. I do not have life here’.
My mind is spinning. There has to be a solution. Maru has been running for so long, he has nowhere left to go. As we said goodbye I promised to contact some Italian friends to see if they had any advice. Although he was mentally fragile, Maru was secure within the extended family of the café and of the camp. He had a bed and food everyday. I was comforted to know that, at least for now, he would be safe.
The next thing I hear, The Jungle is being demolished.
I go over the find out what’s happening. I’m on my own this time and Maru takes me round. The southern part of the camp has been razed, everyone is nervous. Those flashes of joy in human interaction are gone. I’ve never seen the camp look so grey. It was as if the heart had been ripped out of it.
‘Maru, are they demolishing the café?’
‘Yes’ he replies. ‘They will destroy all jungle’
I’d been talking to Italians about Maru and the general consensus seemed to chime with his experience: Italy is not a good place to find work if you are a refugee. But it’s crunch time and Maru needs to move on. My mind searches. How does a twenty-two year-old boy build a life in Italy when he knows no one and the employment market is shut off to him? How does he make friends? How does he create a network that can support him? How does he wrench just a little bit further that tiny gap that could open up a job? More importantly, where will he sleep?
‘In the park, I think’ he answers.
I see this hopeless boy, brown tar staining his front line of teeth, features sunken even deeper, and I wonder how long he will stay alive.
An idea hits me. ‘Why don’t you go to language school in Italy, Maru? Get your Italian up to speed and meet people while you’re there.’
He laughs sympathetically, ‘I have no money anymore’
And so begins the campaign to send Maru to school. With the help of an Italian friend, we’ve found a language school that runs courses for six months. Maru can enroll anytime and one of the options is to live with an Italian family. This feels like the best way of helping him to make friends.
To date, Maru is still in the jungle. The café was torn down yesterday and he is sharing a hut with a friend in the northern section of the camp. He has the flu, but a volunteer brought over medicine for him today. He expects to travel to Milan this week.
It’s always hard to know whether any good will come from charity. But in this case, I believe it will give Maru at least a chance. If you felt able to help contribute towards fees for the school and accommodation so that Maru can spend three months studying Italian in Milan, the link is below. As I said before, I truly believe that human beings have the power to support each other through dark times and sometimes, that can be all that is keeping them afloat. From time to time, all that is keeping them alive.