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Monday 21 September 2015

Solidarity Visit to Calais by Black Activists Rising Against Cuts with the National of Islam; Refugees Welcome Here Demo

NOI & BARAC delegation to Calais

On 19th September 2015, a group of representatives from Black Activists Rising Against Cuts and the Nation of Islam including Colin Muhammad, senior representative of the NOI, Zita Holbourne, National Co-Chair BARAC UK and Donna Guthrie, National Women’s Officer, BARAC UK,  visited the so called ‘refugee camp’ in Calais, France to take aid, solidarity and join the International demo called by L’auberge Des Migrants; Refugees Welcome.

Participants at the demo were asked to bring gifts, in particular rain coats and personal cards / letters and to give these to those in the ‘camp’ and promote the event during the day on social networking using the hashtag #makeitpersonal.

Embracing a Sister from Ethiopia 

Young Sudanese men

When we went through French passport control our passports were taken, the window was shut on us and the official did not engage with us. We sat for what seemed an eternity watching all the cars either side of us sail through, their passports glimpsed at for a second or two. When the window eventually opened we were scrutinised one by one and asked to identify ourselves. No apology or explanation was given for the delay.

Representatives from Convoys 2 Calais, BARAC UK & Nation of Islam

On arrival our group of 8 visited a warehouse to take our donations of clothes, tents, sleeping bags, coats, toiletries and food.  There were many different groups there who had travelled from different parts of the UK doing the same. We met there with BARAC’s newly partnered organisation London2Calais part of Convoys2Calais who are taking aid to Calais twice a month.  BARAC will be part of the convoys going forward.

After sorting our donations we went to the ‘camp’ which is known as ‘The Jungle’. On our way there we stopped at a garage and shop to use the facilities there.  A French woman parked her car near to us and we greeted her and smiled. She gave us a bad look and told us in French that immigrants are a problem and not welcome there and were not allowed in the shop. At first I thought she must be the owner of the shop but she was a customer telling us that we were ‘unwelcome immigrants who were a problem and banned from the shop’. I shouted after her that she was ‘raciste’.

We spent a few hours walking around, talking with people and listening to their stories and gave out the gifts of coats, toiletries, toys, books and 200 rain ponchos donated by my union, PCS plus other items and handmade cards, shared our lunch, snacks and drinks and listened to heart breaking story after story but were uplifted by the strength, determination and hope of those there.

What was clear immediately is that the place near to the ferry terminal that people are staying is not a refugee camp, it is a shanty town created by these forced to stay there, in limbo, using the limited resources available to them.

As we drove towards the ‘camp’ we noticed the make shift shelters and tents set up in corners around the town and along the road towards it, as more and more people make the journey to France in the hope of making it to the UK and having a chance of starting their lives anew after escaping persecution, poverty, war and other horrific circumstances. 

Along the way we met with some young men from Sudan who were carrying firewood – to obtain it they have to walk for miles – firewood they told us was important as they needed it for fuel and heat.

Inside the main area that people are staying it was crowded and muddy with uneven surfaces.  At the entrance was a bank of 11 portable toilets, for the estimated 4000 people there are 30 toilets in total.  Water is obtained from pipes which are away from the toilets and there are no showers, washing or bathing facilities. People have to fill bottles with water from the piping to use.

Caked into the muddy ground was discarded clothing and rubbish as there are no facilities for placing rubbish.

I asked some people staying there if the French authorities came to clean and empty the toilets and take the rubbish away and they said no.

I asked a group of young women from Eritrea what they did to bathe and wash their hair and if they had access to feminine hygiene products. They said that if they wanted a shower, this was only available sometimes at Secours Catholique in Calais Town. To get there they had to walk for two to three hours as there was no public transport, they had none of their own and had no ability to earn money to afford a cab.  Otherwise they just had to fill up bottles with water and use that to wash and bathe.

The ‘camp’ is divided into separate country areas so different communities live together in different areas.  While we were there we observed a queue of people in front of van that had situated itself in the middle of the camp. People were coming away with random items, one had a box of cornflakes, the next a piece of clothing, the next a hat and so on.  We could see that some of the people were looking bemusedly at the odd pieces of clothing and food they had been handed and it started to explain the large number of rags and clothes embedded in the muddy ground as people were being given items that were not useful or practical as well-meaning people have donated their unwanted items without necessarily considering what is most needed and practical.  Amongst the items in the mud were ‘going out’ dresses and high heeled shoes which don’t keep out the cold and aren’t designed to walk around a muddy area.

