Welcome to the Jungle: How the French authorities are demolishing human spirit in Calais.
“Welcome to the Welcome Restaurant! Open 22 hours a day, two hours for sleeping!” Hasham, opens the door and ushers me in. His restaurant is brightly decorated with flags and paint and patterned fabrics tacked to the ceiling. To the left, a wide counter, and behind it there are cooking utensils and shelves full of plastic cutlery and paper cups. The rest of the restaurant is full of matching tables and chairs with two squashy armchairs at the back. To the right, a shelf draped with coloured material is the perfect size for a widescreen television. It is vacant, and the restaurant is empty. “They took his food”, Mustafa tells me. “When they closed the restaurants, they took it all. Smashed the TV. Smashed his eggs. They poured his oil on the floor.” Hasham and Mustafa are Afghani refugees, who met here in he ‘Jungle’. Hasham set up a restaurant to serve food to the other inhabitants, and earn a little money to send back to his family. It is a common story, told all over the camp, but the Welcome Restaurant is a special place.
The men are known by everyone they are restauranteurs, but also peacekeepers and protectors. The Jungle is rife with tension, and the Welcome Restaurant is renowned for being a safe space for all communities to sit and talk, eat and relax from the struggles of life in the refugee camp. “For me, everyone is equal. Pakistani, Afghani, everyone,” Hasham says. It is common for racial discrepancies to erupt in the food distribution queues, sometimes spiralling into a fight. “You know, there is different communities of people here Eritreans, Ethiopians, Sudanese, Afghanis, Pakistanis so there is a lot of people. I am kind with everyone. If people are fighting outside, they can bring it here and cool down and stop fighting.” It is true. As I sit in the restaurant, people of all different nationalities pop their heads around the door to greet us. It feels like a safe space where people can come to escape the volatile situation outside. Mustafa agrees, and tells me about the importance of the restaurants to keep the peace amongst the inhabitants of the camp. He explained the simplicity of having a communal space where people can be comfortable and talk with each other freely. ‘Outside, there is a lot of tensions. When the restaurants were open, there was a TV here, cold drinks…. People could come here and there are no problems.”
The Welcome Restaurant has been a place of refuge for people from all communities across the camp since it opened in February. Hasham told me a story about an Eritrean family, who lost their shelter in a fire. They came to him, and he gave them blankets, food and a place to sleep. It is a venture built on love, and an understanding of the fragility of humanity.
The restaurants are often equipped with generators, meaning that they can provide a well lit space where people can charge their phones. The ability to charge phones means a great deal to people who are living hundreds of miles from home, with no certainty about when they will see their families again. As the ‘Jungle’ is not viewed as an official camp, there is no electricity, and residents must rely on the promise of phone battery being few and far between. Having a place to charge phones represents the ability to contact home and connect with those you have left behind in the hope of a better future.
There is also the simple fact that relying solely on food distribution is not a sustainable way to live. Queues are vast and it is a struggle to feed all 7,500 people who live in the camp. It is also dehumanising, reducing those within the camp to waiting for handouts to feed themselves. The restaurants offer an opportunity for the slightest glimmer of normality in a bleakly uncertain world. Being able to trade, buy food and choose your meals is an empowering shred of hope in a place where people are forced to live in tents amongst empty tear gas canisters and rats. Once again, the Welcome Restaurant takes a warm approach to providing food: “If you don’t have food, I will give you the food, you can take the food from here. Free. If you don’t have a house or home, you can sit here.”
On Wednesday, the French government is set to rule that the restaurants of the ‘Jungle’ are to be demolished. They have argued that the food is unsanitary, the owners do not pay taxes, and they lack health and safety measures such as fire extinguishers. Logically, their arguments fail. The argument of health and safety is particularly troublesome, as the government have refused to give the camp legitimacy: there is no water, no streetlights, no provision of medical care. Demanding that those who run them pay taxes contradicts the illegal nature of the very existence of the camp. And when the demolitions commence, the ‘Jungle’ will be ablaze and there will be no fire exits.
On Saturday, a meeting was held to discuss the fate of the restaurants. It included community leaders, volunteers and government representatives and was held in the Welcome Restaurant the only space in the camp that could physically hold delegates. We were told that the government will allow 48 hours for restaurant owners to dismantle their own businesses. Once that window closes, police will send in bulldozers to raze them to the ground.
The demolition will include the Welcome Restaurant, but it also extends to other community spaces such as the Kids Restaurant, which has become a safe space for unaccompanied minors in the ‘jungle’, of which there are 608. The Kids Restaurant is a haven away from the danger of a camp that is rife with razor wire brutality. Those who come can attend French and English lessons, play music, have free meals, and shelter if they do not have a home. The demolition of these spaces will force unaccompanied minors outside with adults into the uneven and unlit streets of the ‘Jungle’. It is a dehumanising and terrifying prospect.