What refugees in Calais showed me about hope and joy

When you know that the UK is far from utopia how do you respond when you meet refugees willing to risk all to reach its shores? Do they need their dreams to be tempered with our warnings of the possible hardship of reality? Is hope a waste of energy, a well-marked path to disappointment for those stuck on the wrong side of the Channel, desperate to get across? Conversations with refugees in Dunkirk, Brussels and Calais have made me think a lot about hope, joy and survival for those caught up in the hardships of migration.

Last week I went back to Calais two years after I had spent just over a month teaching English in the Grande-Synthe refugee camp near Dunkirk. Since then the situation had changed a lot, there was no more ‘Jungle’ in Calais or camp at Grande-Synthe, instead refugees huddled in varying sized groups wherever they could hide in makeshift dwellings, ready to up and run when the police came to slash tents and rid the area of their presence. Despite these changes and the passing of two years, the refugees I met had such similar stories to tell, bore such similar lines of weariness on their faces, held on with such the same tenacity and grit to their dreams that all the UK would be the end of their travelling, the much longed for destination: the tantalising white cliffs, visible yet so out of reach.

Along with other volunteers from Care4Calais one day we went to a patch of wasteland near the auto-route outside of Calais and set up the generator, connection points for phones to be recharged, tea, coffee, biscuits, hair clippers and a football. Such basic items to help make their lives some sort of life. About 30 men from Afghanistan, Iran and a few other countries who camped nearby emerged from the trees when they saw us arrive. Annoyingly pretty much simultaneously the grey clouds that had been lingering around all day picked that moment to begin to empty their contents on us with a fair amount of force. Whilst cutting hair and shaving beards was quickly abandoned, hot drinks and phone charging both seemed worth braving the cold and wet for and so people stuck around looking miserable in their sodden clothes, trying to keep less wet under a few bushes and trees. After some time I think the cold, depressing atmosphere of the afternoon started to get to me and I thought maybe the football could cheer things up. It was a long shot. I threw the ball to a few people and tried to suggest a game, at least three of them threw it back at me and said this was no time for having fun. When they reached the UK they said they would be able to enjoy themselves. Now, they were just fed up. I walked away feeling foolish, feeling like I had just rubbed salt in their wounds by trying to cheer things up. But the football had been left with the guys and someone else was passing me the ball even as I walked away. In minutes, with the rain still dripping off our noses, with one man wearing Crocs, another still clutching his bag of supplies we had distributed earlier, another volunteer wearing her flipflops, a small circle of us volunteers and refugees ended up playing piggy in the middle kicking the football around for a good half an hour or so. There was very little chat, but a good many smiles.

Another afternoon that week I found myself back just across the road from where I had spent those weeks in the Grande- Synthe camp near Dunkirk. Now about 600 mostly Iraqi Kurds, men, women and children were camping under the trees. This time the sun was almost shining and it was dry enough to sit on the ground and do some activities with some children who had gathered around us. We had taken some picture cards and somehow a couple of girls and I began teaching each other the names for the pictures on the cards, exchanging the English for the Kurdish. They loved it and spent ages writing them all down. Result is I now know the Kurdish for ‘flamingo’ and can say I did once know, but have now perhaps unsurprisingly forgotten, the word in Kurdish for unicorn. The very next day at 6am 200 French police raided this camp, slashing tents clearing them out of the area, leaving them to begin again.

animal avian beak birds
Photo by Summer Li on Pexels.com

Flamingos and footballs struck me as moments of joy in the middle of tough times. I don’t just mean to suggest that only we volunteers can bring such moments of joy. Not at all. The day following the clearance at Grande- Synthe it was the young guys who started up a Kurdish dancing session in a carpark, using an old plastic crate as a drum and dragging us volunteers into join the crazy dancing circle. We who had so much more to be thankful for in life were the recipients of their sense of fun in that moment, we were the ones who went away cheered by their ability to dance in the face of difficulty.

“Hope is a song sung when everything else says you shouldn’t be singing…..Hope is what helps us survive” writes Pádraig ó Tuama.

Maybe those who receive a window of grace that enable them to embrace joy and nurture hope at certain times along such tough paths as they traverse the globe in search of security and a better life, have been given the best hope of survival.


O Tuama, P (2016) In the shelter, finding a home in the world, Hodder and Stoughton


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