Since I began my blog in Athens there has not been one day where I didn’t want to get out of bed. I was absolutely exhausted for those 9 days, but not once did I consider piking. On Sunday morning I did not want to go back to the Jungle. I did not want to see it, hear it, smell it or feel it. I selfishly did not want to absorb its unhappiness. It took a lot of internal self-reproach to get me into the taxi and tell the driver where I wanted to go.
It rained constantly over night and the mud is worse, more like a dirty river or one big puddle that seeps into every corner of every ‘street’. It’s impossible to stay clean. And I’ve made my peace that my boots will not see Paris again. There were also more people than yesterday. Many ‘tourists’ showed up to look at the new Banksy and take photos. And on my way in there were more cops decked out in riot gear.
A volunteer I met organised a meeting with a British MEP scheduled to speak about opening the border. I spent a good portion of Saturday handing out fliers with her and encouraging people to show up. And they have. Everyone is packed into Cafe Kabul until it becomes clear that there is nowhere near enough room. To my great claustrophobic relief we move to a bigger venue, the only venue here really, ‘the dome’. The Daily Mail article I mentioned tried to make it out as if the Dome was a nightclub. In reality, it’s the only enclosed space that will host more than a few dozen people in the Jungle where they can meet.
This represents the long time I spent in prison in my country. I feel like I’ve gone from one prison to another.
Art is posted on the walls inside giving refugees a chance to express themselves. And some of the quotes that are attached about freedom and living like animals make me squirm. The purpose of the meeting is for everyone to share stories and people who know what they’re talking about to talk about human rights. But it’s all a bit of a mess and ends up in a hopeful chant of ‘UK, UK, UK, UK!’ The British delegation in particular seems a bit overwhelmed, though after everyone sounds their support there are a lot of cheers and applause. It seems cruel that this has given them false hope.
Sometimes I come here and I stand for a few minutes, imagining that this is what England looks like.
After I step outside for some air, 24 year old Ali comes over. He left Afghanistan in August. His uncle is in the Taliban and was trying to recruit him four years ago, but he managed to run away to Kabul. There he found a good job with the municipality and he proudly shows me his id card. He said he had a good life and earned a good salary, until the Taliban started strengthening again and his uncle came for him. ‘I love Afghanistan’ he tells me, ‘the mountains are so beautiful and I would go back to my good life in Kabul if I could…but the Taliban is very, very bad.’ I almost want to laugh at the persuasive tone in his voice, as if he needs to convince me that the Taliban is evil. His uncle first came looking for him last year, and his mother told him to run. He tells me that he couldn’t stay and just say no, they would find him and kill him. ‘I do not want to fight for them’ he says, ‘they do very bad things’. So he left, he travelled through Iran, Turkey, Greece and along the usual route until he ended up in the Jungle two months ago.
He has tried daily to get into England, one time being beaten up so badly by the police his eye socket was broken. Two weeks ago they arrested him and shipped him to a gaol in Metz, near the border with Germany. After telling the judge what he’d been through, that he wanted to get to the UK and if they were going to send him back to Afghanistan ‘could they please shoot him?’ the case was dismissed and he came back to this hell hole. Again I start listing the reasons to claim asylum in France. He shakes his head and tells me he has been through too much to start with a new culture. ‘I know English, and I have friends in UK, people who will help me, it will be quicker to start a life and work.’ While he is open to considering a new country he tells me he is too depressed and there are ‘things wrong with his brain now…I will have problems to learn’.
‘Some days’, he says, ‘I wish they would just come in and shoot us’. It’s not even fear of going back to Kabul, he just has no thirst for life. I try and wonder what that would be like, to have no fear of death, and in a weird way even welcome it. To almost be indifferent as to whether you live or die. Ali shares a minuscule blue ten with 3 other men from Afghanistan. Today it is sunken and the mud has run in. He tells me he is good with clothes and could be a tailor, but would do any kind of job. ‘I just want to work…when you can work, life is good’. What a luxury I have to be irritated at my job for not being everything I want it to be.
Throughout his story he repeatedly shrugs his shoulders and says ‘what can I do?’ and I nod dumbly and understandingly. But he repeats it when we say goodbye, and I realise it’s not a rhetorical question. ‘What would you do?’ he asks, pleading for some kind of guidance or advice. I don’t know what to tell him. I can’t tell him his situation is hopeless or that he’s done anything wrong. And I can’t judge any one decision he’s made. ‘I would have left as well…’ I say, ‘but I wouldn’t stay here’. He nods sadly, ‘I just didn’t want to fight for the Taliban’ he says again before he walks away.
Another man who’s been listening to our conversation walks over. His English is much better, almost unaccented, and he clearly wants to talk. ‘Why do they not want us?’ Again I’m hoping this is a rhetorical question, but again he seems to want an answer. I try to explain why people are nervous and the fears people have about differences and the chance of terrorism. I try to be very delicate in how I pick my words but the pain on his face tells me I’ve clearly failed. ‘There is no Daesh here’ he says. Though I couldn’t say for sure I would tend to agree, purely because I cannot imagine anyone voluntarily choosing to live in the jungle. He then urges me to look up some survey online that shows people from Afghanistan are the most peaceful in Europe. I promise to type that into google, though I’m doubtful about the existence of such a study.
He asks where I’m from, expresses amazement that I have come so far, and I do the usual living in Paris spiel. Recognition flashes over his face and he asks if I was ok when the attacks happened last month. I don’t know why after all the people I’ve met his concern still takes me aback, but it does. I assure him everyone I know was ok. He nods his head, ‘that is good….but what happens in Paris, it happens every day in Afghanistan.’ He nods goodbye and walks away, but not before delivering the most common line I’ve heard from refugees from Eritrea to Kuwait, ‘we just want a life’.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on November 17, 2015, on cheztopflight, a blog featuring commentary by author and “intrepid gypsy at heart,” Kate Brooks. It was reproduced here with the consent of Ms. Brooks.