Calais Diaries: Lost in the Calais Jungle

On my first day at the Help Refugees warehouse, I heard a great deal of chatter about Jungle Books. “Are you going to Jungle Books later?” practically every person I spoke to asked. Jungle Books served several noteworthy functions in the Calais Jungle. They operated a school for adults, where English and French were taught; an elementary school for the kids in the camp; a library, as well as a free restaurant for unaccompanied minors. The volunteers from the warehouse went to Jungle Books to tutor refugees in an informal setting outside of the classroom.

An Ecuadorian girl told me volunteers who wanted to go to Jungle Books met on the curb by the warehouse entrance after work, where rides were worked out. Then someone said Hettie knew a group with a car, so when I asked her, she led me over to Brad, the American I had spotted on my first morning. 

I had chatted with Brad after moving to the hygiene department. We ran out of razors and he and his Dutch friends, Valentine and Mark, were organizing large boxes of new donations. Hettie asked if they had room for one more person in the car and Mark jokingly responded, “It depends on who it is.” “Guys,” Brad said, “She’s cool. She’s from California.” Just like that, I scored a ride to Jungle Books.

Now the problem was my wardrobe. I was wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and my Mark Zuckerberg hoodie, which wasn’t going to cut it. I needed either a long shirt to cover my backside completely or really loose pants. So I went to the warehouse boutique to do some shopping. The best I came up with was a pair of pants that were a cross between windbreakers and gardening pants. And about two sizes too big. But this wasn’t a fashion show, so they became my go-to threads until I found a long flannel shirt that was equally appropriate.

Entering the Calais Jungle 

There were two entries to the Calais Jungle: One was just off the freeway, while the other could be accessed through the backroads. Both were manned by French riot police knowns as the CRS – brutal a**holes who regularly abused the refugees. Volunteers arriving by car had to provide an authorization letter from the organization before receiving permission to park their vehicles. 

Freeway entry to the Calais Jungle Refugee Camp manned by French CRS riot police
The freeway entry to the Calais Jungle

We didn’t have an authorization form when we arrived through the backroads. Brad was concerned the CRS officers would ask us for ID, something they could do at any time. If we didn’t have one, they could bar us from entering the camp. I browsed through my phone, sure I had a photo of my driver’s license in an old email, but I didn’t. We parked by the side of the road and Valentine and Mark decided to charm the officers with their fluent French. Meanwhile, I tried to make myself as invisible as possible, which was easy with two tall guys walking ahead of me.

Valentine started a friendly conversation and the officers loved it, responding in a cheerful tone. The conversation turned to “who speaks French” and I thought that would be my downfall, but the officers only pointed to Brad, bypassing me altogether. The guys asked where the Jungle Books school was and the officers pointed us in the wrong direction. You see, the elementary school was probably 50 feet away, in the middle of the field. The adult school was next to an Eritrean church about 100 feet away, in plain sight. Yet the CRS officers told us to walk down the paved road, then turn left into the tent city.

Afghan Square in the Calais Jungle

I wouldn’t say I was nervous walking down the road, but I was definitely cautious. From a distance, I spotted a young man on a bike, just cycling in place. That always signals trouble for me. The tension broke when we approached and a Sudanese man tossing a football nearby stopped us, introducing himself as Adam. We had a brief, friendly chat and continued to the left like the CRS officers had instructed us to do. The atmosphere was eerie – too quiet for a place that had been dubbed “The Jungle” to denote chaos. We passed dozens of shelters of all kinds: Tents, trailers, containers, and makeshift houses with actual walls and roofs.

Calais Jungle Refugee Camp tents and shelters along a paved road
Tents and shelters along the paved road bordering the Calais Jungle refugee camp

A white balloon flew in our direction and the guys kicked it around before it popped on the sharp spike of a metal fence. Then an African man emerged, with a strained expression on his face, carrying the owner of the popped balloon – a little girl about 2 years old. I said, “Hello” and his face broke into a smile as he returned my greeting. “It’s about respect,” Brad remarked, “You give respect and they give it back.” We walked further, past a convenience store manned by a group of Afghan men, a row of tents, and into the center of the camp, which looked like a bustling town: This was Afghan Square.

