Reportage Art from the Calais Jungle: “A Sea of Tents Surrounds Me”




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Three Kurdish friends, including Salah (center), stand against
the backdrop of their current home, the Calais Jungle.

“I HELD AN ATLAS in my lap, ran my fingers across the whole world and whispered, where does it hurt?” wrote Warsan Shire, a contemporary Somali-British poet.

“It answered, everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.”

The Jungle, which François Guennoc of L’Auberge des Migrants has described as “the largest slum in Europe and probably the worst,” is a makeshift refugee and migrant camp located near the northern French port town of Calais, on the edge of the English Channel. Inside the camp, an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 men, women, and children — coming from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Kurdistan, Palestine, Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Libya, Chad, and elsewhere — live in tents and shelters made of salvaged and donated materials such as blankets, cardboard, wood, and tarps. There are also various shops, restaurants, a nightclub, places of worship, and educational and medical centers that Jungle residents as well as volunteers from across Europe have erected in the same fashion.

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A group of Sudanese friends build a shelter out of wooden planks,
blankets, and tarps for Aziz, a new arrival from back home.

But as The Guardian reported on 12 January 2016, the French government has issued an ultimatum demanding the eviction of an estimated 1,600 Jungle residents, and as of the 12th the police are poised to put into motion the bulldozing of these occupants’ improvised homes and their subsequent resettlement into a nearby “purpose-built facility.” According to this report, Jungle residents say that the new site “resembles a prison and contains no communal areas — in contrast to the informal settlement, which has makeshift churches, mosques and kitchens.” In response, they have stated their intention to “peacefully resist the government’s plans to destroy [their] homes.”

The following story predates this ultimatum and attests to the ongoing struggles that span continents.

For Salah, a man in his 40s from Rojava (Western Kurdistan), the Jungle is a liminal space. He, like thousands of others, is in legal limbo, being neither formally here (France), nor formally or informally there (England). “I was an English teacher in Kobani but I had to leave because of the fighting,” he says. “I went to Greece by boat and then by train to Hungary. I ended up in Germany but my family is in England and I speak English well, so that’s why I’m here now.”

Proximity is the Jungle’s promise: that is, the chance of illegal entry into England via the Channel Tunnel or port of Calais, for the sake of a future spent with family, friends, jobs, asylum, or the English language. But the camp’s promise is also that living there is the lesser of two struggles: that coming under the teargas fire of the French police beyond Jungle limits or being detained for hiding among the crates within cargo trucks set to cross the Channel is less severe than, say, facing an Islamic State siege or a bombing campaign by the Syrians, the Russians, or the American-led coalition at home.

“I still can’t believe I’m living in a tent with no money,” Salah says. “A sea of tents surrounds me.”

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Salah poses near his tent while he and Blodau converse.

In mid-August, and again in late September, Peter Blodau, a German-Irish artist in his 40s who teaches drawing at a university in Cairo, stayed in the Jungle for a combined two weeks to sketch the portraits of Salah and more than two dozen residents, who have perhaps since made it elsewhere.

“I tried to get to the fences of the [Eurotunnel terminal],” Salah tells Blodau as they sit in front of his tent, the artist drawing his contours with a pencil.

We walked from the camp and through Calais. On our way we saw the trucks that get unloaded at the trains. We had a pair of fence cutters with us to make a hole. There are old holes that don’t get closed up, so we looked for those too. We waited for it to get dark. There were police and dogs on both sides of the fence that weren’t leaving, though. We went back to the camp and would try another day.

After his trips to the Jungle, Blodau began to see a disturbing analogy between his drawings and the politics of Europe’s refugee and migrant crisis. As with the subjects of a courtroom sketch, wherein an artist illustrates trial proceedings, the Jungle residents, being either refugee or migrant, are positioned as defendants. Only for them, innocence must be proven (in which case they are legally processed, and granted asylum to resettle), or they remain guilty (smuggled, detained, denied, deterred, declared threats or would-be terrorists by virtue of their countries of origin, ignored, evicted, or deported).

These refugees inhabit, as it were, the tense zone between the refugee’s burden and the refugee-as-burden. The triumph of the latter is a dangerous verdict, the end result of a chain of disastrous occurrences including the West’s colonial legacies, the collateral damage inflicted by the Global War on Terror (e.g., Operation Iraqi Freedom), the sale of weapons to abusive regimes, extreme global inequality, and — as the so-called international community is only now beginning to take into consideration — climate change.

Amidst all this, the French government has noticeably treated the problem as something that would, if unattended to, go away. “The attitude toward the Jungle has been, ‘if the conditions get so bad the people will leave and if we don’t do anything about it more people won’t come,’” Blodau says, adding, “and the policy seems to be, ‘just ignore them.’ But I think this situation should be impossible to ignore … The fact is, the people stay and more keep coming.” Since last summer, the Jungle quadrupled in size. A Calais charity, the aforementioned L’Auberge des Migrants, estimated that in September and October there were up to 150 new arrivals daily. It’s been recently reported that “there are 60 showers for 6,000 people.”

The January ultimatum was born of a lack of accountability.

In late November, France’s Council of State, its highest administrative court, ordered the government to start “installing more water taps, toilets, and rubbish collection services, to clean the site and to allow access for emergency services.” Essentially, the court ruled that the government is accountable for the Jungle, and it can’t “just ignore” such conditions, which, the court said, “expose the migrants […] to inhuman or degrading treatment.”

