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Solidarity in a divided Europe

Elizabeth Bryant, CalaisSeptember 9, 2015

As Calais grapples with the growing refugee crisis, a small school offers a ray of hope to people who have flocked to the French port city from Africa and the Middle East. Elizabeth Bryant reports from "The Jungle."

Teacher Virginie Tiberghien in front of her class at Chemin des Dunes school in Calais
Image: DW/E. Bryant

Virginie Tiberghien taps the words scrawled on the small blackboard. "The weather," she says in English, before switching to French, "le temps."

"Le temps," repeat the mostly Sudanese and Eritrean men who pack the tiny classroom of Chemin des Dunes school. Outside, the wind is blowing hard, sun shifting to pelting rain.

A group of children arrive. Then a hefty woman sporting a headscarf. Chairs and space are somehow found to accommodate them. Since the school opened two months ago in this muddy migrant camp known as "The Jungle," classes are spilling over.

"They come to learn because it's a place where they feel quiet," says Tiberghien, who counts among the school's growing roster of volunteer teachers. "The school is a way to restore humanity."

Offering a hodgepodge of subjects ranging from tai chi to French and English - languages that can help Jungle residents apply for asylum - Chemin des Dunes is a beacon of solidarity in a deeply fractured Europe.

Germany's warm welcome to elated Syrians in recent days and Hungary's mounting border fence illustrate just how divided the region is over its biggest migrant crisis since World War II. The response has been equally mixed in France, where President Francois Hollande announced this week that the country will welcome 24,000 refugees over the next two years.

"There are moments when decisions need to be made based on the country's key interests, on what the French idea represents," he told a press conference, when asked about polls showing the majority of French oppose relaxing rules on refugee status.

Migrants as heroes

These battling visions are showcased in Calais, where gulls wheel over a port crammed with ferries bound for Britain. The city has seen rolling protests for and against the several thousand asylum seekers camped out here. But for Nigerian migrant Zimako Jones, who founded Chemin des Dunes, the school is building bonds - starting in "The Jungle."

"Maybe you saw the Kosovar - he comes to school and sits down with blacks from Sudan," said Jones as he served coffee in his tidy home of tarp and wood located a two-minute walk from the classroom. "Sometimes there are two or three Afghans. For me, it's a pleasure to see them together."

Since leaving Lagos for Europe in 2010, Jones has been slowly moving his way northward. In the Riviera town of Nice, he learned about the Calais migrants from a TV report. "So I decided to come here and help people," he said, "and at the same time help myself get legal papers."

Zimako Jone
Nigerian migrant Zimako Jones came to Calais to helpImage: DW/E. Bryant

Many at the Jungle are biding their time to get to their preferred destination: England. But Waseem Mohammad from Pakistan, who arrived here two months ago, wants to stay in France.

"I've got a few friends in Paris and Lille," said Mohammad, who claims to have fled random violence in his native Karachi. "They said if you come here, we'll try to get a job for you. That's why I want to learn the French language."

For teacher Tiberghien, the migrants are a source of inspiration. A speech therapist from the Calais region, she began working in the camps earlier this year. "I would often see people on the road and I wanted to meet them, to know the way they were living," she said. "I feel so much admiration for all they have gone through, for their travels. They are heroes to be here today, to keep their smiles and their determination to learn."

Support from across the Channel

Volunteers are also arriving from Britain. Science teacher Niamh McMahon from Kent crossed the Channel by ferry with a trolley packed with food, clothes and school supplies.

"I wanted to come here and build some links between my school and this school," McMahon said. "Some children in my school have very negative attitudes towards immigrants - even though 30 percent of them are immigrant children themselves. I think it would be really good for them to know what it's like for children their age living here."

Jones began unpacking her trolley. He examined a pair of shoes and unearthed a bag of candy, which he distributed to shrieking children. More British women arrived and began teaching the youngsters how to sing "Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes."

Niamh McMahon with children in the 'Jungle'
Teacher McMahon (in the background) came from England to build links between her school and Chemin des DunesImage: DW/E. Bryant

"I think it's disgraceful the way these people have been treated in Europe," said McMahon, as she watched the children playing. "They've risked their lives. They're running away from war, torture, climate change. In a lot of cases caused by Western policies."

Later in the day, Jones delivered food and supplies to a woman camping out alone at the edge of the Jungle. A nearby center has been converted into a shelter for migrant women and children, but there isn't enough room for everybody.

He is proud of what he has accomplished so far, but there is much more to be done. His next project is to build a classroom just for women and children. And to change the name of "The Jungle" - which today has a church, a mosque and a handful of stores.

"People see that refugees can build something positive in the Jungle - the school," Jones said. "No religion, no color. Open to everybody. Just like a French school."