The day I met Jamal, in September 2015, was a particularly beautiful day in Calais, a small port city in northern France. The sky was the brightest kind of blue, the sun was out for a change, and it happened to be the day of the Solidarity Act.
The Solidarity Act, Calais
On that day, volunteers, individuals, local NGOs, and refugees came together to walk in a long march for a solidarity act in support of refugees. We had banners, a stage where people sang and made speeches, and large boards where people could write and paint on.
I was walking in the long march, chanting and chatting away, when I found myself beside two Sudanese guys. I said hello to the first one, Yacoub. He didn’t speak much English so he introduced me to his friend. That’s how I met Jamal.
Having been in Calais for a couple of days by then, I was beginning to be more familiar with the features of each nationality in the Jungle. Eritreans tend to be have slender figures with small, thin faces and curly hair. While the group of Afghan Hazaras have slanted eyes, most Afghans are hard to tell by their features alone. Apart from their traditional clothes and hat, the way to distinguish Afghans is usually by their hard eyes, and the proud way they walk and carry themselves. Along with Afghans, Sudanese people make up the majority of the camp, and their features are commonly divided into two types: Arab descendants and black people.
Jamal looks like a typical black man, with very short hair, a wide forehead, and strikingly white teeth. That day, he was wearing a checkered shirt, a fancy-looking jacket, jeans and Timberland-style boots, complete with a pair of sunglasses. It would be easy to distinguish him from the rest, not only due to his preppy outfit, but also to his very compelling wide smile. It was the kind that would lift you up and make you smile too, brightening up even your bleakest day.
But what made us form fast friendships was because of his amazing personality. We talked about many things and I quickly realised how smart he is. He is just a year older than me, yet he has already been through so much in. Fleeing the war in his hometown of Darfur, South Sudan, and forced to leave his remaining family in a refugee camp in Sudan, he travelled from one country to another, including spending a year working in Israel. He finally reached Calais, as part of his journey to reach his final destination, the United Kingdom.
“Why England?” I asked one of the questions I had been asking a lot those days.
He answered at once, in perfect English, “Because in school we were always told how great Great Britain is.” Not strange, considering Sudan is a former British colony. “But now I’m not so sure I can make it to England. I’ve tried and failed so many times already. So I’m thinking of applying for an asylum in France instead, although that means I will have to start learning the language.”
Talking to him and listening to his unimaginable hardships made me realise yet again how privileged I am, yet he still said, “I thought my life was already hard, but then I listened to the problems of other people in The Jungle… And suddenly all my problems are nothing compared to theirs.” It rendered me speechless.
Our long march ended in a field where the stage is, and we all stopped to sit down and gather to listen to the speeches made by representatives of the NGOs and refugees. It was a warm sunny day, and Jamal noticed how bothered I was by the heat, and by being under direct sunlight (I’m Asian; we don’t like getting tanned!). He kindly lent me his jacket as a shade, and we sat down on the grass to listen to one of the speakers, an amazing French woman whom we call the “Mother” of the Jungle, Maya, deliver a moving and passionate speech. Maya is probably in her sixties but still works tirelessly for refugees as a director and activist of L’Auberge des Migrants, a local NGO. What she spoke about that day has escaped me, but I remember looking at Jamal during her speech. His eye glistened.
I left Calais soon after and only returned again the following month. Spending most of my time in the warehouse, I didn’t get to meet Jamal much, apart from the few times when I went to the camp to distribute aid and would sneak away for a few minutes to meet up and talk for a bit. On one occasion, I asked him whether he needed anything that I could get for him. With other people I commonly receive requests such as food, trousers and shoes — all perfectly understandable necessities.
But always so polite and eloquent, Jamal only answered, “Dictionaries. But only if you have them.” He wanted to start learning French as soon as possible, and I was more than happy to help him with it. The next time I came and brought him the books he requested, I asked whether there is anything else he needed. He replied very seriously, “I just need you to take care of yourself!” 🙂
On my third visit, I spent the entire time in a distribution point on the ground, and we were able to meet more often. In fact, he was one of our team, and he worked diligently and selflessly alongside us. Sudanese people are among the most hospitable, friendliest people I know, and every time we meet, Jamal would absolutely nag me to visit his shelter for a cup of tea and some biscuits. It would always make me feel torn, because I would feel guilty of slacking off when I’m supposed to be working, while on the other hand, I felt guilty for refusing.
One time, I managed to sneak away and we went to his shelter. It was one of the better ones: once you go inside the fence, you’d find three solidly built shelters in one ‘area’. One of them is the ‘kitchen’, where they would cook with firewood collected from a nearby forest. In the corner, there is a small covered spot where they could shower. “Good idea!” I exclaimed. The few public toilets and shower rooms are crowded, almost always full, and disgusting as hell.
On the other parts of the area, there are a couple of pots and pans they managed to obtain, along with a jointly-used bike. Jamal’s shelter is particularly nice; he managed to decorate it with a few drawings, and there is an apparent effort to make the place tidy and livable. I spotted the books I gave him put nicely in the corner, along with a candle, a few nibbles, and the cups of juice and tea that he made me. Taking into account how messy guys’ rooms usually are, his one is decidedly outstanding, especially in such circumstances.
Yet Jamal’s impressiveness extends beyond his shelter’s interior; it was his good heart, positivity and enthusiasm that made him special. Every time I met him, he always had something new and exciting to tell. He started learning French. He took a hospitality course held in the camp. He applied for asylum in France. His asylum application was accepted. The government gave him a place to stay. He was allowed to pick an area of residence in France, and he chose a particular area which is closest to Calais, because he “wants to help people in the Jungle”. The most updated news is that he got accepted into Lille University and is soon starting an academic degree! *war dance*
On my last day ever in Calais, before leaving the camp, I said so many goodbyes to people and children that have been very dear to me, bursting into tears in the process. As our team was waiting for us, Jamal prompted me to hurry, which I responded by retorting, half-angry, half-crying, “I need to say my goodbyes!” But when it was Jamal’s turn to hug me goodbye, I burst into tears again. In such a short time, we went through so much, and we shared a strong brother/sisterhood bond. Yet now I feel guilty for being mad at him on our last day. 😀
“The Jungle” camp in Calais was an absolute hell-hole that sucks one’s hopes and happiness. It was too easy to lose sight of one’s aim and lose hope, and I’m absolutely sure I would have been depressed too had I been in a similar situation.
Jamal inspires me so much by refusing to let all his hardships overcome him. Instead, he took control of his own destiny and set out, tirelessly, to improve himself. And I’m so happy to see where his determination has brought him so far. I don’t know what God has in store for this amazing man, but I’m sure it’s nothing less than wonderful.
PS. Happy birthday, Jamal! I’ll always be grateful and proud to know you and have you as my brother. May Allah bless you always. 🙂 xxx