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Inside The Calais 'Jungle' Camp – What Refugee Women Take With Them
21 Dec 2015 3:17 PM
In a bleak corner of the northern French coast, over 6,000 people are camped out in the sand dunes between a motorway and a chemical factory. None of them want to be there. They are all migrants and refugees who are trying to get to England – across the strait of Dover, just visible on a clear day.
Among them are women and girls who walked, swam and drove the thousands of miles from their homes in the hope of finding safety. Almost all of them used to have homes. Many had big houses with kitchens full of food and wardrobes full of clothes.
But here, at the end of their journey, none have more than a handful of possessions. Some of them ran without having time to take anything, some had their bags stolen by smugglers and some dropped them by the side of the road when they became too heavy.
The road to Europe kills – with over 3,500 refugees and migrants missing just this year alone – but war and misery have forced them to join the hundreds of thousands who trekked across the continent this year.
They are fleeing different things: enforced conscription in Eritrea, bombing in Syria, Taliban threats in Afghanistan, starvation in South Sudan, drones in Pakistan.
But as they shed their possessions on the road to Europe, identities drop away– Nigerian doctors, Syrian housewives and Iraqi shopkeepers become refugees in a few thousand miles.
Locked in a truck or waiting on a border at night, many are at the mercy of smugglers who strip them of their possessions. They're robbed for their valuables, partly because their luggage takes up space where another human being could be squeezed in – a space that could earn the traffickers another few thousand US dollars.
The objects they have left are the ones small enough to hide from smugglers. Others have been picked up along the way – ready to be discarded on the next leg of the journey. Or there are the essential things – the clothes they wear every day, the ID cards that could give them asylum or the cheap phone they use to speak to their children. But even these things go.
Rich or poor, by the time these people get to Calais, almost everything is gone. But they are alive; poised on the edge of safety – which they hope lies just 20 miles across the water in the UK.
Mervat Jalabi, 53, and her husband Mohammed, 55, left their home in Aleppo, Syria, four months ago. What she took with her: photos of her daughter.
Before the war, Mervat and Mohammed had a comfortable life in a middle-class suburb of Aleppo. They still lived in the airy three-bedroom house where they had raised their two children, both of whom were grown up and living nearby, but prone to coming round for dinner at short notice.
As time wore on and the fighting came nearer, their friends and neighbours started leaving one by one. Mai, their daughter, made it to the UK in 2014; their son Kareem arrived in Sweden just after. But Mohammed didn't want to leave his job as a headmaster in a language school, and both he and Mervat thought they were too old to go. They would wait out the war and make sure everything was still there for when Mai and Kareem came home.
That can no longer happen. Four months ago, a Syrian government bomb destroyed their house, forcing them to flee the country. Now they're living in a hotel outside the Jungle, terrified they'll run out of money and be forced to move to the camp.
"I never thought my life would be like this," says Mervat. "Never."
Both of them have heart problems that mean neither of them can run fast enough to jump on lorries. Immigration officials in Paris laughed at the expensive fake passports they had bought from a smuggler.
For Mervat, the hardest part is knowing that her daughter needs her in the UK. Three weeks ago Mai, 26, a masters student who lives in Huddersfield, had her first child.
"I'm worried that I'm not there and that she's scared," she says. "She needs her mother and I can't help her."
Holding out her phone, the last thing she still has with her from Syria, she flicks through photos of her daughter and grandchild.
"All we want is to be with her. But I don't know how we'll get there. I'm losing hope."
Tamina, 7, left her home near Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, four months ago with her family. What she kept with her: an etch-a-sketch.
An aid worker in Calais gave Tamina an etch-a-sketch when she arrived in the camp. It's the only thing she owns aside from her clothes.
"I like drawing," she says quietly, curling up in the corner of the family's caravan as her siblings run around screaming in a mad crush.
Back in her village in Afghanistan, girls weren’t allowed to go to school. Instead, Tamina would stay inside and paint with her friend Rokia. She couldn't come to Europe, so Tamina left her all her toys.
"I miss her the most," she says.
Everything they took with them had to be carried on their backs. Tamina usually held a big bottle of water and a coat. Though her Dad would sometimes let her ride on his back, she had to walk most of the way.
When she gets to the UK, she hopes she'll make some new friends once she's started school, which she can do as soon as her family has filed their asylum claim.
"Maybe they'll have drawing lessons too," she says, tongue sticking out the corner of her mouth in concentration. "That would be fun."
Mahoba, 43, left her home near Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, four months ago with her husband and children. What she took with her: her children
It took eleven hours for Mahoba – Tamina's mother – and the rest of their family to walk across the mountains between Turkey and Iran. The snow still lay thick on the ground, making it slippery and dangerous. She had strapped Musamil, her youngest child, to her chest with a scarf. Maria and Khadija, the next two up, clung to her back. Her husband carried Tamina and Masood.
"I was scared one of them would fall," she says.
Though she has given birth to 13 children, only nine are still alive. One was killed by a roadside bomb, and the others died when they were babies. When her husband, a former truck driver for Nato forces, was targeted by the Taliban this year, they knew they had to leave their village before they lost any more.
