Homes of Calais

 

  I was doing some photographic housekeeping the other day when I came across this series of dark and dingy photographs. I never published them, each one is caked in a film of dirt, they are too bleak to ever see the light of day really. I remember crawling about in a series of stinky, nearly pitch black tents trying to get them and then realising it was unlikely anyone would ever want to see them. But if you’re still reading, maybe you do.

 

Tents in 'The Jungle' the camp where hundreds of migrants are living in Calais, France from where they try to cross the English Channel in order to make it to the United Kingdom, pictured on 25th February 2015. Photograph by Mary Turner.

Last time, when I got caught at the ferry it was at the last security check, by the British police. They treated me like a gentleman, they put the torch under the truck and said: ‘You have to come out of there now, Sir’. When they called me Sir, I wanted to go to England with all my heart. (Osman, 2 months in Calais)

 

 It began like this. I had been commissioned to go to Calais’s refugee camps to shoot scenes of young men trying to make their way to England. It is not hard. Over the last year the nightly charge of bodies hurling themselves over barbed wire fences before being rounded up and sent back to where they started again by bored French police has become a Sisyphean ritual of our time.

Desperate migrants clamber over barbed wire fencing to try and gain access to the trucks heading towards the Channel Tunnel in Calais, France on August 3rd 2015. The migrants dream of arriving in the UK where they can seek asylum but their efforts have be

You get the idea.

After several days of witnessing this grim task I and my colleague, journalist David Brown, were heading for the door labelled Exit, when a call came in to David’s phone from Sean on The Times’ crime desk.

 On July 23rd 2015, at the exit of the Eurotunnel in Folkestone, British police had recovered the body of a young man from the top of a train, his face so badly damaged by an impact that they were unable to identify him. His body had lain on a slab in the coroner’s office, known only as Unknown Male 1 for three weeks. Of slight build, they suspected that he was a teenager from Southern or East Africa but their trail stopped there. Not having any ID they were preparing to bury him in an unmarked grave and so Sean just wondered if, as we happened to be in Calais….., well perhaps we could just look into it?

And then partly because when David relayed the details, it seemed hugely important to try, but more likely because I was manically tired and showing the first brain-addled signs of a probably sub-Saharan virus that would subsequently knock me out for a month, I looked around at the sodden camp of 4000 hopeless people, speaking several different languages between them, and said: “Yeah, no problem, we can do this.”

Tents inside a warehouse in 'The Jungle' the camp where hundreds of migrants are living in Calais, France from where they try to cross the English Channel in order to make it to the United Kingdom, pictured on 25th February 2015. Photograph by Mary Turner

Tents inside an old sports hall in a tiny (now demolished) part of the camp  known as ‘The Jungle’ in Calais, France from where thousands of people regularly try to cross the English Channel in order to make it to the United Kingdom.

 Two hours later a young and deeply concerned Sudanese man who had come to the camp from his home in England a day earlier, was walking towards us holding a piece of A4 paper that had been folded and unfolded many times. On it was a badly printed photograph of a young man he described as his brother, Husham Osman Al-zubair who had last been heard from about three weeks before. I looked at it for a moment and then I lied and said, ‘Look, there is still every chance that this won’t be him’.

  As Husham’s friends relayed to David all the details they could remember of his clothes, height, build, the last time they had spoken to him, I crept inside their tent and looked around. There were five distinct places to sleep, a Quran carefully wrapped in a plastic bag hanging from the ceiling, candles, clothing and in the middle, playing host to a pack of cards but still neatly made, with a small hollow in the folded sleeping bag that he had used for a pillow, Husham’s bed.

The bed of Hosam, a migrant living in the camp known as 'The Jungle' who died after hitting his head in the Channel Tunnel, while making his way to England to seek asylum there and make a better life. Photographed on 11th August 2015.

The bed of Husham Alziber in his tent in Calais. His friends played cards on it but otherwise left it as he had, waiting for his return.

   And the reason I am writing up this enormously long-winded and thoroughly depressing story is that it occurred to me then that when you strip it all away – the drama, the politics, the arguments, the outrage, the fear, the power games and even the very word refugee, then our shared basic humanity is pretty much what you have left.

The home of migrants Hasib and Ghasim, in the camp known as 'The Jungle' that is home to an estimated 3000 people trying to make their way to the United Kingdom to seek asylum there and make a better life, photographed on 3rd August 2015.

