"Now I feel that everybody should just be allowed to go anywhere. If they were forced to leave because of poverty, that’s also not a good situation"

The first time I met Carmen was in Pakhuis de Zwijger where she participated in our project –I am just like you-. A photoproject where we portrait people from different walks of life and ask about their stories. We dream of an archive full of inspiring people with beautiful stories who dare to endorse the idea of ‘we’. Carmen told me about her monthly visits to the Jungle in Calais that summer and was eager to share her impressive story and that’s how she contributed to our archive of stories.

Ik ben Carmen | Ik ben net als jij

Carmen is from London, she studied Chinese, worked for several NGO’s and the European Commission in Brussels. She travelled across Europe on her boat and ended up in a little harbor in the North of Amsterdam. She wears red lipstick and talks with a soft tone and is very considered. Her parents are immigrants from Panama and Colombia and she herself was born in England. Carmen seems like a world citizen and mostly aware that she can live like that because the privileges her passport gives her. She tells me she finds it so unfair that she could decide –on a whim- to quit her job and go travelling. While in contrast, people who have to flee their countries because of war or poverty will be labeled as a refugee with all the disadvantages that come with that label.

“Why do people call me an expat and not a immigrant? Just because I have a British passport?”

Carmen is very aware of her advantages she got by birth in comparison with other people who didn’t get a present like a British passport and are already so much steps behind just by being born. 

Carmen always seems to be in search of how the world can be more equal and righteous and how she can let people feel that we are alike. She tried this through working with NGO’s and the European Commission, but what in the end really affected her was personal contact with the people who have to deal with inequality and injustice on a day-to-day basis.

The muddy dunes of Calais

By no surprise Carmen decided to visit a refugee camp The Jungle in Calais, France. There she met a lot of so-called refugees, who are stranded near the harbor and who try to jump into a truck every evening to reach England. Many of them do not succeed after months of trying and meanwhile live in tents in the muddy dunes.

Carmen heard about a kitchen which cooks for refugees in the camp and that is how she decided to go down there, jumping at this opportunity to see the situation for herself. She tells me about how she arrived to the camp and how she felt some animosity from some of the volunteers. “It just wasn’t organized yet”, Carmen explains. “But the refugees themselves were really lovely, friendly and welcoming and wanted to share everything with me, always”. The next visit she got a much more positive experience. After that time she went there ever since and the camp became more organized and centralized.

 “I never thought rules are so important, but you need something, otherwise it’s just chaos.”

Yassir

A lot of the people managed to get to England or just moved on. “My Sudanese friend Yassir is still there”, Carmen says. Yassir is only 23 years old and very bright. He likes the English language and watches Obama speeches and HARDtalk, a British politicians program. “He’s has just a really warm character, and is so cheerful and innocent”. Yassir is still trying to get on the back of a lorry and a few days before the interview he managed. But unfortunately the lorry went to a parking lot near Duinkerk and just stayed there. Yassir was in the lorry for more than two days without food or water when he decided to get out. He knocked and they let him go. “It’s very frustrating for him, he makes is nearly every time”.

The demolition

In March the French police demolished the camp and put container buildings in its place for 1500 persons as a temporary shelter. “The people there now are living as chickens in a farm”, Carmen says. There are 15 people living in one container where you cannot cook and without any community spaces. Carmen experienced how important community spaces are in an absurd place like a camp. “I watched all these community projects blossom and I knew the amount of effort, resources, money and sleepless nights they have been put into them”. Now the camp is just like a prison with barbed wire where you need a handprint to get into the container park.

Because Carmen was going to the camp on a monthly base, she really experienced the whole evolution of the camp. The volunteers and the structures they work in, but also the building up of community spaces, kitchens, sanitary and restaurants. From a muddy dune towards a structured town, now became a prison.

Home

By visiting The Jungle also Carmen herself went through an interesting journey. She admits that initially she thought that she felt less sympathetic towards people who are fleeing poverty instead of war.  “But now I feel that everybody should just be allowed to go anywhere. If they were forced to leave because of poverty it’s also a form of violence. And we –particularly England- took an active part in creating this situation, so it’s also our responsibility. These people are the ghost of actions that we made abroad.”

Carmen seems determined and says that everybody who she had spoken to would prefer to be at home, but that they just couldn’t. There is nowhere they can live. “If you don’t want any people to come here, you need to help other countries to develop. If you help people elsewhere, they will not feel motivated to come here.” It’s time to search our own hearts and maybe even open them, like Carmen, to see that -I am just like you-.