Shahbibi Shah
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20 October, 2015

My trip to Calais

Early in October, I joined a day trip to Calais organised by Exiled Writers Ink, a human rights charity, based in London. Our group included people born in Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Ethiopia, Somalia, Iraq and Eritrea. Our aim was to meet refugees from our own countries.

After a pleasant drive from the station we arrived in the   devastated area, where 4,000 men, women and children are living in tragic despair. I use the term 'living' loosely. I think existing would be more appropriate.

We saw older men sitting on a pile of rubbish with their hands under their chins, no shoes, no proper clothing, flies and insects buzzing all round them. Just a mile away from civilisation. Young men were walking around aimlessly in groups or on their own. Their faces were sullen and you easily could see the anxiety and worry in their darkened eyes. Some barefoot children were playing with dirt.  

As I remembered my own escape from my country, I began to weep for those children and teenagers. A young man hugged me and kissed my forehead. I saw my son's eyes in his. ‘Mother, mother, don't cry,’ he said. ‘God will help us somehow one day.’ He was trying to comfort me.  

I don't know why they called this place ‘the Jungle’. I thought animals lived in a jungle. Those displaced, dispossessed, traumatised faces did not belong to animals but to decent human beings who have been robbed by powerful corrupt politicians in their own countries and neglected by the world. They didn't choose to live in these conditions.  

We were taken to the library, made by the refugees themselves out of a few branches covered by black plastic, blankets, quilts and sheets. The walls were covered by written messages, leaflets and photos. I put the books I had brought with me on a table, which was full of books in different languages collected by volunteers. Some of us had brought warm clothes and blankets too.

In another room, with plastic sheeting for the ceiling and walls, we were supposed to talk to the refugees in our own languages. There was not enough room for them all: those who could sat on the floor on plastic bags – the few chairs were for us. 

Our rule was simple. We had to talk to them about our life, our work, our writing in an attempt to lift their spirits. I read one of my poems and my throat tightened with sadness. I couldn't even finish it. Others played music or entertained them with acting.

Then each one of us went to find our own people. I walked a long way with a newly replaced knee over the rough, dirty, wet ground. I shook hands with some and gently put money, donated by friends, in their palms so as not to attract others.  I met a 13-year-old boy, who had got separated from his father on the way and didn't know if his father was alive or dead. He cried as he told me his story.

We talked and walked with them. We jested and joked with them. We read poems and we played for them. Was it enough? Maybe it gave them something different to do for a few hours of their endless days of darkness.

I thought they didn't need one day’s entertainment, they needed answers from the world. Why they are there? Who is responsible for this misery? Who disturbed their life? Who produces the arms, bombs? Who benefits? Where are those factories based? What have these people done to deserve such cruelty, negligence and poverty?

Shabibi Shah, originally from Kabul in Afghanistan, fled with her two young children over 30 years ago, crossing into Pakistan through the Khyber Pass. She wrote the dramatic story of her escape in her book Where do I belong? (2001). She and her family have lived as refugees in Croydon, south London, since 1984. Her new novel is entitled Innocent Deception (2014). She is a member of the Advisory Group of Creators of Peace, UK.

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