By now, most of you have probably heard of “The Jungle.” Jude Law visited a few days ago. Shakespeare’s Globe performed Hamlet there. And just yesterday, a mob of activists smoke bombed Shoreditch House in East London, where the French Ambassador was meant to speak, in protest of the upcoming Jungle evictions. For whatever reason, The Jungle is finally getting the media coverage it deserves.
I remember reading about the makeshift refugee camp on the coast of France last summer, shocked that someplace so miserable and dire, could exist in a country that I love so much. How could this be happening? And why was nobody talking about it? The pictures made me sick to my stomach. As a video journalist, I wanted answers – to see for myself. So I decided to go there.
My trip, originally planned for last November, was postposed until a few weeks ago, and I have to say, it’s taken until about now to fully digest my experience. I wanted to understand who was there, what the conditions were like, and why those living in the camp so desperately wanted to come to the UK. Hopefully, the short documentary that I produced (above), from my week in the Jungle, will provide you answers to those questions.
What I didn’t expect, and what I was unable to fully express in the film (which was meant to be more of a news piece), was the incredible amount of kindness and solidarity that exists in the camp. The kind that fills your heart and makes you believe in the goodness of humankind. That came from both the refugees and the volunteers, whose fighting humanitarian spirit is truly remarkable.
Many close to me were surprised/worried/scared when I told them my plans to go to Calais: a female journalist (who looks about 18 despite being almost 30) going to the Jungle alone. I arrived in Calais with no car, no point of contact, and my life’s livelihood (all my camera equipment) in my backpack. Sure, I had ideas of what I thought I would cover, but like anything, you never really know your story until you get there. Or rather, until you’ve spent enough time there. People in the camp were extremely sceptical of journalists due to past misreporting. Words being twisted, situations wrongly depicted. Trust was something I needed to build. And slowly, I did.
Help Refugees and L’auberge des Migrants recently reported that there are currently 3,455 refugees living in the Jungle. Now, of course, I didn’t speak to all of them, but I did chat with a lot. And what most people want is respect and human dignity. “We aren’t animals,” was a phrase I often heard. Despite their hardship, the amount of kindness and hospitality I was shown during my stay was incredible. I was offered at least 6 cups of tea on a daily basis, and regularly told by various groups (the Sudanese, Afghanis, Pakistanis) how if anyone messed with me, they would protect me. On my first day there, I was adamant about finding a ride back to my hostel before sundown…on my last night, I stayed until 2:30am.
I remember one day, I met a man with sad eyes from Afghanistan who had worked with the US Military and was threatened by the Taliban (who didn’t want to be interviewed). He was showing me pictures on his phone of his family in the US and Afghanistan. As we were flipping through them, we came across a picture of a fit, young man, smiling at the camera. I asked him who it was, and he pointed to himself. It took me awhile before I could see it. “This is what the Jungle does to you,” he said. Apparently, that picture was taken only 3 months ago. The man that stood in front of me now was balding, rough-skinned and looked about 40. He was only 23.
Its easy to fixate on all the negative press out there – as the saying goes “one bad apple can ruin the whole bunch” – but I urge you to keep an open mind. As I say in my documentary, these people are running from the same things we’re fighting against, extremism and violence. Yes, there have been unfortunate incidents that have happened, both in the camp and outside, but if you think about it, it’s incredible there aren’t more. Imagine yourself having fled a brutal war, traveled for weeks or months through multiple countries by foot, car or boat, been threatened by smugglers, tired and hungry, far away from everything you know, finally to reach this camp site, where just an hour train ride away would reconnect you with the only family in Europe you have. Yet, you’re not allowed to go. You feel likes nobody wants to give you support or protection. Wouldn’t you be angry? Despite this, the resilience and poise of the numerous young men I met (many with newborn children in their home countries) made me wonder: what would I be like in their shoes?
And that’s a question I constantly asked myself during my time in The Jungle. What if my country was at war? Where would I go? Is this how I would be treated? A group of Sudanese men, who had family members killed by the Janjaweed, said that they were living under a bridge in Paris like homeless people for a month while their asylum claim was being processed (and when I spoke to them, was still being processed). I know we can do better than this.