The Lost Boys Of Dunkirk’s Refugee Camp

What do you think of when people say “refugee” or “migrant”? Is it a well dressed, good looking guy in his early twenties? Whose English is near-perfect (though he’s still trying to get his head around the present-perfect tense.) Who loves Tottenham Hotspur, swears that Justin Bieber poster belongs to his little brother not him, and is optimistic but as yet unconvinced that Jeremy Corbyn would make a good PM. The kind of guy you might meet through a friend on a night out and have by far the most interesting conversation you’ve had that night. The kind of guy you might fancy. Faris, the young man who meets the description above, is 22 and from Kuwait. He's been living in the camps with his unwell mother for five months and seven days. I’m surprised by the level of accuracy, but as I look around at his living quarters in the Dunkirk camp – a bitterly cold, industrial wasteland – of course he’s counting down the days to get out of this hell hole and over to what he believes is England’s green and pleasant land. Faris is playing football, celebrating a goal in fact, when I arrive. He jogs over to help out as his English is better than the other guy I’m trying to interview. He asks if I would like a seat and I wonder where on earth he’s going to find one in this barren plot, but he re-appears with two patio chairs a moment later. He’s wearing a Tottenham zip up and Adidas tracksuit bottoms. He’s tall and handsome, with a huge, white smile. I ask about his family. His father and brother have made it to the UK, he tells me, and are living in the north of England. His brother tried “maybe 200 times” to get to the UK by jumping on trucks before he finally made it – a rare success story. Faris’ sister is studying foreign languages at a London university, “She lives near Westfield”, he tells me. “My mother is very sick, so I can’t leave her. And so I wait. […]" Faris tells me that he met Jeremy Corbyn when he visited the camp. "I think I like him… at least he speaks about refugees… but then he doesn’t answer questions about us sometimes... I just hope for change. I support whoever is for change.” He wants to study engineering and either become an engineer or work as a translator. “My dream was always to go to the UK, so I studied English for six months before I came.” Faris shows me his English notebook and asks me to correct him if he messes up his tenses.
A much older female volunteer walks past and he says hello to her, and puts his arm on her back to support her as she goes into one of the huts. He jogs back and gets straight to the point, “We are human,” he says, looking me in the eye. “We must work together with one hand. And forget racism. I want to study, I want to get a job, to get married, to have a baby, to get a life. A simple life; I don’t need more.” I thank Faris for talking to me and when we hug goodbye he says to my friend and I: “You’re my sisters and I’m your brother.” If it sounds forced, it wasn’t. You’ve probably read about the horrors of the “forgotten” Dunkirk camp – home to about two thousand people and a 30 minute drive from the Calais ‘jungle’. Conditions there have improved recently; sinking tents (watch this Guardian video for proof) have been replaced with small wooden huts, where either families live, or, more commonly, four guys sleep in a row on the floor. There’s no such luxury as a pillow but at least it’s dry. Where before, refugees had to make do with baby wipes to wash – living in six inches of mud – now there are showers, but they double up as toilets. This, we are assured, is paradise compared to the last camp. The new camp has only been operational for one week at the time of writing, so things are changing all the time. During my days volunteering, for instance, we work on sawing materials to insulate the huts so that the residents aren’t so cold at night. While doing this job, I meet 28-year-old Muhammad. In his former life he was a baker and made bread for his family business in Kurdistan. His English is pretty good, and I speak the tiny amount of Arabic I know from my dad. Arabic is Muhammad’s third language, English is his fourth. After a few hours working together, Muhammad rolls me a cigarette, laughs at me because I can’t roll, and we sit down and smoke a bit. He goes into his hut and makes me some tea so we drink that too. He shows me pictures of his little sister on his phone, a beautiful nine-year-old girl, who he hasn’t been able to get in touch with for five months, since he fled Kurdistan. He says he’s worried sick about his sister and his mother, “Daesh [ISIS] killed my father”, he tells me. “So I’m here alone. My plan was to get to the UK and then somehow get my mother and sister here too. I’m hoping to go to England tomorrow in a freezer truck. But it’s so cold.” The refrigerated trucks are the only way people can get across from France to England now, because the government have built a new high-tech feature at the ferry crossing in Calais that detects heartbeats in trucks. It can’t detect refrigerated trucks, though. The thought of this sweet guy I’ve spent the last six hours working with freezing in a truck tomorrow night scares me, and I can’t stop thinking about it as we continue to work, listening to 50 cent and Drake on my phone because he loves them.
