Tag Archives: Bairbre Flood

From top: Mary Elmes; Patrick Danjou, Mary Elmes son with Charlotte Berger-Greneche one of the people his mother rescued during the Holocaust.

Next Monday

‘Mary Elmes’, the true-story of the only Irish person recognised by Israel as Righteous Among the Nations will be broadcast at 5pm.

But who was Mary Elmes?

Bairbre Flood writes:

Born in Ballintemple, Cork, Mary Elmes smuggled dozens of children to safety during WW2 and although imprisoned by the Gestapo on suspicion of this work – she managed to survive and live a long life in the South of France with her husband and two children.

She’s a fascinating character for many reasons, and her work during the Spanish Civil War and then in Rivesaltes Refugee Camp in the South of France are noteworthy even in themselves.

But it’s for risking her life, rescuing Jewish refugees who were being sent to concentration camps that she’ll be most remembered.

Her story raises all kinds of questions about moral courage and humanitarianism – and contrasts sharply with the official policy of the Irish government during the Holocaust.

While untrained as a medic, she volunteered in 1937 with Save The Children in Spain and was appointed by the Quakers to run one of their hospitals in Alicante.

Franco expelled them in 1939 and after a brief rest in London and Cork she was assigned work at Perpignan – to oversee a cultural programme for some of the half a million Spanish refugees which had fled into France.

The refugee camps set up to deal with this crisis became an internment camp for Jews in Vichy France, and conditions were deplorable.

When Jews began to be transported from here to concentration camps in Eastern Europe from 1942 onwards, Mary was one of many relief workers who smuggled children to safety. It’s estimated that over 400 children were saved, of which at least 80 were directly helped by Mary Elmes.

She never sought any attention for her actions, and died in 2002 at the age of 93.

The documentary on Mary Elmes talks to Ronald Friend and Charlotte Berger-Greneche (two of the people whose lives she saved), her biographers Clodagh Finn (A Time To Risk All )and Paddy Butler (The Extraordinary Story of Mary Elmes), her family, and long-time Quaker researchers Bernard and Janet Wilson.

It also puts Mary’s work into wider context of Ireland’s refusal to take Jewish refugees during the Holocaust.

According to Mervyn O’Driscoll, (Head of History, UCC) Ireland accepted very few requests for asylum from Jewish refugees.

Says Mervyn:

‘I think there was a very solid degree of latent antisemitism in Irish society based on fairly limited religious readings of Christianity, and prejudices they had picked up,’ said O’Driscoll, ‘In general what you found was the Dept. of Justice were very austere in their attitude to immigrants, and Jews in particular.’

Heino Schonfeld of the Holocaust Education Trust Ireland agrees that the numbers were shockingly low.

Says Heino:

‘Unfortunately most of them were unsuccessful and they were not given a visa or not given a welcome to this country.’ he said. ‘To a large extent the reason was antisemitsm.’

Fergal Linehan in The Dublin Review of Books reviewed An Irish Sanctuary: German-speaking Refugees in Ireland 1933-1945 by Gisela Holfter and Horst Dickel which documents the stories of the 426 individuals (not all, but mostly Jewish) fleeing Nazi Europe who were granted asylum here.

Linehan mentions Anselm Horwitz who escaped to Ireland, but whose parents were denied a visa, deported to Minsk, and murdered in 1941.

And Linehan makes the point that Portugal – a country roughly the same size as Ireland – took in between 13-15,000 refugees at this time,

Says Fergal:

‘Thus a case is to be made for the moral culpability of the Irish state during this period. It failed to act in an appropriate manner to what was, very probably, the worst humanitarian crisis in the history of humankind.’

Of course Ireland wasn’t unusual in refusing visas; Ronald Friend, one of the children Mary Elmes saved, said that his father had been almost granted a visa for the UK, but it never came through.

Ronald’s father Hans Freund was an engineer, and his mother Eva a doctor who fled Berlin for Milan in 1933. The fascists passed the Italian Racial Laws in 1938 – similar to the Nuremberg Laws in Germany and the Aryanisation Laws in France – and Ronald and his family left for France in 1939.

