Banksy visited the 2 mile square Jungle Camp, in Calais, just before I did. He left this image. It’s Steve Jobs, a man who was a famous, creative, inspiration to millions of people. A man who was also the bloodline son of a Syrian refugee, who found a home in the States and embodied the American Dream. Many of the streets he walked and paved were lined with IT gold. It- this reminder of hope filled dreams, of a different, better life- served as a stark reminder and a shocking contrast to the makeshift walkways and puddles that I picked my way through, in my thick coat, layers of clothing and trusty wellies (yes folks, I left the red stilettos at home). By the time we left the camp for the final time other graffiti was scrawled around this piece of pop up art. I like to think that whoever embellished Banksy’s work realised and deliberately played on the iPhone link, hence the witty ‘London calling’… but can’t help but wonder whether popular western culture and our British icons have blended with those American ones, all are seen on TV screens across the world.
The international media shows our green and pleasant land as a great country, it is a great country and despite my recent, personal, confusion about certain aspects of education, I know that I am lucky to be born in a nice area, to have a beautiful family and loved ones around me and to have had access, myself, to a great education and free health care. I know that I am blessed, even in my darkest and most challenging days. So, can I blame those in war torn countries for wanting to mingle with the beautiful, rich and famous, to be part of the paradisal and utopian world that they see in the movies. For those are the images that the refugees I spent time with are buying into. Many I spoke with don’t know our history, or culture, our PM but they know Ed Sheeran, remember The Spice Girls, and of course, worship our footballers.
The same media warned me against the violent, disease ridden, aggressive and chauvinistic men I would find in the camp. Of the riots. Beatings. Crime. The Daily Mail told tales of knifings and murders- there has been a death recently, of refugees jumping on lorries and causing crashes but it didn’t tell us that on the night of the recent Paris terror attacks that a huge part of the camp was set alight and that make shift homes and cherished possessions were lost forever. And don’t get me wrong, the remnants of tear gas cylinders, a constant police presence by the entrance of the camp and occasional people with visual injuries, told me that at night the camp was a different place to the one that I spent my daylight hours in. The scraps of clothing caught on the barbed, prison grade fencing (that our government have contributed to the camp and are apparently paying fines for, as they break EU regulations) reminded me of the desperation. The fences were, to me, disturbingly reminiscent of a concentration camp, those I’ve seen in History lessons, in old tattered images of the holocaust or a few months back in the Imperial War Museum. I am very well aware that this sounds like I am sensationalising it, but when I first saw those fences a cold shiver swept through my whole body and I inwardly gasped. Another teacher who I was with felt the same. They go on for miles and miles. Except this is not a concentration camp, the refugees weren’t trapped against their will, they chose to be here, travelled miles to get here and they and anyone else can walk in and out. And this is just a camp. And one that is slowly improving. And possibly most oddly, the first row of these patched up, angry, fences stop about 100m from the camp entrance, so are pretty easy to walk around. A slight planning issue or oversight there perhaps…
We were told that any refugees who get over, or through, the fences- and are caught, are often simply returned to the camp. Others claimed that they are dropped hundreds of miles away and forced to make their way back as a deterrent. Like everything, it is hard to know what is the truth so where possible I avoided such tales and focussed on vocabulary and adjacency pairs, simple conversation, instead.
Yet I can honestly say that I have felt more scared on the streets of Bermondsey after dark than I did at any time inside the camp during my short days there. Yes, just days, I was told the first rule of aid was to look after yourself- so we stayed in a local B&B just outside the camp. Whilst there I spoke to some university students who were staying, at night, in the camp. They said it was ‘awful, terrifying, life threatening’ but were happy to tell elaborate stories of the atrocities, possibly practising for the tales they would tell their uni mates, on a drunken night, once back in the warm safety of their university halls. I couldn’t help but wonder why, if was that bad, they still stayed there. Different people do charity work for different reasons, I know that, I had my own reasons, and so shouldn’t judge. I can’t imagine their parents would be too impressed…
The camp is an odd place. A makeshift city, of tents struggling against the bitter coastal winds, of donated caravans and increasingly sturdy wooden huts. It and its inhabitants are building their own infrastructure, with the help of the French government and a number of great charities and aid workers. It seems to be becoming a worryingly permanent site. This permanency is a clear reminder that we need to redouble the efforts to get educators into these camps. (I say these, because I’m told by some amazing teachers who are out there far more than I have been, that the camp 30 minutes up the coast in Dunkirk is home to far more children, rats the size of cats and to much more poverty and squalor, but that’s another blog and some far more committed and brave educators).
In the short time that I was there the camp grew. It is sprawling. Spreading. Growing. Becoming self sufficient. It is estimated that about 6000 people live in this camp, one French official that spoke to us guesstimated that there were most likely around 200 or so children, but the majority of the inhabitants seemed to be men. A worrying figure of these ‘men’ were pretty young. They looked like the teenagers that I teach their GCSEs to, except this lost generation are not getting regular education of any sort at present.
All the numbers and inhabitants are fluid, the camp, for many, is a conveyor belt. New tents going up, others abandoned and left for bigger dreams. Some opting to get the daily bus and to take relocation in France, settling into a new way of life… but for many small talk and rumours of refugee detention centres deters them and the thought of a house but only 300 euros a month to live on simply doesn’t appeal. Many of the refugees say that they want to work, in the camp they are entrepreneurs. As a refugee, taking asylum, in France they cannot work for 3 years- another reason why the sharp biting fences and dreams of the UK appeal. If they could just make it over the channel, or through the tunnel they could work instantly. Different laws. Different dreams.
More puddles, more mud and more tents, more graffiti, more art, more shops and amongst this businesses were springing up. There are no planning laws so every day new structures go up, with no health and safety or insurance.
We saw cafes playing music and serving PG Tips, hairdressers, supermarkets- all going up and trading inside the camp. Some had TVs inside, others proudly shouted ‘Open’ with their glittering neon signs.
Some of the refugees told my colleagues that they are given 700 euros a month, per family, by the French government- although it was unclear how this was done as there seems to be no registration process. Maybe in a similar way to the food rations, with neat tidy patient lines. This European currency seems to be being spent increasingly in the camp itself, although we were told by other aid workers that the camp has helped secure a raise in the profits of local businesses in Calais. Apparently tourists are flocking to see the developing world, war torn and low income living, here in wealthy, modern Europe: in France, the capital of fashion and romance. The hotels are doing quite a trade…
The jungle area has its own church, the largest wood and plastic structure in the camp, and it seemed that all were welcome. The camp also has a relatively well stocked, makeshift mother and baby centre. It even boasts its own theatre; a large domed tent where we were told that many are keen to re-enact stories of lives lived, journeys travelled, largely in mime due to the rich mixture of languages spoken.
‘The Jungle’ camp is very much developing, it isn’t developed, because the area is lacking much of the infrastructure that we take for granted. I was shocked to be told that the camp has been there for nearly a decade, but has only become ‘popular’ in recent years. Only in the past month or two have 6 main, cold water, taps been put into the camp and hundreds of portaloos now line the streets, but there are no sewers and they didn’t look too inviting. It has dubious, stagnant, puddles instead of roads, although in a nod to a civilised area, the main strip had been named with a plastic sign, pinned above some sobering U2 lyrics, telling those who walk past that they are stepping in wet mud on ‘Boulevard de Nicolas Sarkozy’. Other huts are decorated with shout outs to Arsenal, Liverpool and United. Many proudly proclaim that all they want is peace, others declare their love for England, a place they have never even seen. Huge generators work as a hub for phone charging and card playing and power the electricity that runs through the camp, but we were told that whilst these were a much needed life line that these too, were not as reliable as they could be.
The French authorities have been hard at work, building more ‘permanent’ homes, utilising an old war base for housing for women and children, and shipping in metal box mobile homes to house 1600 of the refugees- at an alleged cost of over 10 million euros. Those we spoke to are genuinely working hard, and many are paid to organise and lead the support being given, but this is not a quick fix. These homes are, however, a devastating sign of permanency. This isn’t a problem going away anytime soon. There is a hospital, complete with triage and vaccination clinics and first aid huts. There is even a mother and child centre. But there is very little in the way of educational provision.
I can honestly say that despite the best efforts of so many, that many of us would refuse to allow our animals to live in such conditions. I’m not saying that we open the borders and take them all in, but I do believe that whilst these young men, women and children call that place their home that they need more help. If it is a permanent residence, they need education.
The camp itself has different areas, Syrian, Somalian, Iranian, Iraqi, and scatterings of Sudanese, Ethiopians, Kurds and Egyptians are added into the cultural mix. There is some kind of authority, I’m told, with Elders taking care of their areas and people. This seems like a respected, and dare I say it lucrative, role to have within the community. The Elders liaise with the charities and the government officials. They seem to want the best for their people. Although the refugees keep to their own communities when setting up a home, much of the camp seems to be communal, sharing shops, praying side by side in the church, drinking tea in a library, learning to build huts at a carpentry workshop and allowing their children to play in a kids space. Occasional bits of tinsel reminded us of the time of year and a Christmas tree with little bits of tin foil on the end of its tatty branches stood proudly outside the church. It is a blessing that it has been such a mild winter. But I dread to think of the illness that will follow if the temperature rises too much…
A French kindergarten has opened and I felt terrible when I stepped into the wooden classroom, as a little girl, grubby, Disney eyed and no older than 5 literally got on her chair and lunged, launching herself at me, then holding on with a grip like a vice. She was one of 6 students. Attendance is an issue it would seem although I didn’t see many children anywhere, except for in their church. Luckily the teacher had a quick sharp word with her, in French, and the little terror, still beaming the most brilliant smile, sat swiftly down. As a teacher I felt terrible for disrupting the makeshift lesson, but as I found out when I taught it is kind of ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ teaching at present and do the best you can. I was forgiven.
Despite all the aid in the jungle there is no overall, cohesive, logical plan. We arrived to the makeshift classroom not knowing whether there would be a lesson and if so what it would be, English to adults, maths to kids. We were expecting people to attend but it was a word of mouth thing so the rest was get ready to roll your sleeves up and teach whatever it needed to be. After years of having a safety net of schemes of work, long and medium term plans, of IT resources and photocopiers- not to mention tables and chairs, the prospect of a wooden hut with an old chalk board, some dog eared text books from the 80s and a lot of mess was daunting to say the least. Some amazing teachers that I know are out there every week- I want to join them.
My first lesson was ‘teach what they want to learn, to whoever shows up’. As it was we had a small room crammed with about 30 men at one point, as word of mouth spread the news, so more came. The youngest looked about 13, the oldest maybe 30. They wanted to know how to ask for items of clothing and how to say which part of their body hurt. It was vocabulary and there was little differentiation. We differentiated by asking who could understand certain words and who was new to English and to school. There was lots of drawing, acting out, pointing at stuff, repeating and practising sentences aloud. It would have been an inadequate lesson had Ofsted walked in. We had no clear lesson plan, the objective was to teach them something, muddling through. We had no books, no evidence of progress over time. But the learners were polite, respectful, engaged and happy. They helped each other when language was a barrier and worked brilliantly as a team, in pairs or on their own when given opportunities to speak 1:1 to an English teacher. As a teacher who plans carefully this was a huge challenge for me, but it reminded me of the beauty of our role. Teaching really is a vocation.
Other ‘lessons’ were spent listening to men read 1:1, and time was also given to younger children and the inspirational colleagues of mine have now established links with the French kindergarten so the smallest children are learning both English and French, albeit still a little irregularly.
The ‘problems’ with educating the camp are countless. There is a total lack of meaningful resources, including qualified teachers willing or able to teach for free, there are not enough dedicated classrooms and no routines, due to the flow of refugees in and out continuity is impossible for many. There are other issues too, the confusion between kindness and education and therefore some illogical priorities. One space built for the children has wifi but few lessons planned, so it is now often a space full of men surfing the net on their phones whilst rain drips steadily on an old donated computer- which is fine- but the wifi was (again, this is only what I have been told) funded by a charity wanting to help educate the children. It was, in my personal opinion, a seeming waste of money- they need books, pens, tables, chairs, a whiteboard and a flip chart. They would love a printer, a photocopier, a visualiser, more sockets in the room… is wifi necessary? Not really… And luckily we had an Elder to hand who quietly turfed the men out, unless they wanted to learn, engage and take part.
You see, it seems to me that there is so much good will, but not by those who understand pedagogy or how children learn. We should be proud of the thousands of pounds worth of donations that are flooding in, of those giving time to helping others. There is so much good going on there, but it is disjointed and chaotic. There are warehouses, huge warehouses full to the ceiling with clothes and sleeping bags and food but now these people are settled and have medical facilities surely the next step must be education. And I’m told that there are some French schools keen to help- offering scholarships and support- but how do you even baseline and group these people without the means to test them in some way? Would a 1:1 be sufficient?
You see I have so many questions, many posed by teachers far more involved that I have been, and I have no answers.
How do you build and staff a school in a place where you aren’t insured, have no budget and with no H&S? How do you ensure consistency without being there every day when many of your students vanish after a week or two and others live there for years? How do you get access and the trust of the women and children who are culturally used to staying in the home? What can you teach that would allow some kind of reward, evidence that they have used their free time in the camp effectively? How do you access foreign aid budgets? How can you explain that kindness is one thing but that if these people don’t get an education now that they will be lost forever? How do you write a curriculum that teaches western culture as well as, for example, maths, when you have no timescales? How do you teach children who have seen things that are so terrible and suffered on a scale that you can’t even imagine? How do you help refugees in the other camps, scattered up and down the coast, with worse conditions but that the media doesn’t report on? How do you know what the truth is in stories you are told and where the embellishments lie? And how on earth do you just teach, and write about this interesting place which has so much soul, without being biased? The media swings from violent criminality to pity and pleas for us to rehome all of these thousands of people. How do you just tread a line down the middle and help them, by doing what you can for them while they are there? These dedicated teachers I know are now looking into setting up an Educational Aid Charity. They want to get a 5 day week staffed with a regular space, clear handovers, a timetable and some form of planning underpinning it. They will need support from schools, resources (lots of them) to add to the posters kindly donated to ITL, which will cheer up the walls of the huts. I want to do more. It is a great cause. I admire what they have started here and allowed me to glimpse and welcomed me to be a part of.
The camp is rich in art. There is an art quarter and an art ‘school’. As I said at the start, Banksy himself has proudly made his mark… but just up the same wall, a few metres away from spray painted Steve Jobs, under the bridge that marks the gateway in and out of the camp, was this.
If we know education is correlated with life expectancy, and so so essential and valuable, surely we need to do whatever we can, now? It seems a little like an impossible task, but one which some educators are keen to try. I want to help them.
Because after all, these are children and this is Europe. And this is 2016.
Natalie Scott is a qualified English teacher, currently teaching in a school in Hertfordshire. To read more from her reflections on teaching and education go to https://nataliehscott.wordpress.com and follow her on twitter @nataliehscott