The other guy I work with is Rageh. He’s 17 and I can’t believe it because he looks much older. “No, it’s just the beard!”, he says, “I grew it to look older, it looks good right?!” He poses for me with his hand on his chin – a typically cocky 17-year-old boy. Rageh loves football – he supports Liverpool FC, and also – inexplicably – Bolton. He shows me a photo of him back in Kurdistan wearing a smart red football kit on the pitch, a professional shot that lets me know he’s seriously good at football. I ask him why he left Kurdistan. “Daesh”, he says. “Haven’t you heard? They cut people’s heads off.” Each person I speak to is fleeing Daesh. They tell me their neighbourhoods have been taken over by the terrorist group. One boy shows me a photo of his friend in hospital who has just lost his arm from being blown up. Most of the people in this camp are from Iraq Kurdistan; refugees are separated by nation, so there’s a Syrian area, an Eritrean area, an Iraqi area. They are just as scared of terrorists as we are – that's why they risked their lives and lost their families to live in a shit hole in France with zero prospects. Being kept alive but not allowed to live, they’ve left hell and entered purgatory. As I meet young man after young man after young man, aged between 17 and 30, each more hospitable than the last, it strikes me that these are the lucky ones – the ones that survived the war, survived the boats, survived the conditions in the camp. And in the face of unimaginable devastation, fear, and hopelessness every day – and every day for the last six months – these guys are polite, charming and sincere. “They’re lovely people being treated horribly”, says long-term volunteer Melissa, 30, who works for People in Motion, a non-profit organisation providing aid and support for refugees. “You meet so many beautiful, innocent people,” she says, “and you interact with them. We always say they're our brothers and sisters. We know if we ended up in this situation, they would help us."
Melissa continues: “Hope keeps them going. The hope they will make it to the UK. They see it as the promised land. They meet English volunteers and they see us as beautiful, good people with good hearts and that's the perception they have of the UK. If half the people in Britain knew what it was like here, what the people are like here, they would let them in.”
There are so many stories to tell in this camp. There’s the story of the number of pregnant women living in the cold whose husbands (in some cases) have British passports, whereas they still aren’t allowed into the UK. There’s the story of all the gorgeous little children running around in the mud. There’s the story of baby Oscar, who celebrated his first birthday while I was in the camp, after his heart stopped twice in the old camp because conditions were so bad. I’m sure there is a different trigger for every volunteer, but the thing that set me off was the way in which each bright, young guy I met reminded me of my dad.
I am a second generation immigrant, though I’ve never used that term before. My dad is Egyptian and grew up in Cairo but moved to the UK when he was 23. He was another good looking, clever, young middle eastern man. He didn’t speak much English and he’d never been on a plane. While he was re-qualifying as a doctor in the UK, he slept in crappy flats and ate cans of beans for every meal, got odd jobs stacking shelves in supermarkets. He met my English, northern mother and they fell in love. She helped him with his English. Eventually they married and he worked as an obstetrics and gynaecology surgeon in London (delivering babies.) He now works as a GP in a deprived area of South London. He has a big house, drives a BMW and has three children: one of them is a top cardiologist at a West London hospital, the other is a GP and the other is me: the editor of this website. By all accounts we’re a very middle class, British family. And we are living the kind of futures that the men I met in Dunkirk can only dream of.
As I watched and talked to all these lovely guys, valiantly smiling through hell, I thought about Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem ‘If’, the one that makes British men feel tall. For me, it so perfectly describes the thousands of young men waiting just 50 miles away, to show the world what they’re made of. “If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise” The famous last line “Yours is the earth and everything that’s in it” is poignant, as there seems to be no hope of a future for the men I meet.

More from Global News

R29 Original Series