This is reprint of my newspaper column
Osarumen Osama works for a Brussels charity called Serve the City. Last month I asked him to take me to what remains of the famous refugee camp at Calais in Northern France.
“Are you sure you want to go?” he asked.
I lied and said Yes.
A few days later, with rain and winds inverting our umbrella, we boarded the Eurostar for the one-hour trip from Brussels to Calais. (Cal-A).
The small town of Calais plays a crucial part in international transportation. It’s the gateway to England through the Chunnel, the longest undersea tunnel in the world. Trains dive through the opening at 100 mph and emerge in England within 35 minutes.
On that day, Osama and I are among a handful of passengers leaving the train before it continued to England. We hail a taxi to take us to the camp, but Osama asks our driver to stop a half-mile short because he wants me to gather some geographical perspective.
We step out onto a desolate road leading toward an industrial zone. We are standing light-years away from the French world of culinary delicacies and Riviera sun.
I squint at the miles of barbwire fence constructed to discourage refugees from stowing away on the trucks, ferries and trains. In the distance I see warehouses where semi trucks are offloading pipes and odd-looking parts. Bulldozers are overturning and grading the grounds as if for new construction. However, this is not a new construction. This is destruction.
The ground that once housed tens of thousands of people, according to Care for Calais, an immigrant charity, now contains around 1,000 refugees. They are all living out of doors in Calais and Dunkirk. There is still another 500 in Brussels and over 1,500 in Paris. The majority are Eritreans, Ethiopians and Afghans, mostly men with a few isolated teens.
After a few moments of surveying, we lean into the wind and walk toward some buildings in the distance. Soon, we meet up with an Ethiopian man who tells us he’s been in the camp for two years. Osama introduces me as a “priest” because it’s a notion easily conveyed.
The man seems affable and escorts us into a clearing that he says is the camp. However, I don’t see any offices or tents. I see only trucks dispensing potable water to a few dozen men filling their old plastic jars. There are portable toilets and showers as well.
This isn’t a camp. These men are stragglers, those who have fallen between the proverbial cracks. Like the soldiers trapped at nearby Dunkirk in WW2, they can sometimes glimpse the Dover cliffs of freedom.
“Is this all of it?” I ask our unofficial guide.
He points into the forest not yet bulldozed.
“In there,” he says. “Come.”
Osama nods in agreement, whispering for me to stay close.
We walk through the woods along a muddy trail zigzagging through abandoned campsites littered with rubbish. We turn a bend to find a dozen men smoking cigarettes, squatting around a campfire.
They examine us from head-to-toe. I feel like invaders who obviously don’t belong here. I’m wearing blue jeans, a blue Gore-Tex® raincoat and Keen® boots. I don’t speak their language, literally or figuratively. My hope is that my presence conveys a comforting empathy.
Osama sports a dapper fedora crowning his big-collared leather coat that matches his black slacks. Still, his darker skin tone and his command of three languages inspire trust among the men.
Gratefully, one man speaks English, so he translates both the words and desires of the group. Many of them have been here for months and even years because they don’t have the necessary immigration papers. They want to go to England or America in hopes of making more money.
Osama responds with a mixture of French and English, repeating what he often tells immigrants in Belgium. “England is overcrowded,” he says. “Stay in France where some of you already know the language. Or go to Croatia or Kosovo where you can build your own dream and be rewarded for it.”
It’s a message many find unacceptable. They believe they’ll find utopia in an English-speaking world.
We are interrupted by a man announcing the arrival of lunch trucks. International charities provide three meals a day and on this day, it’s a group from England.
Osama and I take that as our cue to return to the train station for our trip home.
A month later, I’m living on the other side of the Channel in England where I daily encounter refugees that came through these camps. They’re polite, curious, and hardworking. They’re here to drive a taxi, start a kabob stand, or go to school. Some are professionals seeking national certifications to retain the profession they worked in their home country.
Sounds like many of the same reasons my ancestors settled in Texas.
As the Apostle Paul said, “But for the Grace of God, this would be me.”
How can we help?
There are many ways to help migrants, and not just those in Calais. Most organizations are asking for volunteers, supplies, clothes and, of course, money.
You can help. Do your research. Present the needs to your organization or service group. If you are active in your church, encourage them to redirect their budget helping the immigrants and thus toward becoming athe church God calls us to be.
The following is a list of organizations that are helping now: