In mid November I spent a week in Calais, volunteering for a charity called Refugee Community Kitchen, which provides food for the refugees who live in and around the city. Since the destruction of the Jungle camp last Autumn, the situation in Calais has barely made the news. The camp has gone (as, since the spring, has the camp along the coast at Dunkirk, which burnt down), but many people remain, without even the infrastructure (of sorts) which had been provided in the camp. Around 1000 refugees, including a couple of hundred unaccompanied minors, currently live in the industrial land on the outskirts of the city, with minimal access to shelter. 'Minimal' in this context means regular destruction of tents by the police, so people regularly sleep in the open, and it means frequent middle-of-the-night raids in which sleeping bags, blankets and shoes are taken, or sprayed with pepper spray to render them unusable.
I spent most of the week washing up, absorbed into the working life of a kitchen which produces over 2000 meals a day. A few times I also helped with distributing food. Chatting with guests, topics of conversation included football, boxing, and the superiority of Eritrean food over all other cuisines. One person told me about his murdered family, his flight from IS, his journey to France, and the huge difficulties he has faced subsequently, at the hands of European governments. Of course, small talk - (football teams, varieties of spice mixes, boxing moves) can function as big talk (all I can do is hope that such conversations, precisely in their everyday-ness, include a meaning: here, now, I bear witness to you as a person, with bad moods and good moods and likes and dislikes and hopes and dreams). It is more troubling to be in a situation in which big talk (murdered family members, decisions to leave) has become small talk (what are the circumstances which give rise to this being the currency of a first conversation?).
I write this in the hope that Calais will remain present to us, even if it is now barely covered in the news. This is a site where the French and UK governments together produce a situation which, as winter comes, as the winds sweep over the sea into northern France, and as it remains out of sight, may very well get worse. Please do not look away.
If you would like to find out more about the situation in Calais, or what you can do, there are links below: