Refugees in Calais, Reading and Waiting

A volunteer gave refugees an English lesson last week in a makeshift library at the "Jungle" refugee camp in Calais, France. Credit Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times
A volunteer gave refugees an English lesson last week in a makeshift library at the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais, France. Credit Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

“You like the place?”

That’s what people in the “Jungle” of Calais keep asking me. They want to know what I think of this dirty, unelectrified stretch of land below a highway, filled with camping tents, plastic-covered sheds and frightening toilets. It’s a temporary home for several thousand people, most of whom have recently fled East Africa or the Middle East.

I’m not sure how to reply to this question. Should I be polite and say the Jungle isn’t so bad? I quickly realize that’s the wrong answer. These men want to hear the same thing I’d want to hear if I lived here: that it’s miserable and beneath their dignity.

“We don’t even want a long sentence. We just want, ‘Yes, it’s bad,’ ” explains Mohammed, a dapper Sudanese man who studied physics and math back home. Like many of those here, he didn’t offer his last name.

I’m spending the day in a relatively comfortable part of the Jungle: a makeshift library opened three weeks ago by a British volunteer named Mary Jones. The library is made out of wooden planks and plastic sheeting, with a corrugated metal roof. (“Library is a big word for it. It’s a garden shed,” Ms. Jones says).

A sign on an outside wall says “Jungle Books” in English, French and Arabic. It’s on a dirt path next to the Eritrean church, and roughly nine miles from the Jungle’s raison d’être: the tunnel between France and England. Every night, some Jungle residents try to storm the tunnel or sneak into — or onto — a truck bound for Britain.

I’m at the library to meet people and see what they’re reading. Inside are a few hundred donated books — castoffs from middle-class Britain: there’s an economics textbook, Barack Obama’s “Dreams From My Father,” “The Perfect Body: The Pilates Way,” “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” and three different editions of the Zohar, the Jewish mystical text. The main sign that we’re in France is the white fabric lining the inside walls, which apparently once hung as curtains in a French chateau.

Ms. Jones got the idea for the library after spending time in the Jungle and “meeting so many people who are so well qualified.” She’s not alone. Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, says many Syrian refugees he’s met are well-educated professionals who ask for reading materials, especially language books to help them integrate. Libraries Without Borders, a French group, sends refugee camps “Ideas Boxes” filled with books, teaching materials and a Wi-Fi link.

At the Jungle, Ms. Jones has gotten requests for everything from a novel about the Russian Revolution to self-help books on “how to be hopeful.” During my visit, residents were mostly looking for simple English readers and books to help them learn French.

“Since I’m in France, I have to speak the language,” says Babiker Mater, a Sudanese man wearing a too-small women’s paisley shirt — a donation received during his stopover in Paris. Winter is approaching. He’s living in a tent, and doesn’t have a coat.

Like others I meet, Mr. Mater doesn’t have a polished, simple story about why he’s living in a dirty transit camp, carrying nothing but a small backpack. The Sudanese government was bombing civilians in his state, Blue Nile. He had studied to be an engineer, but was working in Sudan as a low-paid construction worker, supporting his unemployed mother and brother. And he’s 25. Coming to Europe had seemed like a chance to make something of his life. Now, sitting in the purgatory of the Jungle, out of money and wearing a ladies’ shirt, he’s not so sure.

I have trouble imagining the men in the library jumping onto trucks at night. One of them, a willowy 22-year-old Eritrean, speaks so softly I have to lean in to hear him. Back home, he was a university student before he was picked up on campus and put in prison for 18 months.

Now, having fled Eritrea and crossed the Mediterranean, he’s in France, browsing a copy of “Can You Keep a Secret?” by Sophie Kinsella. “I want to be in England because in England you have the right to study,” he whispers. “I want to continue my education, I want to graduate.”

Two Afghan men wander into the library. One is wearing a ladies’ black shearling coat. (Being a refugee turns some men into unwitting cross-dressers.) The other browses a book called “The Most Beautiful Place in the World.”

Nearby, a young Spanish woman leads four African men in a French class. Their textbooks are open to a chapter on the Indian caste system. But the class quickly becomes a group-therapy session; the men pass their phones around to show harrowing pictures from their recent boat rides across the Mediterranean.

A Sudanese man says his boat broke into three pieces off the Libyan coast. He swam back to shore, where the same Libyan smugglers ordered all the survivors onto another boat at gunpoint. The smugglers didn’t want anyone going back into town and telling other migrants about the accident.

Samer, 30, shows a video shot eight days into his 10-day ride from Egypt to Italy. In it, Samer is on the deck of a ship giving CPR to a friend, who is diabetic and has passed out because his blood sugar level fell, and he has no food to raise it again. “I’m trying to make him survive,” Samer explains. By the end of the video, his friend is dead. When I ask how long ago this happened, he pauses and then shakes his head in disbelief: It was 12 days ago. When you’re in his shoes, time feels skewed.

By the end of the day, I realize that the library is mostly just a calm place for people to digest what’s happened, and mull what to do next. Jamal, an electric rickshaw driver from the Darfur region of Sudan, has been sitting in a corner of the room most of the day, typing in Arabic on his iPad. (He recharges it at Salam, a nearby French charity that also provides dinner.) “I’m doing my work,” was all he’d say about it.

As the sun sets over the Jungle, Jamal finally reveals what he’s been working on: his autobiography, from birth to Calais. “Since I crossed the border and the Mediterranean Sea, I start thinking about my life,” he explains.

It’s not the life he expected. “Life is stages: children, young man. Now refugee in Europe. And I’m really shocked,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like I made a mistake to come to Europe. Anyway, I have no choice, I left by force.”

Two 6-year-old Eritrean boys come inside, looking for toys. They find a model 18-wheel truck, and Jamal points to a door on the rear of it. “You hide there inside,” he tells them. When they don’t understand — perhaps because they haven’t seen the tunnel yet — Jamal adds, “Why we are here? To cross the border.”

“To England!” one of the boys replies.

I’m not sure how many people here will make it to England. Some have applied to stay in France. But by the end of the day, I have no trouble saying what I think about this inhospitable no man’s land. No one should have to live like this. We must treat people humanely while they — and we — figure out what to do next.

Pamela Druckerman, the author of Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting and a contributing opinion writer.

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