Conversations from Calais #5


The sun has been back out this week, and with it a false sense of security and warmth. At lunchtime I play cricket in the sunshine with a couple of Afghan boys (and despite having not played cricket since school, and being pretty crap at it even then, I manage not to embarrass myself too much). In the afternoon, we wrap bruised hands from falling off of lorries or police violence. We get excited that the BBC now offers news in Tigrinya and Afaan Oromo. A boy uses my phone to watch videos on Youtube, singing along in Pashto, his hospital bracelet dangling on his wrist. In the evening, I meet A. who wants to improve his English, and asks us each day to bring reading material and books.


Come join me? 

Yeah, 2 minutes, I’ll just finish up here.

Hey, what’s up?

Hey brother. We are just talking about English and French language. French is very difficult, English is much easier. 

Yeah, French grammar is difficult.

Yes, it’s hard. Where are you from?

Scotland. You’re from Chad, right?


Are there many people from Chad in Calais?

No, not many. 5 or 6.

Ah ok, not many.

(His Sudanese friend approaches, and says something in Arabic. They laugh, then A. turns back to me.)

Arabic language is the same in Chad, in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Morocco. But you can tell exactly which country people are from, from how they say the words.

Makes sense. So in Chad you speak Arabic?

Yes, but there are many languages and dialects. There are Arabs, Sara and Toubous. Toubous live in the desert in the north, they are nomadic. You have heard of them? 

I haven’t, no.

Toubous. Very interesting people.

I’ll do some research and learn about them.

So, how long have you been in Calais?

Not long, 2 months.

But you’ve been on the road for a while?

Yes. I wanted to go to Germany, but people…people I met on the way said it’s not good there. You can go for a few years but they will kick you out. I don’t want to start a life somewhere to have it taken away from me.

Do you think the UK will give you a better chance?

I don’t know. I believe that everyone has a dream. 

What is your dream?

I want to go to school. Study medicine, be a doctor. But… 

There’s still time.

Thankyou for what you do. We appreciate it a lot, the food, the Internet, the clothes.

Well, thanks, but we feel a bit helpless, really. We can make your day better, maybe, but we can’t really give people what they want. Last night, sleeping bags were given out and the police took them away in the morning. It’s never ending.

Yeah, I understand. But still, I thank you. I’m going to go get shoes now, but I will chat to you again later.


The sun goes down now at 8pm sharp, and within a few weeks the days will be shorter still. And colder. And windier. The CRS appear at most distributions now, sitting, watching. They shut down the music and march around with teargas canisters. They stroll up and down the lines of people queuing for food, saying nothing. They appear in droves to clear blankets and sleeping bags from the woods, brandishing truncheons at teenagers running away from them through fields. A fight breaks out and a boy is stabbed in the neck, another in the back, a third in the hand. Black eyes and stitches and bare feet. Smugglers march around with waxed eyebrows and sunglasses and expensive jackets, visible but invisible. Children. Calais residents draw their blinds and sit in front of their television sets. In Lidl, an off-duty police officer and his wife stand behind two Eritrean boys, who in turn are standing behind a volunteer in the checkout queue. The volunteer pays for their bread. The sun goes down, and we leave hundreds of people to face the night. We’ve inherited an adorable kitten at the campsite, with eyes too big for her face. A homemade dinner and a beer before bed. That feeling of immense comfort when you’re sitting in the warmth while the rain bounces off the roof? Gone. A slideshow of faces and eyes plays in my mind. All these lost boys, so far from home.


Puzzles, featured here as a burrito, the new welfare officer.

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