Portrait of a Syrian Refugee in the Jungle
October 20, 2016
The ghostly camp streets and dusty grey pathways of the Jungle are surprisingly full of tiny colourful shops and cafes serving water pipes or shisha. Large groups of men of the same ethnicity, arms linked, make their way through the camp streets. Of the thousands of camp residents, 62 percent are reportedly men of an average age of 33.
Located deep within the Jungle’s confines, The Three Idiots café is the most popular venue for the younger generation of refugees who, for the time being, call Calais home. Inside the bizarrely named location, multi-colored balloons donated by volunteers hang from the makeshift ceiling, and children’s toys decorate the walls. Neon lights and a small TV screen provide a little light in the dingy room where patrons sit on the floor. There are no tables or chairs.
“This café, along with the others, is vital for our sanity. It’s our lifeline. We gather here every day to smoke, socialize over tea or a meal, and to charge our mobile phones,” Khalid, a young Syrian refugee explains. Their tents don’t have electricity he says, exhaling smoke from one of the camp’s homegrown ‘Jungle Cigarettes.’ The cigarettes are made in the Jungle and can be purchased in many of the camp’s colorful kiosks.
The unusual haunt is run by a jovial middle-aged Pakistani refugee. He prefers not to share much of his story, saying only that he fled his country following threats of persecution. Fluent in English, the multilingual owner offers Pakistani specialties such as infused spiced traditional tea, alongside an extensive menu meeting the tastes of Jungle’s diverse residents from the Middle East, Asia, and North and Southern Africa.
In this melting pot of refugees—where among them they have thousands of stories of war and escape across tens of thousands of miles—residents of the Jungle joke that this is the only place in the world where everyone wants to be Syrian. In 2015, the UK government granted Syrian refugees asylum at a greater rate than other nationalities. 87 percent of the initial decisions made for Syrian nationals were grants of stay, compared with 73 percent for Eritrean nationals and 22 percent for Pakistani nationals. Some Arab refugees reportedly pretend to be Syrian, but are soon found out given the disparities in the Arabic dialects and their lack of official documents.
In a desperate attempt to flee poor socio-economic post revolution conditions, a small group of young North African males attempted to pose as Syrians, following some light hearted jokes mocking their accents they confessed the truth to a regular volunteer. Yussef, an Ethiopian refugee in his early twenties, imagines how much easier it would have been for him as a Syrian or a minor. As with nationality, age is another characteristic which eases the asylum process since minors tend to be fast tracked.
Nonetheless, Syrians make up a very small number of the thousands of refugees in the Jungle. According to NGO workers, the largest groups in the camp are from Afghanistan, Sudan, and Eritrea. Syrian residents estimate that there are less than 100 Syrians in the Jungle, and less than 100 Iraqis. A French government census states that of the 2,042 residents in the North section of the camp, there are 137 Syrian households and the NGO Help Refugees claims they represent 3 percent of the population. Many Iraqi Kurds left for the nearby Dunkirk refugee camp, which houses a few thousand predominantly Kurdish refugees.
“I didn’t want to leave my country or the region, I tried to remain close by in Turkey but that plan failed,” he says. A disillusioned Khalid decided to leave the region after failing to claim asylum in the British embassy in Turkey—new legislation does not grant asylum outside the UK’s borders. He headed to the Jungle, travelled by bus and train leaving behind his parents and sisters, who are now living in Saudi Arabia. Evidently Khalid, as the youthful male of the family had greater ambitions and aspires to pursue his career in the UK where he has connections and is familiar with the language. His parents felt life in Saudi Arabia for his sisters—in what he described was a familiar territory—would be more suitable.
Khalid is one of many refugees in the Jungle who dream of living in the UK—many of them for the same reasons. The asylum process is shorter and many refugees already speak the language, leading to a swifter integration process in terms of housing and employment. Some also already have family and friends in the UK. Many attempt to be smuggled across the border.
Khalid is not among the majority who have tried to escape. “I have applied for fake documents,” he explains. Khalid is fair-skinned, bilingual, and well educated, which he says will benefit him when travelling with false European identity papers. His pride has prevented him from opting for the customary smuggling route.
I didn’t want to leave my country or the region, I tried to remain close by in Turkey but that plan failed.—Khalid, a Syrian refugee in the Jungle
Khalid, and other refugees in the camp describe reaching the UK only as a temporary dream. Returning home once the war ends is his hope. Khalid dismisses allegations and reports that refugees heading for the UK do so with the hopes of taking advantage of the British benefits system. “I, like many of my compatriots, have no emotional ties to the UK. I had a wonderful life in Syria. I have no intention of freeloading on the UK government,” he says.
“Please stop judging us,” he says, in words that he hopes will reach the international community. “We did not choose this life. As soon as it is safe, I will go back to my beloved country, even if I have settled and have a good life in the UK.”
Sarah El-Rashidi graduated from Cambridge University with a Masters in International Relations, which encompassed a thesis focused on the Muslim Brotherhood. El-Rashidi is a human rights activist and founder of an NGO. Her first professional post was at the UN’s World Health Organization in Cairo. She began her journalistic career in 2011, appearing on TV and radio, directing and producing documentaries, and publishing a portfolio of articles and photographs and is part of the BBC Academy. She is now pursuing a PhD at Oxford University,