“A place that should not exist”

Every thirty minutes „Le Shuttle“ takes passengers from Calais in France to Dover, a city in the United Kingdom, just right through the Eurotunnel. The trip costs about 50 euros – for anyone owning the right coloured passport.This desired destination, only 50 kilometres away, stays a long lasting dream for more than 10.000 men, women and children. For months, people have gathered at the outskirts of Calais on an industrial site, living in tents or containers under unbearable conditions.

Up until two weeks ago, Ronja Keifer lived in this so-called „Jungle“ for several months as one of numerous volunteers. At this very moment, the „Jungle“ is being vacated. On this occasion, Conflictfood met Ronja for an interview in Berlin.

Why did you decide to volunteer at Calais?

Last summer was the first time that I saw pictures of the camp in the media. I started to feel a certain anxiety. When I found that L’auberge des migrants is desperately looking for volunteers, my decision was made. I just drove there.

What was your first impression when you arrived?

The camp exists since April 2015. When I arrived, 3.000 refugees lived in improvised housings. A lot of people contributed in-kind and clothing donations, but it was all chaotic and not organized at all. Soon, village-like structures developed: improvised mosques, churches, schools, meeting points for women, mobile charging stations and that sort of things. Sufficient supply of toilets was missing. Together with the refugees and the volunteers, in-kind donations were sorted and distributed within the community. Together with Refugee Community Kitchen, I was taking on responsibility for the daily supply of warm meals.

How did your daily routine look like at the Refugee Community Kitchen?

I started working in the kitchen at 8 o’clock in the morning. We cleaned and cooked 120 kilograms of rice. Moreover, depending on the available resources, we prepared vegetables and pulses to cook a warm meal and washed and prepared salad. We passed out about 2500 meals from Monday to Sunday, everyday.

What role did the meals play for those living in the camp?

An important one! In the first place, the food obviously satisfied people’s hunger, but the meals went beyond meeting needs. Every single one had his own sense of taste and a different relationship to food. I realized that for most people it was more important how the food was ate, for instance in large company. Where on the other hand, what people ate, had minor importance. Anyhow, there are a lot of differences, for example on how spicy the food should be. But I experienced the meals as something peaceful and as something connecting people. People of all kinds of nationalities would sit together at one table. Eritreans next to Ethiopians, Christians side by side with Muslims. Later on, when there were 10.000 people living in the camp, the food became more of a necessity and there was a greater oppressiveness while handing out the meals.

How did the people feel living in the camp?

Spending that much time in the camp was exhausting for everyone. People arriving were full of hope, which you could see disappear little by little, day by day. It had an impact on anyone’s mental state. Fights appeared frequently. For a long time there was no police at the camp, only a “community leader” system, usually organized by those who spoke English well. But due to the high fluctuation, there was no consistence. People kept coming and leaving.

What did the governmental aid look like?

The governmental aid was by far not enough. Beside sanitary facilities, water points and waste disposal, there was a supply of food calculated for 2000 portions. Every once in a while containers were added, in which about 2000 people lived in. But generally speaking, the state of emergency was recognized way too late. Without the help of all the volunteers, it would have turned into a catastrophe long time ago.

After the long way through Europe, why do so many people desire to get to England?

Not everyone in the camp wants to go to England. A lot of them sought asylum in France, but were not accepted for an official refugee camp yet. Also, for instance Sudanese have higher chances of receiving asylum in England, as the procedure is less time consuming than in Germany or France. Additionally, there are also family and language issues. Most people there rather speak English than German or French.

But do refugees actually cross the canal?

Yes, there is an organized mafia offering highly dangerous methods to cross it, charging up to 5.000 euros for the smuggling. Numerous people also try to cross the border by hiding in lorries. For some of them this journey ends deadly.

Do you think you have changed during all these months at the camp?

Yes! The time at the camp has shaped me strongly. Soon, the camp became a kind of home to me and I valued it a lot, due to all the people I have met there. My understanding of sharing has changed. At the beginning I was under the delusion of only giving and working constantly. Throughout the months I had to learn that taking is an important part of giving – this is how it becomes a chance for both sides. I started to appreciate invitations for tea or meals or simply gladly accepted a conversation.

Just now, the police started vacating the camp. How do you feel about it?

I have mixed feelings about it. For one thing I am glad that finally something is changing, because it could not go on like this! This place should not exist! Then again, I am worried about the individuals and their destinies. I hope the vacating takes place peacefully.

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