Entrepreneurs on the Edge

Trapped in France’s Refugee City

Many are well educated, they bring youth, energy, courage and industry. What they are looking for is hope, but they are trapped in an impossible legal and social limbo.

CALAIS, France — Derar stood up and adjusted his belts, hiking up the two pairs of jeans he wore, one inside the other. The 33-year-old Syrian English teacher and father of four patted himself down, tugging sleeves over wrists, making sure that he was wearing what he needs to protect himself from the razor wire. As the night grew darker, he headed into the tent he owns in the Syrian district of the Calais “Jungle” to grab an hour or two of sleep before another attempt to run the gauntlet of fences, trains and trucks to the United Kingdom.

He won’t go alone—scores, sometimes hundreds, of the refugees living in a windswept, muddy makeshift refugee and migrant camp attempt to stow away on trucks or trains traveling through the Eurotunnel to the U.K. every night. On October 2, over 100 refugees stormed one of the Eurotunnel entrances in a desperate attempt to make the border, before being corralled by police. Deaths are common—at least 13 have died attempting the Calais crossing since June—and consistent attempts leave many refugees with lacerations, sprained ankles, bruised ribs, and bad memories of police confrontations.

The constant frustration and appalling conditions have separated the Jungle’s 3,000-odd residents into two groups: those determined to escape at any cost and those attempting to dig in for winter, putting down roots in a semi-permanent refugee community through restaurants, shops, dance halls, and places of worship.

In its own grim way, the Jungle demonstrates the determination and resourcefulness of people who are well educated and in many cases were living middle-class lives before war destroyed their futures. In a few days at the camp, we met numerous white-collar workers, including two mechanical engineers, a civil planner, and several lawyers, some of whom had TOEFL certification as English speakers, and also graduate degrees.

These are not people looking for handouts, they are people looking for hope, and many are well equipped to build lives not only as workers, but as entrepreneurs, if given half a chance. But they are caught in the convoluted politics and legalisms of a continent that needs their youth and energy even as it shuns their “foreign” ways, and often in countries like France where starting a business, in the best of circumstances, is next to impossible.

While some, like Derar, the Syrian English teacher, still attempt the grueling journey to the Eurotunnel each night, others admit they aren’t physically capable of chasing the trains and trucks, instead choosing to make the best of their situation and wait for a legal solution.

That may be a very long time coming. “There aren’t too many good legal options to go to the U.K.—they don’t have a legal right to enter,” said Pamela Harris, an adjunct professor of international law at John Cabot University in Rome. “They can make the asylum claim there,” she said, but only if “there’s no proof that they were ever in France.”

So Jungle residents are caught in a Catch-22—they have no legal right to enter the U.K., but they can claim asylum there, if they somehow make their way onto British soil, and can plausibly deny that they were ever in France.

Legally, Harris said, their best option is to apply for asylum in France, but that option puts them at the hands of a slow, outdated system, according to Charlotte Bertal, the Syrian case manager for the International Refugee Assistance Project, based in Beirut.

“The French government hasn’t really reformed the asylum system in France for years,” Bertal said, adding that it had been getting slower and slower for several decades, even as the volume of applications went up. When refugees apply for asylum in France, they must wait for months, enduring mountains of red tape and lengthy delays before receiving a residency permit, right-to-work forms, or rental assistance—and during this time, refugees will have no other place to live than the Jungle.

This place lacks many things: clean water, adequate sanitation, consistent electricity, and a coherent exit plan for the thousands of people displaced by conflict and forced into its tents and shacks. But despite this, the constant thwack of hammers and rasp of saws is common throughout the camp.

The wooden skeleton of a building comes into form on Wednesday; by Thursday, it has a blue-and-white tarp roof and a functional kitchen; and on Friday the front room is stocked with energy drinks, toothbrushes, and socks, ready for business.

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A Christian church—one of the camp’s more recognizable structures—erected a second steeple out of scrap wood and tarps, complete with a whitewashed cross, in the similar three-day period.

Upon arrival, many refugees think the Jungle is a temporary home, a layover on the way to asylum in the U.K. But as the weeks stretch into months, as the broken legs and crippled backs stack up, refugees become residents—and many are trying to find some form of community and economy among the ramshackle structures and muddy streets of the Jungle.

Small shops have been selling the essentials since the first residents set up camp: soap and shampoo at various prices, spare socks, frying pans for cook fires, packages of nuts and dates. Phone cards sell for €10, a two-liter bottle of soda for €1, water for 50 cents; you can even buy questionably authentic Adidas soccer cleats for €15. Cigarettes, hand-rolled from boxes of Marlboro filter papers and buckets of loose tobacco, cost €1 for an aluminum-foil packet of 10, making shopkeepers about €25 profit per bucket.

Hussein, a shopkeeper from Pakistan, said he typically rolls 2,000 cigarettes a day, shuffling the loose tobacco and pre-rolled cigarette shells into a small plastic device, deftly plopping out one neatly rolled smoke after another with a click.

The goods, especially bulk food for the restaurants, are sometimes brought in by aid organizations, but often refugees buy them themselves, making long trips on foot to the supermarket or paying taxi drivers to bring in supplies.

