“You said the government had stopped bringing breakfast to the [Calais refugee] camps because they were scared of corona. You said they didn’t care whether you died of Corona or hunger, they just wanted you dead.” I came across these heart-wrenching words written in bold, black text on a white poster, hung on a wall somewhere in London, after they found their way to me thousands of miles away through my phone screen, as I sat on a couch in the comfort of my home, as per the incessant instructions coming from my own state and the World Health Organisation.
The sudden deeply uncomfortable position I found myself in brought a sinking feeling to my stomach - I’d been deeply moved by something that I am in absolutely no position to change at the moment, but that I, nonetheless, by virtue of the privilege that I have that means I can read it through my phone screen from the comfort of my couch during a global pandemic, have responsibility towards. This is in no way a personal, incidental feeling, but an emotional and affective reflection of a deeply institutional and unjust - yet absolutely concrete - situation, one that is affecting millions of refugees now around the world.
You said the government had stopped bringing breakfast to the [Calais refugee] camps because they were scared of corona.
In fact, that feeling had been very present somewhere between the lines on that poster, and was part of the reason behind the poster's existence in the first place. Because it was felt by London-based graphic designer Mathilda Della Torre, who started the Conversations from Calais project which has printed hundreds of copies of posters showcasing conversations that happened between refugees in Calais camp - a large unregulated refugee camp in the French port city of Calais - and volunteering aid workers.
The refugee population in Calais is diverse; there is a large Iraqi Kurdish community, Sudanese and Eritrean refugees, as well as Afghan, Syrian, and Iranian.
“After I came back [from volunteering at Calais], I had this big realisation that there’s this whole world that was so close to where I am in London, and was in the country where I’m from, France, and yet I knew nothing about it,” Della Torre explained. “It was difficult for it to kind of leave my mind; once you’ve been somewhere and you know what it’s like, and you know that once you’re back with your normal life, and you’re in London, it’s still happening right at your doorstep, [it becomes more difficult].”
The Conversations from Calais project was Della Torre’s response to a sense of frustration and helplessness after she returned from Calais in 2019, where she’d volunteered with the organisations working in the city to distribute food, water, clothing and shelter. “The living conditions are people living in tents on the side of highways, under bridges, in some green forest areas,” Della Torre explained.
Calais was home to the so-called ‘Calais Jungle’, a series of refugee camps set up across the woods in 2002, near the coastline of the city, with many of the refugees aiming to cross the sea to get to the UK. In 2017, the ‘Jungle’ - named by the residents of the camps, yet used later, cruelly, against them to add to the already dehumanising discourses surrounding migrants and refugees - was shut down by the French government, but the people had nowhere to go, and more waves of migrants continued to find refuge in the streets and woods of Calais.
You said they didn’t care whether you died of Corona or hunger, they just wanted you dead.
After returning from her last round of volunteering in Calais, Della Torre could not distance herself from what was happening “right at her doorstep,” as she put it, and so she decided to start somewhere, anywhere, and recorded parts of conversations and interactions she had with the migrants in Calais that moved her in one way or another, with the aim of showing them to people, and making them feel closer to the situation than journalism and media, normally distant and neutral, would make them feel.
The Calais 'Jungle' before it was demolished. Photo courtesy of Tayside Action for Refugees.
The very first one she ever pasted on a wall was in Dover, a city south of London that lies on the other side of Calais, across the Channel - the city that many of the refugees in Calais are trying to cross into, either by boat or by swimming there. “You wanted a new toothbrush and a boat to cross the sea,” it reads. “I gave you the toothbrush and apologised about not having a boat. You said your bags were heavy, your legs tired, and your hands cold. I gave you a cup of tea and apologised about the cold. You added sugar and walked away.” Later, through social media, the project began to reach other volunteers working at Calais who were interested in sending in conversations that they had, while others would insist on printing some of the posters to hang up in their own cities and towns. A few months later, and the posters are hung up in 60 different countries across 5 continents.
It’s really important for [the conversations] to stay from the perspective of volunteer, because [...] I will never know the whole story of a migrant that I meet through one very simple conversation.
The refugee population in Calais is diverse; currently, of the 1500 residing in tents sprawled across the city, there is a large Iraqi Kurdish community, Sudanese and Eritrean refugees, as well as Afghan, Syrian, and Iranian. What’s important to note about the conversations is that they’re often - in spite of their conciseness - rooted in context and history that may have come as an accident, but are also simply a reflection of the background of the people represented in them.
“You walked up to me with your children by your side,” one reads. “You were all extremely well dressed, but your children needed shoes. You asked me if I had any in the back of my car. You explained that you were a university professor in Iraq, before it was bombed. You were a middle-class professional and you had always paid for your children. And now, you felt so ashamed that you couldn’t provide for them anymore.” Such a conversation, while we don’t know who is behind it - anonymity is key to the project - is like history coming alive, a real, embodied enactment of the incidents of bombing and casualties that we hear about.
