Conversations From Calais

Conversations From Calais documents conversations between volunteers and migrants who have met in Calais with the aim of re-humanising those affected by the refugee crisis.

We caught up with Mathilda, who started Conversations From Calais after volunteering in the Calais refugee camps, to talk about how detrimental the dehumanisation of refugees is to their safety and ongoing refugee crisis we are facing.

What inspired you to start Conversations From Calais?

I had been volunteering in Calais for various organisations on and off for a year and a half, and every time I came back, I felt the need to share what I see, hear and experience there. I felt so angry about how migrants where portrayed in the media, especially when arriving in the UK from Northern France. I wanted to break away from how migrants were portrayed in mainstream media by remembering, documenting and commemorating banal but intimate and relatable conversations. I have also always been so inspired by how so many grass-root organisations have managed help so many displaced people living in Calais and that really motivated to start this project. I couldn’t really sit here in silence any longer.

So in October 2019, I took the train from London down to Dover and to paste up my first set of posters using home-made glue I had made that morning. These were based on my own personal conversations I’d had, so it felt liberating but also scary to put them up for anyone to read. I knew that once they were up in the streets, they weren’t really mine anymore. On the same day, I also created an Instagram account to have some sort of visual archive of all the posters. Suddenly, this project seemed to resonate with lots of people and got lots of attention online. I’ve been pasting up conversations and sharing them on social media since that day. We have now collected and shared with the world over 200 conversations.

How do you find people react to the stories you share?

It is obvious that lots of these conversations are difficult and heartbreaking to read, as they show the reality of living in Calais as a displaced person, which is usually pretty horrendous. Some other conversations are positive, funny or full of hope, so all in all peoples’ reactions to these stories are really varied. Nonetheless, this is a human project before being a political one, which I think is why people respond well to these stories as it helps them imagine someone behind the generic statistics they so often come across.

A huge part of what you do is based on re-humanising those affected by the refugee crisis, which is a big problem a lot of refugee charities are also tackling, what do you think is the biggest challenge to this?

Re-humanising the refugee crisis is at the core of this project and of so many other charities and projects. This is a challenging aim to have because mainstream media and politicians constantly de-humanise displaced people all over the world and create a sense of fear of the other, the foreign and the unknown in their readers. I have found that the best way to tackle this issue is to highlight individual voices and stories that may feel banal or sometimes even relatable, in order for people to see there is no different between us and them.

From all the stories you have heard, is there one in particular which has stayed with you?

It is very difficult for me to pick out one conversation to talk about out of all of these, because they are all give small glimpses of life, routines, emotions and moments from Calais. One that comes to mind right now, is a conversation that a volunteer submitted a few months ago. “You noticed my cracked hands from the cold as we were having tea together. You instead on giving me some hand cream and told me to take care of my hands. I will never forget the kindness and warmth you showed me in that moment, even after all the hostility you had experienced from the world.” This conversation always makes me smile when I read it as it portrays so much of what I experienced in Calais, which was endless giving and kindness. Endless giving from people who currently don’t own many things in the situation they are in and from people who have experienced so much hostility, greed and discrimination on their journeys to the UK. I hope as many people as possible read this conversation, and then read more of these conversations and realise that there are so many different sides to Calais, not only the one reported in the news.

Finally, from your experience, what can people be doing to help out amidst this refugee crisis?

  • Download posters from our website and paste up in their city
  • Submit their own conversations if they have volunteered in Calais
  • Translate posters in different languages
  • By getting in touch about other ways of collaborating or helping the grow reach a wider audience
  • Be kind – by treating everyone you meet with humanity and respect.
  • Be open – by raising awareness on what is happening in Calais, by sharing it on your social media and by never refusing to stop talking about it.
  • Be political – by demanding changes from your government, by voting for people and parties that consider this issue in their policies, by protesting and by signing petitions defending refugees and migrants all over the world
  • Be active – by donating your time or money to organisations provide different kinds of help in Calais or other refugee camps – there’s a long list of these on the website
  • Be generous – by supporting businesses employing or supporting refugees wherever you live in the world

Find out more about Mathilda and Conversations From Calais

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