Tinned Sweetcorn and Chocolate Biscuits Are Helping Calais Migrants Feel Human
While many at “The Jungle” migrant camp in Calais rely on meals provided by French authorities, Sudanese refugee Saif cooks with donated British food. “We need to survive by eating as we wait for good news,” he says.
It's the morning after a teenage boy died from being hit by a train passing through the Eurotunnel in Calais, France and the mood among the 3,000 migrants living in nearby squats is low.
"Let's go get some beer and head back to the tent for some food," says Saif*, under the watchful eye of French security officials who stand at the fences separating the migrants from the motorway. "I know these English people [volunteers] are helping us and want to protest against the police who used tear gas but to be honest, I just want to drink and forget this life. The boy who died is from my country and today, I don't want any trouble."
Saif arrived in Calais from Sudan almost four months ago. He traveled from Libya to Italy and across the Mediterranean after failing to get work in Egypt, where he lived as a refugee following the outbreak of the second Sudanese war. But like many of those currently stuck in "The Jungle"—a makeshift camp an hour's walk from the Eurotunnel—Saif's attempt to claim asylum in France hasn't been easy.
"We need to survive by eating and drinking as we wait for good news," he says. "But I don't like queuing for one hour just to get hot food cooked by somebody else. It makes me feel like an animal but this is because the French government don't give us a home."
Despite the forced closure of the original Sangatte refugee camp in 2002, French charities like l'Auberge des Migrants have developed a presence on the site to provide meals for those still using the route to get to England. In January this year, La Vie Active opened the Jules Ferry Centre—soon nicknamed "Sangette II"—giving approximately 100 women and children access to food and shelter. Until international NGOs based in France intervened for the first time on their own soil in July, men depended on spot initiatives like those of the UK's The Real Junk Food Project from the UK for food and supplies.
While the majority of migrants take the daily meals provided by French authorities at 5 PM, Saif cooks food in his own tent, despite such conditions being described as "diabolical" in a recent report from Doctors of the World and Birmingham University. In an attempt make day-to-day life less mundane and to "feel human," he also invites guests to his tent to eat and share stories.
"Nice English people give me food and so I can welcome you," says Saif enthusiastically, scrambling through a box of goods donated by volunteers such as London2Calais, one of many British grassroots groups that have sprung up in the wake of the growing refugee crisis this summer.
Saif begins lunch with a tin of sweetcorn and some chocolate biscuits from the ASDA Smart Price range.
"We hate green peas," his cousin Mostafa* laughs. "And what is this 'baked beans' and 'spaghetti hoops?' It is not food! I thought in England you can have a good life, but this food is bad. Worse than Sudan!"
To prepare his main dish, Saif lights a fire with wood stored outside his tent. He boils water in a small kettle to cook pasta and serves with tomato sauce on a big paper plate for everyone to share. As he adds nutmeg and pepper in an attempt to inject some spice into the dull-looking dish, an exhausted friend from Kuwait catches sight of the fresh food and joins us.
"Thanks for this, my friend," says Ahmed*, taking a plate. "I'm so tired and hungry from running because last night I tried to go to England when the boy died in the Channel Tunnel."
Although the number of migrants attempting to cross Channel has fallen since its peak of 2,000-a-night in July, many are left undeterred and over 100 make the journey each day. But with the UK border almost impossible to cross, attempts like Ahmed's often end up in failure.
"I tried to get onto a truck about five times but I am still here," says Ahmed. "I came here two weeks ago on my own because my family—mother, father, brother—are all in Edgware Road. But I couldn't catch up with that boy—the police beat me, my shoulders hurt."
Ahmed eats quickly, albeit awkwardly to overcome body aches. Saif and Mostafa reach out for cans of Perlembourg stashed in a blue plastic bag underneath a pile of donated clothes. Bought from a Lidl supermarket around 3 kilometres away, making the trek to buy beer gives the men some notion of normality.
"We can save money to go to supermarket because we don't spend money on food English people give to us," Ahmed explains. "The air is nice and we see cars, houses, life. It takes one hour but we like it. When we walk there and drink, we forget about the hard life in the camp."
The conversation soon takes a darker turn for Saif, who shows more vulnerability as the alcohol kicks in.
"This is me and my wife, I think about her all the time," he says, pulling a passport-sized photo from his trouser pocket. "I am here because of her, I want to give her a good life. But every time someone goes across the English Channel, I feel bad for her. It makes me think about my family again, how much I miss them. I need a better life than this, for them."
As we drink, a trip to the toilet becomes inevitable. The Jungle has 40, approximately one for every 75 inhabitants.
"You go over there, I wait for you here," Mostafa advises as we follow a trail of empty plastic bottles left on the grounds by a nearby forest. "Open this bottle of water and use it to clean yourself when you're done."
It's the first time I've ever been handed bottled mineral water to take a shit, let alone one donated by the British public. Faeces and puke cover the bushes and toilet paper is scattered everywhere.
Back at the tent, the men are washing the dishes with Tesco handwash. They use water stored in a bucket filled a couple of days ago at a nearby access point.
We're shifting unopened tins under a makeshift table and making an early start preparing onions for dinner when Mostafa gets news of a fellow Sudanese friend via text.
"Our friend, he made it to England!" he gasps. "He says he is in Dover."
But for Saif, for whom the camp is destined to remain home during the coming winter months, the news is less positive.
"I am happy for our friend because he crossed the tunnel safely, and he is now having a good life," he says. "At the same time, I'm sad because I miss him, he won't come back to Calais now that the UK government will give him somewhere to stay. This is not good, I feel very mixed."
*Names have been changed to protect identities.