‘I Am Strange Here’: Conversations With the Syrians in Calais

“We have breakfast, we smoke, we laugh, we joke, we eat again, and after that in the night we have a try [at escaping to England]. Every night.”

Two migrants walk toward the Channel Tunnel near Calais. (Pascal Rossignol / Reuters)

In his memoir Hitch 22, the late Christopher Hitchens, recalling his early forays into journalism at the British tabloid the Daily Express, confessed that the “unofficial motto of our foreign correspondent’s desk was, when setting off to some scene of mass graves and riven societies, ‘Anyone here been raped and speaks English?’” It is also the title of a book by the foreign correspondent Edward Behr, who wrote for American news magazines and who attributed the phrase to a reporter covering the war in eastern Congo in 1964.

The motto instantly came to mind earlier this month when I entered the “Jungle” migrant camp on the outskirts of the French port of Calais, just across the English Channel from the United Kingdom. The place, to use British Prime Minister David Cameron’s dehumanizing rhetoric, was “swarming” alright—but with journalists looking for a story, not with migrants. Within minutes of me striking up a conversation with a refugee from Afghanistan, an irate and imperious reporter intervened to commandeer her “subject” for further probing. I was taken aback. And yet, not five minutes later, I was asking my guide where I could find the camp’s Syrian inhabitants, and who among them might speak English.

In recent weeks, British news coverage of the camp—and the nightly treks from it to Calais’s Channel Tunnel entrance and port area, where hundreds of migrants have risked their lives trying to board vehicles, trains, and ferries headed for England—has reached saturation. On a single day in July, around 2,000 attempts were made to enter the Eurotunnel terminal, causing severe traffic delays for travelers and truck drivers in France and England. Since June, nine migrants have died trying to reach Britain from Calais. With the support of the British government, French authorities are now building more fences around the perimeter of the Eurotunnel entrance.

The Jungle is home to approximately 3,000 migrants, many of whom are seeking asylum from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan. It is a makeshift refuge. But it’s also a repository for deep-seated anxieties in Europe about change, identity, and social contamination. Together with the Italian island of Lampedusa, where over the past year thousands of migrants have been arriving after perilous sea voyages originating in Libya, and the Greek island of Kos, where roughly 7,000 migrants are waiting to be processed, Calais has become one of the focal points of Europe’s ongoing migrant crisis and moral panic over immigration. The camp may also be a presentiment of a darker Europe of new walls and barbed wire and perennial outcasts.

In Calais, roughly 150 Syrian refugees, a tiny fragment of the estimated 9 million Syrians displaced—internally and externally—by the rival tyrannies of the Assad regime and the so-called Islamic State, have congregated not in the Jungle, but near an old lighthouse in the city center, in two settlements outside a church and behind a commercial-storage building. When I made my way there, I met Ahmad, who is from the Syrian capital of Damascus but now finds himself living in a tent by the commercial-storage building. (He and other migrants I interviewed asked that only their first name be used.)

“We don’t want to live in the camp,” he told me. “It’s very bad, miserable. … It’s not clean, there are many diseases there. Here is better.”

A Sudanese man prepares food in his tent at the Jungle camp in Calais. (Peter Nicholls / Reuters)

I noticed that Ahmad’s hand was heavily bandaged. He had wounded it trying to jump over a nearly seven-foot-high iron fence surrounding a parking area near the port—with the aim of hiding in a shipping container or truck bound for Britain. It was his fourth attempt to escape Calais in as many weeks. The injury to his hand was severe and would require surgery. For the time being, he was resigned to stay put, though he planned to try again once his hand healed. He had been in Calais for six weeks, having arrived after a months-long journey that had taken him first to Turkey, then to Italy via ship, and then on to France—at the cost of his life’s savings of roughly $10,000.

Last October, Mouaz al-Balkhi and Shadi Kataf, two Syrian refugees, bought wetsuits from a sports shop in Calais and tried to swim across the channel to England. They never made it. Ahmad mentioned this in passing. “They were from here. … Every two to three days you hear about someone dying.”

Ahmad, who is in his mid-thirties, told me that he and others in the encampment had grown wary of journalists because “they come here, ask questions, but nothing changes.”

“If you are BBC, I don’t talk to you,” he had exclaimed when I first approached him, expressing frustration with a report in which he’d heard the same question over and over again: “Why do you want to come to England?”

I resisted the urge to ask him the very same thing, instead reframing the question as a comment about how tedious it must be to have to repeatedly answer the query. He indulged me. “We think Britain is a wonderful place. … All of us speak English,” he said. He added that he had relatives in England, and that there are jobs there.

I inquired about his life in Calais. “Only the same story here. You wake up, we have breakfast, we smoke, we laugh, we joke, we eat again, and after that in the night we have a try [at escaping to England]. Every night.”

The next day I visited the settlement outside the church and spoke with Abdul, a 20-year-old bear of a man with luminous green eyes. He told me that the Syrian civil war had left the country he loved “broken” and that life there had become “impossible.” He missed the family he had left behind in Damascus, especially his mother and father, and his friends.

Migrants pray in a makeshift mosque in the Calais camp. (Peter Nicholls / Reuters)

He had left Syria while in the second year of a four-year degree in information technology at Damascus University, and had done so to escape conscription into the Syrian Army. Before the war, the period for national service in Syria had been 18 months. Now, according to Abdul, the period is indefinite. What terrified him most, he confided, was the prospect not of being killed, but of being made to kill others. Soldiers “go to a village, send in rockets, and kill everybody. Everybody. And if you [as a soldier] don’t kill, they shoot you.” He made a pistol with his finger and pointed to the back of his head.

Abdul had escaped from Syria in January and had been in Calais for three months by the time we spoke. He had to bribe a Syrian official to give him a passport so that he could go to Turkey and on to Greece, where he took a plane to Italy, eventually crossing into France by foot. “Everybody a different way,” he said. His brother, who left Syria in 2012, is now in Sweden. But Abdul preferred Britain as a destination “because I need to continue to study and my [second] language is English.” He added, “One day, if I get the chance, I will try, try, try” to reach the United Kingdom.

I asked him how it felt to be in Calais, outside a church. “I feel I am strange here,” he answered. And so he is: a Syrian in Calais. The German sociologist Georg Simmel described the stranger as “near and far at the same time”—a description I think Abdul would appreciate. To paraphrase another eminent sociologist (Robert K. Merton), Abdul is in Calais, but he isn’t of Calais. Moving to Britain is unlikely to change this core feeling of unbelonging.

Refugees ride bikes in Calais. (Emilio Morenatti / AP)

Abdul also confessed to feeling “ashamed” at having “to live like this,” and “because we are running from Syria, but [we have] no choice.”

In this way, Abdul gave voice to the twin emotions of forced exile: estrangement and shame. And he expressed these emotions not just in words, but in his body language and the deep orbits of strain and weariness on his young face.

Shame, to quote the political sociologist C. Fred Alford, is about “what others think of us,” whereas guilt is about “what we think of ourselves.” Abdul, based on what he told me, has a strong case for seeking political asylum. So he doesn’t feel guilty about being in Europe, nor should he. But he feels ashamed; to live destitute outside a church in a foreign land, dependent on the charity and goodwill of others, is, as he sees it, an affront to his honor and pride.

If making it to Britain may not change this sense of unbelonging, why are hundreds of migrants in Calais hazarding an escape each night? Their motivations are surely myriad. But after witnessing the charged atmosphere by the entrance to the Channel Tunnel, I wonder if one of the drivers is a need to shake off shame and assert themselves, no matter the danger. Their doggedness may also stem in part from something deeper than a desire to live in Britain. These migrants have come a long way and risked their lives to get to Calais. In many cases, they have left behind loved ones and exhausted their life’s savings to pay for the voyage. Calais, a gray and gloomy city in northern France, cannot be the end point of their journey. There must be another vista on which they can fix their hopes, because to accept Calais as their final destination is to raise the possibility that their inordinate sacrifice was not worth it. What drove those 2,000 attempts in one day to reach England? Hope for a better future, certainly. But also, perhaps, fear that the future has already arrived, and that it doesn’t remotely live up to its billing.

Media coverage of the current migrant crisis in Calais tends toward the dramatic, showing groups of young men trying to breach the fences on their way to Britain. Often, their faces are half-concealed behind hoodies or scarfs. They look menacing. But if you visit the migrants in their temporary homes in Calais, you see something very different: hope, fear, estrangement, shame, and above all, vulnerability.