While crossing the Aegean, she tried to hold on to all of them while their boat took on water.
"It was dark and I couldn't touch all of them at once," she says. "I kept shouting to my husband not to let go of the others."
They all made it to Greece. Now they're hoping to get to Glasgow, where many of their extended family live together in a big house.
"It'll be better for the children," Mahoba says. "In Afghanistan there was no life for them. Now they can go to school."
Her husband thinks it'll be better for her too. Under the Taliban, who ruled the country from 1996 until 2001, women were barely allowed to leave the house – let alone go to school – and had to completely cover their faces in public. Now the Taliban are regaining power in many parts of the country and threatening those, including Mahoba’s husband, who worked with western allied forces during the Afghan war.
"Under the Taliban it was hard," he says. “Now they’re coming back again. In the UK it will be different." She smiles, pulling at the brown scarf that covers half her hair. "The children will be happy – and I'll be able to go outside and show my face."
Shermin, 27, left her home in Iraqi Kurdistan last year with her husband Karzan and 15-month-old son Hemn. What she took with her: her wedding ring.
Hours after Isis invaded her village last year, Shermin knew her family had to leave. Her husband Karzan, an emergency nurse, had been on shift when injured Isis fighters started being bought in to the hospital. Their commander told Karzan he had to treat them. He refused.
"My brother was killed by one of their bombs," he says. "I thought: I am not going to help these people."
They fled that night – with barely enough time to grab a change of clothes before beginning the long walk to Turkey. But both of them were the wearing wedding rings – Karzan's silver and Shermin's gold – that they had given each other three years before, when they had a big party with 200 guests, dancing and huge platters of food.
"We knew each other since we were teenagers," says Shermin, peeling clementine segments and feeding them to Hemn. "We used to fight a lot. But then something changed, and we fell in love."
In Turkey, they struggled for a year to make ends meet. Both were unable to work, and were abused by locals because they were Kurdish. Three months ago, they knew they had to go.
"No one wants to leave their homeland," says Shermin. "You don't give everything up, leave your family, become a refugee, unless you are forced to. I would go back home in a second if I thought it was safe."
Before they boarded the boat to Greece, the smugglers searched them and stole the last of their money. But their rings were hidden in their pockets. No one checked.
Houda, 14, and her brother Ibrahim, 17, are from Mosul, Iraq. They left for Europe eight months ago. What she took with her: a backpack.
They are trying to get to Birmingham, where their Mum and three brothers live. It's been six years since they last saw them. Houda was only eight then, but she still remembers everything about her.
"If I can hug my Mum again then all the world will be mine," she says, speaking in broken English with bursts of Arabic, as she looked down at her hands.
The family split after their Dad, a car mechanic, was killed in a bomb blast in 2006. Ibrahim and Houda fled to Turkey with their grandmother, who was too frail for the long journey to Europe, while the rest of the family carried on to the UK and gained asylum.
But when their grandmother died eight months ago, Houda and Ibrahim knew they had to leave. They sold the gold jewellery she had left them and paid to be smuggled to Greece in a plastic dinghy.
The smugglers usually don’t allow luggage onto the boats, but they let Houda take her new red backpack, given to her by an aid worker on the Turkish coast.
Ibrahim stuffed it with apples, biscuits, water and juice. Though the smugglers told them Greece was just a few hours away, Ibrahim didn’t believe them, and packed for a long journey. Good thing he did: they spent more than two days at sea, constantly bailing water from the boat. Others went hungry.
“I kept being sick,” Houda says. “I thought I was dead.”
The cost of the journey was $1,200 USD for both of them.
When they collapsed onto the beach in Greece, they Whatsapped their Mum to say they had made it. Then they filled the bag with bottles of water and began the long walk across Europe, taking turns to carry it.
Now it is empty except for a pink t-shirt, a pair of purple tights and some socks – all given to Houda by charity workers in the Jungle.
"I like all of these things," she says, holding them up. "But the backpack is better than all of them. Red is my favourite colour."
Narges, 23, left her home in Kabul, Afghanistan, eight months ago. What she took with her: a necklace.
Narges has a husband called Zaki and a son called Zahid. So when Zaki wanted to buy her a birthday present, this necklace was the obvious choice. He worked with British and American forces during the war, speaks English with a mid-Western twang and thinks Narges should be able to work, study and wear whatever jewellery she likes.
"The Taliban don't like that kind of thinking," he says. "So they threatened to kill me. We had to leave."
Both Zaki and Narges are determined that, when they get to the UK, she will finally be able to go to school. While Zaki wants to go to Oxford to study engineering, she wants to become a nurse.
“But first I’ll learn to read, and to speak English,” she says.
The pressure to succeed is immense. Zaki's father sold everything he had to fund their flight to the UK. They moved mainly at night-time. Smugglers with scarves covering their faces shuttled them between lorries, truck beds and boats for six months, before they arrived in Greece.
Throughout the flight, Narges kept her necklace hidden under her hijab – banking on the fact that the male smugglers wouldn’t search her too closely. Luckily, they didn't.
"I'll always wear it," she says, grinning at Zaki.
Louise Callaghan is a foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times.