‘They’re men of fighting age!’ scream the headlines, conjuring up images of threatening brutes. Aggressive rhetoric and hyperbole have coloured the migration debate in the UK throughout 2016, targeting young, male refugees in particular. British MP David Davies claims refugees are not ‘averse to lying about their ages’, and should undergo dental checks, sparking a vicious campaign against ‘hulking’ teenagers being reunited with their families. Young men living in the Calais Jungle have been painted as ticking time bombs by the tabloid press, creating an aura of fear and ignoring the majority who crave peace and a fresh start. I spent two weeks in Calais volunteering at the Ashram Kitchen, serving food alongside the Jungle’s men of fighting age:
‘Keep it’, says Marwan, ‘keep it!’ I stand shivering as my taxi approaches. ‘Honestly Marwan, I don’t need it, really, please take it back.’
‘Keep it!’ he insists. There is no persuading him. We hug goodbye, me wrapped up in his winter jacket, him in a jumper in the cold. I stop feeling guilty. It seems appropriate that Marwan, who refuses to stand in food lines, prefers to keep me warm than keep his jacket.
‘Would you like to see my church?’ asks Michael. He doesn’t mind that I’ve stopped believing. Through the mud, tents and burnt-out structures we walk towards a cross that marks his oasis. I take off my boots and step inside. A woman and her child stand before the Virgin Mary. I watch the Ethiopian men kneel down, their bellies and arms flat on the ground in devotion.
‘This photo was taken in Afghanistan,’ says Zabi, ‘When I was a mummy’s boy’. I step back from the makeshift sink and compare the boy in a traditional long shirt to the tracksuited young man in front of me. The endearing expression is exactly the same. ‘You’re still a mummy’s boy Zabi’, I reply. ‘You’re just living in a different country!’ He beams and we resume washing up together.
‘I refused to fight so Assad’s men put me in prison. When I was there they hurt me every day’, recalls Hassan. ‘My uncle was able to bribe the officials. When they let me out I fled Syria straight away. Now I worry all the time for my family.’
‘Ladies first!’ says the man from Sudan, laughing and pouring my tea. ‘We are in Europe after all. In Africa the man comes first!’ We sit for a while together, sipping tea and eating biscuits. Unlike the younger men I meet, he has decided to ask for asylum in France and has started to learn the language.
‘You have to try this,’ says Wassim, handing me a chilli-flavoured crisp dipped in Philadelphia. ‘In Syria we would fill a huge bowl with crisps, invite all our friends round and watch movies. Those days were the best!’
‘Every Syrian has a plan’, he tells me. ‘Marwan’s is to reach his brother in London.’ Their group includes two pharmacists, an engineer and an English teacher. ‘Not bad, for a bunch of migrants!’ says Wassim with a wry smile.
I remember blushing at Wassim’s use of Prime Minister David Cameron’s words, said at the beginning of this year. Yet ‘bunch of migrants’ is quite benign in comparison to the rhetoric we hear as 2016 draws to a close. Rhetoric that questions the very legitimacy of the right to asylum.
The Calais camp I visited is no more, but what is the future of the people who lived there? People whose strength is characterised as a threat to society not a potential for success. Yet a man of fighting age is also a man of studying age. A man of working age. A man at an age in which he can still learn a language and adapt to the rhythm of a new society. These stories – those of the real men of fighting age – are stories we must tell.