“I’ve been invited to play football with refugee children in the Jungle at Calais. You wanna come with me?”
As an opener it was classic Dave Morrissey. His laconic Scouse drawl had a way of making the most outlandish suggestion sound like the most eminently reasonable thing in the world. “Why not?” I blurted back before I could think of anything more sensible. I’d met Dave on a job more than 15 years ago and we’d been through a lot together since, mainly via football - from Film Industry 6-a-side football to Champions League Finals. His invitations were quite often unexpected, usually with a modicum of madness but never without adventure.
In truth the calendar was empty and I was curious. Knowing he probably needed my superior football knowledge and ability, I didn’t even tell him I’d only just had an operation on my knee either. WhatsApp messages were dispatched, Twitter was exercised and before you know it Dave, myself, my brother Ade and old mate Ralf Little (actor, writer, professional gobshite) found ourselves on the 6.50am Eurostar from St. Pancras International bound for Calais.
Two coffees and one long tunnel later we met Alix Wilton Regan – actress and founder of Play4Calais, a non political organisation committed to provide fun activities for the children in the Jungle. Alix gave us a brief history place and its 6000 inhabitants - where they’d originally come from, why they were fleeing and some of the many challenges they’d faced getting this far. She also pointed out the ever-increasing layers of razor wire (courtesy of the UK Government) and how to avoid antagonising the aggressive French security guards. Not without a hint of apprehension we got out of the cars, donned our high visibility charity tabards and headed for the camp itself.
I’d been to Soweto in the early ’90s and it looked very much like what I remembered of that if a little less permanent for obvious reasons. Lots of makeshift homes hammered, stapled, and in some cases taped together. Wood, plastic, corrugated iron, old caravans, tents, tarpaulin – anything to provide a dry place to sleep for you and the family. An old double decker bus doubling as the women’s centre had been crowd funded by the actress Juliet Stevenson and we met Liz Clegg there, a tough, no nonsense, surrogate mum to the many orphaned children. Permanently ‘doing’ stuff either in person or on her battered and cracked phone, Liz was a formidable, inspiring presence corralling her helpers to ensure the safety of those in her care. By the time we’d left that corner of the camp Ralf was already on the blower to his ‘double decker’ contact finding out how much second hand ones cost. The urge to help – in any way we could - was palpable.
As we wandered through slowly down the main ‘street’ of the camp past barbers, restaurants and general stores I was struck by two things. Firstly what kind of circumstances must have driven anyone to choose to come and live here? I felt positive that the desperately basic sanitation facilities, rubbish everywhere, clothes strewn as far as the eye can see (if you can’t wash them what else is there to do with dirty clothes?) and wildlife as keen to survive as the human beings would certainly test the resolve of all but the most dedicated economic migrant.
But there was also a tangible sense of pride and dignity in this small but tightly knit international community. As they realised we had come to try and help, rather than take exploitative photographs like some of the UK national press, smiles broke out, conversation began to flow and we were made warmly welcome. I began to notice colourful slogans daubed everywhere highlighting the refugees cause and celebrating their creativity.
Was it all a bit unnerving too? Of course. I’d be lying if I told you I hadn’t initially clung onto my rucksack a little tighter as the locals approached. But the looks of enjoyment on the teenage lads faces when the football tournament began made any concerns disappear quickly enough. Part of the issue, mainly because the women and children in the camp rightly have to be the priority for carers and charities alike is that the young boys just don’t have enough to do to keep them out of trouble. Activities like theatre or cinema or sport in this case can make a big difference. Some goalposts, a proper pitch and perhaps most importantly of all - equipment (trainers and kit) help make the players feel special. People laughed, cheered, argued with the referee (well, Ade & Ralf did) and celebrated victories like any other kids playing the game they loved.
As our time drew to a close we had a delicious meal at a restaurant we’d promised to return to while Alix and friends told us more stories about the charity’s hopes for the future. It had been a long but hugely rewarding day and as we boarded the Eurostar we all vowed that this wouldn’t be the end of our involvement in Play4Calais. We exchanged photos and chatted about how else we could continue raise awareness about the plight of the people we’d encountered. Hopefully in our own small ways - with interviews, social media crusades or pieces like this, that’s what we’ve all managed to do.
Simon Lenagan, May 2016