After a short time in Paris, and then Marsac, they were forced to try to escape over the border into Switzerland, but were arrested by French police.

Hans and Eva were sent to the Gurs camp in the Pyrenees from where Hans was deported.

Says Ronald:

‘They were given two hours to say goodbye’. Before he was taken from Gurs to Drancy which was the main transportation centre in France.’

From here Hans was ‘sent to the extermination camp called Majdanek in Poland’,

Ronald continued:

. ‘And there was no news – nothing else we ever heard about our father after that.’

Ronald and his brother Mario were detained in the Rivesaltes camp from where Mary Elmes managed to rescue them in 1942.

Others Mary helped to get out were Georges Koltein and Charlotte Berger-Grenche who were in Ireland for the opening of the Mary Elmes Bridge in Cork last year.

Charlotte was a young child when her 31-year old mother, Zirl Berger was murdered in Auschwitz.

Says Charlotte:

‘I don’t remember a lot of things, I was very small. I just have one glance of my mother and me; she’s dressing me on the bed. And my mother was deported from Rivesaltes to Drancy, and Auschwitz then.’

Charlotte credits a member of the OSE (Jewish organisation), Vivette Samuel and others with getting her to safety, and this is something which Mary’s daughter Caroline also emphasised.

Says Caroline:

‘She was not alone. There was a lot of people doing the same thing with her – she couldn’t do all that without other people.’

She pointed out that her mother never desired recognition for her work, eschewing a saviour narrative, and acknowledging the many people who worked together to do what they could under dire circumstances.

And yet, there’s no doubt Mary Elmes was a remarkable woman – a humanitarian who ‘had a tremendous ability and persistence to do what was right,’ as her cousin, Mark Elmes put it::

‘She stuck with it through thick and thin, and all she was concerned about were the victims.’

Listen to ‘Mary Elmes’ Monday January  27 at 5pm on UCC98.3FM, podcast later here.

Pics via Bairbre Flood

From top: members of Mahapach-Taghir; volunteer Nasreen Yassin (left) with Bairbre Flood

‘Learning To Change in Israeli and Palestinian Communities

A radio documentary premiering this weekend by Bairbre Flood on a grassroots, feminist, Jewish-Arab organisation that works for social change through education and community empowerment.

Bairbre writes:

‘It’s in the community, it deals with women, students and children; and it deals with Jewish and Arab, so I cannot find a more holistic way to make a change here in my society.’

– Fida Nara, the Palestinian co-director of Mahapach-Taghir

Influenced by a huge student strike twenty years ago in Jerusalem, Mahapach-Taghir (change in Hebrew-Arabic) was founded after students reached out to community members in a marginalised neighbourhood in the city, and with the residents set up an after-school program for children.

The learning centre they started for the children soon became a hub for community activism as parents gradually became involved – a key part of Mahapach-Taghir’s approach to community organisation.

As one of the women in the Yafa, Nazareth group told me:

‘I feel like they really hear me, really talk with me and they respect me. It’s a partnership; it’s dialogue. It’s not like ‘we have our program and this is what will happen,’ – that’s how it’s different here.’

Currently Mahapach-Taghir works with over 600 children and families, and 140 university students throughout Israel. Their emphasis is on strengthening bonds within each area, and creating links between the different communities.

I visited groups in Nazareth, Tamra, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (they also have a group in Maghar, a mostly Druze town in Northern Israel) and every group – whether Palestinian or Jewish – spoke of how they valued getting to know the other community.

‘Meeting Jewish women changed us,’ as another of the women in the Yafa, Nazareth group put it. Yafa (or Yafa an-Nasriyye) is part of the Nazareth municipality, and they’ve campaigned on a number of issues over the years, and set up initiatives such a women’s savings scheme – a way for the women to become more financially independent.

The coordinator of the group, Mona Arok, started attending a university course through her work with Mahapach-Taghir; in spite of huge opposition from her husband and family to stay in the home.

‘I realised that I’m raising five daughters. I realised they are the future in the community,’ she told me. ‘And if I go back now, [leave the university course] it will destroy them. So from them I took the energy to continue.’

