The borders of Europe are in crisis, we are told. People are moving en masse, escaping war, persecution, and – in a least-worst scenario – appalling poverty. The particular focus for the British media is the thousands of migrants in Calais’s ‘Jungle’, who are attempting to come to the UK via the Channel Tunnel, risking horrific injury, or death.
Some of our politicians (including those in power), and parts of the media, have taken to using language to describe the migrants that is entirely dehumanising. In so doing, the people of the ‘swarm’ are robbed of their individuality, their histories, and their narratives. We are robbed of our compassion, and our understanding of our privileged place in the world. And they, and we, are robbed of our common humanity.
A much higher number of migrants is currently arriving on other, poorer European shores: Greece, and Italy. The UK concentration on Calais in itself betrays a limited worldview, forgetting the greater contribution others in the EU are making to homing asylum seekers. Yet for this ‘crisis’ to be happening in Calais is, for me, of particular resonance.
My father is English, my mother French. Every summer holiday when we were children, for several weeks (my parents both being school teachers) we’d pack the bags, the car, feed the cassette player, and head south. It was a few hours journey from Lincolnshire to Dover, then the ferry – where the sun would always start to shine – and, after a little queuing to get off the ferry and into France – onto the smooth and (relatively) empty autoroutes. We’d stop off overnight with relatives in Paris, and head further south the next morning, braving the hectic traffic on the Peripherique. Further south still, we’d reach the watershed, where the water divides across France – to the west coast or the south. Then finally, several sticky, argumentative hours later, to my grandparents’ flat.
We’d stay for four weeks or so, sometimes heading off on a holiday within a holiday, to Provence, or the Alps. We’d spend days reading, swimming, sunbathing, playing cards, watching the August meteor showers… the same ‘etoiles filantes’ which are currently raining down over our heads.
Eventually, the time to return would come. September, and the start of the school year, beckoned. Its promise of new stationery, and shoes. New classes to take, and books to read. La rentree…
On the way home we’d always stop over in Calais, rather than Paris, so as to catch an early morning ferry. Once arrived, and settled into our modest hotel accommodation (the owner of which we inevitably dubbed Basil, after Fawlty Towers), we would set off to stretch our legs around Calais. It was not the most beautiful of towns, after its battering in the Second World War. It has its famous Rodin statue, commemorating the Burghers (leading townsmen) who gave themselves to the English in sacrifice, during the period in which the English occupied Calais in the 14th century. The English King’s heavily pregnant wife urged compassion, anxious that any spilled blood would be a bad omen for her unborn child.
As children, one of the attractions of Calais was its street vans, and their freshly fried frites. We’d buy them, and take them to eat on the shady benches of the local park. One year, my little sister leaned back against a bench, which was missing its middle strut. She fell backwards, disappearing into the undergrowth. We laughed, she cried, then was consoled in her father’s arms.
I think, now, of those desperate migrants, under August’s meteor shows. Listlessly sitting on park benches, their minds full of their abandoned homes, their loved ones, the fear and pain and anxiety that sends someone running from their native country to another, unknown, unwelcoming land.
I grew up with a mindset imbued with the benefits of a cross-cultural marriage, a dual linguistic and cultural identity. My mother had taken the step to marry, and move countries when the EU was still only in its infant form as Common Market, a grouping built for the purposes of trade, but constructed in the aftermath of post-WW2 Europe. A period in which the knowledge that the circumstances which led to that warfare, and to the Holocaust, must never be allowed to happen again…
Before her marriage, my mother and her family had already undergone an earlier relocation. Every year, we would at some point in the holiday pore over photograph albums, and the family tree. The former embodied the names and dates of the latter: smiling children and joking parents, serious-mouthed grandparents and out-of-focus pets. Generations which had grown up in Algeria, while it had been a French colony.
Hundreds of thousands of ‘pieds-noirs’ were ‘re’patriated from Algeria to France (many had never been to France) at the end of the period of colonial rule in the early 1960s, after years of violent unrest and civil war. My mother, her sisters and parents were among them. For my family, the transition was less difficult than that of others: they had family to put them up at the beginning, and my grandfather’s role within the civil service meant he found new employment. But many of the pieds-noirs were figures of hate for the mainland French: blamed for attacks in Paris and the deaths of French sons sent to fight in the Algerian conflict; the object of envy for the seemingly generous relocation hand-outs; and – by the left-wing – burdened with the guilt of France’s colonialism. Some parts of this returned pied-noir community would find their politics turning to the far right, avid supporters of the Front National from its establishment in the 1970s onwards.
