More than 100 refugees storm tunnel’s entrance in the French city of Calais, halting overnight train traffic.
I met Naji and Rosui on the same night, and in the same place. It was a bar in the Calais Jungle, a large camp on the outskirts of the northern French port. Most of the refugees here sleep in tents, but a few buildings have been erected – to house shops, restaurants and religious establishments, including a large church and several mosques.
They are by no means solidly built – consisting mainly of wood beams, tarpaulins, and the occasional tin roof – but they offer at least a little protection from the rain. More importantly, some are fitted with portable generators, which means that, after nightfall, they are the only places with light in the camp.
I was on my way back to the tent I had been lent for the night by volunteers at the camp when the rain started pouring. The camp’s dirt road quickly turned to mud, and within minutes I was almost ankle deep in it. I entered the bar seeking shelter, thinking I’d only stay until the rain stopped. But I had forgotten how hospitable people can become in the worst of circumstances.
The place was crammed. It had only four or five tables, but at least 30 people were sitting on plastic chairs, drinking the only available alcoholic beverage in the camp: the cheap, strong cans of beer that are commonly referred to by French youth as “tramp beer”.
For less than a euro (a little over a dollar), it’s a pint of beer with an alcohol volume of roughly 10 percent – double that of a normal lager. It tastes terrible, but a couple of those will get you merry; twice that will get you blind drunk.
The cans are sold all over the camp, and for those who aren’t trying to reach England that night, sharing a few cans is one of the only ways of socialising and passing the time once the cafes that serve tea and coffee close at 10pm.
Most of the customers here come from sub-Saharan Africa – Sudan, Darfur and Eritrea. The bar is run by two Eritreans.
As soon as I crossed the threshold, several tables invited me to sit with them. Some offered me their chair; almost everyone tried to make space to accommodate me.
I sat down at the closest one, where half a dozen Sudanese were gathered having already consumed their fair share of beer, judging from the empty cans crushed on the table.
They were warm and welcoming, but since none of them spoke good English, the conversation was limited to toasting one another and sharing local cigarettes (counterfeits rolled in the shops and sold in packs of 10 for one euro).
As the broken English conversations grew stale, Naji came to sit next to me. He had clearly already had a few cans, his eyes were red and his face was covered with a painful looking rash.
But, unlike my drinking companions, Naji spoke near fluent English. And he had a story he wanted to share.
His red eyes – which I had initially taken as a sign of drug use, or at least a serious bender – were actually the result of a heavy dose of tear gas, received the night before as he tried to cross through the Eurotunnel to England. The rash, too, was a reaction to the gas. A volunteer doctor at the camp had told him it would fade within a week, he said. He had also twisted his ankle, climbing a fence.
It had been the 30-year-old’s sixth attempt at crossing the Channel in two weeks. He was desperate to get to England, he explained, where he figured he could get a job within a month of his arrival, and then start sending money back to his family in Afghanistan.
“I haven’t talked to my family in two months,” he said, with a quiver in his voice. “I just can’t face talking to them, talking to my children, until I have sent them money, until I have actually helped them by coming here.”
Escaping the Taliban
The last time he did talk to them, he was working as a tailor in Belgium. He had been able to send them a few hundred euros that he had saved from his meagre wages.
He had been a tailor back in Kunduz, Afghanistan, making a decent living from his shop and providing for his wife and two children, a 14-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy whose names he preferred not to reveal.
That all changed, he said, when the Taliban ordered him to devote his time to making army fatigues and uniforms for their fighters.
Not only did it put him in the position of helping a group he didn’t support, it also led to financial ruin, he said. The Taliban didn’t pay him for his work and instead provided just a small allowance, from which he was unable to support his family.
So, in 2013, he left his wife and children at his parents’ home, outside Kunduz, and fled the country.
We talked and drank, with Naji sharing more and more of his story.
