Last weekend we as Burn 24/7 took a small team to a refugee and migrant camp in Calais, France called “The Jungle” just across from the UK border. It is a bit different from other camps because there hasn’t been any major government or humanitarian organization that has taken responsibility over the area. While it’s existed for over 10 years, it has just more recently taken on more life because of the recent influx. There are about 4,000 people living here, mostly young men, from a number various countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa. We were all moved by what was going on and decided to step out and see for ourselves what we could do!
It’s quite difficult to write about my experiences, one because I’m still processing a lot, and two because what exist are circumstances that are not black and white and may not have easy solutions. I realize there are quite varying political and religious views even amongst Christians about this situation. Because of this my main goal is to share some stories and offer my perspective as we engage in dialogue about what our attitudes should be and how we can be the Church to people who need it.
1. Refugees and Economical Migrants: The Difference
A question I hear debated often is whether people are coming over because their lives are in danger or because they just want a job and income to support their families. While some circumstances may seem to be clear such as Syrians being driven out by ISIS and coming into Europe (the overwhelming majority of whom are in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey), others are a bit more complicated. One Sundanese man told me about his life under the rule of a dictatorship, living in a city where your life could be taken any day for just few dollars. Another Eritrean pastor shared of the persecution against Christians at home that drove him out, and of his life threatening journey though Daesh (ISIS) checkpoints in Libya. Amongst this group was a 15yr Ethiopian boy who hadn’t seen his mother in 10 years only to now be an hour away from her as she was in the UK. The truth is we can’t always classify people’s reasons for immigration based on their nations’ current status. The majority of these people probably won’t be granted asylum because of their nationality, but you can’t fault someone for leaving their country and wanting to go somewhere else where they understand the language, have family members, or just trust that the government will keep them safe.
2. Poverty and Education
One of the biggest shifts for me was realizing that amongst this camp being a migrant did not equate to be uneducated or coming from poverty. I remember speaking with a Kurdish man who had walked form Northern Iraq to France. He had graduated university (like many in the camp with degrees) and was an English teacher until the economy had fallen because of war. He said to me “I want to go to the UK because of the better opportunity for a job, but I’m not going to risk my life or lose and arm by jumping on a train, England is not my life!” Almost all of the people that had come from Africa had crossed over the Mediterranean by boat. The men we spoke to from Sudan had paid $600 for a ride from Sudan to Libya and then worked there until they had enough $1500-$3000 for a boat ticket to Europe. One man shared that he had left from Egypt, on a 30ft boat with 230 others (standing room only) spending 11 days at sea until being rescued by the Italian navy.
3. Needs Are More Than Physical
Probably one of the greatest struggles in many refugee camps or with any group of people displaced from their home is surviving but not thriving, having what they need live but still losing hope, joy, and culture. In “The Jungle” there is a food distribution center, and outside of it in the city there is a clothing distribution center run by the catholic mission. Donations flood in, vans pull up and haphazardly unload ing their goods, many times causing chaos and not getting to the people who probably need it. One night we had an incredible time of open air worship when it just happened to be the Eritrean New Year. We were invited for a concert and anywhere form 20-50 people were gathered around us for over 3 hours as we worshipped God and ministered to the people’s hearts. One man told me, “People come here and give us sugar and pasta, but you give us music and that’s what we need.” Another man told someone on our team, “We left our hearts in Sudan. Listening to this music is the first time I have felt my heart since I arrived in France.” That night we were able to preach the Gospel and change a lot of their perspectives on how the church loves them and supports them. Learning previous to our trip about there not being as much need for clothing and food, we packed bubbles (for the kids…and parents too!), note pads that they needed to record their journals on, and soccer balls which brought so much simple joy.
4. The Spiritual Issue: Problem vs. Opportunity
One of the things that impacted me the most was how many different cultures and nationalities were in such close proximity. You could literally walk from Sudan to Iraq to Afghanistan to Eritrea to Egypt in like 10 minutes! As soon as we stepped out of our rental car, it was the quickest cultural change I had ever experienced. The sights, smells, and sounds of so many different places hit me at once. Amidst the obvious unhealthy living conditions and unfortunate circumstances I couldn’t also help but think of the incredible opportunity that was on our doorstep. For years people have risked their lives and spent thousands of dollars just to minister to these people and now they were a ferry ride away. An obvious concern amongst many Christians is that fact that most of these people are muslims which is true (we saw one church as opposed to 10 mosques that were supposedly in the camp), but instead of reacting out of the fear of Islamization in our countries I think we have the power to see a shift and be a conduit for the Holy Spirit to move in ways that Europe has never seen before. I realize the issues are deep and quite sensitive especially because they are being faced at home and not just around the world, but we can’t forget that regardless of how many mouths we feed, homes we build, jobs we create, and dictatorships we replace with democracies the problem is always a spiritual one. People need Jesus. They need hope in this life and the next. They need to know they are loved here but also know they have the power to love and bring change to the homes they left.
We don’t know what exactly what our next steps will be, how we can help develop, serve, clothe, feed, or build, but we do know that as we continue God will show us and that prioritizing his presence and introducing people to their loving Father is the most precious gift anyone could receive.