This is an account of the Critical Mass ride to deliver bikes to the refugee camp in Calais on the August Bank Holiday, 2015.
The ride to Dover was quite shambolically glorious. We set out on the two-day trip from London on our donated rickety bikes, loaded up like packhorses, through sheeting rain and unknown countryside. None of us had been to the Jungle before.
Somehow, all 80 riders made it to some small Chinese restaurant on a roundabout near Charing by midnight, and the kind hosts fed us and allowed us to store our bikes in their yard whilst we camped in the field opposite.
Pulling into Calais on Sunday, there was a new quiet anxiety to our assembly, one caught up in the gravity of the situation we were about to cycle into.
Over 3000 people and 80 bikes: distribution was obviously going to be an issue. John, the Jungle bike mechanic for the past 8 years, suggested those seeking asylum in France should take priority, and that it be done through a lottery, for fairness. Controversial amongst the riders, many felt they didn’t want the refugees to feel they weren’t welcome in the UK by only giving bikes to those seeking to stay in France. It was decided to postpone the distribution decision until the meeting after setting up camp in the Jungle. With hindsight we can unanimously say this was a terrible decision, and a very steep learning curve.
It was clear word had spread of the British contingent bringing bikes to the camp. Cycling in, crowds of people, largely men, shouting hellos in English, Arabic, French, surrounded us; the excitement was palpable.
Tents popped out of the foliage, we passed a make shift restaurant and shop, - stocked with rice and fizzy drinks. “Migrants” are not allowed in the local supermarkets. The amount of legs in plaster was noticeable, injuries from attempting to jump trains and the police response.
On reaching our camping spot we locked bikes together, as had been recommended, whilst we met camp occupants. One Sudanese man lifted his T-shirt to show me the extensive bruising on his stomach from a police baton. “British police don’t do this” he said, “ French police treat us like animals.”
A friend who’d been in a support van that went to drop off donations at a storage place in Calais told me that the warehouse was pretty full, but what was lacking was the resources - largely the people – to distribute them. With the recent spate of van heading over from the UK in the last few weeks, this is even more the case.
Returning on our bikes from a supply run to town, we passed a constant stream of young men, waving and smiling at us as they headed out to try their luck with the border.
Back in camp things had escalated. Excitement had heightened; reaching our spot we couldn't see the meeting, but swathes of people caught up in eager activity; an occasional bike wheel in the air.
Later we discovered that during the meeting piles of bikes locked together had been taken, a few fights broke out: bikes pulled apart whilst still locked. Riders went off attempting to find their bikes so they could unlock them, to save them being torn apart.
A crowd of 20 had gathered around our 4 bikes. We were going to give the bikes, but tomorrow, I explained. The futility of what I was saying hit me. I unlocked our bikes and got out the way whilst the cluster fought over them, staring in shock at this mess. How idealistic had we been to imagine this could have gone differently?
Everyone was struck by the horror of situation we had created. We’d dangled a big fat bicycle-shaped carrot in front of thousands of people to whom a bicycle would mean so much more autonomy and opportunity, and expected them to sit back and wait for us to decide who was deserving enough. Unsurprisingly this didn’t ride.
Bikes gone, we grabbed our sleeping stuff from the leaving vans as the skies darkened.
We’d barely unzipped the tents before the heavens opened. A couple got shoddily erected before the torrential rain was too much. Invited, we dived into our neighbours’ tent, 8 of us alongside its 6 Kurdish Syrian occupants.
Taking off our shoes we squeezed up on mattresses. I brought in my offering of soggy baguettes, Brie and plastic bottle of wine. Our tents abandoned to the monsoon rain, we got to know our hosts.
They were two doctors, a lawyer, an engineer, a carpenter and a student from Syria, men aged between 23 and 31. Hassan, a doctor with good English acted as translator. Despite language barriers we flitted easily between laughter and deep political discussions. They told me that they would go out a for 2-3 nights to ‘try’, often walking 20 km, then spend a few days resting before trying again. One told me proudly how he’d twice managed to cling on a train, and twice been caught by police and Jailed. Mostly though, they said, Syrians weren’t held so long when arrested, the Sudanese and Eritreans who were detained longest.
Peaking out: the entire sandy ground was turned into a lake, our tents all completely flooded. Tent-less, we now experienced a little of how fragile existence in this place actually is. Our hosts insisted we stay with them.
Exclaiming at the intensity of the raging storm, Hassan responded, “you should have heard the one last night.” Eventually, exhausted, looked after, we fell asleep, lying like sardines.
Monday morning we awoke to heavy skies but a break in the rain. Using some plastic bottles and anything else, a fire was finally lit, and a pan of water boiled for tea. Lipton with lots of sugar was shared out amongst us.
Off to fetch firelighters for our hosts, at the entrance we were met with a brick wall of Police Nationale: in full riot gear, pepper spray and shields in hand. No one was allowed to leave the camp. This didn’t surprise camp occupants. People trudged through the rain in flip-flops to sit and wait.
Bikes distributed, everyone was more relaxed. However huge areas of camp now underwater, people were busy trying to spade water out of their tents using anything they could find.
As we left, one of our friends joked that he could climb into my rucksack. Yes, I said, maybe even two of you.
It was an emotional exit from camp, marked by squeezing between riot police. As we waved goodbye, our friends kept waving, despite the pouring rain.
In Calais, I met 3 nurses from the UK on their way to the camp to set up a foot clinic, to treat foot injuries before they got really bad. Meeting one of them back in London, she told me they ended up doing a full on first aid tent, as there was so much need.
Back in London, writing my experiences in the wee hours of the morning, I glanced at my phone to see a text: “Hours passed since the UK Border, Jamal.” 4 of our Syrian friends made it through the border that night. They have registered with the authorities and are in the process of seeking asylum in the UK. They have been “dispersed” to Manchester, Cardiff and Liverpool. We are going on trip to see our friends from Jungle, I’ll be very pleased to see them again, this side of the border.
Calais Migrant Solidarity
Critical Mass to Calais FB page: