Happy Easter to people of all denominations!
I love Easter for lots of reasons, few of them based on religion. As the seasons turn we start to see more light, longer days and the green shoots of renewal and hope. Given recent world events, this year in particular will also be a time of reflection, made all the more poignant for me by a recent trip to the refugee camp in Calais. I would like to share what I saw and learned from the experience.
Easter is not an exclusively Christian tradition. It is linked to the Jewish Passover by symbolism, tradition and its place in the calendar. It is also pagan, its name probably deriving from ‘Oestre’ a goddess mentioned by Bede in 725, and was a time of great feasting and medieval celebration. This has merged with Christian symbolism over time to give us Easter eggs (symbolic of the empty cave following Christ’s resurrection), painted symbols, table decorations, bunnies and lots more.
Sickened by the daily news reports of war and violence, I found myself getting cynical and mildly depressed by the state of world affairs, and particularly the violence. As an antidote, and not an entirely altruistic one, I decided to travel to Calais to understand the refugee crisis first hand and to take some locally collected clothes, blankets, boots and waterproofs.
I stayed for a few days to work with a local charity, Care4Calais in their distribution centre and in the refugee camp itself. I met some wonderful people- refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Somalia and volunteers ranging from a 70 year old retired doctor to a group of under graduates from Essex University. This is what I learned from the experience.
The camp itself is as bad as you might imagine. With insufficient sanitation, fresh water or facilities of any kind the refugees live in tents on sodden ground, sleeping on pallets to keep them dry. Only the donations of volunteer groups keep them fed (to a point), dry and sometimes warm. They have enough to keep them alive but what they lack most of all is hope. Having spent several months in the camp, often after traumatic experiences at home and travelling across Europe, many of them are increasingly aware that they will never make it to the UK. The sense of sadness and in some cases desperation is palpable.
The volunteers got to know many of the refugees well and on my first night in Calais I was invited to a meal on the camp- not what I expected at all. It was a basic meal, served with genuine hospitality and warmth and I could not help but reflect on how these people, who have so little, are prepared to offer so much. Sandwiched between two of the richest nations on earth, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the governments of Britain and France could, and should do more to help them.
There are no winners in all of this and I found myself thinking what it must be like to be a local politician, policeman or resident in the area of Sangatte? Not all of them have behaved well (to put it mildly) but I could also see local police scratching their heads, perhaps reflecting that none of their training had prepared them for this. Sadly, some of the violence on the camp has been perpetrated by the police themselves, or by default allowing right wing thugs onto the camp at night. As if these people have not suffered enough..
The main positive I took out of my visit to Calais was this; all of the goodwill, co-operation, warmth and love shared between volunteers and refugees and within both groups served to remind me of the positive aspects of human nature and that most people are fundamentally good most of the time. Watching the news and reading the papers can give a very jaded and negative view and I realise with hindsight that this is how I was feeling.
There is nothing like a crisis to get people- Muslims, Christians, Atheists and Agnostics, young and old, working together in a common purpose. The sense of camaraderie and goodwill between all of us was strong and has stayed with me in the weeks since I came back to the UK. I know that most of the volunteers are feeling the same way.
The challenge now, particularly in the light of recent events in France and Belgium is not to let fear and hatred get in the way of love and good will. Refugees are the product and victims of war and violence and not its cause. The terrorists are driven by poisonous politics and ideology, not religion.
We must rise above them AND encourage our leaders to stop dropping bombs in the name of peace. An eye for and eye and the whole world will be blind as Gandhi told us. I like many others would like to hold our leaders to account for squaring the circle of violence, and looking after its victims, including the refugees.
We must not let the terrorists divide us.
In the spirit of unity, Happy Easter, Shalom and JazakAllahu khair (may Allah reward you with good)