Calais 11: Children

Note: All names have been changed to protect identities

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the children of the camp. One reason for this is that for the first time, thanks to the organisations on the ground, we finally have some actual figures, as opposed to wild under- or over-estimates from the media or the French or British authorities. See the awesome infographic below (I love me an infographic).

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Theses figures are essential, but figures alone are not enough to make progress. We hear figures everyday, and they’re hard to process. The human mind finds it almost impossible to tell the difference between, for example, ’20 unaccompanied children’ and ‘200 unaccompanied children. (One of the many interesting facts I learned on my flight home to distract myself from a fear of flying: thanks No Such Thing as a Fish podcast!) We need individuals to make sense of big numbers like that, no matter how appalling or close to home.

On Wednesday morning we woke to a snow-covered playground
On Wednesday morning we woke to a snow-covered playground

As I sit here writing, we’re all waiting to hear what a Calais judge decides after her quick tour of the camp this morning. Will the destruction begin tomorrow, or even tonight? Or will we be granted another reprieve? It feels like a good time to share some of the stories of the young individuals whose lives are in the hands of this judge today.

Sami

Sami is one of the estimated 293 unaccompanied minors living in the camp. When I first met him, it was my first time volunteering in the Ashram Kitchen, and he showed me how to set up the washing station and keep water constantly boiling on the propane stove. He sports some lengthening stubble having not shaved since he arrived in camp nearly 2 months ago, after a long and dangerous journey from Syria. Because of this, his maturity and his ability to take charge and make things run more smoothly in the kitchen, I was shocked to learn from a fellow volunteer that Sami is only 16 years old. He turned 16 in camp, the same week that I turned 26. How can this man – this boy – who taught me so kindly be a full decade younger than me? He has taken the decision to risk his life and try for the UK or France to help his family. I can’t imagine making that decision at 15 years of age. Nor can I imagine arriving at your destination, only to be trapped in Jungle purgatory, and then to make the best of that situation by dedicating all your energy to feeding hundreds of fellow refugees.

Ashram kitchen in full swing
Ashram kitchen in full swing

Mina

Mina came to us at the Ecole Laique du Chemin des Duned primary school for the first time last week. She’s about 6 years old and has a little sister who came with her, dressed in identical coats and hats. At first she was shy and refused to remove her winter clothes, or play with anyone apart from her sister. Before her first hour was over though, she had been drawn into a complicated game of mothers with 3 older girls, and had forgotten her sister completely. (Don’t worry – Mina’s little sister was busy being taught to count in French by another volunteer, and eating an apple at a rate of approximately one bite per 10 minutes). It was while I was playing with the girls and trying to figure out who I was in their fantasy home scenario that Mina pointed to her cut lip and grazes on her fingers and said to me ‘Police, police’.

Working on numbers in 3  languages at once
Working on numbers in 3 languages at once

Tomar

I think Tomar is about 7 or 8, even though he’s shorter than some of the 6 year old’s. If he isn’t that old then he must be some kind of child prodigy because this kid is seriously smart. One of the French teachers who comes to the school regularly found out he likes maths, and had brought along some worksheets for him. Despite only learning French and English numbers in camp, where he’s been for just over a month, Tomar has been completing Year 6 (10 or 11 year old) worksheets, communicating with teachers who speak English and French, though his native language is Kurdish. He’s been responsible for some of my latest Kurdish learning as well. In the school we tend to use a kind of Frenglish with smatterings of Kurdish. Tomar has been our best translator, letting me know things like when his fellow students are hungry, need the toilet or need another pencil.

An English maths teacher on half-term works with a new arrival during lunch break
An English maths teacher on half-term works with a new arrival during lunch break

Kawa

Kawa was another new arrival this week. He came with a little sibling who was so wrapped up in winter clothing I’m embarrassed to say I never figured out if they were a girl or a boy. They made it through a couple of mornings but they’re both pretty young, and not ready for a whole day yet, so their father has been collecting them at lunch time. We were having a hot meal from the Ashram one day and Kawa refused to eat anything. Using sign language, he showed me that his teeth were rotting, and one in particular was giving him so much pain he couldn’t manage solid food. We found him some orange juice, which he was able to finish happily. The dental situation is a common one. There are plenty of donated toothbrushes for the kids now, but it’s too late to undo the damage of weeks without anything, and with no dental facilities anywhere near being available to the residents, this is likely to be something that affects many adults and children alike for the rest of their lives.

Playing house with a volunteer teacher
Playing house with a volunteer teacher

Roni and Medya

This brother and sister, aged 5 and 6 respectively, were some of the school’s first students in that week in November when I first went to the Jungle. This was when the school had no doors, and kids came and went seemingly randomly, explaining to us in Kurdish, presumably, when they’d be back, but we could only guess. I know you’re not supposed to have favourites when you’re teaching, but these two stayed in my mind perhaps more than any of the others. They’re incredibly sweet the way they help each other out with everything and, like most children in the camp, they warm to anyone playing with them almost instantly, and will follow you around calling ‘Mamosta’ whenever they see you again. It was Roni who I mentioned in a blog from my first trip who insisted I eat half of the chocolate bread he’d been given by an aid worker one morning. It was, on the one hand, an absolute joy to see them again, but also a devastation, because they are still here, and have spent a long, freezing winter in the north of France.

I didn’t get to have them with the rest of the kids this time because they have been forced to live in a different part of camp. I’m afraid that’s all I can say about that in the interests of their safety. But, thanks to a friend, I was able to see them, and once again, Roni and Medya both insisted I have some of the lollies they’d procured from somewhere. They remembered me, and showed me how they could both do all their ABCs, colours and numbers now. Medya has studied whenever she’s been able since I left, and her English is now as good as many of the adults in camp who have been learning in the Ecole Laique. Roni wasn’t even 5 when they first arrived in camp though, and has never experienced formal education. His father told me about their struggle to get him to sit down and focus for an hour or so a day in their tiny caravan. It’s hardly a surprise, given his complete lack of exposure to any kind of classroom, apart from the doorless space with a box of colouring books we had to offer him last year.

So there’s a quick introduction to some of the names and faces behind the numbers appearing in the judge’s papers and – hopefully – in the news media this week. Just looked at the time and there’s 20 minutes till it’s thought we’ll hear something. Keep everything crossed and please pray for these kids, and all the hundreds of others who’s stories are hidden behind the figures.

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