Crew For Calais: People need to be witnessed

Crew For Calais: People need to be witnessed Ruth Saxton

18th April 20161Comment

I’ve written this post just before heading off to France to join the non-profit Crew for Calais for most of this week.

Many of us have watched the horrific images on the news or read in the papers and via social media links the terrible living conditions of refugees in Calais. It’s all too easy when we switch off the TV or close that paper to forget our humanity. One of the things that that is particularly shocking is that this is happening only a couple of hours from many of our doorsteps in the UK, yet despite media coverage and public sympathy our fellow humans are still living in appalling squalor and only up the road. As Dawn O’Porter asked in her Huffington Post piece ‘Whether you believe the refugees should be allowed into the UK or not, can we all agree that we should help them survive in the gruesome situation they are in?’

Katharine Rose Williams Radojičić (writer, theatre director and lighting designer) is the founder of Crew for Calais. Katherine wasn’t sure why she first went to the Calais refugee camp, ironically named ‘The Jungle’ by migrants, at the beginning of December with friend, Daniel Bye (writer, performer, theatre maker), she just knew she had to go.

As they walked back from the Good Chance Calais Theatre, it was freezing. Katharine looked at the single layered tents and was acutely aware that people were going to die of cold that winter. There were people constructing more substantial shelters, but slowly. She still remembers, “…that chilled cold feeling in my stomach,” which wouldn’t leave that night as she sat in her accommodation thinking about the thousands of people on the site. And then it hit her: she knew a whole bunch of people in the UK (theatre crews) who were used to going to all sorts of places and erecting temporary or semi-permanent wooden structures (theatre sets) quickly, and who would love making shelters and helping people.

As soon as Katharine got out of the car in the UK, she began calling people and the overwhelming majority wanted to be a part of it: Crew For Calais had been mobilised. In the beginning she used to say, “It began only as quickly as something the theatre and creative industries can do because we’re known for moving fast.”

Less than a fortnight later, a big group of them returned to the camp with eight shelters they’d built in London and approximately £2000 that they’d raised. Between that day on December 21st and the end of February this year, they have made seven trips, some from London and some from Leeds, some with ready-made shelters. They have also made a further five trips to build shelters on site with an organisation called ‘A Home For Winter’. Also during this period, it was made evident that the Calais site was to be cleared: bulldozed. So people were quickly sent to move as many shelters (homes) as possible.

There is an overall crowdfunding site and each trip has also had a separate fund. Two key fundraisers and groups of volunteers have been Slung Low, a theatre Company from Leeds, and Arcola Theatre, which is based in Dalston, East London. The latter turned their whole space over for a night of comedy performance in March, which Stewart Lee offered to headline. And the tickets sold out in 48 hours. So the following six days were spent creating a comedy performance festival, which was staged the next week and raised £4,700. During that week was when the French Government confirmed they would be clearing the whole of the Calais camp but Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) was building an International Standard refugee camp in Dunkirk, which would help some of the people from Calais, but certainly not all of them. So audiences were kept as up to date as possible and made aware that the focus would move to Dunkirk.

However, the Calais camp was never fully demolished, as some of the men went on hunger strike – eleven shockingly sewed their mouths up. So Crew For Calais is still very active on the quarter that is left. Masses of the shelters were burnt but some were saved and moved, and some remain. There are varying figures of the number of people still living in the camp but it is thought to be somewhere between 3-4000. Some have tragically disappeared, including one child, some have gone to Dunkirk and some have set up new camps but these are dangerous: they have no sanitation or water.

When I spoke with Katharine there is no denying her passion for the cause and her anger about what has happened. “We have waged something on them. Our system has inflicted violence on them. To burn their house down in front of them is almost as violent as physically hurting them. These people, who have already had to leave a home, which may already have been demolished, can’t go back. What is required of us is humanity and helping people.”

Source Getty Images
Attempt by French authorities to dismantle ‘The Jungle’ Calais.  Source Getty Images

Since the Arcola festival, the organisation has sent the skilled carpenters to Dunkirk but has had a continued presence on the Calais site and in the aid distribution warehouse, which is where I will be spending the next few days volunteering. Like many people, I have been watching the distressing images on the news for too long: feeling helpless and wracked with guilt by a sense of passive acceptance. Listening to the media, Government or even acquaintances dismissing the loss of life of these strangers, tactically labelled to become threatening, who are risking everything to flee the dangers of their home. Some of them make it to France and exist in these terrifying conditions so close to our sanctuary. So I am looking forward to meeting the people there, hearing their stories or just sitting and eating with them: witnessing them. This is what is crucial to Katharine. Even just by walking through the camp, “People need to be witnessed.”

So I’ve decided to volunteer some of my time to Crew for Calais this week, joining them over in France. I’ll be sharing my thoughts and experiences with you on

If you would like to help Crew For Calais  you can donate on their Crowdfunding page to allow them to send people on tour to do humanitarian work. Your funds will help towards transportation and accommodation costs to ensure the charities have volunteers for a few days or weeks in a row, rather than just a day, which makes a massive difference.Follow Crew for Calais on Twitter

Join the Crew for Calais community on Facebook


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The feature image used on this post is a photograph taken of a similar Banksy piece. The original mural by Banksy is entitled Les Miserable. Read more about it’s significance here

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