By Linda Arnold
People ask me frequently, why did you go to Calais? The answer is actually very simple: My ancestors were refugees from Europe, fleeing religious persecution but also what we now call “economic migrants,” looking for a better life. Mostly they came alone, as young people — not very different from those now.
The even shorter answer is that I’m a chaplain.
I was in France on vacation, as I often am, in the summer of 2016. I read about the refugee “jungle” in The Washington Post and about various organizations of volunteers in the camp. I contacted Care4Calais, a nonreligious British group, by email, and they welcomed me immediately and warmly.
Calais is the closest point to Britain on the French side of the Channel, and there is a freight entrance to the Chunnel there. Most young men, the vast majority of refugees in Calais, try to stow away on trucks crossing at night through the tunnel. Some have relatives or friends already in England. Some in Calais also hope to get asylum in France. EU law states that you must apply for asylum in the first European country you enter. Clearly, most do not.
The “camp” outside of Calais was worse than I had expected. In fact, it’s impossible to imagine and almost impossible to believe without being there or seeing a photo. It was a city of tents of various sizes or structures made of cardboard, trash bags and plastic sheeting, put together with duct tape. There were dusty, gravel “streets,” portable toilets and little boys in flip-flops running everywhere. It was a city of young men, about 7,000 when I was there, with about 700 women and 500 “unaccompanied minors” not too far away living in shipping containers.
During my week at the camp, I did sorting and packing work in the mornings along with the other volunteers, trying to explain at the same time what I, the oldest (clearly) and the only American, was doing there. They also wanted to know why. You can try to explain about the importance, the power of accompaniment, but really, you just have to be there and do it.
I came prepared to teach English, to be with them and listen to their stories. We were told not to ask intrusive questions, not to take pictures and that I would teach French. Well, chaplains have to be flexible, n’est-ce pas? But teaching a language is, of course, an excellent way to be with and to hear a person’s story — in a word, to accompany them. They were eager and earnest. They wanted to tell me about their home country and to know how to say it in English and French. They taught me to say it in Arabic. They taught me their names and mine in Arabic. I think they felt valued and respected because I was interested in their countries (mostly Sudan, Somalia and Afghanistan) and was willing to share a bit about mine. Sitting on the ground on blankets with them, hearing about their families, teaching simple things and listening a lot seemed so natural. Listening is an act of respect, which is healing. It restored some dignity in this hell on earth. Accompaniment is pastoral care.
On another day, when the weather was nasty, we taught inside in a large tent, which had been made into a restaurant. Where the extra food came from I have no idea, but some enterprising gentlemen had collected donated food and were selling it, on a regular basis. Sitting on benches along the walls, men drop by to say what they want to learn. They also want to talk.
I spent three hours with one man, Soulayman, who didn’t want to leave even after I thought I had exhausted what was useful. We didn’t have any exercise books, so I made one from some blank paper we had brought. He copied down tons of stuff, lists of letters, numbers, days of the week, months, phrases, anything to keep going and stay with me. He seemed so sad and lonely, compared to some of the other men who showed a certain bravado, especially when talking with other men. Soulayman had gone from his country, Sudan, to Libya, where he took a boat to Greece and walked the rest of the way with other refugees to France. At 29 years old, he already had some gray in his beard. He had parents and siblings in Sudan but no wife or children. This was a special source of sadness to him. He didn’t want to leave me. I felt in my spirit that he was desperate for a relationship. Of course, he asked whether I was returning tomorrow. We had been told to say “someone will be back tomorrow” and not commit personally. It made me so sad when I had to say that. I guess our sadness touched somewhere. I will never forget his eyes or his voice or his story.
On other days I taught men in ones and twos because it was impossible to make a group, with their knowledge of French being so varied. I asked each one how long they had been there, where they came from, how they got there. The stories were so sad — mostly walk to Libya, boat to Italy or Greece, seeing people dying and dead all around, walking to France. One man had walked through 14 countries. I told each one how brave they were, and they were very pleased and grateful. The conditions in the camp were so terrible that you wonder what it could have been like for them at home. And here in Calais, so many were absolutely alone.
In the fall of 2016, a few months after my visit, the French government registered the 7,000 residents of the camp, put them on buses and attempted to settle them all over France, whether they wanted to or not. The camp was completely destroyed. Many people disappeared, including about 500 unaccompanied minors. Care4Calais is still working in the city to support and feed the hundreds of refugees now living on the street.
Accompaniment is a hard thing. I realized each day my own weakness and that I had nothing to offer but my presence. Their sadness and woundedness were as deep and terrible as the wounds I saw so much of in the hospital. I have come to recognize that experience of accompaniment in Calais as pastoral care — as well as my experiences with refugee children the next year in Paris and the deportees in Mexico last spring. In my weakness, I found God’s strength to give the only gift I had — my presence.
Linda Arnold, PhD, BCC, is the retired director of spiritual care at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, MD.