Basildon priest Fr Dominic Howarth has reiterated the words of Pope Francis, saying that, “Refugees are not numbers; they are people who have faces, names and stories, and need to be treated as such.”
His comments come following his latest visit to Calais, accompanied by a new group of young parishioners who wanted to see for themselves what help they could give the stranded refugees in the camps.
They took with them a minibus packed with 200-plus blankets, 1,000 bars of soap and hundreds of packets of toothpaste and other essential day-to-day items.
Their visit was made against the backdrop of fresh tragic news from the Mediterranean, where as many as 800 migrants were feared drowned after the flimsy vessels they were travelling in from north Africa to the safety of Europe sank.
There was also news from Calais itself, where it is feared the number of refugees has started to rise again in recent weeks after falling during the winter, prompting fears of another summer of humanitarian problems and cross-Channel disruption.
The first evidence of the desperation of those stranded in northern France came as 19 Albanian migrants were rescued from an inflatable while attempting to make the hazardous 26-mile crossing of the English Channel – the busiest waterway in the world.
The situation in Calais remains pitiful but hope and compassion does exist in the camps, as Fr Howarth explained.
“What made this visit different was that I was reminded in a fresh way of all the preconceptions surrounding the refugees.
“Those travelling with me were – for the first time since September – an entirely new ‘crew’, on their first visit to Calais.”
The parish priest from Our Lady & All Saints, Basildon, explained how the group travelling with him – Conor Moggan, Niamh Moggan, Joe Kwasnica and Liam Walsh – were told to disregarded press reports and find out first-hand what Calais was like. “Each had some apprehension,” he said. “Could they carry a wallet in the camp with them, or would they be robbed, they wondered.”
The group also admitted that in conversations with parents and friends before the visit refugees had been portrayed as dangerous, faceless people, with rioting and knife fights prevalent in the camp.
“This, of course, has been part of the media portrayal – and how wrong it is,” he said.
“On the ferry I did my best to reassure them that the refugees are as normal as you and I, that they are good- hearted, hard-working people, caught in hideous circumstances. But in fact, I did not need to do anything – the events of the day did it all.
“What the visit brought home so powerfully, and the absolute key to Calais, is in seeing the refugees as our sisters and brothers,” he added.
Fr Howarth said that one of the first surprises for the young adults in his group were the shops and cafes in the camps, which have all been set up by resourceful refugees using their talents for cooking, or gathering together goods for sale, and creating a business.
“This was unexpected for the young adults I was with – and caused them to reflect more on the refugees, their entrepreneurship and their sheer grit and courage to create some normality in their lives,” the priest said.
The hard work that had been put into the camp’s church was also highly symbolic: the migrants had given it a new life and it showed how important the existence of faith was to the refugees.
“Next to the church door is a wonderful and beautiful new painting by the refugee artist who some months ago painted the large St Michael in the camp,” Fr Howarth said.
“This painting is just as vivid, portraying Our Lady with Jesus, painted with deep care and tenderness.”
The young adults were, he said, moved by the church, describing it as “a deeply loving statement of faith”, with Niamh adding, “Their faith inspired all this – and they built it out of nothing.”
“She is right,” said Fr Howarth. “From the simplicity of the holy pictures ‘gaffer taped’ to the walls, to the freshly planted flowers in the shape of a cross outside the church, this is a tended and nurtured place of faith, and it stirs the spirit.”
The group accepted a tea invite from two Bedouin refugee brothers from Kuwait, Sammy and Sa’ad, said Fr Howarth. “They have lived in the deserts for thousands of years, troubling no-one,” he explained.
“They are nomadic, stateless. But as the desert lands have become more valuable the Bedouin have been forced more and more to the edges, reviled by citizens who want to be rid of them.”
The brothers told the group of arrests by police, involving handcuffs and violence, just for being Bedouin, with Sa’ad showing them his mouth, with a tooth missing.
“‘Police,’ he said, and mimed a vicious punch to the face,” said Fr Howarth.
Sammy and Sa’ad explained to the group that their reason for wanting to enter England, rather than other European countries, is due to their sister living there. “England is not a random destination, and it is not about benefits or health care, but family and community. If only this was understood, perhaps hearts and minds would change,” said Fr Howarth.
The priest explained how he had quietly offered the men money for the tea as they left, but they turned him down. “Reading more about the Bedouin I see how tea is a very important part of their culture of hospitality – entirely understandable and rather vital in the desert, of course, where it is solace for weary travellers,” he said. “Here in Calais they showed us a valuable example of dignity, human company, kindness – and brotherhood.
“My heart returned to the words Pope Francis spoke in Greece a few weeks ago: ‘Refugees are not numbers; they are people who have faces, names and stories, and need to be treated as such.’ We had the privilege of sharing Sammy and Sa’ad’s story – and their tea. We know their names, their faces – as well as having very fond memories of their kindness, their desire for hair gel and their immense, simple and profoundly generous hospitality.
“As Joe said, ‘They have almost nothing themselves – and they are sharing it with us.’ Such encounters remind us that we are all, truly, sisters and brothers.”
• Figures from the Pas de Calais region reportedly put the number of those who have reached the northern French port town at 3,900 – a rise of several hundred since March.
But British aid organisations contend the numbers are much higher, with Help Refugees insisting there are now around 5,000 at the Calais camp known as the Jungle.
Demolition teams moved in to clear part of the camp earlier this year, forcing refugees who have fled war, poverty and persecution in their homeland to move to nearby containers or centres around France.
But large numbers of migrants and refugees are still based elsewhere within the camp, including 157 unaccompanied children with close family members in Britain, the charity Citizens UK said this week.
Clare Moseley, of Care4Calais, estimated around 30 new arrivals were entering the camp each day, from countries including Afghanistan and Sudan.
“There are a lot of new faces and a lot of new groups of tents setting up all the time,” she said. “When you spend time with them you realise they have had no choice.
“These are people who are fleeing wars and conflicts from different parts of the world.
“They are going to go somewhere.”
For links to charities working in Calais, to volunteer or offer other support, please visit www.basildoncatholics.org. Please do not visit the camp without first making contact with one of the charities working there.
To donate, please send a cheque payable to ‘Our Lady and All Saints’ to Fr Dominic Howarth, Calais Appeal, Holy Trinity Church, 71 Wickhay, Basildon, Essex SS15 5AD.
Picture: Conor Moggan, Niamh Moggan, Sa’ad, Joe Kwasnica, Sammy and Liam Walsh.