Daniel Nelson

Calais Migrants

Calais Migrants

Image by Christian Payne

This reminder of Calais’ past and present was given by Robert Tombs, a University of Cambridge history professor, at the opening of a fascinating exhibition in east London, Call Me By My Name: Stories from Calais and Beyond.

He recalled that for 200 years Calais was part of England. Today a small part of it is occupied by people trying to live here.

Once it was the route through which the British went to Europe. Now it is a symbol of the desperate effort of migrants and refugees to leave Europe in the hope of opportunity in Britain.

The controversy that still surrounds the place raised its head again at the exhibition opening, when Ahmad Al-Rashid, who arrived from Syria two months ago, was interrupted as he told the story of his escape with the help of faked passports, dangerous seas and refrigerated lorries.

A fellow fugitive from violence told him that he was wrong to give details of his journey, because it might endanger the attempts of others in the camp to reach Britain. His criticism was supported by another member of the audience.

Al-Rashid apologised and explained that his intention was to honour the residents of the Calais camp, which he described as “the worst place I’ve ever seen in my life”.

It was extraordinary, he added, that the 28 member countries of the European Union could not solve the problem of the few thousand people in the camp, widely known as The Jungle.

The exhibition itself is fascinating, lively and diverse. It has photographs, film, audio interviews, sculptures (including a line of 300 hand-made figures walking in the same direction), maps of the camp, recordings, reconstructed camp buildings, testimonies, drawings and an installation of lifejackets abandoned on the beaches of the Greek island of Kos and here embedded with the stories of their wearers. Many of the jackets are fake – more proof if any were needed of human callousness.

The work by camp residents, professional artists and visitors is powerfully moving and really does put a human face on camp residents. 

“Their stories are the heart of the exhibition,” co-curator Sue McAlpine said at the opening of the exhibition, which is organised by the Migration Museum project (aim: to establish a permanent, dedicated migration museum that will examine the role of migration – inward and outward – throughout British history).

She said it showed the transformative power of creativity – “It counteracts the darkness of those who live ‘under the tarpaulin’.” 

Superb show.

* Call Me By My Name: Stories from Calais and Beyond is at is at the Londonewcastle Project Space, 28 Redchurch Street, E2, until 22 June, free. Info: http://migrationmuseum.org/exhibition/calaisstories/  

+ 16 June, A Syrian Love Story, screening of documentary, 6-8pm, Londonewcastle Project Space, 28 Redchurch Street, E2

 + 18 June, Interactive Workshops, Nomad and Denys Blacker, 5-6pm, Londonewcastle Project Space, 28 Redchurch Street, E2

20 JuneBig Ideas, Big Questions? Pop-up Profs, Engin Isin and Bridget Anderson, 4-7pm, Londonewcastle Project Space, 28 Redchurch Street, E2

21 JuneThe Ethics of People-Smuggling, panel discussion, 7-9pm, free, Londonewcastle Project Space, 28 Redchurch Street, E2

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