Because of the area’s rapid development, it’s hard to say with certainty how many places of business exist in the Jungle, but the camp boasts at least 15 small shops and well over a dozen restaurants, serving everything from fried chicken to traditional dishes from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Syria, depending on the day’s stock.

The restaurants cater to refugees, volunteers and journalists alike. Although they range in size and mission, most make a point to take care of their own.

One restaurant owner, Muhammad, a genial 65-year-old Afghan man in small round spectacles and a simple blue tunic, feeds those without money and offers his building as a place of rest for those without a tent.

“I’m trying to make a place where people can come, rest, eat, and then leave,” he said. “Whatever the human being is, I love the human being. Shelter, restaurant, whatever—I can help some people who really need it.”

Many of the Jungle’s restaurants share Muhammad’s quasi-philanthropic business model. Volunteers and journalists often congregate at another Afghan restaurant down the road, where they face an openly agreed-upon markup for whatever’s on the menu—usually a combination of fried bread, spicy friend eggs, onion and tomato, milky chai tea and whatever curry or stew that can be put out for dinner—allowing the restaurant to serve needier refugees free or reduced price meals.

But the Jungle’s evolving micro-economy is not a sure indicator of longevity.

“It’s temporary,” Muhammad said, pointing at the blue tarp-ceiling. “This building is not very permanent. The ceiling leaks.”

Given the limited available resources, that the restaurant functions at all is an impressive feat. It is humid and thick with smoke from propane-powered stoves; a gas-powered generator operate the lights (and electric outlets, used by patrons to charge their pre-paid smartphones). And Muhammad said it isn’t built to last for more than a couple of months, especially with the changing weather.

Like many Jungle residents, Muhammad has no interest in staying in France. He has four children in Afghanistan whom he dreams of bringing to the U.K., where he can claim asylum in a country with an easier language barrier. Muhammad is one of many educated refugees who said their preexisting proficiency in English would help them find work and assimilate in the U.K. quicker than other countries like France or Germany.

Ali, a Pakistani migrant who left his home in Peshawar to seek asylum in the U.K., began his time in the Jungle desperate to escape. But after a serious back injury, he accepted the futility of trying the Eurotunnel. Instead, he threw the last of his finances in with two friends and started a restaurant, named “Three Idiots,” because “only an idiot would open a business in the Jungle.”

Ali said he hopes the restaurant, which has a prized flat-screen TV, will give young men like himself some form of entertainment in the evenings and dissuade them from risking their lives on the tracks. He and his partners plan to stay open late, playing movies on the TV from a portable DVD player, or rigging up a DIY antenna to get news broadcasts—keeping the generator running, something that always attracts customers looking to charge their phones or stay out of the dark for a while.

Alex Fry, a partial owner of Babbage Construction in London, said the camp’s development and the refugee’s desire to help one another was moving, but worried that the impromptu structures and tent neighborhoods are terribly flimsy.

“My concern is that most of these tents will be ripped apart by the first serious winter storm,” Fry said.

With no help in sight from the French and British government, Fry is donating his time and energy to building sturdy housing in the Jungle; he hopes to have 10 to 15 shelters, each housing six to eight people, complete over the next few months.

Given all the available resources in France and the U.K., says Fry, “I don’t think there’s been anywhere near the appropriate response.” He suggests there have been “plenty of fear-driven questions about the long-term effects of what’s going to happen, but no discussion about what’s actually going on right now.”

Still, some refugees fear complacency. A Sudanese man in his early twenties cursed the constant development, saying that many were losing sight of their ultimate goal, that the drinking and dancing—alcohol is served at some restaurants and shops, and some businesses play music at night—was making people lazy.

Outside of the camp, tabloid and right-leaning publications are having their say about the Jungle’s clubs and dancehalls, insinuating that the people here should play their role a certain way—perhaps be more pitiful.

Whatever changes are in store for the Jungle community, the current way of life is not sustainable. The dual sanitation and shelter crises will only get worse when the channel winds and frozen winter rain batter the Jungle’s tents and shacks, presenting further challenges for both residents who attempt to escape five or six times a week and those who are putting their faith in patience and development.

Whatever scant amenities and community the Jungle may offer, they’re a poor substitute for the families many have left behind.

Derar, like the many fathers and brothers in the camp, is guided by a single purpose, one that takes him 20 kilometers away from his tent to the Eurotunnel entrance each night.

“The day we stop trying, we’ve lost,” he said. “The children, our families waiting, the bombs dropping… There’s a smell of death everywhere in Syria. We have to try to make a better future for our children.”

Derar carried pictures of his daughters, his 3-year-old, and his wife in his wallet. They are still in Syria. The yearbook photos got passed around and back to Derar, who studied them as if it was the first or last time he would see them.

The moon was bright, the air crisp and the wind blew sharp and strong off the English Channel. Two hours later, Derar gathered himself for the 20-kilometer trek.

He didn’t make it.

Around eight or nine in the morning, Derar and the refugees who tried the Eurotunnel straggled back into camp, as they do most mornings. Some returned to their tents, where they’ll sleep through the day in preparation for another escape. Others clustered inside restaurants serving hot chai, Afghan eggs and bolani bread, Syrian fried rice, Pakistani Bhaji—food from the countries they left behind.