Into The Jungle

In December 2015 Rachel Lees arrived in Calais to visit the community of people who have temporarily found shelter there. She went to serve but left with a lot more than she could give.

‘That place is lawless, violent! Please be careful’ petitioned an unnamed family member.

He didn’t really need to open his mouth; his eyebrows had already done enough talking when I told him I was off to The Calais Jungle for a few days.

As a die-hard tabloid reader, it’s not really surprising that my unnamed family member had come to hold this viewpoint. The Calais Jungle and the refugees that fill it have not exactly been painted in a palatable light to say the least.

As I made the short journey from London to the camp that sits just the other side of the Channel, the reality of this place was shared with me by the veteran volunteers I was wedged between (An old friend to my right, who was driving the van and an old Ethiopian pastor to my left). Teferi, the pastor, shared that the people gathered in this place have seen enough violence to last a lifetime.

‘They are fleeing the terrorists we have been made to suspect and fear they are. They have seen throats slit. More violence is the last thing that they want.’

In my misguided expectation of being there to be ‘helpful’ and to ‘serve’ the community, I was, in the days I spent in the jungle, paradoxically, served.Once we had arrived I walked slowly through the ramshackle plot so as to avoid the rivers of mud and took in the sight that now lay before me. The camp is self-organised according to the country individuals and families have travelled from. I walked through the Iranian quarter, the Syrian quarter, the Afghan quarter, the Sudanese quarter and so on. For the time being though, my very temporary home within this temporary town of sorts was with a group of Ethiopians.

In true Ethiopian hospitality I was given the best bed in their best shelter. I was fed more food than I could manage. And I mean literally fed, as the hands of my new friends filled my mouth with traditional Ethiopian food - a loving ritual saved for important occasions. If this hospitality wasn’t enough, after hours of chatting, two of my new friends announced that they had a surprise for me. Bringing in a bucket of warm water to the wooden hut we were huddled into, hiding from the perilous winter cold, they untied my boot laces and washed my feet.

As they did so, the preconceptions that lingered in my periphery, shared by my unnamed family member and the tabloids, were washed away too.

Back in the Eurotunnel, shell-shocked at the encounters I had had in that place, the three of us debriefed. They attempted to answer the barrage of questions I had, ‘what are these people going to do now? How will the most vulnerable survive the winter?’

A lot of my questions were unanswerable but Teferi in all his wisdom, returned to the faith-filled hope he held so close; ‘violence will never have the last word.’

While conflicts like Syria are marked by another year, while communities are forced to seek refuge and while the Calais Jungle is being dismantled, to this perspective we must return:

'Love always wins.'