“I Think We’re Lost”

The place was abuzz with energy. I counted three Afghan restaurants housed in little makeshift huts within a stone’s throw. “I think we’re lost,” Mark noted. Looking around, I spotted someone I was sure was Afghan: A young man around 22 years-old who wore a scarf the color of the Afghan flag. He was chatting with someone manning a restaurant booth and I just walked up and asked in Dari, “Are you guys Afghan?” “Yes,” he responded. “Do you speak Pashto or Dari?” “Both.” That was my cue that Pashto was his first language, so I continued in Pashto. I asked if he could point us to the Jungle Books school and he instead said he would walk us there. Just like that, he left his friend to help four complete strangers find their destination.

Graffiti along a metal fence on the outskirts of the Calais Jungle
Graffiti along a metal fence on the outskirts of the Calais Jungle

To protect our guide’s anonymity, I’ll refer to him as Khalid. Khalid was from the Nangahar province of Afghanistan. His father was a prominent member of the Communist party. This lead to years of harassment at the hands of the Taliban and insurgent groups. He spent two years studying Economics at university before it became unsafe for him to be in his hometown. He had been in Calais since October 2015 – 9 months – and was doing his best to cope with the situation. 

We passed by what could only be described as a bustling city center resembling a main street area. There were rows of restaurants, convenience stores, clothing shops, the Jungle Books restaurant, and hundreds of young men wandering around. Out of respect for the residents and the rules Help Refugees had outlined, I didn’t take any photos of this area.

Calais Jungle Elementary School 

We finally arrived at the Jungle Books elementary school, after having walked in a circle, thanks to the CRS officers’ inept directions. While this was an elementary school, there were also classes for adults. The children had their own designated hours and a classroom. The teachers picked the children up from their homes and dropped them back off daily to ensure their safety. 

Makeshift Elementary School built in the Calais Jungle refugee camp by
Jungle Books Elementary School in the Calais Jungle refugee camp

The school principal, an Afghan man, said attendance often fluctuated. He explained that many families tried to get to the UK in the middle of the night, with varying degrees of success. When they failed, the kids were often too tired to attend school the next day. 

Makeshift classroom for elementary school kids in the Calais Jungle refugee camp
Kids classroom at the Jungle Books Elementary School, Calais refugee camp

Since school had long ended, there were no children in sight. A soccer game was broadcast on the school’s television, attracting a dozen spectators. A Sudanese man stopped to talk to us for a long time before I learned he had come to watch the game but stayed with us out of politeness. He finally left when I insisted he watch the game.

Jungle Books outdoor classroom for refugees in the Calais Jungle refugee camp
Outdoor classroom for adults at the Jungle Books school

It was getting late and we had to get going. Khalid graciously offered to take us to one of the camp restaurants for tea, but I politely declined on everyone’s behalf, not wanting to inconvenience him further. 

Before I left, he gave me some advice about dealing with people inside the camp. He explained that while most people were in fact decent, there were also thieves and people of low moral character. He advised me never to go anywhere alone and always keep my hands in my pockets when talking to people. Sometimes a small child would pick-pocket you while his older brother engaged you in chit-chat. A few days later, a volunteer was pick-pocketed in this exact manner. We left the camp as it became cold and small drops of rain fell from the sky.

Thoughts on the Calais Jungle

Seeing the Calais Jungle, not in a neat, structured news article with a beginning, middle and end, but as a scene grounded in reality was eye-opening. It wasn’t quite the scene of Thessaloniki, which left me shaken and crying at the end of the day. The Calais Jungle was a much more hopeful place. I was impressed at how much this place felt like a real community; at how the refugees made the best of the situation by building their own businesses while in this state of limbo. It was like a metaphor for life: We’re all here temporarily. Some of us sit around and squander our time. Others educate themselves, build a life, and make the best of their circumstances before passing onto the next place

With the Calais Jungle refugee camp closing this week, I’m glad I got to see something that the news cameras failed to convey: Here in this remote field in small town France flourished a community of people from vastly different ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. In Calais, they found common ground – literally and figuratively. 

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  1. Thank you so much for writing about this important topic. I really appreciate this post, and I’m so impressed that you are doing this work.

  2. Great article! Loved the detail. Wondering whether there were any older volunteers, in their 50s? Nice meeting you in Chicago. Would love to do some volunteer tourism later when the kids are out of the house. You’ve been an inspiration.

    • Thanks Dave! It was nice meeting you too. There were lots of volunteers of all ages, including folks in their 50’s as well as families. It was certainly a great experience – my only regret is that I didn’t stay longer.

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