Since the end of my Camino, I have been traveling in Munich, Copenhagen, and Paris, and now I am waiting for a bus in Calais, France. My bus will take me across the English Channel, and with a quick flash of my passport and a few other documents, I will be allowed to enter the country.
Here in Calais, there are many for whom such a journey is at best a pipe dream. Refugees from all over (Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Sudan to name a few countries) have traveled here and are staying in a camp called “the Jungle” outside the city, unsanctioned and even persecuted by the French government. They flee from unimaginable dangers and tragedies, looking for safety and just a bit of hope, but find only doors shut in their faces. Globally, over 20 million refugees face similar situations.
In June I began a research project to examine the role of the ecumenical Church in Europe in the global refugee crisis. I traveled in France, Italy, Germany, and Sweden, visiting faith-based organizations and interviewing professional aid-workers, clergy, and volunteers to gather their perspectives on my topic. After a week I decided to shift the focus of my project to advocacy rather than analysis. I learned about the issues at stake in the crisis and the models for aid that organizations use most successfully, and I met several people whom I look up to as heroes in the crisis. I was also deeply discouraged at the apathy and hostility of many toward refugees, as well as the minuscule involvement of many churches in giving aid. My project continues, and today I am departing from another visit to Calais.
One of the most moving experiences of my project so far has been visiting the camp here. Thousands live in cheaply constructed tent structures, watching their savings gradually dwindle away as they hope to cross to the UK or be reunited with family members. They face police brutality and gangs of smugglers who profit off of the camp and take or strike wherever they like (since there is no rule of law). Meanwhile residents struggle through the cold and wet seasons with barely adequate shelter. Rival ethnic and cultural groups are forced to live in closely packed squalor and stand in lines waiting for the food and supplies that a few local aid organizations can provide. As a result, tensions are high and violence can break out at any moment.
An estimated 1,000 children live inside the Jungle, separated from their families. Women face great danger, since as much as 90% of the camp’s inhabitants are men. Rats are everywhere and personal hygiene is difficult to maintain. People may wait for hours to shower for just a few minutes once a week in the extremely limited facilities.
At the camp I met a man whom I will call Yusef. Yusef is a Sudanese refugee who has been living in the camp for over a year and hopes to claim asylum in the UK. Yusef was fasting when we met but he invited me to his home and insisted on kindling a fire and using his limited supplies to make a cup of coffee for me, although he would not partake. We spoke about our lives and he introduced me to the men he lived with, inviting me to come back at any time to visit or stay with him. I thanked him for his hospitality, feeling a little guilty to take a piece of the tiny ration of sugar and coffee that the men shared. He explained to me that there was no need for thanks–this was automatic, a piece of faith and culture that he lived by without a second thought. Before I left we embraced warmly and he repeated his invitation to return anytime. “We are brothers,” he said, and I walked away feeling warm and welcome and deeply disturbed.
Yusef showed me the kind of hospitality that he is denied from every direction in Europe. He must choose between countries who are racing to change their policies and become the least attractive options for asylum. Politicians profit daily from promising to turn him and others out of a small patch of land two miles outside of a vacation town in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. He would welcome me with open arms, but European and American governments will do whatever it takes to turn him away. It’s hopeless and it’s shameful and I feel helpless to do anything about it. Still I want to try.
Now my project is focused on spreading awareness and advocating for refugee aid. I am happy to speak to churches, Sunday school classes, small groups, and any other groups, faith-based or not. I believe Christians should know that love means hospitality and giving. I have seen personally that many non-Christians far excel me with their dedication to the cause of refugees. Whether we feel the call as Christians or simply as humans, we are in this together and we owe it to our brothers and sisters to lend a helping hand.
If you’d like to donate to help an organization in Calais serve the residents of the Jungle, L’Auberge des Migrants (the Refuge for Migrants) can put your money (or time) to good use. The organization began as a grassroots effort and now plays an essential role in supporting the camp. L’Auberge organizes and distributes goods within the camp and works with its residents to navigate the asylum process. If you’d like to buy much-needed supplies at a discount to ship directly to their warehouse for distribution, click here and choose from their pre-selected list. If you’d like to donate directly to the organization, click here. Your help is much-needed and much-appreciated.
The church of the residents of the jungle
One of the main roads through the camp