By Cindi Cook
PARIS (AA) - They say on a clear day you can easily see the white cliffs of Dover from the French port city of Calais. Just 34 kilometers (21 miles) across the English Channel, they lie in the distance like a dreamscape, beckoning those who have come here hoping for passage to a new life.
Calais has long been home to thriving industries like lacemaking, metallurgy, and fishing. Charles de Gaulle got married here. It was nearly razed during World War II until the Germans took over the city and used it as a strategic launching point for missiles across the Strait of Dover.
But this blustery city has now become widely known as the last port of call for refugees trying to get to England and a better way of life that may be waiting there. Migrants, mostly men, from Sudan, Syria, Algeria, Bosnia, and some other war-torn countries in the Middle East and Africa, have increasingly flocked here over the past three decades to attempt the trip via multiple methods, like stowing away on ferries or in trucks, cars, or trains traversing the Eurotunnel or Chunnel.
The most dangerous route these days is via rubber dinghy, which at times will set sail with far more people than these small rubber rafts can hold, like the group of 30 last month who climbed into a craft made to hold only six. Twenty-seven people from that voyage died along the way, including children and a pregnant woman.
While the bulk of Westerners are exchanging gifts and watching seasonal movies, life for an asylum seeker at holiday time is anything but merry and bright. Many walk the streets of Calais in a state of tepid bewilderment, hoping for a Christmas miracle.
- Christmas Eve
I head north toward the sea at dusk. It’s also in the direction of the Notre Dame de Calais, home to one of the church groups in the city that helps immigrant communities. In the Place d'Armes – the city’s main square in medieval times – sits a carousel bordered by large twinkling teddy bears and mulled wine huts. Parents with cameras capture blissful moments as their children cavort. An indoor skating rink lies just beyond.
A few streets over, I see a large group of men in a small parking lot at an evening meal service. It’s 6.30 p.m. -- dinner is wrapping up -- and the scene is pitch black. No lights are on, and the men gathered are all dark-skinned.
They epitomize a migrant situation that has grown increasingly worse in recent years. Those who come to Calais are the sad casualties of countries ravaged by conflict. Many, like William from Sudan, tell me they want to get to England. I ask why he doesn’t want to stay in France.
“No no, it’s difficult, with work and everything. All the people here are trying,” he says.
“Sudan is very, very dangerous. Everybody here will try to go to the UK. I want to go. I want to find everything for me,” he adds determinedly, not sure though how he will manage to make the trip.
Many of the migrants have relatives and friends they can stay with who have already gotten across. William’s response, though, reflects the dominant attitude here: That it’s a problem most in Calais ignore and that the authorities would like to see go away.
As of the end of November, the UK Home Office estimated that this year 25,000 migrants had made the journey across. France puts the number at 31,000. Forty-one people have perished, including last month's tragedy, the single-biggest loss of life to date.
I go in search of Secours Catholique – Catholic Rescue – which isn't far, according to my map. I hear people can take showers there. I soon find myself at the end of the road which spills onto Rue de Moscou, where their offices are, and which wraps around the eastern edge of the city, abutting the sea. It’s dark, and very desolate, a barren warehouse district. I start running down the street and eventually wind my way back to the main drag. Secours Catholique will have to wait until tomorrow
- Christmas morning
As expected, the center of Calais is barren on Christmas Day. Nary an establishment is open, save for a few restaurants. Back at the parking lot, I arrive to find a group of men in search of a meal (I found out later that only dinner is served here). One of them speaks English and explains that they’ve all been in the city for some time, sleeping rough – meaning outside with no shelter. One man looks confused, sporting a perpetually furrowed brow. They’re all Syrian. One could easily take his place in a Calvin Klein ad. None have showered in weeks.
I tell them that Notre Dame can help and walk them around the corner to the church. I make my way back to Secours Catholique to find it closed but with a number on the door. A man named Yuri picks up. We chat and he gives me information on who I can call to get more info.
The problem here is complicated, to say the least. In 2003, a treaty was signed by Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair, the then-French president and UK prime minister, in the town of Le Touquet, south of Calais. Under the pact, France agreed to establish a kind of southeastern English border outpost on its shores – technically UK soil – for the purpose of processing passports. Britain agreed to pay France for the change, and to patrol the beaches against illegal migration.
Despite the agreement, in the nearly two decades since, Britain blames France, France blames Britain, and they both blame smugglers who profit from the humans they “help,” charging some €2,500 ($2,831) per head but disappearing soon afterward. The three men I encountered earlier told me that they had paid €11,000 total to a broker to get them from Syria to Belgium and then into France.
- Afternoon gathering
As I walk to the train station, a group of men and women approach along the road. They are disheveled, carrying bags full of belongings. Migrants for sure.
They too are all from Syria. There’s a little girl with her mother, who pushes a stroller that holds her other daughter. One of the men tells me this child is physically disabled, pointing to his head as we make our way through a conversation of mixed English, French, and Arabic.
“We are very poor, very very bad,” he says. “We don’t know where to go and get help.”
I tell them too about the dinner near Notre Dame and point to the spire in the distance. The man, Asan, says he knows.
We all head to the train station across the street, a haven and one of the few places they can go for shelter, until 10 p.m. when the police clear them out.
Has anyone eaten yet? I ask. Most say no. Other men are already there, a few of whom think I’m from the authorities. There’s a newsstand inside where I buy milk for the woman’s children. She motions to a sandwich, and knowing that she may be Muslim, I suggest tuna and chicken. She asks for a falafel. I give her two, along with water. Her little girl says “Thank you” in English and blows me a kiss. That’s when I break down.
The men flood into the station and everyone is hungry. I return to the newsstand five more times until no sandwiches are left. Everyone thanks me. I think to myself that I should be thanking them.
- Christmas dinner
As the sun goes down, I make one last trip to the meal service across town and find it’s run by Refugee Community Kitchen, a group of volunteers who help the poor and migrants throughout the city. One of the volunteers tells me they serve dinner each night from 4 to 6 p.m., having done so throughout the coronavirus pandemic as well as Brexit, both of which put a damper on their workforce. Only about a dozen men show up that night, all benefitting from the chicken stew and bread that gives them comfort in the cold.
Kali, from Sudan, tells me that he would prefer to stay in Calais to work.
“Kali from Calais!” he jokes, telling me he has come through Saudi Arabia, where he was arrested. He has no passport – the case with most. He has been here six years and applied for a passport, but to no avail.
A group of men from Algeria waits at the gate – four men, one of whom tells me he’s been here for two years. I ask if he has work, and he responds he has none, but had worked when he was in Marseille. He wants to go to England. His daughter and wife are already there.
“It’s not easy,” he responds. “It’s very complicated.”
I tell him I’m American, and he says that he loves me. We all laugh.
“Americans are the best,” he adds.
They will spend the night together in the street, hoping to try again tomorrow or the next day for a chance at their future.