She smiles broadly. ‘And now my husband came with me to the women’s protest in Tel Aviv. It’s amazing that I succeeded to do this change with him and with my family.’

When Mona began her work in the community there were seven women in the group; now there are more than forty.

‘I don’t decide alone,’ she said. ‘It’s important to talk to them as equals. Not from above, because women will think: you are living in your high palace and we are the poor people and you don’t really feel our pain, and what we need.’

‘I see a lot of leadership inside the women’, Mona continued. ‘I want them to decide the future of Mahapach. I want them to lead the work that I do here today.’

This excitement about learning is also evident while visiting Tamra, a mostly Arab town about an hours drive from Nazareth. I meet Suwad, who was given a scholarship – ‘like something gold’ – through Mahapach-Taghir.

‘This opportunity for learning changed my life,’ she said. ‘Now I am fifty-two years old, I think when I’m coming to the studying I feel like something was lost from me – and I found it.’

Another of the volunteer tutors, Nasreen Yassin, a young student at Haifa University, told me how working here helps her feel connected to her community.

‘I believe if I want to change something in the community I should begin with the children who surround me,’ she said.

Houria Abu Nimir, has prepared food for everyone. She’s a science teacher in the local school, and she tells me they can discuss political issues with the children in Mahapach-Taghir which they can’t do in the school.

‘We ask them what have you heard in the news, and give them the opportunity to say what they feel and think about it,’ Houria said. ‘It’s very important to understand your identity as a Palestinian who lives in Israel…and that you have enough time to talk to someone about it.’

Around 20% of Israeli’s are Palestinian, and while they have full voting rights and equal citizenship like any other Israeli, there are issues around racism and identity.

Lima Hajiah, is a young Palestinian student who volunteers in Yad Eliyahu – a mostly Jewish neighbourhood in Tel Aviv. She tells me how it’s important for her, as a Palestinian, to be here with the kids.

‘Most of the children might never have communicated with a Palestinian,’ she said. ‘This could be the first time for them to get to know each other as Jewish and Palestinian, and what this means to co-operate here together.’

Rachel, one of the mothers, is part of a new women’s group which is just setting up. They haven’t decided exactly what they’re going to focus on, and are in the early stages of brainstorming with each other.

‘I want my son to learn with me how to give back to the community,’ she tells me. ‘We want to see a change. We want to see improvement.’

Another mother, Tickva, said that meeting other women – whether Palestinian or Jewish, gives her new ideas.

‘If they share similar kind of problem,’ she said. ‘How they deal with that, what kind of solutions that they find…it’s interesting.’

The next day, in the Florentine neighbourhood of Tel Aviv I meet with Zehava Aknin and Dvora Levian, women in their sixties who’ve been volunteering for years in their community.

‘I work with religion people, not religion people. With women, kids, old people…with everyone,’ Zehava laughs.

Dana Zarif, the coordinator for this area translates for us, and she explains that the previous evening they’d a similar learning community in Florentine as in Yad Eliyahu where they help children with school work. ‘They also visit old people,’ she adds. ‘If I can help, I help,’ Dvora said. ‘It’s good for the heart.’

Devora also feels it’s important that the group is mixed.

‘They Arab want to live,’ she said. ‘We Jewish want to live, in not war, just peace. We want together speaking with each other – and meeting each other.’

Continue reading →

Short Talks with Bairbre Flood.

A new podcast series presented by journalist Bairbre Flood, who writes:

Vukasin Nedeljkovic (top left) is an artist, activist and academic who has carefully documented every Direct Provision centre in Ireland through his photography, now available as a hardback here.

Vuklasin recently gave a talk in The Glucksman Gallery and I caught up with him afterwards to discuss his new book and about an exhibition of Asylum Archive in the Triskel Arts Centre, Cork, on the 7th February, which runs until March 29th.

Short Talks with Bairbre Flood

Asylum Archive exhibition (Triskel)

Asylum Archive

Life On The Outside

A radio documentary by Bairbre Flood looking at the lives of  three women who have survived Direct Provision.

Bairbre writes:

For my latest documentary I talked to three women; Elsie Nwaora, Nomaxabiso Maye and Florence Eriamantoe who lived for years in Direct Provision.