I don’t recall exactly when, but at some point, Rosiu, who was running the bar, overheard us speaking in English, and pulled up a chair alongside us – bringing more of the beer I would come to curse the next morning.
Like Naji, Rosiu was a fluent in English, and, as it turned out, equally as eager to share his experience of the camp.
He had arrived a month before, and was running the bar as a favour for a friend, who was in Paris. A 30-year-old schoolteacher from Keren, in Eritrea, he had first headed for Europe in 2008.
Unlike Naji, he had no family to support back at home; he simply wanted to escape the harsh reality of life under Eritrea’s totalitarian government.
We talked some more, and then, at the point when I could barely stand, I decided to make my way back to my tent. My two companions had promised to share more of their stories with me over the coming days.
When I finally made it back, through the rain and mud, I passed out before I could even climb inside my sleeping bag.
The next day was a harsh one – not only because I was nursing the mother of all hangovers, but because the local police chose it to launch an operation on the various camps around Calais.
Starting at 5am, the local police force rounded up the occupants – mostly recently arrived Syrian refugees – of all the camps in the city and around the port and marched them to the Jungle.
Volunteers scrambled to provide tents and sleeping bags to the sudden influx of new arrivals. But things were about to get worse when the police arrived at the Jungle.
Destroyed belongings, demolished tents
The main entrance to the camp passes under a highway leading into the city. There are no written rules about where the camp’s residents should stay, but a decision had apparently been made that the large dump where the Jungle thrived ended at that bridge.
With the daily new arrivals, and the constant rain, many had set up their tents beneath the bridge, and some a little beyond it – roughly 100 metres or so. The police didn’t respond kindly to that: the riot force that had marched the refugees into the camp stood in line at the bridge, and told all those living beyond it to move. Only they wouldn’t let them take any of their belongings with them.
Refugees and volunteers alike pleaded to be allowed an hour to take the tents inside the camp, but the orders were clear and the line stood firm. A bulldozer was called, and all the tents from the bridge onwards were destroyed.
People broke down and cried as they watched the few possessions they had – sometimes mobile phones, passports, documents, family heirlooms or souvenirs from back home – being crushed. But nobody challenged the police; they knew that resistance was futile and only likely to bring more trouble.
If I learned anything over the next few days, it was that the residents of the camp knew their best bet was to always keep their heads down.
During the next week, I caught up with Naji and Rosiu as often as I could. It was easier with Naji as, unlike Rosiu, who had the bar to tend to, he didn’t have anything else to do with his time.
I found out that they had both travelled the routes most common for those fleeing their respective countries – spending most of their life savings along the way. And I listened as, sitting in this slum in one of the world’s most developed countries, they spoke about what they hoped the country just across the water held for them.
Naji had passed through Iran, Turkey and Greece, from where he had bought a fake passport and a plane ticket from a smuggler that would get him to Luxembourg. He had heard all sorts of stories about refugees “vanishing” when travelling with smugglers across the Balkans, he said. But his shortcut had been expensive – costing him 4,500 euros ($4,870), almost all the profit his mother had made selling his tailor’s shop in Kunduz.
He had spent two years travelling, with barely anything to show for it, but he was certain that would all change if only he could get to Britain.
Rosiu’s journey had taken a different course. When he first fled Eritrea in 2008, his trip was short-lived: he was arrested in Sudan only a week after his arrival. He spent the next two-and-a-half years in various Sudanese and Eritrean jails, he said, before being forcibly enlisted into the Eritrean army and sent to the tense border with Ethiopia.
He only managed to leave again in 2014, after saving money and paying a smuggler to take him alone into Sudan, this time with a safe house to wait in. He stayed for a few weeks, eventually making his way to a refugee camp, and then to the Sudanese capital of Khartoum in January of this year.
This, he explained, was when things got really tough. He had to cross to Libya, but had no money. A friend knew some smugglers who promised Rosiu safe passage as far as Tripoli.
