One day when I was volunteering with Calais I helped conduct a survey to guide Care4Calais’ work. Answers to the question ‘what clothes do you need most?’ included t-shirts and underwear. Answers to the question ‘what other items do you need?’ ranged from ‘a speedboat’ to ‘something to help me get the police’s tear gas off my clothes’. But what stuck with me most was the answer to the question ‘which of Care4Calais’ services is most important to you?’
a) Material items e.g. food and clothes
b) Being here and showing support and friendship
c) Telling people in the UK that you are human and about your stories.
Every single person I spoke to chose ‘c’. That sent a pretty powerful message to me about the dehumanising effect both the treatment of refugees and the way it is reported on by the media has. Telling refugees’ stories is obviously so important to countering negative stereotypes and fighting for change.
But giving a voice to the voiceless is a pretty big responsibility to have. Refugees are at a low point in their lives – often they don’t want even their families to know what they are going through. Telling their stories in the right way is so important yet it is so difficult to capture the diversity of experiences and avoid creating new stereotypes of powerless victims. Too often it’s charities that control the narrative – always with the best intentions, but it feels so rare that refugees’ own voices are properly represented. We expect to read a particular story – either heartbreaking, inspiring or both. There’s little room for the in-betweens, the anecdotes that don’t quite fit and the different personalities of every individual there. I rarely hear about the friendships people form in Calais, but I imagine they’re a pretty crucial part of life there. I rarely read about the refugee who wanted black trainers and not white trainers – this doesn’t fit with the narrative of people in desperate need, but we all know how much better feeling good in what we’re wearing can make us feel. And despite all the stories I’ve read I’m not sure I really understand what it feels like to be dependent on charities just to survive and to never know when or if I will reach the light at the end of the tunnel.
I don’t know what the answer is, I don’t think there’s an easy one or even a right one. Remembering that we’re likely not getting the full picture might be a good place to start though.
I stumbled across a poster whilst walking through London that caused me to stop in the street and think – pretty rare for London! I later found out the poster is part of the ‘conversations from Calais’ project, which recounts conversations between volunteers and refugees in Calais. They’re not perfect – they’re conversations that volunteers themselves have decided are meaningful. But they’re wonderfully random and unique, it feels like they go some way to capturing some of the diversity of experiences, personalities and attitudes of people in Calais. And of course they’re important for helping us gain some understanding of what it’s like being stuck in Calais.
Follow them on Instagram @conversationsfromcalais and look out for the posters in your city.