I don’t know if it is my family background, or more generally my political sensibilities (not all pieds-noirs and their descendants are right-wing), that have made me sympathetic to the cause of the migrant, the displaced, the out-of-context. Growing up in rural Lincolnshire, my exposure to multiculturalism was limited: a school friend who was the daughter of the Vietnamese-Chinese takeaway owners, a best friend who was the daughter of the Indian doctors in the town hospital.
Years later, during a period of research leave from my job as an academic, and missing the day-to-day contact with colleagues and students, I took up some volunteer work. I helped out in in a youth club for refugee and asylum-seeking children – all young men, predominantly Afghani, Somali, and Iraqi Kurds. We played pool, Jenga and darts, provided a welcoming and safe space once a week, and were watchful for any potential conflicts (which were few).
The boys were mixed in character: outgoing, joking, cheerful, cocky; reserved, troubled, introverted, watching Youtube music videos from home on loop. At that point (as now) unaccompanied under-18s fare marginally better under the invidious Home Office regime for migrants. Children were not ‘dispersed’ (ie forced to live in another, cheaper city in order to receive minimal benefits), and were generally more protected. But the age of 18, rather than being a time for celebration, was a cliff edge. Boys would sometimes disappear at that age, in the knowledge that their lives in their adopted country would become much more difficult. One night, one of the youth workers sorrowfully shook her head as we were tidying up. ‘He’s definitely not under 18,’ she remarked of one well-developed young man. ‘He’s probably 25.’ But we all knew that – arriving without papers – it was much better to pretend to be under 18, in order to stay with the people you had travelled with, or with community contacts you had in the city.
I also volunteered with a local secondary school, which had a policy of incorporating new arrivals at the school into the classes for their age group, no matter the level of their English or amount of previous schooling. This was done for purposes of integration, and was supported by additional English language classes, and a homework club for refugee and asylum-seeking children. The class was an hour a week, and the attendees were both boys and girls, who had come to Oxford from all around the world. In the bustle of a busy state comprehensive, the room we were allocated was small, bright and quiet: a little haven at the end of the school day.
My jobs included helping an Afghani teenager go through a GCSE Physics past paper. This wasn’t particularly successful: my knowledge of physics was limited, and a decade or more old; that afternoon he was keener on showing off to his friends than paying attention. I was on less shaky ground with the literature and English language assignments. These could, on occasion, be revealing of the origins of the young people and the experiences they had undergone. Talking about Romeo and Juliet with a Bosnian boy cast new light on the party scene at the Capulets, into which Romeo and other Montagues secretly infiltrate. ‘If that had happened at my father’s house…’ he said, the sentence suspended, his face stony.
One Afghani girl proved the most heartbreakingly diligent student. She had only started to learn English (and attend formal education) a couple of years earlier. When I first met her, she quietly held out to me a ruled notebook, to which she had added additional, vertical lines. The pages were covered with neat, rounded writing, page after page. Down the left-hand column were words that she had picked up from her reading, and then – on the right – definitions of the words. A glossary.
She pointed to the latest words she had added, asking me to explain them to her. The words weren’t simple, and some I stumbled over, trying to find explanations for her: the difference between transparent and translucent, for example. I wondered what she’d been reading. She pushed me to provide an explanation, and to pronounce it for her multiple times, until she caught my intonation. Her brow would knit in concentration, until she understood, and then she would smile, nod, and laugh, before moving onto the next word.
And then there was one other, younger girl from West Africa. One day, she read me out a story that she had written as an English language exercise. The task was to describe someone coming to England for the first time.
This is the story she told – reworded in some places as I had no copy, although her distinctive turn of phrase stuck firmly in my mind. It’s her story, which I’ve borrowed and repeated here, in the hope that it might explain something of the feelings of immigrants to Britain, and suggest that to extend the hand of friendship to the lost and dispossessed should be incumbent on us all:
A man came to visit England from Japan. He arrived at the airport, and he felt lonely. He didn’t know anyone.
Then he was met by a lady called Mrs English Rose. She took him to her house, and showed him to his room.
The next day she brought him a plate of food to eat. It was toast, with a brown paste* on it. He did not like the look of it. It looked disgusting.
He tasted it, though, and a smile spread across his face as he ate.
‘I feel like I am in the warm embrace of the bosom of God,’ he said.
The girl told me the story, hugging herself, the same broad smile across her face as the Japanese man she had described. I smiled, too.
*I quizzed her afterwards: the brown paste was Marmite. I imagine the immigrant population are as divided as everyone else about this; half loving it, half hating. Her tastes were clear from the story.