The history of migration to Calais, France is a long, complicated and often violent one. Tears have been shed and blood has been spilled on the streets of this once-prosperous small town in northern France. Despite some media coverage, it is still Terre des Oublis- the land of the forgotten.
For those asylum seekers here, the United Kingdom (about 21 miles beyond the horizon) is seen as the Promised Land. Currently, most migrants are from war-torn Afghanistan or Sudan’s Darfur region. Many have paid large sums of money to get this far. Others have walked treacherous mountain passes or crossed vast deserts for the chance at freedom. Tales of woe- family members lost at sea, beatings by local authorities, running from gunfire- are commonplace. Many are here by choice; they seek a better economic future and the possibility to send money to far away families. Others are here of necessity; to remain in their homelands would assure their death or that of their families.
For the Sudanese population, the road leads up through Libya, across the Mediterranean and, usually, into Italy where an often hostile and racist local population awaits. Once there, the path leads to France. For the Afghans, most come across Iran, Turkey and, through the Evros border, into Europe. From there, they too make their way to France.
Calais is the staging ground for the final push into the U.K. and a perceived better life. To have made it this far without incident is rare. To make it to England from here, even rarer. They do so by stowing away on cargo trucks, oftentimes by clinging to axels. Others stow away on trains that ply the Channel Tunnel. Only the strong, persistent and lucky will attain the dream.
I began this project in early January, 2010 while the winds blew icy blasts down from the North Sea and snow settled on rooftops. Twinkling bulbs, green and red, illuminated the dark nights and trees stood naked in the glow. I have now seen the days grow longer and the trees budding. Children, no longer swaddled from head to toe, ride their bikes in dizzying circles and young couples walk through sun-drenched parks hand in hand. But, in the shadows, the migrants still wait their turn. They cling to a meager existence. It is one of boredom, frustration and a never-ending game of cat and mouse played out with local and national police forces.
Most of the Sudanese take refuge in an abandoned warehouse. Skylights, in checkerboard array, dot the roof and allow the sunlight access. Through broken panes, the rain often falls. Many of the walls are destroyed in places and the wind cuts through often carrying, with it, a chill. With no electricity, the nights are dark and the only light is that from numerous fire pits. The floor is destroyed in places and gaping holes await the unsuspecting; caution is required after nightfall. There is no access to running water or toilet facilities and basic sanitation is lacking. About 80 migrants and one solitary cat live amongst the decaying detritus. Continually hassled by local police (CRS), they sleep in tents, upon wooden shipping pallets or on filthy discarded mattresses. Most live in a state of fear and constant vigilance. To be caught here or upon the streets of Calais will result in arrest or worse, deportation back to the darkest of continents.
Until recently, the Afghan population had been sleeping and taking shelter under unused rail cars out beyond the city limits. Like the Sudanese asylum seekers, they faced daily visits from police forces, arrest and deportation. Many have worked for ISAF forces as translators or have otherwise collaborated against the Taliban. For this, death threats have been uttered and most have left Afghanistan in fear of their lives or that of their family’s. Now, the rail cars have been removed and their numbers dispersed upon to the streets of Calais.
Despite the conditions and the sense of hopelessness, these men go on. Within the suffering, they find a humanity rare to witness. I have seen in them uncommon resilience and mental prowess even as each day unfolds and England becomes more of a distant dream.
It is a difficult world to penetrate. Migrants have seen cadres of journalists come through. Some come for a day or two, launching cameras into their faces. As the frames click by, there is little regard for their dignity. Others have come through, returned home and have published inflammatory stories bent on selling newspapers to an ever-increasing xenophobic public. There is also a fear of recognition. Their presence here is illegal and many are fearful that published likenesses will lead to arrest should they ever make it across the English Channel. The fear of recognition also extends to that of their family members. For many reasons- mostly pride- many asylum seekers tell their families that they are already in the UK, employed and are living comfortable lives. They fear that, if photographed, the realities of their plights will be exposed to those back home. Many prefer not to go through the hassle.
Initially suspect of my intentions, I was eventually invited into their world. For days I stood on the periphery and voyeuristically looked in. Endless smiles, cigarettes, shared cups of chai and patience has closed the distance between our two worlds. As the tensions evaporated and trust was established, the camera came out ever more increasingly. Hassan, from Darfur, and Malik, from Jalalabad, were invaluable. The bonds we formed paved the way for additional friendships and access to the rest of the community.
Their life is now my life and mine, theirs. I eat from the charity organizations as they do, sleep amongst the decay and spend countless hours staring into the flames. As the shadows dance on charred walls and silence settles in, I, too, think of a wife and loved ones left behind. I try my hand at dominos always destined to lose. Their card games escape me and laughter is frequent. We sit around and talk about home, families, their plights and the realities of life in Terre des Oublis. Unlike them, however, I do not run from the routine raids that have become ever more prevalent. I am white, moneyed and enjoy the privileges offered by my nationality. While they scramble into dark crevices, under moldering floors or over barbed wire fences and walls, I stand.
I can only bear witness and hope that my work will, somehow, strike a chord with those that hold the pens of power. This is, however, an ambitious and extremely unlikely conclusion. Through my civil disobedience, I have further gained their trusts. They have seen me struck by police batons, rocks heaved in my direction and gloved hands rough me up. I have stood firm, all the while touting the rights of the free press, not for me…..but for them. I cannot guarantee that my work will change the minds of those that view it. I cannot assure them that the laws governing this issue will be redrafted to allow for compassion and humanity. I can, however, promise them that I will stand with them for as long as I am here.
“Mehadeen, one cigarette!” “Mehadeen, how you?” “Mehadeen, you want chai?” It is Arabic for a kind of holy man. I am told that he is one who protects the faith and watches over the weak. It is a badge of honor, they say. “You good man, Mehadeen!” I do not ever forget the privileges I have been granted on the railroad tracks and in this abandoned warehouse somewhere in northern France. I am inspired by the courage of these men living in Terre des Oublis. I can only hope that my work shows their dignity, humanity, perseverance and strength.
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