Calais: Empowerment from chaos

18 Sep , 2016  

Text and photographies: Arturo Coego | Versión en castellano

After more that one year reading stuff about war, refugees and migration, I got fed up of biased media messages. So I made a decision: To volunteer in a refugee camp. 

Fate made me to travel in August to Calais from Paris, the city of light. I would spend my first hours in the north of France at the beach, toasting with cheap wine with my fellows while watching dozens of ferries sailing to the United Kingdom.

A few weeks ago I had started to prepare for this trip by getting info, contacting people who might be interested in the same kind of voluntary work, comparing means of transport, prices, etc. Finding the right charity to volunteer with was one of the key tasks. Finally we decided to join Care4Calais, simply because no special qualification is required.

People informally know the Calais refugee camp as The Jungle, a controversial name. It is easy to understand why once you are among its streets and dunes. It is the penultimate stage of their long journey between war and the promised land: The UK. In the British domain, once they get the refugee status, they get 28 days of temporary accommodation with access to benefits. In the UK there is safety and loads of jobs, so it is not hard to understand the equation.


The British street artists made one of his last pieces of art in Calais with this portrait of Steve Jobs, whose biological father migrated from Syria to the United States in the 20th Century.

Going 1.5 miles after Calais we parked under a bridge of the motorway. That is the entrance of the camp. The Jungle is run by a sort of domesticated anarchy. The social contract is signed every day. We must remember that this camp is an illegal settlement where nothing is forever: Firesbaton charges or political decisions remind us of that every now and then.


Sketch of the map of the Calais refugee camp in the Care4Calais warehouse.

The sunshine was glorious during my debut as a volunteer. The landscape was very different from that muddy Calais that we were used to seeing in the papers. People from the charity had warned us to keep an eye on our belongings, -especially our passports – and to avoid staying there at night, but the first impression did not scared us. My first task made me come down from that sort of cloud of saviour where volunteers sometimes feel in these contexts: We had to pick up fag-ends, bits of glass, bits of paper, leftovers, recipients and dead rats. Many of the residents (90% male adults) were passing by our side without notice, they are used to volunteers. Others waved us and stopped to say thanks. It was a nice vibe. Who doesn’t smile in nice weather?

Passing by some sheds transformed into restaurants, schools or hairdressers was shocking. Or giving way to a refugee carrying a wheelbarrow full of beer cans. Or having a glance at one of the bars and see a couple of customers smoking shishas. Life makes its way, somehow.


The dusty, stony streets divide a settlement where the inhabitants organise themselves in communities according to their nationalities. Most of them come from Sudan, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Kuwait. We all know that there are thrilling stories about survival behind those fake names and pixelated faces. We have got used to listening to them. But when a human being tells you that war has killed his wife and children, you shut up and maintain your composure somehow and forget everything you have seen, hear or read until that moment. There are no more adjectives to describe the the shame that Europe is allowing.

Today there are more than 7,000 people in Calais dreaming of being in the UK, but Downing Street seems to care only about Brexit and building a massive wall to get rid of the refugees. Nobody can remain neutral: We must react. Otherwise, we will become accomplices of this humanitarian disaster. One more time, the equation is simple.

In the afternoon, after having lunch at the warehouse, we visited the camp again. This time we had to set up a human chain to guarantee a safe delivery of clothes and shoes packs. We would repeat the same process a couple of hours later, delivering food and hygiene bags instead.


Nobody can remain neutral: We must react. Otherwise, we will become accomplices of this humanitarian disaster.

At the end of this first day we went back to our camp to have a shower and get ready for some drinks. We would join other friends at the Family Pub, the unofficial meeting point for volunteers. There was a big fair in Calais, the city. We had some fun there. The carousels were shining and raving mad just a couple of miles away from The Jungle. A real Dismaland, basically.


Restaurants, schools, hairdressers etc. : The Jungle is full of entrepreneurs.

It is already Sunday. No hangover. The weekend, with its ups and downs, has flown. I get distracted for a moment thinking of the special energy that the camp gives off. You can even touch that survival instinct turned into optimism, it is real. I think of the tents that got destroyed but they have rebuilt. I remember those refugees that became volunteers of Care4Calais. Their help is essential as they get full respect from the big group.  I think of the empowerment that comes from the chaos, a process of reinforcement of self-esteem where their will to leave gets their dignitiy -the one we, as a society, try to snatch- back.

It is night now. I have said goodbye to my fellows. I am sharing a car through blablacar to go back to my flat in Bristol. My new friend James and I are somewhere between Dover and the city of Banksy after crossing the English Channel on the ferry. It is very late and we are tired after more than four hours driving, so we decide to stop in a petrol station. I just pop into the shop to get a coffee and a pain aux raisins. The cashier is Spanish, so we speak the usual, where we come from and how we are doing. I tell him that I come from the refugee camp in Calais. He says that half an hour ago, a refugee showed up asking them to call the police so he could ask for political asylum. That guy had crossed the Channel hidden in a lorry. He was in our ferry.

You made it. 

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