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On the ground with 2,000 refugees spending Christmas in Calais

“If you want proof that Christmas is really about connection with other people, you’ll find it here.”

For the hundreds of people preparing to spend a harsh winter in makeshift camps in the north of France, their future is uncertain.

They come from Afghanistan, Syria, northern and sub-Saharan Africa. They endure terrible conditions, yet sleepingoutside in freezing temperatures is still preferable to the situations they are escaping from. They are a small percentage of the refugees who have already attempted to settle on mainland Europe. Despite the dangers on the open sea, many will risk the perilous journey across the Channel in the hope of a new life in the UK. Even learning of the deaths of 27 in an accident in November does not deter them. And it certainly doesn’t stop the people traffickers.

There is rarely a warm welcome from authorities in France, so charities such as Care4Calais are on the ground to offer support. Field operations manager Imogen Hardman reveals the harsh truth of Christmas in desperate conditions – and still finds the spirit of the season in the most unexpected setting

On Christmas Day last year, I found myself on a muddy, windwhipped unofficial settlement in northern France, discussing festive arrangements with a young man from Eritrea. “It’s difficult for me to celebrate here,” he told me. “I come from a Christian family, and at home on Christmas Day my family would all come together and give each other gifts. But here…” He shrugged and gestured around him.

Care4Calais volunteers prepare food packages Photo: Care4Calais

We were in scrubland on the edge of Calais, home to about 500 refugees from different countries. The man and his family had fled the vicious militaristic regime in Eritrea, and had been living in a tent for several weeks.

It wasn’t the awful conditions that hindered their Christmas celebrations though; as he said, “People celebrate with family, friends or community. But I am far from home here, and it is hard to even talk to someone in Eritrea by telephone. So celebrations are difficult.”

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Working with refugees in France, you have a lot of moments like this where you’re made to think about the fundamentals of human life, and if you want proof that Christmas is really about connection with other people, you’ll find it here.

Refugees are often very isolated and lonely, and they feel that all the more here, where they’re made to feel unwelcome by the police moving them on every 48 hours. That’s why one of our three priorities is to provide, besides food, clothing and essential services, a degree of friendship and support.

I’m a field operations manager for Care4Calais, which means I organise a team of about 20 volunteers who distribute donations to refugees chiefly in Calais and Dunkirk. Mornings are spent sorting and organising, afternoons taking out that day’s goods – it might be tents, food, boots or clothes – to one of the sites where refugees are living. When we’re there, we also provide charging points for phones, hairdressing, games and books, and clothes mending.

A refugee and her child, who face wretched conditions in their makeshift camp this winter Photo: Rafael Yaghobzadeh/ABACAPRESS.COM

It’s a demanding job, not least because what we do is important for the people we help. Refugees are by their nature resilient people, but their living conditions can be utterly wretched, particularly in winter. Right now there are about 2,000 refugees in total spread across four sites in Calais and Dunkirk.

Their access to water and basic sanitation is very limited. They generally have no money to buy food. And the wet, windy north-seacoastal weather means they are always cold and wet, with nowhere to go to get dry.

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Many of them have only the clothes they stand up in, and even if they do have changes of clothing and other possessions, they may have them confiscated at any time by the police who regularly – and one has to say pointlessly – evict the sites en masse, slashing tents and seizing packs. It’s easy to feel angry towards the police for this, but you have to remember that they’re carrying out these actions largely at the behest of the British government; on a personal level, I sometimes hope that what I do in some very small way makes up for that.

Some refugees stay in Calais or Dunkirk for only a few days before they move on or make the crossing, while others live here for months trying to find a way to get over. I’ve made a lot of friends over the time I’ve been here, particularly among the longer-term people. In the main, we talk about the same things you talk to anyone about – where we’re from, family, work and, almost always, football (there’s always a notable interest in Manchester United, which suits me just fine).

There often comes a point, though, when the difference in our experience becomes starkly apparent. I’ll be talking about how much I enjoyed university and exploring career options in my 20s, say, and they’ll tell me that, for them, the equivalent period was spent hiding from a militia, or being tortured in a Libyan jail. It’s hard to describe the feeling when you’re made so keenly aware of your privilege; it’s heartbreaking but also almost terrifying to suddenly realise that everything in your life comes down to the luck of being born in the right place.

‘It’s terrifying to realise that everything in your life comes down to the luck of being born in the right place’

Imogen Hardman

I stay in touch with a lot of people, and occasionally I get a happy message from someone saying they’ve made it to the UK, and now they can claim asylum there. The darker side of that is that sometimes I’ll notice I haven’t heard from someone for a long time, and I’ll call to find the phone’s dead. In many cases this will be because the phone has been confiscated by the police, but inevitably with people trying to cross the Channel in such dangerous circumstances you worry they might have been lost. One of the worst things is when someone tells you they’re going to try to cross, then you don’t hear from them for a while. You feel glad to see them again, although they themselves may be dejected because they’ve failed to make it.

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Calais may not be a picture-book setting for Christmas, then (and bear in mind of course that the majority of refugees are not Christian), but having grown up in the church, with a dad who was a Methodist minister, I’m always aware that the setting for the biblical Christmas story wasn’t ideal either – and Mary, Joseph and Jesus, on the run from Herod, ended up as refugees. So, while missing our friends and family at home, we do our best: December 25 is a day of sorting and distribution, but we play Christmas music and we give small gifts to the refugees on site. 

Above: Imogen Hardman Photo: Care4Calais

You feel very aware that, without your friends, family and community, it’s not Christmas as you know it, but there is a heightened feeling of warmth and friendship as we meet and talk to people. We’ve all been thrown together in this cold, inhospitable place, and the refugees are all dreaming of being somewhere else. But we can at least try to meet each other as friends, be kind and treat each other with dignity and respect. I’m not sure what the exact definition of Christmas spirit is, but that must be getting close.

Care4Calais is a charity that works with refugees in the UK, France and Belgium. Volunteers are vital to whatthey do. If you’d like to volunteer in France or in the UK please visit care4calais.org/get-involved or email clare@care4calais.org. They also need funds to continue their work on a daily basis and to feed, clothe and provide basic essentials. Find out more information at care4calais.org

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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