South London Photographer: Visiting a refugee camp

Yesterday I went to the refugee camp in Calais, known to most of us nowadays as The Jungle. I have spent the last weeks and months watching the story unfold in the media and found it increasingly difficult to understand how we can allow people to exist in such conditions. As a developing photographer I felt compelled to go and see what was going on for myself; I’m not sure why but I knew I had to.

I won’t lie; I was very worried and nervous about it. I’m not a journalist and have never been anywhere like that before. I didn’t know if I’d have the strength. I was also afraid of feeling out of my depth.

As time went on though I felt more and more frustrated by my fear and thanks to encouragement and support from various people I eventually found the nerve to book a ferry crossing, which I did a couple of weeks ago now. I know journalists are telling the story for the newspapers but I wanted to see if there was a story I could tell from a different point of view. From the point of view of a mother since there so many very young people there, and also as someone who just finds the situation shocking, extraordinary and really difficult to understand.

Any trepidation I felt vanished very quickly once we arrived. And not only because I was lucky enough to have an extremely kind hearted friend, Jane, accompany me. We were very quickly invited by two sisters, young women from Eritrea, for a cup of tea. They told us they had arrived in Calais after a three-month journey and that their dream was to get to the UK. Their tent was filled with dolls and soft toys. The welcome we had was the first of many kind gestures throughout the afternoon.  After our short visit we hugged the sisters goodbye and then moved on, spending the afternoon meeting people from Eritrea, Syria, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. Most had harrowing stories to tell about why they had left their homes, and about what it was like living in The Jungle.

I could write for hours about who we met but I want this to be read to so I will keep it brief for now.

I will say everyone without fail is extremely cold and damp. The temporary structures that some people live in are not watertight and the damp can be seen and wiped off the walls. People try to insulate them with sleeping bags. It isn’t very effective. Goodness knows how the tents compare.

There is very little to do, so people are bored as they wait for months and months to find out if the UK will take them, or if they might go elsewhere.  Grassroots charities have been doing what they can to help alleviate that but that has led to criticism in some corners of the press and gross misrepresentation.

I would love to show you some of the people I met, but having been told by several charities as well as the people living there that portraits can potentially jeopordise asylum applications, I cannot publish them at the moment.  I hope the time will come when it is appropriate to reveal those portraits. You will see eyes that are kind and generous, faces that look lost, or in some cases hopeful and even filled with joyful spirit. Often there is a harrowed, desperately sad look too, as you might imagine. And fear, of course. But mostly you will just see people; fellow human beings who have been abandoned by the world at a time when they need the world’s support more than ever.

For now the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) is not in place helping to process people. And although I met an independent charity worker there who was assessing the situation to see how it could be improved, I find it shocking that there is so little in place to ensure vulnerable people are being taken care of.  I saw and met people who were doing what they could, but other than a few Medicin San Frontiers’ coats, everyone else I noticed helping out was a volunteer attached to a grass roots movement. I don’t understand why other larger organisations aren’t in place.  It’s truly baffling.  I suppose the policy is to leave it so people might be put off coming but they are still fleeing situations we can only imagine,  and it cannot be ignored.  It will not go away.  It has to be addressed. I wonder how long it will take for the people in power to stop waiting for it to simply go away.

I do not yet know how or even if my own photographic work will develop in relation to the people of Calais. But I will return in the new year if it is possible, if only to give prints to the people I photographed. Of course, I hope very much to do more than that. I could say so much more here but I think I should just leave you with some images that express what I saw.  As a photographer I have taken a big step. I know it is possible to go into places that at first seem daunting; in this case however, I was only shown kindness and generosity, and I was able to record some of the impressions that I thought were worth seeing.

I will say, before I go, I met people who were kind, intelligent, articulate and welcoming. I was offered tea, someone’s last cigarette and then a chocolate bar by people who had virtually nothing. We were invited by a group of boys not much older than my 11 year old son to warm our hands above the small fire they had built.  Jane and I were guided by several people who were happy to share their stories with us, and who made us feel extremely warm, despite the dropping temperature.  We, however, were able to leave and to drive home through the rain in a heated car, knowing that where we were headed was safe and secure. The people we left behind have nothing like that; none of the very basics that human beings should able to expect.

SJ

All images (c)Sarah-Jane Field 2015

 

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