Calais, France – Ahmad al-Ahmad revealed sores on his hand that were – he said – remnants of a three-month stay in the Calais refugee camp, known as the “Jungle”.
The Syrian refugee from Damascus gave up on his plans to go to the UK in September last year and is trying to convince his former neighbours to do the same.
Ahmad decided to apply for asylum in France after talking to friends who had reached England and found themselves frustrated with the length of time taken to process their asylum applications, as well as the high living costs in the country.
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His declining health and a fledgling love interest with a local woman helped influence the decision.
Between heavy drags of a shisha pipe and sips of Arabic tea at a small apartment in central Calais, Ahmad explained the benefits of claiming asylum in France.
“The (French) government gives me 500 euros ($565) to live and 300 euros ($340) for an apartment, it’s not a lot but it’s enough to survive day to day … the most important thing is that I’m not in the Jungle,” he said.
Life in France is better than anything the “Jungle” can offer, Ahmad said, adding he did not see the point in refugees putting themselves through the suffering of living in the camp for such little gain.
The memories of the Syrian refugee from the camp consist largely of unsanitary conditions and poor weather, but despite his negative experiences at the camp he returns there often, primarily for cheap shisha coal from one of the many businesses that have opened up in the camp.
“The (shisha) coal is five euros there. It’s three times as much in the city,” he said.
During one such visit Ahmad made frequent stops to take selfies next to blazing tents and to greet old friends and strangers interested in following in his footsteps.
A group of Syrian teenagers flagged him down to ask questions about the asylum process in France, the speed with which benefit payments were made, and whether the amounts given are enough to survive on.
Ahmad answered every question with an almost evangelical zeal, eager to help his countrymen and others out of their ordeal.
For most of the residents, however, even Ahmad’s testimony is not enough to persuade them against holding out in the “Jungle” in the hope they will one day make it to the UK.
Al Jazeera spoke to a number of refugees on their motivations for wanting to cross the channel. Their responses ranged from knowledge of the English language to family ties, and a perception of better religious freedom, among other reasons.
Ali, a teenage Syrian refugee from Aleppo who hopes to study medicine, said he has relatives already in the UK and did not want the war back home to have a lasting impact on his education.
“In France I would have to learn the language from scratch … it would take years to reach a standard where I could study at university,” Ali said, describing his knowledge of English as good enough to continue his studies in the UK.
For Khalil, a Syrian-Palestinian from Damascus, issues of religious freedom were a concern.
“It’s complicated but in France there are issues with the headscarf and other Muslim symbols,” he said, adding that the recent attacks in the country had increased hostility towards Muslims.
The desperation, justified or not, has given birth to underground people smuggling gangs who charge refugees around $6,000 each to get them on to trucks heading to the UK.
For those who can muster the sum, there is no guarantee they will reach their destination and most attempts end in failure.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, an Iraqi refugee who has dealt with the gangs described the “help” being offered.
“They drop you off near where the trucks are parked and keep a lookout while the driver is away,” the refugee, who Al Jazeera has not named for safety reasons, said. The gangs had weapons and often fought one another over customers and territory, he added.
Longing for home
It’s such profiting from misery in the “Jungle” that further fuels Ahmad’s cynicism and his longing for the life he had in Damascus before the war.
Ahmad left Syria to avoid a military call-up by the government that would have forced him to fight in a brutal war he had no interest in taking part in.
“If they could guarantee me that I wouldn’t have to do military service, I would go back … but of course I can’t trust them,” he said.
Loneliness, detachment from the culture he was raised in, and the gloomy Calais weather were all eating away at him but were preferable to the “Jungle”.
For Ahmad the damage done mentally and physically by living in the “Jungle” far outweighed the benefits of eventually reaching England.
“My message for the people of the Jungle is they have to get out any way they can .. .stay in France, go to Germany, or return to their own country,” he said.
“The most important thing is that they leave the Jungle or they will have psychological problems … it messes with their minds.”
It’s a message few of the 5,000-plus residents of the refugee camp are willing to act on.
Follow Shafik Mandhai on Twitter: @ShafikFM