Forced Stopover—Makeshift
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Stuck in limbo? It’s time to build a place to wait

— Forced Stopover

Smoke from roll-your-own cigarettes and hookah pipes hangs over the packed teahouse. Laughter rings out sporadically above the din of chatter in Pashto, Arabic, Urdu, and Farsi—erupting when a game gone awry results in an egg exploding over the café’s owner, Sami.

It’s early still, around 10 p.m., on a Thursday in late January. Smiling faces poke through the door periodically. Some move on in search of friends; others find a familiar face and come warm up from the cold. Depending on the crowd and the owner’s eagerness to sleep, this pattern will repeat until about 5 a.m.

Inside, a few details distinguish this from any other café scene. Mismatched bed sheets hang taut under the roof, a partial insulation from the chilly wind. Still, nearly everyone dons a winter jacket. Wooden skids interconnect at foot level, and keep patrons a few centimeters off the semi-frozen, semi-wet dirt.

A lone table stretches across the skids, and an elevated seating section, draped in a thick white cloth, rings the café. At our end of the nailed-to-the-plywood table, the conversation has switched to English—full of sarcastic references to pop songs, movies, and “The Simpsons”.

“Hi, I’m Moe…gggaaahhnn, Moe Sizzlack,” a 30-year-old from Damascus says as means of introduction, channeling the cranky cartoon bartender. He concedes his real name starts out sounding like ‘Mo’. (As most people here lack papers or legal status in France, an institutional wariness of cameras and full names pervades; real names are not used here.) We settle into discussions of his childhood in an English-immersion school, the slow onset of Syria’s civil war, his ongoing attempts to reach the UK, and his worries for family still stuck amidst the violence.

Of the Syrians at the table, about half are from Aleppo, and the other half from Damascus. The central story is more or less the same. Most hung tight for as long as they could, saw too little hope of a regular life, and took off. Conversation never dwells on the somber for long, though. Outside of routine joking and small talk, one topic continues to resurface: how to smuggle oneself onto a ship, train, or truck bound for Britain.

In the shade of an Eritrean-run church made from collected materials, a man uses free Wi-Fi provided by the nearby bookstore.

“We have creative people, we have doctors, we have electronics experts, we have photographers.”

ForcedStopover2

In the shade of an Eritrean-run church made from collected materials, a man uses free Wi-Fi provided by the nearby bookstore.

Outside the café, the network of dirt streets, makeshift houses, and businesses assembled in the last few months has been dubbed ‘The Jungle’. Cut into sections that represent the camp’s diversity, many refer to the areas as simply ‘Syria’, ‘Afghanistan’, or ‘Sudan’.

Some residents have had doors open for residence in wealthy EU countries, namely Germany and Sweden. For many, especially English speakers, those aren’t ideal choices. A new language restricts work options, and family networks in Britain are a huge draw. For those with such ties, and for many others, this is what pulls them to Calais—you can’t get much closer to the United Kingdom than here.

“We have creative people, we have doctors, we have electronics experts, we have photographers,” says Tim, the youngest of the group who sometimes helps out at Sami’s café. Residents here fix generators, phones, bicycles, or build new sheds, he adds. “We are making an amazing community here.”

Tim is quick to point out that not all is roses. The lack of water, sewage, heat, and other basics are exhausting, he says. French police regularly spray the camp with tear gas. Right-wing groups are thought to be behind the beating of dozens of migrants from the Jungle, and almost everyone’s migratory status in France hovers in some kind of limbo. Tim does hold some pride that the mixed bag of nationalities have made the best out of a far-from-ideal situation.

At any given time, some 6,000 people call this former trash dump a temporary and reluctant second home. Along with Syrians, Afghans, and Sudanese citizens, people from Pakistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Morocco, and Eritrea all partake in the impressive amount of infrastructure across Calais.

A plywood barber shop with a shattered mirror offers cuts and trims for two euros (USD 2.20). For a couple extra euros, customers can take a hot shower down a narrow hallway, which keeps the shop warm. Bike shops and repair centers help people move around the camp, or to the town, a few kilometers away. A lively clothing market strikes up each evening at one of the main intersections. Cell phone repairmen keep people in touch with home. Several Afghan restaurants serve stews and fried chicken for a few euros a plate; tea is 0.50 euros with or without sweetened condensed milk. A dome used for performances, a radio station, a bookstore, a legal center, a church, Wi-Fi hotspots, and other establishments offer free services.

