Kriss: Connecting with refugees in France’s ‘jungle’

Jun 19, 2017 by

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Last week, I traveled from the U.K. to Calais, France, to bear witness to the greatest human migration in Europe since World War II.

Stephen Kriss


Last year, a refugee city emerged at Calais with an estimated 10,000 residents. It was a human and civil services nightmare. In the midst of an industrial area, thousands of refugees and migrants constructed a city out of plastic and pallets. Though it has now been reduced to rubble, the image of this place called “The Jungle” remains at this last stop on the continent. Here, ferries and tunnels connect the mainland to England. Calais’ population is only about 80,000.

There are hundreds of refugees in Calais again. We saw Pakistanis who spoke fluent English along with people from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan and Ethiopia. They are a mix of Christian and Muslim. They told of overland journeys and sea crossings, bound for a perceived promised land.

There is an adversarial relationship between migrants stuck in Calais and French authorities who hope to prevent a recreation of “The Jungle.” The U.K. has invested heavily in fences and walls, barbed wire and electrification to try to keep refugees from the road that leads into the U.K.

Meanwhile, humanitarian efforts remain to provide food and basic care for refugees stuck at Calais. These efforts are staffed by volunteers, mostly under 30 years old from all over the world — the majority European. Some people in town open their homes to refugees needing showers or basic medical attention. A van provides internet, and an organization offers gynecological services to the small group of women.

When we stopped to visit for one meal, dozens streamed in from the woods. Their eyes were reddened by mace or pepper spray. The police presence is authoritative. A few days after our visit, police disrupted a midday food offering from local non-profits. Most volunteers were surprised to find that our small entourage of Americans were pastors. Few had ever heard of Mennonites.

I got into a conversation with a group of Pakistanis by asking one of them if the food was any good. He offered a sample from his bowl. We struggled to speak but settled into a mix of awkward Italian and English. They had spent enough time in Italy to learn some Italian. Some young men bragged that they could speak five languages and asked how many the volunteers could use. We were humbled.

As the designated time for providing food and services ended, police began to clear the area. The young men slipped away into the woods. It was surreal.

They were still real but now hiding in almost plain sight. They said nights are long and hard. Most are committed to not being in Calais too long, seeking safe passage across the fortified border. Many will try to find their way on a truck into England.

I wished them peace and safety. I still can’t shake the conversation, their openness and their hope, as well as wondering about all that they must have been trying to escape. I can’t forget listening to the Lord’s Prayer in Amharic as a group of young Ethiopians prayed over food and offered the Orthodox sign of the cross. I’m perplexed by the hard recognition that these young men with tattoos of the cross on their hands are also my brothers, that these few women sleeping fearfully in the woods and getting health services out of a van are also my sisters.

Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.

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