“Thousands of unwanted refugees, hundreds of volunteers trying to help and two hostile governments” is how film director Thomas Laurance sums up the situation in the so-called Jungle refugee camp at Calais from 2015 to 2016.
A graduate from the Northern Film School with experience as a set and scenery carpenter, Laurance took these useful skills to Calais to help make more weather-proof shelters for the refugees. Intending to volunteer for a limited time, he stayed for a year. The result was On Our Doorstep, his eye-witness documentary about life in the camp from the point of view of both volunteers and asylum seekers.
Screened at the Depot in Lewes at the beginning of Refugee Week, it is clear that films like these are essential in framing an alternative narrative to that of our government, which seeks to demonise people who are guilty of nothing more than wishing to live, work and raise their families without the threat of war, famine or oppression.
Tales of courage and resilience
The human stories shown in this film are as relevant today as seven long years ago. Nowadays, refrigerated lorries have given way to refuge sought in leaky, unseaworthy boats supplied by unscrupulous handlers. Laurance spins so many stories, each one a tribute to the humanity of both volunteers and refugees. He shows us people who are resilient, courageous and hopeful, but because they are just like us they can also be cross, despairing, and demanding!
An early participant in the film, a young lad wants a better mobile: a complaint so familiar to many parents. What is different is that this twelve-year-old arrived at the Calais camp on his own, somehow making his way across a continent, equipped with an ability to smile and laugh, yet intent on yet another dangerous journey across the Channel.
Heartbreakingly, another young man tells us: “I love my country but there is not enough security, that is why we escape.” Others could not wait for governments, instead creating their own life with people from ten countries or more, developing a mutual understanding in a way that transcends language. The chaotic nature of the Calais camp made it difficult for organised charities to operate, and the united desire of both the French and the British governments to close it informed their decisions.
So it was left to volunteers to fill the gap, and the film records just how young so many of these helpers were. Idealistic and compassionate, their desire to make a difference compelled them to go to Calais. The words of a young woman scheduling the jobs for a particular day speaks volumes: “We’re humans and we’re here for humanity so take pride in every job you do today.”
Dealing with the many difficult issues would be demanding for the most experienced charity worker, and the film shows moments when these volunteers were clearly overwhelmed by the scale of their task.
Someone who helped when this happened was Liz Clegg, a West Country woman, who decided to go to Calais straight from the Glastonbury Festival in July 2016, having first packed up the discarded tents, sleeping bags and camping equipment of the festival goers in her van.
An accidental activist: Liz Clegg
Liz realised that there was very little provision in the camp for women and children and indeed it was a dangerous place for unaccompanied children. Having worked as a firefighter and with a travelling background, she is resourceful, gritty, wise and devoted to the children. When asked about the sacrifices she had made during her months of living in Calais, she replied: “I have a passport, I have choices. There is nothing that I’ve sacrificed, because I have those two things. Simple as that.”
Nevertheless, her priority was the building of a women and children’s centre. Of particular concern were the teenage boys, many of whom disappeared every night to find a lorry bound for the UK. Liz literally became a mother to hundreds and her concerns for them were summed up in a moving letter to Jamil that she has since recorded: “Jamil, I beg you, listen to me, don’t get into a refrigerated lorry, wait for something safer…”
Liz distributed hundreds of basic mobile phones with access to her own number. This proved a life saver for Ahmed, a seven-year-old unaccompanied boy, who texted asking for help from a refrigerated lorry somewhere in the UK, with oxygen levels getting lower. This is one story with a happy ending, as was Jamil’s, who is now living with her in Birmingham.
The film documents Liz’s constant efforts to combat the French authorities as they demolished her makeshift children’s centre while she protected the children. Another grass-roots group, Help Refugees, met her request for a double decker bus, which Juliet Stevenson bought on eBay and drove into the Jungle a few weeks later.
This joyful moment was soon overshadowed by the footage of the chaos that characterised the last days of the camp as it was forcibly destroyed and its residents dispersed to different regions of France. This was painful to watch, despite already knowing the outcome, and doubly distressing to realise that adequate provision had not been made for the children, many of whom simply disappeared.
Turning walls into bridges
There is so much more to say about this moving, enraging, heart-rending documentary. It was followed by a short film made by inhabitants of Enthum House – a home for boys between the ages of 16-18 seeking asylum.
The Q&A discussion afterwards was challenging: our tears flowed once more and emotions were raw. In a final question, Lilian Simonsson (Founder of Enthum House) was asked how she would address the Home Secretary were she with us in Lewes Depot cinema. She replied that, in a spirit of compassion to those with whom we do not agree, we must turn walls into bridges – “Ask Suella Braverman to dinner” – emphasising that she would be welcome within the community.
The silence that followed this gracious invitation was broken by the sound of fourteen boys coming down the aisle. These were the very boys who had made the film, and they stood in front of us smiling as we cheered and clapped. It was a heartwarming conclusion to an emotional evening, and we could only hope that these amazing young people would be given the opportunity to study, work and thrive in this country. This would be the happy ending their stories deserved.