On the first of February this year I travelled to Calais to visit the refugee camp. In the run-up to my departure, the news was saturated with stories regarding displaced people escaping a place they could no longer call home. Terrorist threat, war, poverty and the hope for a better life sent people across barbed wire borders and vast stretches of unknowable water.
I learnt a lot about hope during my week away, how necessary and fundamental it is to our existence, our physical wellbeing, our mental health, our very drive to overcome adversity. I have been fortunate enough in my life to have never suffered from acute hopelessness, the word even is not strong enough to describe the gaping tear that hopelessness has caused in these people’s hearts. I’ll never forget one of the doctors turning to me when assessing an elderly patient in the camp and saying, “I think he’s just got a broken heart.”
Clare Moseley, the founder of Care4Calais, the charity in which I was working with out there, spoke to us about this feeling. Imagine how it would feel, she said, one early morning in the warehouse as we were getting things ready for a distribution into the camp. To have suffered such a trauma in your home that you have to leave, leave everything behind and go somewhere else. You don’t know where that is. You don’t have anything with you. She stressed to us the journey these people had already taken before reaching the camp here in Calais. This camp, she said, is the light at the end of it all, and look at it…
My mind went back to the day before, standing in a chain passing food bundles into a shelter working as a restaurant. A young man came and helped us move the load, we got chatting and he told me his journey from Syria had been 6 months on foot, his time spent in the freezing cold Jungle was now 3 months, he was alone and just 21 years old.
During my nurse training I spent a year studying the Critical Care Family Needs Inventory in order to identify what families most felt they needed during a loved one’s intensive care admission which is traumatic, painful, and has a future that is often unknown. The need for hope was identified as the most important factor – often the need for hope was rated as greater than the need even for information. Greater than having a support network available, greater than the need to know why things are happening. As long as there is hope, life can go on.
Jerome Groopman, Professor and Chairman of Department of Medicine at Harvard Medical School goes on to explain that hope is as vital to our lives as the oxygen we breathe. I believe this overwhelmingly. In the camp it became difficult handing out trainers and food bundles, knowing we were meeting the needs of cold feet and rumbling stomachs but being all too aware there was no panacea for hopelessness. Of course, we reminded ourselves, that a friendly face, our presence, a conversation in a tarpaulin shelter, bread, jumpers, socks did something to chip away at the feeling, but the sight of tear gas canisters, far right fists and bulldozers driving church steeples into the mud simply flattened our efforts.
I am forever grateful for the life I am able to live. In 1938 my grandmother escaped Nazi Germany and was able to build a new life here in the UK. She was just a teenager. She was welcomed, supported, and she fell in love with the country she now called home.
These people’s lives are in a tortuous limbo: they cannot go home and they cannot go forward and either side they face hostility and violence. I don’t know what the answer is, the government is a monolith unwilling to engage with the situation whilst much of the media seems to have quieted on its coverage altogether. We must keep these people in our thoughts, our timelines, our newsfeeds, our conversations, our fierce, unflinching letters to the government, our hearts. They are not going away. These are real people with real lives and I hope, hope beyond anything, that they can find home again.