This was the system set up almost 20 years ago to provide accomodation and meals to asylum seekers while their claim is being processed. Intended to be a short-term solution, it seems to have created even more long-term problems.

The lack of access to cooking facilities, the overcrowding (Florence lived in one room with her family for more than six years), the lack of privacy and the strain this puts on family dynamics are all obvious: but perhaps what’s less tangible is the subtle loss of dignity and self-direction that Direct Provision incurs. ‘You have no autonomy’ as Nomaxabiso puts it. Everything is done for you. Who wants to live like that?

Most Direct Provision centres are situated in isolated areas, and Noma recalls how the place she was sent to, Drishane Castle, County Cork was ‘spooky’.

Noma says:

‘It’s a very old castle. It looks beautiful from the outside. It’s very hidden away from the local community – you know, that separateness of people: that this is the local community and these are asylum seekers.’

They’d almost no contact with the locals there. ‘It was very rare you’d see people interacting with Drishane residents.’ Noma said.

I put it to Noma that it’s hard for Irish people to get to know people in Direct Provision as we usually meet people through work and college, and she agrees that ‘this is where the trick is.’

She adds:

‘If you allow people to participate in those things (college, work,) then you allow people to get to know each other. I met a lot of friends through college – had I been in Direct Provision sitting there, there’s no way I’d have.’

Florence and Elsie also described how isolated they felt from the wider community and Elsie noted,

Florence says:

‘The way it is, people didn’t know…that place there is the hostel, the Direct Provision centre; people didn’t know about it.”

This physical isolation isn’t helped by the fact that none of the women were allowed work during their time in Direct Provision. (Although there is a limited possibility for this now following a Supreme Court decision earlier this year, none of the women would have qualified as their cases were under appeal.)

‘You weren’t able to do anything’, Florence said. Boredom and anxiety wear away at the body and mind and the effect on the physical and mental health of people in Direct Provision can be devastating.

Noma says:

‘I won’t lie, I went through this myself and I didn’t see it happening, it was just the little things. I don’t have sleep, no appetite, this and that…and this is what the government is failing to understand because it’s costing the state more to keep people in that way.’

‘I started blaming myself and feeling like a failure, ending up in a place like that.’

Nomaxabiso managed to get on a course, however she says:

‘Somebody else did not have that opportunity that I had and people just fell into depression. They fell deep into depression. I could tell you horrible, horrible stories and people with young children, most of them would lose their children to social services…they couldn’t look after their children because they were depressed.’

Nomaxabiso is just graduating from her degree in social work this year and says that she would like to work with migrants because she understands where people come from, ‘people come with various challenges from various backgrounds.’

Florence too is studying social work in UCC, and both women hope to bring their experiences to help families in the future.

One of the most distressing parts of being an asylum seeker is the threat of deportation which hangs over you. All three women spoke about deportation being the worst aspect of their lives.

Florence described how immigration officials would come in the middle of the night to take people away.

She recalls:

‘They would have their cars and staff members surrounding the buildings…There was this woman we had to hide in the wardrobe with her kids. I’ve never seen anything like that. Those kids were the kind of kids that are very active, but for the first time in my life I saw kids that were quiet. That’s when it dawned on me that the kids knew everything that was happening. It was horrible.’

Florence’s husband was deported, but she was allowed stay while her children’s case was being heard through the courts.

Florence says:

‘I know ten to fifteen women, their husbands were deported and their family has been destroyed.’

All three women spent years trying to rebuild their lives after getting their papers and moving into the wider community. The sudden switch from years of institutional living isn’t easy.

Elsiedescribes how her daughter was six years old when they finally got their papers. Having never lived anywhere other than the Hostel, her daughter couldn’t get used to a house away from the friends she’d grown up living with

: ‘She’d always say, ‘Mum, I don’t want to stay here, let’s go back to the Hostel…maybe if she didn’t spend six years in the Hostel and she just grew up in the house she will just see that is normal.’

Largely hidden away from Irish society, people in Direct Provision rarely have their voices heard, and there’s much we can learn from these women’s experiences.

