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Passionist Life …and Counting: Life inside the Calais refugee camp

…and Counting: Life inside the Calais refugee camp

Passionists UK …and Counting: Life inside the Calais refugee camp

Nov 10 2022, 02:09 PM

Read this article in the limited edition print version: order a copy here.

Life in the Calais ‘Jungle’ so easily lapses into counting: days, weeks, years. Alex Holmes, from our Partners Catholic Worker Calais, recounts his interactions with the lives counting in the camp.


“Do bees have taste buds?” Negus, ever pondering, answers his own question: “I don’t think so.” Bees and wasps in uncountable numbers swarm around the fireside in the Eritrean camp, a frenetic swirl of perpetual motion drawn to the discarded food.

No one appears concerned, or to have been stung. “Look at their energy,” continues Negus. “I have none. I am tired. I want to go back to Africa to see my mother. I miss her. I’ve been in Europe for too many years.” Uncountable bees and wasps; the burden of uncountable lost years.


Most significant numbers are of a lower magnitude. Nahom has been in the camp just one day. He’s youthful, smiling, and passionate about football. “I want to play for Chelsea.”

“Chelsea!” I laughingly groan. “There’s only one team, Manchester United.” “Sir Alex Ferguson, great manager—but what is ‘Sir’?”

My explanation of the British honours system triggers further discussion. 

“You know about Field Marshal Montgomery?” It’s the seasoned Eyob, an excellent English speaker, who’s been one year in Calais. I tell him that as a young school boy I marched in a parade and we all saluted Field Marshal Montgomery.  “I love history,” he says. “Do you know there were 25 German Field Marshals in World War Two?”


The two-legged chair propped up on a tree trunk. The two camp kittens, ‘Soldier’ and ‘Salam’. It’s evening; the low sun casts long shadows across the campsite. Guys are sitting on blankets in the shade playing cards. 

Emerging from the undergrowth, the kittens summon immediate attention and each is given a tin of tuna. Soldier needs no encouragement; Salam is more wary. Eyob gently loosens the compact tuna with a plastic spoon, and the reluctant kitten begins to eat with relish. 

His meal over, Soldier playfully snatches at insects, then climbs first onto Maria, then onto Eyob. “Yesterday he fell asleep here-” he indicates the crook of his neck. “You want a cappuccino?” A saucepan of milk is gently simmering on the fire. 

Using a stick, he scratches something into the skin above both his knees. He points to the first of the scratched symbols: “This is how you write one in Ge‘ez, the old Eritrean language.” He points to the other – “and this is two. How many sugars do you want in your cappuccino, one or two, or perhaps three?”


‘Three-legged’ Sheshy. It’s more than half a year since he was run down by a car and had his leg broken. He’s still using a single crutch. There’s a pained edge to his smile these days. Behind where he’s sitting, two paintings of the Eritrean flag hang on the fence that borders the camp; they’re surmounted by a small statue of Mary, mother of Jesus. A rosary hanging from her neck oscillates in the wind. The flag is composed of three triangles.


It’s ‘four-legged’ Samer, Samer who fell from a lorry, who explains the flag. He points with one of his crutches at the upper triangle, a green triangle signifying agriculture. The lower blue triangle signifies the sea. The central blood red triangle has a 30-leaved golden olive wreath in it: the 30 years of bloodshed fighting for independence from Ethiopia. 

Explanation over, Samer’s attention is caught by Channa’s skateboard. Undeterred by his lameness, he mounts the skateboard and using his crutches to propel himself, he disappears down the road.


Negus watches from the fireside. Despite the summer warmth, he fixedly keeps on his hat to hide his receding hairline: “I’m getting old.” 

He’s in a wistful mood, nostalgically remembering Africa. “In Europe, everyone is out for themselves, they don’t care about other people. In Africa, we look out for each other. I hope society in Europe will change. I watched a Charlie Chaplin film once and in his day it seems people did care about others.”

I ask him if he has any good memories of his uncountable years in Europe. “I have met kind people. I will always remember them. Do you know the song Memories by Maroon 5? It’s my favourite song. Give me your phone!” 

I pass him my phone. We sit side by side on the worn and polished tree trunk, in the setting sun. Los Angeles, the distant world Maroon 5 inhabit, is thousands of miles—and uncountable lifetimes—away. Yet we listen intently to Negus’s favourite song: 

“Toast to the ones here today, Toast to the ones that we lost on the way...”

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