A better life? The European Union’s other problem
France – part IV
Many undocumented migrants and asylum seekers, having lost faith in the dreams of a better life in the West, often regain it through friendship with ordinary Europeans.
There are hundreds of committed Europeans working to alleviate the problems faced by migrants, even when their own governments refuse to acknowledge the situation.
This is less about charity and more about individuals, like the young social workers I met in Spain and Italy, the photographer in Greece, and Celine, the nurse in Calais. These people see beyond propaganda and politics, beyond the ‘illegal’ status, and see only a human being in need. There are few places where migrants and asylum seekers need empathy more than in Calais.
Celine, a French nurse, says before running a surgery for immigrants in Calais, she had no interest in politics; now she is angry that Europe’s immigration and asylum system is so dysfunctional. However, when treating her patients, Celine focuses on culture, not politics.
“It is important for them to be normal people,” she says. “When they are in the street people are afraid [of them], they don’t look at them with respect. When they speak English, they talk with me, just to explain when they are tired, when they have a lot of stress and they need to talk about that
“But they are very strong, they smile, they are proud. They need to talk about other things…they need to know how we live. We talk about the difference. Some of them say they are tired of being in that situation, to think only about their situation and to talk only about their situation.
“So they need to talk about another thing, to compare our lives. They like to explain to me the story of their country and they like to talk about their religion. I like it, it is very interesting because we talk about our differences but with respect.”
At another small centre, a short bus ride from Celine’s surgery is a place where migrants and asylum seekers, by now exhausted from journeys of months and even years, can relax. Caritas, an international Catholic charity, runs the centre offering languages lessons, a common room where people from around the world play board games, eat cake and drink tea. For a few moments they banish all thoughts of their transient lives.
Gone are the national divisions and tensions of the camps; instead the African jokes with the Afghan, different tribal groups, who usually refuse to even to live next to each other, show concern for each other.
Jacky Verhaegen, who runs the centre with several volunteers says the change in some of the Afghan boys, many barely into their teens, is most remarkable. Once they are taken out of their usual environment, an adult world concerned solely with survival, they become children again.
“When you see them outside they are like small men, playing rough and when they come here, they start drawing, they start playing games and being a child again. I am no shrink, but it is going to be difficult for them to build themselves as normal balanced adult with no teenage years. They are going from childhood to manhood with nothing in between.”
The centre offers practical support but most importantly it is a much-needed haven away from asylum applications, the Channel Tunnel, their camps and the French police.
Sher Wali, pictured, enjoys the respite offered by Caritas’s centre. Tired of moving, he is keen to settle. “I used to live in the jungle for three months, it was very difficult. Every time people fight, drink alcohol, because they are stressed and depressed,” he says. He now lives with a French family, is studying French, and works as a mechanic. His gentle demeanor belies the trauma of his journey.
Sher Wali was born on the frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and lived in the Kunar province in north-eastern Afghanistan. He left the country with his younger brother for Europe several years ago, while his mother went to Pakistan. The family sold their property to finance their escape.
It took Sher Wali and his brother 15 months to get to Europe. They were deported twice back to Afghanistan, from both Iran and Turkey, but determined, they simply began the journey again. Tragedy struck in Turkey when Sher and his 18-year-old brother were separated. He has not seen or heard from him since. “He will be 22 soon,” he says.
Sher continued alone to Romania, Hungary, Germany, and Belgium, and now plans to stay in France.