Bairbre Flood: Life On The Outside (Soundcloud)

Pic: 255 Photography

Cork-based Journalist and human rights activist Bairbre Flood (above) has completed an hour-long radio documentary on Islam In Ireland (available to listen above or at link below).

Bairbre writes:

The radio documentary wasn’t broadcast yet I was getting messages that I shouldn’t be even discussing the subject as a white westerner.

Islam is often seen as a racial construct – and both the xenophobes and the social justice warriors buy into the orientalist view of Islam as a racial identity, not an idea (or set of ideas).

It’s very difficult to have a conversation about the doctrine of Islam within these parameters – everyone tiptoeing around the core tenets, either afraid they’ll inflame the bigots or of being labelled ‘Islamophobic’.

But surely we can hold Islam to the same standards we would fundamentalist Christianity for example – or Catholicism, or Scientology? It’s not a criticism of Muslim people themselves to examine the religion of Islam.

Perhaps the most well known mosque in Ireland, the Irish Islamic Cultural Centre (Clonskeagh Mosque) houses the headquarters of the European Council for Fatwa and Research which issued two particularly worrying fatwas – in 2003, a fatwa stating the punishment for apostasy is death, and one in 2004 stating that all gays should be killed.

The Dublin and Cork Islamic Cultural Centres have been given hundreds of thousands of euros from the al Maktoub Foundation in the UAE, and their particular kind of Wahhabi Islam has a political aim, not just a religious or spiritual one (the ‘Vatican of Islam in Ireland’ as one commentator dubbed them).

Ali Selim, who was secretary to the Imam at the Clonskeagh Mosque is an active supporter of sharia law (see his talk, ‘The Concept of Shari’ah, Islamic Law’ from 2013).

The day after the Charlie Hebdo attck in 2015, Selim was on national radio urging people not to link the attacks with Islam and threatening legal action on any Irish journalist or media outlet which printed the cartoon cover of the magazine published in honour of the people who’d just been killed.

Of course, the IICC doesn’t represent all muslims in Ireland (or even all Sunni Muslims) – there’s a large Ahmadiyya mosque in Galway and also a substantial Sufi community in Dublin. There’s over fifty mosques or prayer rooms throughout the country, most of these funded by the congregation themselves.

There’s over fifty different nationalities within the Muslim community and within that huge differences in how strict individuals are, and variations in how they practice their faith.

Some don’t pray at all, but still identify strongly as Muslim – like many people in Ireland who still identify as Catholic, but rarely go to mass andonly nominally believe in its doctrine. But even with all that in mind, there has been very little research into what Irish Muslims believe and how strongly they believe it.

The only opinion poll on Muslim attitudes was carried out for the Irish Independent and RTÉ’s Prime Time in 2006 and it found that more than a third (36%) would prefer Ireland to be ruled under Sharia law and more than half of young Muslims (57%) believe Ireland should become an Islamic State.

Then there’s the kinds of speakers that are being invited over here.

In May, 2017 the Cork Islamic Information Centre with Discover Islam put on a talk, ‘How To Live With Your Neighbour in Western Countries’ by Uthman Lateef who in 2007 told students at Queen Mary University in the UK:  “We don’t accept homosexuality. We hate it because Allah hates it”.

In March 2016 this mosque on Shandon Street invited a speaker called Shady Al-Suleiman, who once ended a talk in Birmingham in 2014 with ‘“Give victory to all the Mujahideen all over the world. Oh Allah, prepare us for the jihad” and who 2010 organised a conference which featured a talk via phone by Anwar Al-Awlaki (of Al-Qaeda).

In May 2015, Abdurraheem Green gave a talk ‘The Prophet and his Message’ at this same Cork mosque. Green was cancelled from an event at a Montreal university in 2011 after concerns were raised over statements he made about how men may treat their wives: he said, “The husband is allowed – to prevent her from evil – to provide some type of physical force”.

When I emailed the Cork Dawah Centre about these speakers, this was their response:

‘Let me reassure you, we would not have allowed anyone to speak if we had known of any extremist views that they may have had in the past. When I looked into it in the past, as
you’re not the first to question us, many of the individuals and the organisations as a whole have come out and opposed previously held ideas. Which unsurprisingly hasn’t been widely publicised.

