Welcome to the Jungle

Pictures by Steve Kingston.

Pictures by Steve Kingston.

Much has been written about the reasons people risk their lives to flee conflict and misery at home. There are endless stories of pain, degradation and horror on the journey to the Calais refugee camp in France, which is called The Jungle by those who live there.

At the camp itself there are daily reports of attacks by right-wing groups. Attacks on women and children by these groups go unchallenged by the police, who seem to do all but nothing.

Attacks by the police themselves also, which serve no purpose but to inflict further suffering and provoke a reaction, waiting as they do until late at night then randomly firing tear gas into areas where families sleep, forcing them from their tents and makeshift shelters until the gas clouds disperse.

This is not a biased view of events or a “leftie police-hating” spin; these are facts witnessed by myself and many other independent observers.

Much has been written about the horrors of The Jungle because there are few if any positives in a situation like this. The conditions are not fit for livestock, the people there are very often suffering from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.

They have been exploited at every turn on their journey and now that they have arrived in Calais they realise that the pain is far from over.
Wuud frame

There are popular misconceptions about the refugees who make it to Calais, that they are in the EU looking for benefits, handouts and something for nothing.

On a recent trip there, the vast majority of people I met were hard-workers who want to continue in their professions or indeed do anything to earn a living. Engineers, carpenters, mechanics, bakers and accountants were just some I came across.

Imagine for one moment if we had war in Ireland, foreign countries began bombing Dublin to support one side or another, then a fanatical gang of psychopaths swept through and started beheading people on the street in Sandymount.

You are a middle class-family who have the funds required to escape so you set out for safety (perhaps to one of the countries that are bombing your home), travelling thousands of miles and paying small fortunes to various mafia groups for passage.

You make it to a safe country with the hope of rebuilding your lives and providing a future for your children away from conflict. Then it all grinds to a halt in a muddy field. You have to adjust to walking 200 metres in the rain to use a broken portaloo, and your children start getting sick from the damp in your tent.

Jungle books kids

You are used to living in Sandymount, in a nice house, with a good job and now here you are and nobody wants to know. This, you would imagine, is enough to break the strongest of people. Enough to reduce you to a shivering wreak. But no, the ability of humans to deal with hardship and not lose sight of their own humanity is boundless, it seems.

From the moment I arrived in the camp I was greeted with warm smiles. It took hours to walk a small distance, as pausing to say hello to someone at their dwelling meant entering for tea and maybe some bread, generosity on a grand scale from those who have nothing.

When humans gather together to shelter or escape conflict or strife there is a bond that joins them. Like a prisoner of war camp, the Jungle binds people who share a common enemy, in this case the horrors they have fled and the fresh horrors they are now enduring.

One man I met is a prime example of the strength of the human spirit. We’ll call him W. He is from Damascus in Syria, a telecoms engineer by trade, he is married and has two beautiful children. He is from a good family and had a very comfortable and happy life until the conflict started.

He said rebel groups trying to oust the current regime were one thing, ISIS however, is quite another. He witnessed unspeakable horrors and would very likely have been murdered if he had not fled with his family.


His goal is to get to Canada where he has relatives and start a new life. Rather than inflict further pain on his family, he got them as far as Lebanon and made a break for it on his own, planning to get them to join him as soon as possible. He is a man on the very edge of endurance.

“When I arrived here in the camp I could not believe it, I thought how can this be, how can people who are escaping war be allowed to live like this. That was seven months ago,” he said.

His English is very good as he has been getting lessons from a volunteer aid worker called Polly. To say thank you to her, he decided to throw a surprise party for her birthday. He asked me to come along and I am forever thankful that I did.

He got balloons and spelled out ‘happy Birthday Polly’ on the wall of his immaculate makeshift shelter, built with his own hands out of scrap wood, pallets and plastic sheeting.

He used what little money he has to buy chicken for a barbeque, rice, couscous, flat bread and fruit for dessert. He even managed to make it into town to buy a cake complete with candles.

About a dozen of us squeezed in tight and waited for her to arrive. When she did it was one of the most profoundly moving experiences I have ever had.

Seeing the joy on W’s face, seeing his pride in being able to give something back, a man with nothing giving the last of what he had to repay kindness.

Someone like that will be a gift to whatever community he ends up in, a decent, honest and productive human being who just wants to live in peace. He is in the majority in The Jungle.

By Steve Kingston