During my time here in Calais as a volunteer I have never experienced such a contrast as that I did on a tired, bleak and rainy day when I hopped onto the bus, took off my shoes and immediately found myself in the middle of a place full of energy and life.
Only on the school bus could I have looked to my left to see people leaning back playing guitars, have looked to my right to see people reading quietly, have looked ahead of me to see other teachers engaging enthusiastically with focussed students and have looked down at the cards in my hand to discover that I was about to be destroyed at Uno by a smirking fourteen year old (you know who you are and I will have my revenge).
The list of fantastic things that I could say about the school bus project is near endless, but what interests me more as I sit here and think is rather, why was it so fantastic? At its heart, I think it is no small part due to that everyone on the bus was allowed to choose. In the camp the basic privilege of choice was a rarity – you likely did not choose what clothes you had to wear, you likely did not choose what you had to eat (or even when you did so), and your opportunities were continually hampered by your status and the limitations of the camp. However, on the bus it could not have been more different. When you stepped onto the bus you chose what you wanted to do. You chose whether to engage 1-1 with a teacher on a topic of your choice, whether to sit for a chat and make a new friend, whether to play a game or whether to listen in on a lesson. The School Bus Project did not just educate refugees - it empowered them.
As I write this a particular memory comes to mind and, for me at least, it exemplifies what an incredible space the school bus is and provides a snippet of just one of the innumerable meaningful human interactions that have taken place on it so far.
On one miserable looking afternoon in the camp I sat on the bus with two men as they recounted their journeys to Europe. One man’s experience in particular struck me as extraordinarily grim. As his story approached the present, with pain and surrender written across his face he admitted that should he have known in advance that he would spend a year in the Calais camp he would never have left his home, but instead would have chosen to stay and die in Afghanistan. He confessed that his year had been a lost year, a year without progress, a year within which he could not recall a single moment of happiness.
I remember his face as he said this and there is no doubt in my mind that he meant every single word he uttered.
Not long after this admission the conversation moved on to somewhat lighter topics, and a time later we heard the bus’s familiar engine begin to rumble, signalling that it was time to leave. Acknowledging this, as new friends I, the Afghani and the Sudani all shook hands and stood up to put our shoes back on and step back out into the camp.
It was at this point that my eye caught something that I am sure I will remember for the rest of my life.
I saw him smile.