Members of the local community including the Gardai and various Lord Mayors have attended these events. Speakers when coming to the centre submit an outline of what they are planning to speak on so that it can be reviewed.

Most of the speakers we have invited in the past have been requested to speak on the importance of manners, not harming others, helping and caring for others in society, etc, as this is considered to be half the faith and the heaviest thing on the last day. This does not fit with the opinions you’ve expressed below. I hope I’ve allayed any fears you may have.’

The kinds of speakers being invited to mosques here and the influence of Wahhabi Islam is only one part of the problem – but at least they are in the public eye and open to scrutiny.

The even deeper problem is the more than forty Irish muslims who’ve gone to fight with ISIS since 2014, some of whom have started returning to Ireland. There’s also over 70 on a watch list, suspected of providing logistical support to terrorist groups in Europe and no anti-radicalisation programme in place here.

Yahya Cholil Staquf, general secretary of the Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s biggest Muslim organization, said:

‘Western politicians should stop pretending that extremism and terrorism have nothing to do with Islam. There is a clear relationship between fundamentalism, terrorism, and the basic assumptions of Islamic orthodoxy…The West must stop ascribing any and all discussion of these issues to “Islamophobia.” Or do people want to accuse me — an Islamic scholar — of being an Islamophobe too?’ –

This isn’t to demonise in any way the thousands of Muslims living here – or to diminish the very real effect anti-Muslim bias can have on their lives, but at the same time we can start holding Islam to the same standards as we’ve done in recent years here in Ireland with Catholicism, and strive for a similar insistence on the primacy of secular values.

It’s also important for us to provide a safe environment for Muslims to critique their religion (unlike in many parts of the world where it can mean dishonour, arrest, beatings and even death).

Ireland has an opportunity to be a safe house for Muslims to publish their ideas – for ex-Muslims to feel free to tell their experiences – and for moderate, liberal Muslims to find support and solidarity here.

Islam In ireland (Soundcloud)


Screen Shot 2016-08-15 at 13.17.43


Human rights activist Bairbre Flood, from Cork, has created an hour-long radio documentary, The Hungry Road, in which she speaks to people seeking refuge who are subsisting in the makeshift camp in Calais, France.

Bairbre writes:

The police have stopped volunteers bringing in building materials so with the influx of around 70 new people a day, many are living in cramped tents.

One medic from Ireland, Elena Lydon, who regularly works in the camp,said that ‘for the first time people were coming up saying they were hungry to us in the first aid caravans.’

Most of us know of all this, as Calais has been substantially reported on this last year, but what are people really like in the camp? Where have they come from – geographically, culturally, personally?

‘The Hungry Road’, a reference to the Irish famine, is an attempt to get behind the statistics and hear what some individuals have to say about living in what most described as ‘hell’.

Everyone I talked to had endured incredibly traumatic events in both their original countries and along the road seeking refuge in Europe.

Blocked at the final hurdle, many are now seeking asylum in France, but have to wait in the camp while their application is being processed.

Others are trying desparately to reach family members in Britain where they feel people are more sympathetic to refugees and not as racist as the French.

Many speak English already and say that there are better job and study opportunities there.

Still, others have heard that the asylum process is much quicker than in France and they will be able to apply for family reunification for loved ones who could get no further than Lebanon, Turkey and other countries.

Whatever their reasons, and there are many – they have the right to be treated with respect and allowed to choose the country which they feel will be best for them and their families. That’s what Irish people have been doing for generations.

There are about 50,000 undocumented Irish migrants working in the US illegally. Imagine if Irish people in the States were treated the way the people in Calais are treated?

Police regularly tear-gas the camp and almost everyone I interviewed had been beaten or pepper-sprayed by the CRS. One man told me how a police officer took one of his shoes when he caught him near the town. Another, of how he was pepper-sprayed in the face at the train station.

And the utter feeling of neglect is palpable in an EU that spends more on border fences, tear-gas, scanners, dogs and razor wire than it does on caring for peoples basic needs or allowing them safe passage.

How can we justify that? What is it like for people already suffering, to have to deal with this abuse and neglect?

