'Can you take me back with you?'

23 March 2016

by Kate Wyver

Many of us who say we want a career in theatre are often asked what we’ll actually do, how we’re actually useful, if our degree is actually real. We are asked, essentially, to justify our skillset and our interests. At the end of yesterday’s discussion we had something that in five minutes not only justified but also added value to everything that we do. 

Katharine Rose Williams Radojičić spoke about Crew for Calais, an incredible organisation made up of theatre-makers and set builders who volunteer in the refugee and migrant camp in Calais and use their skills to build shelters for people. She saw the terrible situation, understood that her own practical skills could help, and made a difference.

Thousands of people live in the camp, having managed to escape from the most terrible situations around the world. The camp is nicknamed the Jungle, although this makes them sound like animals. There are so many misconceptions about the people living in the camps but what is true of them all is that they are running away from a very real terror, and they have all been through unimaginable struggle to get as far as the camp. “Every single person that I have met”, Williams Radojičić said, “has got a family member who they’re doing it for.”

A few weeks ago the authorities announced that the camp in Calais was going to be bulldozed and those living there would be forced to move on. Sections of the camp were attacked by the police using tear gas and people were forced out of their temporary homes. There is a little bit of the Calais camp left, including a group of men who have gone on hunger strike. “They’ve sewn their mouths together to make our governments listen to them,” Williams Radojičić explained.

The camp is a mix of so many languages and nationalities, but there is an overwhelming feeling of acceptance. Chris Haydon visited the camp and wrote: “Despite being divided by language, history and geography, these different nationalities – Afghans, Sudanese, Pakistanis, Egyptians, Iranians, Kurds, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Kuwaitis and others – treat each other with a tolerance that is notably lacking in the country that they are all desperate to get to: Britain.” The atmosphere of the camp is full of openness and inclusion. People worked together to build a church, a mosque, restaurants and shops, and even a theatre. As Joe Robertson, one of the duo behind the Good Chance Theatre in Calais, said, “You see 6,000 people from 22 different nationalities living in abject poverty and you want to listen and learn.”

Good Chance theatre had visits from famous names such as Jude Law and Toby Jones. They had a touring production from the Globe and visits from Kneehigh and Complicite. They gave the people in the camp a place to express themselves, to create, to chat, to relax and feel safe.

I visited the camp a few months ago, before there was any mention of it being closed. The mood seemed to change drastically throughout the day. In the morning everyone was incredibly friendly, welcoming with nods of hello and invitations to sit with them, sharing tea and stories so generously when they had nothing else. The afternoon became busier, emotions slightly higher. I was yelled at for taking a photograph, and felt guilty because for a moment I could see what I looked like- a visitor at a tourist attraction. In the evening the mood intensifies, nerves emerge. It is then that you’re reminded of the reality of the situation, reminded that a lot of these people were going to be trying to hide in trucks to make it across the border. Someone you spoke to that morning might not be there the next day. 

More than once I was offered money to take someone back to London, or to take their child. I saw a man hold up a child to an open window of a car, begging them to take her with them. I spoke to him earlier that day. His little girl was so beautiful. I spoke to a man who had crossed through 17 countries to get to France, who had had his passport taken from him and paid thousands of pounds to do one crossing. I talked to a group of men who had been held at gun point, and retold the story with a numbness. I was given tea by a man who wore a suit. He said, "We may be in the jungle but we still want to be clean.”

It’s a misconception that there are no women or children in the camp – there are many, but they are more fearful around strangers, particularly those with cameras, and everyone I spoke to was male. I felt utterly safe walking around by myself, meeting people and hearing stories. They all asked about me, too. I began to hate saying I was from London, because they saw it as a safe haven, as their destination, as somewhere that would welcome them. Just talking about England seemed to fuel their hope.

Although people have been through hell to get to Calais, the French authorities don’t want to make them feel welcome for fear of encouraging more to join. The day after I left we saw pictures on Twitter of tear gas bombs that had been thrown by police in the Eritrean area, directly on one of the tents where people we’d been speaking to had been living.

The theatre was taken down in the destruction of the camp but thankfully two new theatres are being set up. One will be in Dunkirk and another again in Calais, closer to the newly installed shipping containers for refugees. Chris noted the refusal to give in and give up. “Despite how bleak the place feels, there is a seam of hope that runs through everything.”

Crew for Calais are also moving their efforts to Dunkirk. The camp is being organised by a group called Utopia56 and they need about 130 volunteers a day to set up and run the distribution in the camp, with volunteers who can stay for more than four days being the most useful as they can get trained up in aid distribution and can then be given leadership roles. If you contact the charity they can help to organise getting you there and sort where you can stay. Accommodation could be someone’s home, a dormitory room or a caravan. “It’s the worst kind of touring and the best kind of touring,” laughed Williams Radojičić.

The horrific attacks yesterday morning in Brussels are being used by the far right as a way to turn people against refugees, saying we need to close our borders, ignorantly equating terrorists with refugees. Donald Trump suggested “lax borders” mean we should keep migrants out as opposed to implementing better security measures. But the pictures of people in Brussels writing messages in the streets of love against the violence of hate show how to move forward from these attacks. What we need in this time of terror, of police brutality and of people desperately seeking safety, is acceptance, help and support. There is very little we can do about Brussels but hope that those we know are safe. The same is not true of Calais. We can act.

It is so easy to look away and ignore the refugee crisis as it seems so far from home. But actually it’s only an hour and a half from London. The terrible events yesterday morning have shown us that people need to join together as opposed to shutting others out. If you’re interested in helping out in one of the camps, email crewforcalais@gmail.com.

"I left my home because of violence. I don’t want any more."

Photo credit: Kate Wyver