We met people from Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia, Syria, Iran, Kosovo, Kuwait, Afghanistan and many other countries, as we spoke with individuals and groups of people from different African countries including Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia we learned that there were divisions and unequal access to essential items and unequal treatment of those from African countries in the ‘camp’.   Amongst our group were fellow country people and between us we spoke a number of languages so we were able to overcome some communication /language barriers and  took the time to hear their stories and experiences in detail.

We were told that 60% of the people there were from Sudan but that people from other communities were coming to the ‘camp’ bringing essential items and provisions for others and saying that the items were only for those from that country and they are then offered the left overs that they don’t want.  Others groups have been provided with cooking stoves and building materials and equipment in order to build small businesses to bring some money in. All around the ‘camp’ were small businesses - shops and cafes but not everyone there can afford to purchase items and have to rely on donations but they also told us that they face hostility from some of the businesses and are not welcomed.

They said that the charities on the ground were very good at distributing items to everyone but that because of language barriers, if you don’t speak the language of the people doing the distribution you don’t understand what they are calling out – i.e. tents, blankets etc. and those that do speak the language get in first and they are too late or get the left overs.  Also food distributed does not cater for cultural / traditional needs, a bag of cornmeal flour or ground rice for example would be more welcomed and last longer than a box of cornflakes and would allow them to cook traditional foods. Traditional spices and dried fish would be welcomed also and the latter is as long lasting as tinned fish that is being distributed.

I will post a fuller list of the items needed later on but some of the items they asked for were:

A cooking stove so they don’t have to walk for miles to collect fire wood to cook on.

Cooking utensils.

Sacks/ bags of cornmeal flour, ground rice and other traditional food items.

Warm clothing for the winter such as coats, woollen hats, thermal underwear and other thermal items.

Waterproof items and inflatable mattresses so they don’t have to sleep on the ground.

We met lots of women from the African continent but we had been told in the 2-3 weeks leading up to our visit not to collect women’s clothing as there were not many women in the camp and the charities sorting the clothes had enough women’s clothing but the women we spoke to did need items, especially warm clothing and practical footwear and outer clothing to equip them to cope with the wet and cold season ahead.   Also feminine hygiene items are needed as although there are some donated they don’t always have enough. They also need African hair products.

Some had tents but others just make shift structures made with branches and plastic sheeting. They said that neither kept them dry when it rained.

Some of the gifts we took were packs of cards, balls and books and these were very popular, some groups we met only had one or two people who read in English but they said they would read the books and translate them as they went along so their friends could enjoy them too.

Spending days and months there mean that people need things to occupy their time and take their minds, if even temporarily from the horrible situation they are in so our experience is that also items to pass the time and share knowledge would be appreciated, not just for children but for adults.

We also learned that bicycles and trollies were very valuable – the ‘camp’ area is so far away from the town, shops and facilities that it takes hours to walk anywhere.

There is a library in the ‘camp’ which needs books in a variety of different languages plus a school.

Many of the people we met were young, in their late teens and twenties. 

During the day there were many tears shed as we embraced and encouraged our sisters and brothers there to keep strong. It was emotionally draining to see so many people in distress and hear so many tragic stories but we have to focus on the fact that they were also stories of hope and courage.

One young woman from Eritrea I spoke to told me that her parents and child had died, another that she had not seen her daughter for ten years.

One man on crutches told me that he had broken his leg trying to get on top of a train to the UK and had spent 20 days in hospital but then released and had no other option but to go back to the camp.  
A man told me that he spoke 6 languages and if I needed advice or information about anything in the camp he was there to help. 

As we visited the Eritrean area a woman with a megaphone was shouting; ‘We Are Human! We Are Not Animals!’.

People embraced us as we did them and even though they have nothing they invited us to eat with them and hear their stories – for some this was the first time anyone had taken the time to listen.

Some of our group stayed at the camp to speak and eat with the Sudanese people there and some of us joined the march out of the camp to the ferry terminal – we were joined by a large number from the camp.  They were upbeat and determined but understandably and quite rightly  upset about the way they were being treated.