Some are run by small-scale NGOs or independent groups. But most are from residents who realize their time here may not be as limited as they’d like, and have set up shop both literally and figuratively.

Shakir, a nurse from Pakistan, thinks it’s a shame the UK and other nations don’t recognize the underlying entrepreneurial spirit here as evidence that the migrants have something to bring. Instead, he spends most nights treating people for injuries and ailments incurred while trying to cross the English Channel.

“The most common problem is throat infection,” Shakir explains. He opens his clinic around 5 or 6 p.m.; within four or five hours, he’ll have seen nearly 100 people. Common colds spread easily in Calais’ close quarters and below-freezing temperatures. But Shakir says he also suspects a nearby chemical plant, and the fact that many young men are tear-gassed regularly—some for trying to board trucks illegally, others for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, runs an in-camp clinic from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. But the camp is largely nocturnal—in part because people try to stay awake and moving through the coldest hours, but also because night is the best time to sneak onto England-bound transport. Few need services during the official clinic hours.

Shakir, who has 14 years of medical experience, fills this gap. His home base is a cluttered camper trailer in the southeast of the camp, across from a bakery run from a large tent. Various pills, bandages, and other remedies pour out of boxes and bags. Visitors have left him stacks of socks and blankets, trusting the doctor to pass them along. The dozens of patients that flow through his trailer each day, and the fact that many in Calais know him by name, make it clear that some of the camp’s best services come from residents themselves.

Update: In late February, the French government began bulldozing parts of the Jungle camp, sparking riots and protests, including one by seven migrants who sewed their lips shut. At publishing date, the fate of the camp remains uncertain.

Under the shadow of the heavily fenced and guarded bridge toward the UK ferries, residents burn refuse to stay warm.

Roughly a million refugees and migrants landed in Europe in 2015. People who speak English, who have a family, a university degree, or work opportunities in the UK often wind up in Calais. Some wait here for visas, or for their families to help them cross. Most scheme ways to sneak in.

Under the shadow of the heavily fenced and guarded bridge toward the UK ferries, residents burn refuse to stay warm.

Under the shadow of
the heavily fenced and guarded bridge toward the UK ferries, residents burn refuse to stay warm.

Back around the table at Sami’s café, the conversation reflects those schemes. Steve talks about waiting at the docks, trying to figure out a way to swim aboard the ferry when its engines shut down. He recounts a grim story of two men who didn’t time it right.

The café customers share tips about how to sneak onto vehicles that pass on the nearby highway, from complex techniques of cutting open canvas trucks and hiding in the cargo, to a team-based swarm approach, where small groups enter the trucks and have a friend close them inside.

“I’ve got inside a truck maybe four times,” Tim recounts, standing outside the camp’s bookstore. “But every time, they catch me.” Sensors, X-rays, dogs, and ever-increasing police patrols are on constant lookout around the port, stopping all but a few people each week.

Despite the animated talk of how to creatively cross, the table is aware of their low odds with the trucks. “We’ve basically stopped trying,” admits Obie, from Aleppo, who says he may look for other options.

Earlier that day, Tim and some friends walked some two hours across town to the Calais train station. Maybe there was a way to sneak through a gate? Smuggle themselves onto the train? They wanted to inspect.

“No way, they took one look at us, and whumph”—he makes a motion of them being pushed out by security—“‘Get out.’” Tim cracks up recounting his run-in with the station’s security, pointing to his clothes. “They spot that Jungle style fast!”

Many residents here say they feel they’ve come too far to give up. Most have paid thousands of dollars and taken huge risks to travel or be smuggled in every imaginable way from the Middle East and North Africa. This wealth of experience in the camp about negotiating tricky political borders fuels both the desire and bravado to take the last step.

Tim points to this drive as proof of the migrants’ worth. If he wanted to do bad, he says, “I will stay in Syria, where I can do any [crime] I want.” Instead, with a hopeful look, he explains he has a new plan for tomorrow. And with that, a chance to make a start on a new life.

Update: In late February, the French government began bulldozing parts of the Jungle camp, sparking riots and protests, including one by seven migrants who sewed their lips shut. At publishing date, the fate of the camp remains uncertain.

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When hundreds pass through your village each day, find value in what is left behind

— Recycled Lifeline