Amid the horrors of the ‘Jungle’ refugee camp, hope endures

Working with refugees in Calais brought on a reappraisal of the meaning of citizenship, especially for Irish people in this Easter Rising centenary year

Shortly after Christmas, I was struggling to make my way along a muddy makeshift path in the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais, when a little girl on her own, who couldn’t have been more than five or six years old, caught my eye. Her big, sad, brown eyes looked deeply into mine before shyly glancing away after a few seconds.

Unlike on a previous volunteering trip, I was determined not to make any emotional connections. This time I wanted to concentrate on hard physical labour, having gotten too personally affected by the mass suffering weeks earlier.

Against all my intentions, I moved closer to chat to her, and immediately took in the flimsy clothes she was wearing, which were completely covered in mud and dirt. She had no coat, and her hair was clearly in need of a wash. The strong smell of urine was everywhere in the air.

As we played, she told me her name was Mina and that she came from Afghanistan. I asked if her mother was with her in the camp, and she said no. In broken English, she told me her mama was not around any more, just her brother.


As I struggled to comprehend the circumstances of this little girl, I looked around at the rubbish everywhere, at the tents where Mina and many other children were living in freezing and unsheltered conditions, battered by rain and surrounded by thousands of traumatised men, without proper privacy or sanitation and in absolutely filthy conditions. It made me think about my own little cousins, the same age as her, at home in Ireland, who were at this particular moment probably playing with their Christmas presents, eating merrily and contentedly in the warmth of the heat indoors.

Every child deserves to have safety and security – and, more important, is entitled to these basic rights. What kind of future does Mina have?

Aside from the dozens more children who are in the “Jungle” now, compared with my previous visit in October, the other major difference I noticed this time was that the spark had gone from the men’s eyes. Whereas before they had talked excitedly about their plans to make a new life in the UK, they now showed a resigned acceptance of their fate, that their journey was over, that there was nothing more to look forward to or dream about.

It wasn't until New Year's Eve that I again saw a glimmer of excitement and hope, when the refugees from every war-torn nation on camp performed traditional music in the Good Chance Theatre. In this giant tented dome, we celebrated the countdown for each nation's new year hour, starting with hauntingly beautiful singing from Iran, which was reminiscent of an Irish lament, and reggae-style music from a Sudanese elder.

The atmosphere was happy and I felt a tear in my eye, seeing the joy in the faces of the men and the pleasure they took in sharing their cultures and music.

Along with some fellow volunteers, I left shortly before midnight, and as we walked through the rest of the camp on the way out, we heard the gentle music from every nation coming from the tents all along the path and remarked how lovely it was to be here on this particular evening.

As Ireland reflects upon its identity and our citizenship, as part of the 1916 centenary celebrations, it is important that we look externally as well as internally (which all the discussion so far has focused on). Our understanding of citizenship must include our role as global citizens, which is intrinsically linked to our identity as Irish people.

In reframing the discussion, we must consider how each of us, as individuals, plays our part in ensuring that other citizens have equal rights and that those most marginalised can have a voice. Part of this is about challenging our own prejudices as a nation and not turning a blind eye to those most in need, our fellow citizens of the world.

Last year saw the very worst in humanity, when it became normalised for little kids, such as Mina, to live in inhumane conditions while the world turned a blind eye. However, 2015 was also a year in which we saw the very best in humanity, in the form of hundreds of volunteer citizens who stepped up when governments failed to act. Perhaps in 2016, as we reflect on our Irish citizenship, we will realise that it is a two-way process and is about giving as well as receiving.

Mairead Healy is chief executive of Future Voices Ireland, a charity working with disadvantaged teenagers