By day two of my volunteering stint at Help Refugees, I got into a good rhythm. I woke up at 8:00 AM every morning, had a healthy breakfast at the hotel, then took the bus to the warehouse. In the warehouse, I took on a variety of tasks. I worked with a group that was reorganizing a large section of the warehouse. This involved moving heavy boxes and palettes around. Afterwards, I felt like I could win a weightlifting competition or get a job at Home Depot.
Next, was a stint with a team organizing kitchenware for distribution. The team leader gave us a list, specifying how many pots, pans, saucepans, frying pans, plates, cups, spoons, forks, and bowls we needed to pack. That’s when our generation’s greatest shame reared its head: None of us girls could properly identify what a saucepan was vs. a frying pan and a small pot.
One girl argued that a saucepan is like a small pot for cooking sauces. I was pretty sure the thing I used to cook sauces resembled a frying pan. No, a frying pan was completely different, argued another. We did our best and packed as many of the items as we could find.
- My Observations of the Calais Jungle Refugee Camp
- Calais Diaries: Day 1 at the Help Refugees Warehouse
- Calais Diaries: Lost in the Calais Jungle
Lunch at the Help Refugees Warehouse
The Help Refugees warehouse served volunteers a light breakfast (croissants and coffee) and a lunch consisting of the same foods they served camp residents. The food was actually pretty good. Everyone got a plate of rice topped with a well seasoned ground beef sauce, a samosa, and salad. The down side? Dishes and utensils were limited, so if you didn’t get in line early, you’d have to wash one of the used dishes. What’s so bad about that? The plastic container used as a sink was filthy by then!
By Day 2, I decided to walk to the nearby Aldi and picked up a tuna salad sandwich with a warm lemonade. This lunch cost around 2 Euros and was delicious. Plus, I didn’t have to eat it using dirty utensils.
Back to Jungle Books
After an 8-hour shift at the warehouse, I headed back to Jungle Books, hoping to tutor this time. I was able to get a ride with Max, the 18 year-old German kid who had room for just three other people in his compact car: Me, a French girl named Isabelle, and a Swedish chick with dreadlocks whose name I can’t remember.
We drove to the Calais Jungle and Max was able to produce a permit and park right on the edge of the camp. We walked to the Jungle Books library and adult school, which was next to the Eritrean Church.
A few people were sitting around outdoor picnic tables, playing cards. A young man who was around 23 years old greeted everyone and asked where we were from. “Sweden,” “Germany,” “France” and “Afghanistan.” “You’re Afghan?!” he exclaimed, “Do you speak Pashto or Dari?” I joked that while I spoke Pashto and Dari, I also happen to be illiterate in both languages. They all laughed and reassured me that my grammar was very good and they could hardly tell I grew up abroad.
Meeting My Kinfolk
It turns out pretty much everyone at that table was Pashtun. They asked me where I was from and unsurprisingly, Arghandeh didn’t ring a bell. “Paghman” I offered and they roared. That’s where three of them were from, including the guy who had greeted everyone – we’ll call him Elias.
I had assumed some of the guys would see me as a walking passport application, but I wanted to make it clear that was a no-go. Nothing did that better than when they asked my age and I told them I was 28. They looked genuinely surprised. Elias recovered, “I’m sorry sister, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but are you married?” I told them no, which shocked them even more. I explained that in the U.S., most people get married after completing their studies and establishing themselves. “How many years has it been since you finished your studies?” “Seven.” The looks on their faces was priceless. After this, the guys treated me like an older sister. Friendly and respectful, but never flirtatious or out of line in any way.
They asked me what I did for a living and nothing has ever made me reconsider my choice of career than explaining it to a bunch of destitute migrants stuck in the Calais Jungle. I felt downright ridiculous and came home wanting to do something more substantial with my life. By the time I finished explaining, they had decided I was a journalist.
Stuck in the Calais Jungle
Elias was a U.S. Army translator from Paghman and spoke English perfectly. He was one month short of qualifying for a Special Immigration Visa before he was laid off. He’d been in Calais for 6 months and tried almost daily to cross over to the UK. He would jump over a barbed wire fence and try to board a truck or ferry to the UK. His jacket had several large tears across the back as a result. On my last day at the camp, I asked if he was planning to try again that night. He told me no, that he had completed his first asylum interview that day and it had gone well. He seemed happy about staying in France.
An older guy sitting at the table began ranting about how he’d spent five years as a U.S. Army translator but his application for asylum kept getting rejected. In spite of this, he ranted about how he hated his homeland and wished it would “burn down.”
