One refugee’s story: from Syria to France

One refugee’s story: from Syria to France

By Sean Hawkey*

Azad** is a refugee from the north of Aleppo, Syria and is currently in The Jungle camp in Calais, France.

“It’s hard here” says Azad, and then falls quiet. “People are hungry, cold, afraid and we can’t do anything”. He’s sitting cross-legged on the floor of a small shelter.

There are nearly 7,000 people in the camp. They are fleeing war, repression, economic collapse and climate change in countries like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia.

“We have to delete our memories, and the dead cannot come back to life” says Azad “but we still have hope of a new beginning, a different future, the end of the war in Syria. That’s all we want for the new year”.

Azad sleeps on the floor of this shelter with four other men. They sleep huddled together. It’s a tiny space, and it’s cold. His story is not unusual in the camp. It was hard to get out of Syria, then he travelled through Turkey, across the Aegean Sea in an unstable inflatable, and then through Europe, never feeling safe, never feeling welcome. The trip took weeks. Many people do a lot of the journey on foot, losing a lot of weight on the trip.

Azad reflects on it all and says that “even with all the violence from the French police, even with the mud and the cold and the hunger and the unhealthy conditions, it’s better here than in Aleppo, and it’s better than in Turkey”.

“There is fighting in my area, people are shot with rifles, with missiles, with rockets. Jabhat Al Nusrah [the Al-Nusrah Front] is there. I saw on the news that there is fierce fighting in my area today, we don’t know when it will stop. If ISIS catch me they will immediately behead me, first of all because I am Yazidi, and because I am Kurdish.“

In Calais there is increasing hostility against the refugees, brutality from the police is frequent, and local right-wing groups slash the tyres of volunteers who help refugees. Many of the refugees give accounts of being beaten by police, bitten by police dogs, beaten by lorry drivers. Volunteer nurses in the camp testify to treating hundreds of new injuries in the camp on a daily basis, as well as scabies and respiratory disease that are hard to control in the overcrowded and cold conditions.

There is no drainage, so when it rains, the camp turns into a mudbath. There are no houses. Most people live in tents, under tarpaulins, or in small wooden shelters. There are few toilets, and a few standpipes – only installed after Medecins Sans Frontiers won a court case against the French government requiring that the government fulfil its obligation to provide the most basic sanitation.

The British government has spent seven million pounds on building fences in Calais to keep refugees away from the port that is an hour and a half from the UK port of Dover. Large areas of Calais are now surrounded by high double fences with razor wire, guarded by thousands of police with dogs. Local hotels are filled with policemen brought in from all over France.

No one in the camp can work; there are no jobs for illegal refugees. So people are spending any savings they brought with them. For those who don’t have savings they are entirely dependent on donations.

In most refugee camps, that are legal and recognized, there is provision of shelter and food from governments, groups like United National High Commissioner for Refugees, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Oxfam and Christian Aid. But in the illegal camps like The Jungle, most NGOs will not provide support because it would affect their government funding. As a result, the refugees are largely dependent on donations provided by the public, through unofficial charitable groups and churches.

What’s the solution? Azad replies that “anyone who can get away from the violence has to do that, you can’t stay and wait to be killed. When the violence stops you’ll stop the refugees, and we’ll go back. The solution for refugees now? That’s easier, it’s a political decision. If they knew what it’s like there and what it’s like here, they’d help us. We need governments to help us.”

** Azad’s name has been changed by his request.

* Sean Hawkey is a photographer and journalist in the UK. He spent three days in the end of December in The Jungle with refugees from war-torn countries, and with volunteers from Care4Calais who provide humanitarian support.