Bairbre created the documentary with the assistance of the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund.

Yearning Curve (Bairbre Flood)

Previously: ‘We’d Settle For Animal Rights’

Pic: Isolda Heavy

Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 14.48.34

Human rights activist Bairbre Flood, from Cork, is just back from the refugee camp in Calais, France.

She writes:

The French are out walking their dogs every evening. We see them on the streets minding their dogs while, some miles down the road, people are living and dying in the camp. Will they say they didn’t know what was going on when their children ask them? Will we say we didn’t know what was going on when our children ask?

Driving through Calais on the first night, groups of men walked through the shuttered town on their desperate mission to jump the train and find refuge in England. Ghost-like, from another world, their faces exhausted and determined. Many of these people will fall off the trains, sucked up into the tunnel and forgotten by all but their friends and family who see this happening and still have to go on. Why would someone risk life and limb to get to England?

A man from Afghanistan showed me a scar from his wrist to his elbow which he’d gotten trying to jump the train. ‘I’m not trying anymore. I will stay here for now. I’m here 6 months, but I can’t go home. The Taliban will kill me, it’s too dangerous to go home.’

He was clearing an area to set up a café on the camp. Whenever we passed that day he was clearing rubbish, filling in soil. He told us the Irish could eat there anytime, for helping him clean up the space. ‘I have to do something or I’ll go crazy.’ He had soft eyes, a warm face. His friend started talking to us.

‘When I was 12 my father sold our land so we could escape. When he was coming back he was robbed and murdered. Since then I’ve been wandering. I got to England and worked there, but they arrested me one day and deported me back to Afghanistan.

‘I came all the way back here, walking for months. In Hungary they beat me and put me in jail, but I know how to get around.’

He took a drag from his cigarette and grimaced. He must have had some creativity and strength to survive even this long. I thought back to when I was 12 and what I would have done. I don’t think I’d have lasted a year with all that’s stacked against ‘migrants’ in this Dickensian parallel universe.

We heard many stories of horrendous boat journeys, months walking across Europe – detained in each country, sometimes jailed or beaten by police. And then arriving in Calais to absolute neglect.

Apart from citizen aid, they would have nothing at all. As it is, there are few toilets (overflowing), E.coli in the couple of water taps, rubbish piling up and sporadic food/clothes distributions. There’s also incredible people who’ve built a library, a church/community centre, cafés, shops and restaurants – again, the creativity and strength of the people living here is mind blowing.

Suzanne’s café is a little oasis.

‘I want it to be somewhere people feel safe and can relax,’ Suzanne’s husband tells us. ‘We came by boat from Libya. It cost thousands for the boat trip, but we had to do it. We couldn’t stay.’

They brought out sweet coffee and tea while we were talking. Everywhere we went, people offered us water, tea, coffee, food, whatever they had – which was often almost nothing.

This generosity and welcome is in stark contrast to how the French authorities treat them. On the first day there, some of our team came across the police pepper-spraying women crossing a bridge. They leaned out of the squad car and sprayed right into their faces, just as these women were walking. You can see in the video, above, it was a completely unprovoked attack.

We also heard first-hand stories of beatings by the police, dogs being set upon them and detention and torture in cells.

‘We’re in the 21st century, but David Cameron is in another age.’ one Sudanese man said to us, ‘Why does he do what he does? He’s a donkey. Every night I go to the train. They took the muzzle off the dog, they beat us. Our sisters fall, they’re electrocuted, we are being killed.’

His friends stand around and shake their heads, they all ask us why we don’t want them.

We came back to Ireland after just four days on camp. None of us wanted to leave. It’s hard to describe the feeling of leaving people to this existence, of knowing what’s going on right in the heart of our so-called democratic continent. The trucks continue their journeys safely and people are trapped or attempting dangerous escapes.

‘We don’t even want human rights at this stage,’ one guy told us, ‘We’d settle for animal rights. The way you treat your dogs, we’d be happy with that.’

Ireland Calais Refugee Solidarity

Bairbre Flood

Meanwhile, free Thursday night?


You can buy tickets online for €10 here

Thanks Sarah Peters