I told him his homeland was the only place he had in this world. The U.S. rejected his asylum claim, the French preferred he succeed in crossing the English Channel, and the UK was building walls to keep him out. A few days later when he saw me tutoring a Sudanese refugee, he said in English, “I’m proud of you.” “Why?” I asked in Pashto. He shook his head and said, “I’m just proud of you” then walked away.
A few of the guys had claimed asylum in France, but decided to stay in the Calais Jungle until their paperwork was processed. They claimed it took longer otherwise, figuring the government didn’t prioritize people who had a decent place to sleep at night.
Abuse at the Hands of the CRS
A few of the guys showed me their hands, which were riddled with rubber bullet wounds. What happened? The CRS officers had shot them various reasons. They returned to camp late at night; there was a ruckus and they shot people randomly; they merely walked past the officers and got shot for no reason, etc. Another kid told me he was shot in the back, while his friend told me CRS officers pepper sprayed and beat him as he was walking home from a soccer game. The CRS officers knew they could get away with it, so they abused the refugees, with little regard to consequence.
The Meet Market in the Calais Jungle
At that moment, I noticed a 19 year-old kid with a Justin Bieber haircut sitting at the picnic table and holding hands with Theresa, a Portuguese volunteer. That wouldn’t fly in Afghanistan’s conservative culture, so I busted his chops a little: “What would your mother say if she saw you sitting here, holding hands with a non-mahram?” He smiled, embarrassed, “She’s holding my hands.” “And you’re letting her.” His friends laughed as Theresa sat there, oblivious to it all.
What many of the girls, including Theresa, didn’t realize was that their flirtations made them a bit of a joke among the guys in the Calais Jungle. I explained that some of these girls were merely being friendly – that it’s normal in their culture to show affection for guys with whom they had a completely platonic relationship. This was tough for some of them to fathom.
The Help Refugees volunteer coordinator reminded us daily to dress and behave appropriately while at the camp. Yet, some of the girls disregarded many of the rules, dressing in capri pants, t-shirts, and letting their hair down. In fact, one of the refugees later told me he had a four month relationship with a British volunteer. Another guy told me some of the girls regularly took guys back to their apartments.
Just recently I read an article in The Independent about the inappropriate relationships and even abuse that occurs between volunteers and refugees. I want to reiterate that this was highly discouraged by the Help Refugees volunteer coordinator, who made it very clear that volunteers were to conduct themselves in a friendly, yet professional manner. That volunteers and refugees (especially children) were not to be alone together – ever. They tried to restrict volunteer access to the refugees by being selective about who could go to the camp for distribution. But I guess some people always find a way around the rules.
Some of this behavior annoyed the more conservative guys. A few of them told me the girls’ overly affectionate behavior made them uncomfortable. They felt bad rejecting them because they didn’t want to seem ungrateful for their help. Some of them stayed away from Jungle Books for this reason.
Conversation with a Weirdo
Before we left, a 20 year-old Afghan guy approached me and we ended up having the most bizarre conversation. He was wearing a very nice leather jacket but something about his demeanor was strange. He was from Mazar-e-Sharif and his father had died. He’d left his mother behind, living with his sister and her husband. When I asked why he came to Europe he said, “no reason,” that he’d followed a bunch of other guys because it seemed fun.
Then he said he didn’t actually live in the Calais Jungle – he had claimed asylum in France, had an apartment in town, and merely came to the camp “for fun.” When I asked if he had many friends there, he said no. Very odd.
I asked if he hoped to bring his family to France and he responded with what can only be translated to, “No, I don’t give a sh** about them.” He laughed like it was the funniest thing. This behavior is unbecoming of an Afghan man. For starters, it’s considered disgraceful to have your mother living in her son-in-law’s house when you’re an able-bodied man who should be providing for her. The fact that he didn’t care about his family in such a nonchalant manner was equally unacceptable.
He was very effeminate, but then he took me by surprise by telling me he’d dated a British volunteer for four months. He was going to marry her, but his mother wasn’t ok with it, so he ended things. I excused myself as my group was getting ready to leave, happy to put an end to this strange conversation.
The next day he approached me again, asking me the same exact questions before half-proposing to me. I wasn’t down for that nonsense and shut him down. He left and I didn’t see him again. It may seem harsh, but guys like this get out of line if you entertain their nonsense. If I hadn’t done that, he may have run around telling people he was a contender and that doesn’t go over well when you’re the only female Afghan volunteer and want to be taken seriously in a place like this.
Other than this very strange interaction, I didn’t have any problems with anyone I met in the Calais Jungle. I spoke to people of many different ethnicities and no one ever treated me with anything but respect. Except for one guy who yelled at me and basically blamed me for all that was wrong in the world. I’ll get to that in my next post…
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