“What’s important is breaking away from this mould, and [understanding] that a refugee is not a villain, the way it’s shown in so much mainstream media, and at the same time, they don’t have to be a hero that has crossed deserts and deserts; they just had to flee for their own life. But they are also not a hopeless victim that we need to save; the governments in these countries don’t allow them to make choices for themselves,” Della Torre adds.
At its peak, the ‘Calais Jungle’ camp was home to 10,000 refugees. French police and government forces demolished and cleared the camp by October 2016, when they would warn residents hours before they went in and took down all the encampments in the area, with the promise that temporary accommodation and asylum would be made available to them. However, years later, asylum has not been granted to many of the camp residents, and migrants are forced back into the area, but without the availability of any official accommodation or services.
At its peak, the ‘Calais Jungle’ camp was home to 10,000 refugees.
When Della Torre volunteers at Calais, she rotates between different organisations based on the most urgently needed service at the time. One thing she notes, however, is that she does not actively work on Conversations from Calais when she's there. "I don’t want to be working on this project when I’m volunteering in Calais, because personally I think there’s things that I can be much more useful helping with, such as cooking and distributing food. So I try to keep the two things very separate. My role there is as a volunteer, and my role here [in London] is documenting these conversations and getting them out, so I try never to push any conversation I'm having [with migrants] in any specific direction."
“You sat down to charge your phone and when it turned on you held it close to your chest, closed your eyes and smiled,” reads Della Torre to me; a conversation that stayed with her long after it was first recorded and put up as a poster. “You handed me your phone so I could see the Facebook message from your brother who said he had made it to the UK last night and that he was safe. You looked at me and said this is why you are still here, still hoping.”
the posters are hung up in 60 different countries across 5 continents.
Della Torre explains that the conversations are not meant to assume or tell any of the migrants’ full stories. “It’s really important for [the conversations] to stay from the perspective of volunteer, because I’m a volunteer, and I will never know the whole story of a migrant that I meet through one very simple conversation, and I’m not trying to re-write any story that someone is having. I’m just showcasing a tiny bit of a conversation from my point of view as a volunteer.”
Some of the tents in Calais, and a prayer mat hung on a tree. Photo courtesy of Help Refugees.
That is why the posters are all consistent in their delivery of the stories; they’re written from a second-person point of view, to create a distance between the migrant actually telling the story and the way it has been re-told by the volunteers. “I also think the ‘you’ and ‘I’ puts the reader into the story and almost forces them to kind of take responsibility or feel responsible for what they’re reading and what’s happening in that small conversation.”
...people who are volunteering in Calais have been there for months and years, and they’re the people who are there every single day, seeing the actual changes and decisions made by the government, and how that affects people on-ground.
But Della Torre emphasises that there are undeniable layers in subjectivity there; telling refugees’ and migrants’ stories is not as simple as diluting them into one conversation. Rather, the conversations act as snippets of these interactions as the volunteers perceive them, and that perspective, Della Torre further insists, should not be dismissed or deemed irrelevant either.
“You have politicians speaking of migrants as masses of people, or you have journalists who are sent somewhere and are supposed to record everything, which is really important as well, but at the same time, people who are volunteering in Calais have been there for months and years, and they’re the people who are there every single day, seeing the actual changes and decisions made by the government, and how that affects people on-ground, and they’re the ones who have to transmit those decisions and also have to kind of cater to different needs in a way that is possible. Volunteers are actually the people who are at the front lines.” Their voices are important, and there is value in their conversations with migrants and refugees; in the concerns that come through these conversations time and time again.
Earlier this year, Della Torre put the project 'on wheels', walking it around London and discussing the situation in Calais with passersby. Photo courtesy of Mathilda Della Torre.
During this time, with a global pandemic sweeping the globe, a lot of these concerns are about how to deal with COVID-19 when in the context of an unofficial, unregulated refugee camp, with no access to sanitation or sufficient shelter. “France is obviously on complete lockdown right now, however there are still people living outside,” Della Torre says. “Many of the organisations there right now have been trying to call the local prefecture and the French government to step in and see if anyone can provide some sort of accommodation that has sanitation in order to protect the community and also local residents of Calais.”
While some measures have been taken, including cancelling asylum screening interviews, which would mean packed crowds at the Asylum Screening Units, and pausing all evictions of asylum seekers from their current accommodations, the living situations of asylum seekers and refugees in Calais have not changed. 56,989 cases of coronavirus have been recorded in France, two of which have been detected in the camps in Calais.
You can donate to Utopia56 and Help Refugees who are using the donations to help supply the residents of Calais camps with emergency sanitation kits, emergency isolation accommodation for the sick, and bars of soap and hand sanitiser.