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We listened, we talked and we cried….

Leeds-based Baptist minister Graeme Dodds writes about his recent life-changing visit to the refugees in the Calais Jungle - and shares ideas about how to help

Calais child

Recent estimates in the media and from aid charities suggest that there are 65 million displaced people in the world. People who have loved and lived and now are on a journey of terror to find safe haven, a place to belong, in countries far from home. Escaping atrocities that some of us would never have to face in a hundred lifetimes. People who are unknown to me personally who I have never met, people who the media have painted with negative language and called them swarms, rats and even cockroaches.

10,000 of these beautiful people have journeyed for thousands of miles over land and sea, some in family groups, and some like the hundreds of unaccompanied minors as young as eight years old have travelled on their own and made it to France, to a pocket of land outside the town that has been named the “Jungle”…..Many never made it!

I went to Calais with Jez (a fellow church member at Harehills Lane Baptist Church) to meet some of them face to face. This is little of the story of that unfolded one sunny week in August 2016.

We arrived and nothing could have prepared us for the impact of being there for the first time. Masses of people crammed into a sprawling makeshift campsite, which is the unofficial refugee camp in Calais. 10,000 people from all over the world, Syrians, Afghanis Somalians, Eritreans, Ethiopians. People from Nigeria, Iraq, Pakistan and so many other nations.

We spent much of that first day doing what would be the pattern of the rest of the week - walking and listening. We visited the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the four Mosques, we taught English in the school that was set up to teach the children and offer English and French lessons to all. We walked and we listened…..

With the help of wonderful benefactors from the church and community around the church we went not only with some aid, in the form of high value goods (tents, sleeping bags and mats, blankets, boots and new warm clothing) we had a good supply of Euros so that we could assess the daily needs of people. This enabled us to supply fresh fruit to many in the camp that would have had no access to some fresh produce. We also helped the school daily by keeping the school running with petrol for the fuel generator.

And so…..we walked and we listened to young and old…….

We listened………we listened to a young boy from Syria tell his story of fleeing from the barrel bombs that killed his brother. We listened……..We listened to an Afghani tell the story of what it was like to leave family behind………We listened…. We listened to a Pakistani who had been in the UK twice before and was deported twice back to Pakistan and now was back again in the Jungle trying to make it to the UK for a third time.

We listened………..We sat among a group of men from Afghanistan and Syria and drunk sweet tea, served from a coffee table in the middle of a circle of makeshift seats and as we listened, one of the men who had been listening from afar, agitated and troubled came and sat next to Jez and myself on an empty seat. He took the atlas which was on the coffee table without eye contact, without saying a word…….he found the page in the atlas which showed the UK and simply placed his palm down on the shape of land on the page which was the UK and listened, we sat talking and listening to stories….

And all the time our friend had no eye contact with us, he did not contribute to the conversations……and did not take his palm from the UK on the atlas. When we made a move to leave sometime later he simply closed the atlas, stood up, placed the atlas back on the table, and without a word, or eye contact left the scene.

For me this was so moving…..and I could not help feel that Jesus turned up in the most surprising way. Make of this what you will.

We encountered among those who have been called refugees, squalor, odours of urine and stale sweat. We listened……we encountered fear, anger, and indifference. We listened…….and we encountered hospitality, welcome, friendship….generosity that was humbling. We listened and we talked and we cried….

Jez and I returned to the UK, determined to bear witness. Changed by what we saw, ashamed by leaving and returning to our secure country, our families, our warm beds and our safe jobs. We decided that we would not squander what we had seen and heard.

Jez, who is a university lecturer and shop steward, left the Jungle and returned determined to get his trade union involved in the work at the camp.

For myself, I returned to enrol on a peacemaking and conflict resolution course, run by Peace Foundation in Warrington. Determined to keep the pressure on, determined to seek out, the least, the last and the lost… determined to pursue diversity and difference through the structures of my own church…and return to a busy life as a pastor.

In the middle of last week came the news of the demolition of the whole camp - it was then I took the decision to go back to the camp, and so I leave again in a few weeks’ time for the Jungle……..to listen, to weep, to laugh and to encounter people who the world and sometimes the church forget are human.

You can help………..I’m going to take with me:

  • Used or new smart phones:  These are essential for unaccompanied minors to access the free Wi-fi in the camp that is provided by two satellite Wi-fi Lorries. By giving a smart phone you will enable someone to contact family 1000s of miles away and let them know they are safe.
  • Trainers: Used or good second-hand trainers of all sizes, shoes play a vital part in day to day life.
  • Hoodies: Used or second-hand hoodies. Winter is coming.
  • Money:  I’m not embarrassed to fund-raise. We need money to use daily to meet the needs on the ground.  Essentials.

The French authorities have plans in place to bulldoze the camp and evict everyone by the end of October. The French authorities believe that they can clear 10,000 people over a 72-hour period and relocate people voluntarily to relocation centers all over France. The danger is that many will try and make a run for it and get to the UK on lorries and the like. Also there may be many people on the streets of Calais and nearby towns and villages along the coastline. There will be a greater need for supplies and food.

At Harehills Lane Baptist Church we have made our harvest service a Refugee Service and are launching a harvest refugee appeal. Perhaps you might think of responding in the same way?

Thanks for listening,


Graeme Dodds is the Team Leader at Harehills Lane Baptist Church, Leeds. This article was first published by the Yorkshire Baptist Association, and is used with permission

Baptist Times, 07/10/2016
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