But the journey lasted about a month and was a nightmare from start to finish.
It began at the border: Rosiu was in a convoy of lorries with about 100 others who were trying to flee when they were stopped by Sudanese border guards. They took them out and, he said, started sexually assaulting the women; strip searching them and trying to lead them away from the convoy.
Only when the men resisted did the smuggler intervene, managing to bribe the guards to leave.
Once in Libya, they left the lorries and their relative comfort to be driven at great speed to Ajdabiya in the back of pick-up trucks.
“What I understood at the time is that this was Daesh territory,” Rosiu explained, using the Arabic word often used for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). “The Libyan smugglers were scared to run into them, which is why they drove so fast.”
They drove for 48 hours straight. As night fell in the desert, Rosiu thought he would die from the cold.
When they finally arrived in Ajdabiya, they were taken to a camp, where they were crammed into tight spaces. They were given neither water nor food.
From there they made their way to Tripoli – again being taken in the back of speeding pick-up trucks.
Since they were never given any food, most of the migrants fed on dates they grabbed from trees each time the trucks stopped.
They finally found some respite in a seaside villa on the northern coast of Tripoli, where more than 100 people waited for a boat to take them to Italy.
But Rosiu was in trouble. He had no more cash and had only been promised passage as far as Tripoli. His name was nowhere on the smugglers’ list.
When a fire broke out not far from the house, Rosiu used it as an opportunity to sneak on to one of the inflatable boats. He arrived in Italy in June. And from there, he made his way to France and to Calais.
Unlike Naji, Rosiu seemed in no rush to cross to England. He told me that he would eventually try once his friend who owned the bar returned from Paris.
A month later
After a week, I had to return to Paris myself, and so I left Naji to nurse his ankle and Rosiu to tend to his bar. But we agreed that I would return a month later, to see how their situation had evolved.
It did evolve, and in an unexpected way. I returned to the Jungle in late October. The phone number I had for Naji didn’t work, so I assumed he had crossed to Britain. I planned to talk to his friends and track him down there.
Rosiu didn’t have a phone when I left him, but told me I’d be able to find him at the bar.
When I walked into the bar, I didn’t see him. Another man was there – Rosiu’s friend, who had returned from Paris.
His name was Khalifa, and he told me that Rosiu had reached Britain a week before. He was living in London, he said, giving me a number on which I could reach him.
I spoke to Rosiu that night, and he invited me to visit him. He hadn’t heard from Naji in a while, he said, and had no idea if he, too, had made it.
I eventually found Naji, but not in the UK: instead, he had opened his own restaurant in the Jungle with a friend. He talked to me as he cooked chicken and French fries.
“I tried crossing again a few times after you left, but I hurt my ankle again,” he told me. “I thought I was going to go crazy sitting in the camp, not doing anything, so when my friend said he was going to open a restaurant and needed a cook, I said yes right away.”
Naji was discreet about the money he was making from the restaurant, but said he was able to put a little aside, and would soon send some to his family.
“I still haven’t talked to them yet, it’s been three months now. But once I send some money I will call them,” he said.
With his income from the restaurant and no guarantees in the UK, Naji wasn’t sure that he’d try to cross again any time soon.
We said goodbye and I made my way to Britain to visit Rosiu.
By the time I arrived, he was no longer in London. He’d been relocated to government sponsored housing in Liverpool.
Better than the Jungle
I met him there in a street lined with small brick houses. He showed me his room, which was bare aside for a bed, a desk and three suitcases in the corner.
“It’s much nicer than the Jungle here, the rain never gets in,” he joked.
He had been in the room for only a week, but the British government had already promised him that he would be moved into a house in the next few days.
Rosiu introduced me to others who had also arrived from the Jungle.
When I asked him what he was planning to do now that he had finally reached the UK, seven years after he first fled Eritrea, he smiled.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do, except look for a job,” he said. “I came here to work, not to sit around in a free house.”