A refugee who fled Iran last autumn following a crackdown on her Christian group gives a first hand account of her arrival in the Calais Jungle camp in November last year.

France. Refugees. Calais. So-called Jungle camp . Mohammed aged 17 from Darfur, Sudan sits by his tent
France. Refugees. Calais. So-called Jungle camp . Mohammed aged 17 from Darfur, Sudan sits by his tent

There were six of us deposited at the train station somewhere outside Paris – my mother, my brother who is 17, and I, aged 22, plus three Kurd men we didn’t know.  We were given tickets and each clutched a bundle of new clothes, brought 3,000 miles overland from Iran to be ready for this moment.  We were about to set foot in a Western city for the first time.  We didn’t want to look like refugees.

We knew very well what refugees look like. They don’t have wearable clothes but they’re wearing them anyway. We weren’t going to arrive like that.

The train pulled into a huge central station – I was told later that from my description of it, it must have been the Gare du Nord.  We were due to be met: our local trafficker would know us from our clothes. If he wasn’t there at our arrival, we should wait for him at the main entrance.

The station was full of armed police officers, being only a few weeks after the major terror attacks in the city.  We walked singly through the concourse to draw least attention.  The man behind me had a full beard and I thought, when we were in the train, that if it were me I would have shaved it off.  Sure enough, he was stopped by police, while we walked through unmolested. (What happened to him? I don’t know, but probably nothing too bad.  When refugees are arrested in France without papers they either claim asylum or are told they have to leave the country within 30 days.  But as far as I know, very few are deported).

We waited just inside the station entrance – it was warm enough in the concourse but freezing outside. Then I got a phone call. There would be nobody to meet us – too many police, I think. We must take a train to Calais on our own. From there we would be contacted again to get transport to England within a few days.

How were we to take a train? We had no money for fares. Okay, study the departure boards and wait until a minute or two before the Calais train leaves, then get on without tickets. Keep a lookout and when an inspector is on his way, go and lock yourself in the toilet. My mother and I went in one toilet, my brother in another. After about 30 or 40 minutes we came out again.  We reached the main Calais station unchallenged.

I asked (in English) how to get to The Jungle.  We were pointed to another train, boarded it again without tickets, and soon arrived at a smaller station. From there we could have walked, but we were cold and tired and there was a bus, which cost one euro each, which we could pay. Most of the people on the bus were clearly refugees.

The bus drew up at a stop and all the refugees got off. We followed them up the road for about ten minutes until we arrived at a huge bridge.  Under it there was a mass of police officers.  They were clad in black and armed with riot shields.  They also wore huge belts lined with guns, batons and spray canisters (for use with tear gas, as we later discovered) and high boots wrapped in plastic.  I soon understood the point of the plastic: it was to protect them from the mud, which was everywhere.

Now we stood out in our fresh new clothes, laughed at by more experienced Jungle-dwellers as we tiptoed through the mud trying to keep them clean.

The Jungle consisted of a long crescent-shaped muddy road with cafes, stalls selling basic commodities and other public areas – even a nightclub  – on either side. Behind them were ranged living areas, each ethnic community taking and gradually extending a separate site away from the road to pitch tents, build shelters etc. We passed an area of white tents peopled by black Africans, then found the Salaam tent where there were toilets, showers and phone charge points (inevitably with a long line of people queuing to use them). There was an information point at which we identified ourselves as new arrivals and as Iranians. 

We were directed to a pink caravan further up on the left hand side, which was the centre for Iranians, mainly Kurd.  We were given a two-person tent and blankets.  However by now it was dark and cold, and a Kurd invited us to spend our first night in a wooden shelter, so we wouldn’t have to pitch our tent until the morning.  It was our first experience of two Jungle norms: the fact that people who had resources – money, food, materials or phones – would often share them with those who didn’t, and that families – i.e. groups with women and children   – tended to get priority over the majority of single men.

All three of us were already suffering from colds and chest infections and we needed to keep as dry and warm as we could. We learnt quickly that the tents were to be avoided: they were thin, damp and cold, letting in water when it rained and dripping with condensation when it didn’t.  Wooden shelters, providing for three or four people, were better. There was a group of about five French volunteers who could together erect each one in about 20 minutes:  the wooden base and side-walls come pre-fabricated, and a roof of aluminium (I think) and plastic is raised on top.

(There was also an English volunteer group who didn’t have ready wood and built everything by hand  – they took a day or two to raise a single shelter). 

Of course each ethnic group spoke to each other in their own language, but the common language of the Jungle was English – even the French volunteers spoke it. My mother could speak or understand no English at all and my brother spoke very little, but my English was good by the standards of those around me, and I used it to good effect in making relationships with fellow refugees and directing requests for resources from volunteers.  On the second day I managed to get two wooden shelters erected for us – my family, myself and another Kurd woman who was on her own, the other for three Iranian men who had been friendly to us on arrival.  I told the volunteer allocator that they were “our cousins”, so that they would be treated as part of our “family group”.

Not everything was harmonious, though. A group of three single Kurd men took one. They said – “It’s ours, if you don’t let us in we will burn it.”

Read Part 2 here…