Posted by steven greaves photography on January 15, 2010 · 


I sit here looking out the window. The harbor’s not too far away and in the mist some 45 minutes away is England. I wonder how many have tried to make the crossing tonight. 

I sit here looking out the window. Streetlights pierce the fog in spectral chartreuse hues. The mercury has dropped and melting snow has again turned to ice. Those that I met today are sleeping in ditches, hidden behind bushes or, worse yet, hanging to the undercarriages of U.K. bound trucks. Those that are fortunate are crashed out in abandoned buildings. 

I sit here looking out the window. In the veiled darkness a foghorn wails like a banshee. I am crippled by what I have seen and wonder “why?” 

Today I have seen despair, frustration and anger. Ironically, these emotions are not the province of those seeking asylum. They are those of a tireless cadre of French nationals working feverishly within a broken system full of loopholes, riddled with contradiction and rife with apathy. It is an ugly problem, an apparent blemish on a beauty queen. It is a grenade that is tossed from one backyard to another. It involves politics and economics, natural disasters and war but, mostly it is the tale of people running from…running to…and those that help them along their way.
Today I have seen hope, persistence, humor and courage. Against desperate odds, asylum seekers from around the globe gather in this staging ground. With little infrastructure to support them, confronted with inhumane conditions, they live each day as it comes. While many have given up hope and returned home, others persist with a courage unknown. For many, return means death. To stay means poverty, constant movement, living in the shadows… but it is life. 

Alex (names have been changed), from Botswana, tells me that “Each day is a gift.” On the surface, he seems a proud and confident man. Once a soldier, life was very different. Choosing the wrong side during a political conflict and siding with pluralism, his life was threatened. He had to leave. I ask him about his life now and how he copes. I ask foolishly how he manages the pain, anguish, loneliness and sadness. “I do not feel anymore.” he replies. “I am numb.” Unable to return home, he is a man with no nation, a citizen of the world, a citizen of no world. 

In almost-perfect English, he relates his story. In his mid-twenties, threatened with his life and with wife and child he attained the prize- a life in the U.K. Although he continued to live in the shadows while there, he was employed, safe and able to provide a home and put food on the table for his family. For seven years he lived in relative happiness until, one day, he was caught by British authorities. With wife and child in tow, he was deported back to Botswana. Knowing he could not stay, he placed his wife and child with his mother and bid them farewell. He is now here in Calais, six years on, waiting for a final decision on his asylum case.  He is one of the “fortunate” ones. He has come out of the shadows, been fingerprinted and officially filed his claim. He can no longer afford to wait. His wife back in Botswana has relayed that she can no longer continue to live this way and has given him one more year. He understands. Despite the numbness he feels, I can tell this hurts. His final case hearing is soon but his lawyer (who has already been paid €1,200) is nowhere to be found. Messages have been left, calls not returned. He is concerned. 

A game is played each day on the streets of Calais, France. I am in Guillaume’s car taking an Eritrean migrant to the Prefecture to file for asylum. He is 18 and disheveled. A young man is walking down the street as a police van pulls up. Two cops jump out of the van and begin their pursuit. Laden with a backpack, the young man bursts off but the cops make headway. Likely fearing jail or deportation, the young man is fueled by something else. His desire for freedom wins out. Guillaume, the Eritrean boy and I let out a cheer. 

An elderly French woman knocks on the door to Gullaume’s office. With her is a young Eritrean woman. My knowledge of the French language is cursory and the conversation escapes me. Guillaume explains that the elderly woman, contrary to national laws, harbors female asylum seekers. With a conscience that reminds me of recently-passed Miep Gies, she faces 5 years in prison and/or fines if caught. To her, politics is of no consequence. Like Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi before her, she recognizes the difference between laws that are just and those that are crimes of conscience.
Guillaume is an aid worker for a local charity. At 33, he is the best hope for many of the asylum seekers who sit in limbo in Calais. With grizzled growth on his face and staring thru spectacles, a cigarette usually hangs from his mouth. Navigating the legal doctrines of European Union policy is what he knows. He seems an unlikely advocate for the downtrodden and took the position because “I needed a job.” Whatever the reason and regardless of motivation, he is sought out by many here. He is a friend to those who no longer know friendship. 

This is a complex problem and there is much at stake. The prevailing wisdom says “not in my backyard” as governments try to crack down and move the problem onwards to the next nation. It is, however, a problem that will not disappear as long as fear, famine, persecution, poverty and war ravage nations and the chance for a better life appears to exist elsewhere. They will continue to come. They will continue to live in the shadows if need be. They will continue to risk life and limb to get here.
I remain deeply moved…..

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