There were lots of people on the march from the UK but far fewer French, I met a couple of Dutch women who had come by themselves to give solidarity but from the UK there were several organised groups who also brought aid.

Our partner organisation Convoys 2 Calais organised a coach to take people to the demo which around 45 people joined.

As we approached the foot passenger entrance to the ferry terminal some men expressed to us their frustration on seeing two passengers that they could not go too.  We also saw a few men walking along the track.

At the end of the march there was a rally with speakers and again we heard the words uttered ‘we are human, not animals, freedom, freedom, freedom’.

Other activities were a giant mural that everyone could contribute to. I painted a tribute to all the sisters I had met during the day in solidarity. There was a one minute silent die –in, in memory of all those who have lost their lives on their journey to freedom.

I carried a homemade placard which had a painting I did of a boat packed with people with the caption ‘Refugees are welcome, Racism is not welcome’.  People told me that this image was very important to them as many of them had travelled there by boat across the Mediterranean Sea. One man said he had travelled on a small boat with 350 people and it had been a frightening and perilous journey.

People filled in large cards with messages to the UK government, about themselves and their story and people signed a solidarity agreement.

We were the last people left at the demo, taking the time to sit, share food and talk to people and as we were about to leave, half of our group who had gone to get our mini bus saw the woman we had seen earlier with a megaphone leading a group of 70 African women on a march out of the camp and down the road. By this time the march and the demo were well over. Police attacked them and told them that they had to return to the ‘camp’ and were not permitted to march on the road – the women argued back that they were going to asset their rights to express themselves and march. They carried signs saying ‘Where is our right?’ they chanted ‘we are human beings, where is our right? We are educated black women’.  The police threatened to set riot police on them and as they started to arrive the brothers in our group intervened and stopped the police from attacking them. 

watch the powerful video of them marching  below:

 video courtesy of Colin Muhammed, National of Islam 

The image of these strong African women marching for humanity, demanding rights and reminding the world that they matter was not captured by the media, will not be seen on the news but it is an image that makes me feel empowered.

On our return journey we were asked at Passport Control what we had been doing in Calais and if the people in our mini bus now were the same people that had been in our mini bus on the outward journey!

We need to tell the stories of those in the Calais shanty town and we need to show our humanity by supporting them, bringing solidarity and the practical things they need whilst living on the edge of survival.

But the reality is that ‘The Jungle’ should not exist, those who find themselves at the end of a long and dangerous journey after escaping persecution, poverty and war should not be left in limbo hoping that one day their lives may begin again. The truth is that the 4000 there is growing daily and will continue to grow, no fences, barriers, demonisation, scaremongering or scapegoating by politicians, the mainstream media or the far right will prevent people coming or risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe, because for them, there is no choice, risking the dangers of getting here, is safer than staying where they were. 

Over the past few months we have heard refugees and migrants referred to us economic migrants, benefit tourist and even worse deemed to be non- humans marauding swarms of cockroaches and animals.   It is a shame and stain on the human race to treat their fellow human beings in this way.

Our role must also be to dispel the myths and lies, to lobby the government to grant asylum to those in Calais and to campaign for equality, freedom and justice for all. It’s not enough to be against injustice we must act to achieve it too.

BARAC is part of Convoys 2 Calais and we will be taking cars with food and essential items to Calais on the 2nd of October.  Information can be accessed here:

We have also invited the new shadow chancellor John McDonnell to come on a future visit, which he has agreed to do. It’s important for politicians to see first-hand the conditions people in Calais and wider are forced to live.

You can donate here:

BARAC has signed the solidarity agreement that was launched at the demo yesterday which you can sign here:

Earlier this week at the Trades Union Congress, the following statement was passed:

It commits the TUC General Council to:

Congress commits the General Council to campaign for Government policy to:

i.             recognise that the UK must play a full role in supporting refugees and fulfil its moral and legal obligations to significantly upscale its resettlement programme
ii. participate fully in a continent-wide response to the refugee crisis
iii. make welcome tens of thousands of refugees whether from camps in the Middle East or already in Europe
iv. fully fund refugee resettlement, avoiding the exploitation of refugees and avoiding extra pressure on poorer inner-city communities, whilst ensuring that the international development budget is only used in line with OECD guidelines on official development assistance.

If you can sponsor or provide a vehicle on the convoys, can donate items or fundraise please get in touch

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