Calais: Solidarity and Resurrection

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When the Nazis came for the communists, I remained silent; I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent; I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out; I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews, I remained silent; I wasn’t a Jew.

When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.

Attributed to Pastor Friedrich Gustav Emil Martin Niemöller

The scorched earth and bulldozing policy of recent weeks has almost halved the number of shanty-town dwellings – mixed canopies, tents, improvised structures. Along a freshly tarmac-sweating road, hundreds of CRS officers in police minibuses drift up, down and around the roadway adjacent to the more tightly controlled compound of steel cabin accommodation.

In a barren landscape, charred and chaotic, revival and resurrection can easily be found.

The school I’ve come to visit was burned down three days ago. It is one of several schools scattered in the diminishing wasteland world that is the Calais Jungle camp for refugees. The camp’s schools are supported by a rainbow coalition of teachers, volunteers and charities who have simply set to work and created an eclectic, earthy education service. The ebb and flow of goodwill teachers here is like the sea, indefatigable and unending, constantly changing but shaped by some extraordinary hardcore commitment from people like Kate, who leads this particular school project.

It’s not entirely clear how or why the school’s books, whiteboards, puzzles and simple kit were incinerated and it seems pointless to even try to work out the anwers. On the other hand, it could be seen as bad timing to show up like Ofsted to inspect how it is all going – to put it mildly. But that’s what I came for: to understand what this project is providing as a gesture of solidarity from an international brigade of educationists.

Happily enough, the leadership and management can truly be reported as outstanding. The quality of teaching and learning is good, with elements of tenacity. The behaviour of the learners is frankly just a bit bonkers, but forgiveable under the circumstances. Today, in warm sunshine approaching the Easter weekend, three of the Sudanese students, a Portuguese pastoral worker, a Frenchman and an English woman are all part of the School Bus Project team building a new schoolroom.

The red project minibus parked alongside was funded by a legacy which runs directly back to a German journalist who spoke out against the first stirrings of the Nazi regime and man’s inhumanity to man and, surprisingly, worked during the War for the Daily Mirror.

The students are learning by doing – always a good principle – the basics of carpentry under the watchful eye of a professional from over here who has given up a few days’ work to be over there. There is language not only across the curriculum but across the continents, fragments of French playing with Arabic in a number of forms, English and all the rest. United by a hundred tongues. Science and Technology mix with philosophy in the air; the pedagogy which is shaped by the pupils here is leaning in the direction of a purposeful transition to another stage in this journey, yet to be determined.

Some have been here for years, some for days. One lad is a cocksure yet cautious twelve-year old who stops by briefly – one of around 300 still estimated to be not home, but alone. He is his own responsible adult now.

For somebody new in town, there could easily be sensory overload. Sure enough, there is devastation, human detritus, environmental scarring, the futility of frustrated purpose – and above all the waste of life, opportunity and time. There is also warmth, admiration, amusement, celebration and so many other positive emotions. In a dozen paces, a dozen greetings and handshakes. Strangers asking how you are doing and sharing a smile and often any other hospitality they have to offer.

Over a twenty-minute ramble into and around the camp, a score and more varieties of shops and enterprises pop up as if packed in a box; the palpable excitement you’d find in a London pub is building up here before the Afghanistan-England T20 cricket match – on-screen in a packed cinema marquee, complete with drinks stall, Nan and goats-cheese bakery tent.

Abdul the baker tells me he has been approached with some possibility of joining a Parisian bakery – he wonders aloud about whether this might be a cuisine and culture clash – a momentary vision of flaming croissants seems oddly appropriate.

All across this polyglot, multi-cultural, diversity of people there is the indefatiguable spirit of hope which is every bit as strong as the sense of desperation that notoriously dominates media reports on efforts to escape this life in limbo, the suspended animation.

The setting speaks volumes about the richness of learning and talent, skills, ingenuity and survival, every bit as much as it registers the silence of politically pragmatic solutions to resolve this human cul-de-sac in a humane and manageable manner.

The citizens of this society eloquently express the contrast between those distant leaders who should really be responsible and those who have had to take personal responsibility in the absence of action for some form of solution in this halfway house for humanity.

Here, the schools need no pompous White Paper policy, just teachers and learners who know how to expore human potential at its best – this is a community like any other where education is at work shaping the generation that others might so easily have written off.

So, although known only in a single day of fleeting contacts, I want to thank my hosts living and working in Calais for their generosity and open-spirited welcome.

Like Pastor Niemöller, they all remind us of our shared humanity which needs a voice.

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