BLOG: Light at the end of the Tunnel
Sam Foster and his fellow teachers from CST’s St Mark’s Academy found hope and inspiration when they spent a week with refugee children in the classrooms of the Calais refugee camp this summer.
The people who call this landfill site in northern France their home or workplace have been forced into a situation the vast majority would find unbearable but, miraculously, are making it work with an enthusiasm that I found truly inspirational.
The term ‘refugee’ conjures up many images, but I can honestly say that the vast majority of those we encountered at the camp dispelled almost all of them - not because of their surroundings, but in spite of them. Out of the many young men and boys that we met, two typified that resilience.
Mohammed (or Adam, or both) was only 14 when he began his unimaginable journey to the camp from a war-ravaged Sudan two years earlier. From his jaunty swagger, wide grin and a handshake that you could hear some distance away, you would never know that in in 16 years he had faced more than a hundred westerners possibly face in all their lifetimes.
Something I will never forget is the hour we spent sitting in the afternoon sun while Mohammed read Cinderella. We had been concerned that some of our resources might be too juvenile for these young men, but these fears swiftly dissipated that afternoon as I watched Mohammed greedily devour the fairytale. He knew it was a silly story, written for children much younger than himself, but that was beside the point. He was learning English - and being able to speak English, Mohammed knew, would improve the infuriatingly slim chances of making his own fantasy of a new life in the UK a reality.
Another remarkable individual I had the privilege of meeting is one of the longest standing members of the camp. Zapha was only 13 when he had arrived from Afghanistan over eight months ago - one of the majority of children who arrived unaccompanied after his parents made the unimaginable decision to send their child away with the hope of a better future.
I really wanted to speak to Zapha to gain some insight into what life was like in the camp for someone so young, but he was more interested in interrogating me - with a cricket ball. With a bag of rubbish weighing down an upright pallet for wickets, and a crack in the ground to mark the run up, we began a humbling episode in my sporting life as Zapha trounced me in all areas of the game. Only divine intervention could save me, as Zapha said he had to leave to go to Mosque. I don’t know whether either of us forgot our surroundings, but it would be impossible not to remember meeting someone who had seen so few summers carry on regardless.
For many of these young men, Calais was the penultimate leg of a journey that began in Dante’s first circle. Starting off in the Horn of Africa, be it Eritrea, Sudan or Ethiopia, they had travelled to Libya run the gauntlet on a boat journey across the Mediterranean to Italy (Adam said there were 400 people on his boat that should have been capped at 80) and then onto Switzerland and finally France either by foot or lorry or both. After hearing of these experiences, and reminding oneself of the inconceivable traumas that motivated them to take such huge risks, their buoyant moods are more easily understood.
We were lucky to see the camp while the sun was shining and with its infrastructure at its most developed and efficient - the classrooms we were in didn’t even exist at the start of the year and the Oromo school where we taught some lessons hadn’t even been conceived. Unavoidably, though, our thoughts turned to what it would be like in the winter and what we could do to ensure our visit would be of some lasting consequence. There is much uncertainty around the camp’s future, so the coming months are crucial.
Plans are already underway at St Mark’s for more teachers to volunteer in the October and Christmas holidays and, if the camp is still there next summer, we aim to organise something more substantial.
It was a privilege to help, even in a small way. After seeing what people are being able to do with so little, it is the least we can do with so much.
We worked directly with the Refugee Youth Service (RYS). Their work in Calais is coordinated by two extraordinary men, Fergal and Ciaran who are the very definition of unsung heroes. If you would like to donate or feel you can help in any way you can by visiting https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/ryseducation