In Darfur, thirty-three of my friends and family, they died. I have a sister in England, in Liverpool. She has been in England for twelve years and I am going to see her when I get there. My friend Ghasim. we stay together here and he wants to go to England also. Because England is a safe place.’ (Hasib, 3 months in Calais)

   When our Neanderthal ancestors first sheltered in caves they probably put down furs and grasses, things to make a place to sleep softer or warmer. When they were still hulking about the landscape they began putting stones together to make homes and henges. Maybe they played games and argued about who had to sleep closest to the doorway. It’s what human beings do, we build things, we make them nice, and then we make wheels, books, spacecraft and smart phones, we strive to make a bolder, better life.

The home of Osama a migrant living in the camp known as 'The Jungle' that is home to an estimated 3000 people trying to make their way to the United Kingdom to seek asylum there and make a better life, photographed on 3rd August 2015.

I do not mind if I die at the train and on the road. It is okay if it happens because I am trying to get to England. (Osama, 1 month in Calais)

  It is what Husham did, he searched for a better life and it is not a crime. Every morning after the long hopeless hours trying to achieve his dream, he walked back to the place he had made his home and whittled away the hours playing cards and drinking tea before going out again to try to get to England.

The home of Sadeeq, a migrant living in the camp known as 'The Jungle' that is home to an estimated 3000 people trying to make their way to the United Kingdom to seek asylum there and make a better life, photographed on 3rd August 2015.

In Sudan I had camels, cows and sheep, two tractors and one big lorry, in Abyei, on the border with the South. There has been fighting for many years but then the government came at night and took everything and I had to go. (Sadeeq, 1 year in Calais)

  And these photographs are of my search for traces of that shared humanity as I crawled in and out of dozens of structures and homes just like Husham’s, looking for commonality and personality in Calais’s vast tented city. I found flowers, a football, Qurans, Bibles, toothpaste, stickers, toys, blankets  – all donated by charities and the kindess of strangers, and above all, that uniquely human quality, personal pride.

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I dont want my face in the news, I don’t want my family to think I am living like this. I just tell them – ‘Oh France is nice and I am going to England soon’. (Faaiz, 2 month in Calais)

 As I explained my curious mission to a series of homeowners, they brought me cups of tea, shared their food, told me their stories and hopes for the future. None of these people are depicted in these photographs but their voices are there if you look. The pictures are grubby and bleak because that is the reality of life in a refugee camp.

The home of Suleyman, a migrant living in the camp known as 'The Jungle' that is home to an estimated 3000 people trying to make their way to the United Kingdom to seek asylum there and make a better life, photographed on 3rd August 2015.

I want to go to the UK because I want papers so I can work and go to school. France does not give papers. And if you want to study and get a job you will wait for a long time and then they will not give you papers. (Suleyman, 2 months in Calais)

  Each one possesses something tangible and personal. There is the man who collects children’s toys donated by French charity workers because they remind him of the family he left behind, the man who attaches flowers to his home to make it look nice and the young woman who had a tiny room built for her by a group of young Egyptian and Sudanese men when they realised she was walking the streets every night fearing rape if she slept out in the Jungle. It might look almost empty to us but to her it is everything.

There is room for 200 women and children at the safe camp here, I was 203 on the list. It was so dangerous then. Lots of the men they said, don’t worry I will look after you, you can come and stay here with me. So, so dangerous. Instead I walked around all night. One night I slept outside the Lidl shop, but it was better to walk round and round until it was light. (Samira, 3 weeks in Calais)

Toothbrushes are tucked behind wooden slats in the home of Amir, a migrant living in the camp known as 'The Jungle' that is home to an estimated 3000 people trying to make their way to the United Kingdom to seek asylum there and make a better life, photog

Germany does not give asylum to people from Sudan. And no one can stay in Italy. After asylum there is no help. Some people they slept on the rocks there by the sea. (Amir, 3 weeks in Calais)

 

To each man or woman these things are important, theirs, a place of temporary safety after their long and brutal journeys. Husham’s friends knew it as they waited and prayed for him to either return home or make that phone call saying that he had arrived safely in the UK, and so they kept his neatly made bed just in case, as he left it, still bearing the fading imprint of his young life.

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Husham Osman Alziber, a young engineer from Sudan who lived in the Calais ‘Jungle’ for two months. Husham died alone in the Channel Tunnel, on his way to England, aged 22, on July 23rd 2015.

 

 

65 comments

    • It’s a tough one – Calais is such chaos now. I’m heading back over soon so will see how it looks and what if anything people can do on the ground. I really do believe that speaking out and trying just to re-humanize people in the eyes of society seems at times to have forgotten our shared humanity, is key.

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      • It’s so tragic. I couldn’t agree more about re-humanising the poor people in Calais. Your article does that brilliantly. I’ll be really interested to read about your next visit – best of luck!

        Like

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