And so, another promise of the Jungle is “humane” or “not degrading” treatment — which should be less difficult for a government that’s recently declared “[a costly] war against barbarism” to navigate than it is for the refugees and migrants to cross the Mediterranean, risking deadly waves on board ill-equipped and overcrowded smuggler boats.

Somewhere among what Salah called “a sea of tents” — where, it’s been reported, “respiratory and stomach infections are everywhere, as are rats, mice, scabies” — Blodau draws Abdo, a man from Darfur in his 30s, sitting against the backdrop of one plastic sheet wall of his shelter with an open book in his lap. “I have no money, no future,” Abdo tells him, adding, “Reading this [the Qur’an] gives me peace … it takes me away from here.”

The thousands of others living in the Jungle, and the hundreds of thousands more who arrived in Europe last year, are in essence guilty of realizing the lesser struggle — of having the will to survive, aspire, and find some peace.

Like the stories of Abdo and Salah, those that follow testify to both the struggle and the will.

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Abdo (left) reads the Qur’an in front of his tent while
Mahmud (right) looks at a magazine inside a Jungle café.

Mahmud, from Afghanistan, in his 20s, describes his most recent setback at the port of Calais: “I’m so tired. I was up all night trying to get in a truck. Yes, at 1 a.m. I found a hole in the fence [surrounding the port]. I got into the back of a truck. Then I heard the driver say, ‘Germany.’ So I knocked all over the walls and doors to be let out because I don’t want to go to Germany. I must go to England, I speak some English and I know people living there. The driver said to me, ‘Get out!’ and then he drove onto the ferry to England.”

Bela, Chucha, and Genad drink tea inside Bela’s tent.

Blodau narrates the afternoon he met Bela, Chucha, and Genad, all in their 50s and from Eritrea:

As I walked past a makeshift church I heard the song of a woman. I stopped to listen, and heard some laughter too. I noticed a group of women, smiling and laughing in a nearby tent. One of them motioned me to join them. Inside their tent it was very small with only two beds and a corner for cooking. They offered me a cup of tea. I ended up having several.

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Sikander stands behind the counter of his Jungle café.

Sikander, from Afghanistan, in his 40s, explains why he’s settled into the Jungle for now:

I left home because of corruption and war — weapons everywhere. I’ve been in Europe for many years, most of them in Norway hoping to get asylum. It didn’t happen for me so I went to Italy; I started to cook a lot there. I came to Calais to get to England but after many months I’ve given up on that. I got injured a couple times trying to get onto the trains. Once, the train was starting, I fell off, got caught by the police, and was in hospital. I couldn’t do anything after that for some time. I set up [the Afghan Flag Cafe] to make a living. I want to help all the new people coming here.

Badr, Adi, and Mustafa wait for water to boil in an area between their tents.

Badr and Adi, from Darfur, in their 20s, sit with their newly arrived friend from back home, Mustafa (right), who describes his greatest aspiration — even greater than, though improbable without, asylum: “I’ve been in the Jungle for a few days. Before this I was in Germany; I went there to become a professional boxer. I didn’t have any papers or money so they threw me out after a while. I want to be a great professional boxer from Darfur so I can be an example for the people that are still there.”

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Yussef (left) sits at the side of his tent and Achmed (right) does the same.

Yussef, from Sudan, in his 30s, details to Blodau, from one artist to another, his life at home, at sea, and as imagined on the other side of the Channel:

I saw you drawing earlier. I love drawing, I went to art school in Khartoum for graphic design. I still try to draw but I don’t have the paper. Do you use the computer at all? I love Illustrator and Photoshop. In Khartoum I worked for a newspaper, but the police came and they made us all leave because we wrote against the government. I have a dream to go to England. I don’t need much, just a little money and a small place to live. But the journey [to the Jungle] was very hard, four days at sea and I was under the deck. On the boat I was afraid and got sick because there were too many people and little air … I’m depressed.

Achmed, from Darfur, in his 60s, invokes a variety of “disastrous occurrences,” mainly involving racist governments mandating violence through genocide and/or colonialism: “It’s black against brown in Darfur. It’s very bad, there’s fighting for racial reasons. I’ve been here for six months now — [to Blodau] you said you’re German? Do you like Hitler? At least he never invaded Africa, unlike the French.”

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Jungle residents queue for food packages being distributed by a
local charity. In the background there’s a large tarp slumped on
the ground and a row of makeshift shelters. The Tricolor, tied to
a flimsy wooden mast, flies overhead.

Doctors of the World and the Human Relief Foundation have a presence in the Jungle. It’s been reported that the UN, Oxfam, Save the Children, and the Red Cross lack one.

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An overview of one sea intersecting with another: the tents
of the Jungle with the Channel.

Blodau narrates a familiar scene in the Calais Jungle:

Late one afternoon I climbed a huge dune. Behind the mass of tents and homemade structures there’s a double-fenced road to the port of Calais as well as an industrial site — the Jungle sits in its old dumping grounds. In the foreground the residents go about their day: some queue for food, some socialize around the tents, and others head out for an evening trek to either the port or the tunnel.

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Elle Kurancid is an independent journalist based in Cairo.

Peter Blodau has been drawing for well over 30 years, the majority of them spent working on various series in such places as Cuba, the United States, Greece, Italy, Germany, Ireland, England, Egypt, and most recently France.



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