Peaceful Borders in Calais
By Juliet Kilpin
Peaceful Borders is a newly formed informal collaboration of grass-roots peacemakers responding to the so-called refugee crisis, especially in Calais. It started from an invitation from some residents in the unofficial refugee camp in Calais, often called ‘the jungle’. They were aware of inevitable tensions in this unregulated, liminal space and were concerned for the well-being of volunteers (with papers and without) who were responding to a humanitarian crisis with inadequate assistance from official authorities and agencies.
I first visited the camp in August 2015 in response to David Cameron’s increasingly inhumane vocabulary which was reported in the media. I went in search of truth with some friends, and came back having experienced a paradigm shift in my understanding of Europe. Familiar with slum communities in other parts of the world and the distance created when you fly home, I could not understand how this slum was allowed to exist on the border of my own nation. That summer it had grown rapidly from 3000 to 6000 and local long-term NGOs were struggling to keep up with the unfolding humanitarian disaster. I was compelled to return almost weekly, volunteering in whatever capacity I could and taking caravans and supplies over for the most vulnerable, but felt that this emerging shanty town also needed more than charity. The people in the ‘jungle’ needed justice and they needed humanising.
Christian International Peace Service (CHIPS) were approached about setting up some peacemaking initiatives and I worked with them from November 2015 to February 2016 with a Listening Project. This simply involved helping to create a space where volunteers and residents of the camp could be heard and listened to by a team who were there in a kind of chaplaincy role. Volunteers’ and residents’ lives are often full-on, lived at a frenetic and adrenalin-fueled pace as they respond to an emergency and ever-changing situation in which they often feel powerless and out of control. In that context, few people get the opportunity to be simply asked how they are by someone who is not in a rush for the next task. But that is what we tried to do. A few were critical of this type of work, suggesting we do something more useful. It was a fair comment. However, we hope that our small attempts at valuing people’s experiences and giving regard for their mental health may have sustained them a little longer.
At the end of February, although very supportive, CHIPS were no longer able to offer this initiative a home in their organisation. With imminent evictions imposed on the camp and deepening relationships with volunteers, organisations and longer-term residents in this now shanty-town, the small team of listeners felt like our work had only just begun. Consensually, we decided to continue our work in an informal, self-funded way and we adopted Peaceful Borders as a name for our collective. CHIPS and The Mennonite Trust offered to partner with and accompany us as we continued to see how this initiative might develop, and my employer Urban Expression allowed me to use one of my days with them to focus on this.
Highlights have been the huge honour to learn from people from all over the world. People fleeing conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Kurdistan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and beyond are innate peace-seekers and their hospitality has taught me so much. Also, being part of this amazing movement of mostly young adults who have sacrificed so much to serve ‘the other’. As a Jesus-follower I thought I understood service and sacrifice, but I have much to learn. I am delighted that we have been able to set up a Solidarity and Support Network offering peer mentoring for British volunteers from those who have worked in similar situations before. With so many novice NGOs having started up, there is an acute need for volunteers to process their experiences and we hope this will help in a small way. It has also been a real privilege to continually see the serendipity of God in this unbounded space and observe the connections and opportunities created by simply introducing people to each other.
It has been a challenge to live with the real encounters of the largest movement of people across Europe since WW2 when so many people do not understand it or choose not to prioritise it. I often wonder if I should talk about it openly and make people feel uncomfortable, or disengage from a reality they cannot understand. Being there during the evictions was very traumatic, as we witnessed total disregard for humanity and safety of the most vulnerable as well as violence from the CRS (French riot police). The wasteland created, now being reclaimed by nature, is still a scar on the memory of the place. Yet, in the remaining half of the camp (conveniently overlooked currently by media, volunteers and donors), this shanty town continues to grow and life finds a way to thrive in the most dire of circumstances. Justice is sought, small victories are won, safety is provided, and hospitality is given and received. Together we seek the peace and welfare of this city to which so many have been exiled.
Juliet works for Urban Expression and for the Peaceful Borders Project in Calais one day a week. She is an experienced peacemaker.
NOTE: This article was written in early 2016 and things have changed since the camp was demolished. Juliet still does work with refugees who are left stranded in and around the Calais area. Her work is dependent on funding.