Written by our friend and a teacher at Darfur School, Madeleine Bailey.

Amid the blurring fires and confusion, behind a makeshift gate, and through a battered door, one image remains in sharp focus. A capsized shopping trolley; its cargo of blankets and books strewn across the mud and sand draws the eye to a sturdy green tent, graffitied with names and memories. Beside the tent is a man. He is crouching on the floor above a wooden pallet; his prey, and the weapon of his desperation is a fire extinguisher which he uses to hack to pieces the pallet. A once precious commodity, its only use now is to warm his hands and fill the empty spaces around the fire with smoke. One month ago, perhaps even one week ago the now smoke-filled spaces were filled by laughter, fraternity, and hope.  Now the eviction of the Calais Jungle has dismantled the precious security, trust, and emotional support that had been built behind that makeshift gate.

Darfur School was imagined and then built by Sudanese refugees who had settled the Calais Jungle having travelled together across Libya and Europe. The first school building was constructed from branches and blankets; it was so dark inside that the students and teachers joked that a young man nicknamed “Cheeky” was the only source of light and that his wide and infectious smile could be seen when the exercise books could not. The Darfuri young men living in the compound that centred on the school were from diverse educational and ethnic backgrounds but they were connected by a wish to improve their situation through education and to create a peaceful and secure environment in contrast to what they had fled in Sudan. A mosque was built to serve the community, as well as a community tent with a fire in the centre. The community thrived as they welcomed new arrivals and new volunteers. One night, disaster struck and the makeshift classroom burned down but, rather than be defeated by the setback, the young men living there immediately set about clearing the remnants and creating a space for the next incarnation of their hope. While various organizations and individuals provided money and resources to support this project, it was the residents of the school themselves who drove it and who put their hearts, minds, and muscles into constructing the new school building. Using pallets, hard to come by in the camp, they built desks and an herb garden. The community worked like a well-oiled machine based on the structure of a Sudanese village and every member of that community was engaged in taking care of it and of each other. Over the spring and summer months of 2016 the Darfur School and surrounding community blossomed and became a warm home rather than a ghost of all they had lost.

With more and more students arriving and a steady supply of teachers, space became an issue and many of the lessons were now taking place outside the classroom in small groups around the sandy courtyard, so when the classroom roof collapsed in early June and the school lost their long-term teacher, things didn’t look good for the school. But these young men could not be so easily discouraged. A gazebo was set up as a make-shift classroom, and rather than seeing a decline in students there were even more Jungle residents from Sudanese, Syrian, Afghan, and Eritrean communities joining the French and English lessons in the gazebo and under the trees next to the mosque. Remarkably, these visiting students were invited to share meals and join the support and fraternity offered by the community behind the wooden gate which separated Darfur School from the constant stream of sound and movement of Chemin des Dunes.

Resources acquired, work began on the mending the roof and then on building a floor for the new tent classroom which had been kindly donated to replace the rather flimsy gazebo. This was not such an easy feat as, by this point, the CRS had been given instructions to block building materials and wood from entering the camp. Fortunately, the students of Darfur had a one big asset in this – the friends they had made. Anyone who walked through the little wooden door immediately felt the warmth and kindness that radiated from the community; they would be offered tea and a seat around the fire, they would be offered a meal, but most importantly a share in the mutual support and protection these young men gave each other unconditionally. These friends managed to bring into the camp the pallets and wood needed to construct a raised floor to protect this new classroom from the mud and rain the autumn would bring. The School was complete now and the students even converted the distribution point next to the mosque into an office for teachers who, in turn, became part of the community and had the privilege of being accepted in the Darfur School family. The School stayed open and classes continued, now also being given by students who had become fluent in French over their time at Darfur, until it closed on 23rd October 2016. With characteristic positivity and hope, the Darfur School community threw a party to celebrate what they had built and the relationships they had formed and then, on the following morning, the majority boarded the government buses. One resident, who had been there from the construction of the first school building to that last day, stayed in his home until the school finally caught fire on the Wednesday morning, unable to leave until he knew there was no hope left.

This history of the school cannot even come close to describing the extraordinary power of hope and human kindness that was present in the Darfur School compound, but the names graffitied on the walls of the classroom tent go some way to explain it. One evening in late summer, to thank a teacher who was leaving, for her help and friendship, the residents threw a party, to which they invited friends, students, teachers, and visitors to the camp. That evening each guest was invited to write their name on the wall of the classroom and after each person had made their mark, the whole community applauded, hugged, and shook hands with them because after everything they had been through and everything they had lost, the names, written in roman script, represented hope for a new life and the strength that can be drawn from unconditional kindness and the love of strangers who have become friends.

Perhaps the truest way to illustrate the spirit of Darfur School are with the words spoken by a student, who eventually became a teacher before being granted asylum in France, when he welcomed a teacher to the school: “We have strict rules here. It is important that you follow them if you are to live with us. The first is that we share everything and the second is that we protect each other. We are a family and we love each other, you are part of our family and we love you, so if someone hurts you that hurts everyone here.”

Darfur School, Calais 2016

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