The Kitchens of Calais
Photographer James Fisher and writer Shane Mitchell on Hunger and Hospitality in “The Jungle” a makeshift refugee camp in Calais, France.
Food security remains to be one of the ongoing challenges faced by people seeking refuge across Europe. This project was originally shared in January 2016 via the @opensocietyfoundations Instagram.
Photography: James Fisher
Words: Shane Mitchell
In 1948, The United Nations General Assembly recognized the Right to Food, which protects the right of people to be free from hunger and malnutrition, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and has since noted that it is vital for the enjoyment of all other rights.
Sudanese refugees have continued this tradition in the Jungle even after leaving their troubled homeland. “When guests come a long way or someone is dear to your heart, we honor them with this dish,” says his friend Hamada. What do you crave when you can’t go home again? Or worse, fear you might be sent back?
The French term “lieux en vie,” or places of life, define essential structures in the Jungle, including churches, schools, and communal kitchens, but does not extend to individual dwellings of those seeking asylum, like the flimsy tent of these three Kurdish friends who journeyed together from Iraq.
“We offer this drink to guests in the morning and evening,” says Hamada. “During the day, we drink plain tea. If you have cinnamon, okay. If you don’t, no problem.” All cooking utensils and housewares, plain or fancy, are donated from volunteer organizations such as CalAid, @helprefugeesuk and L’Auberge des Migrants, which coordinate the collection and distribution of housewares, bedding, clothing and materials for shelter.
“Everyone deserves to eat,” says Cecelia Bittner of Calais Kitchens, one of the volunteer organizations that distribute supplies in the Jungle. “Our goal is to help to people cook for themselves. We are feeding about 7,000 people, and expect another thousand in the next month, but last week we ran out of everything for the first time. It was horrifying.” Cecelia is one of the four Feed Sisters, who drive the Calais Kitchen van to deliver groceries. Everyone has preferences, too. “Sudanese don’t want chickpeas, the Afghans don’t eat lentils or tinned fish, and so we’ve done our best to have more choices. And I know how to say ‘flour’ in four languages.”
Everyone in the camp eats garlic. It’s one of the most in-demand staples for the multi-cultural population, which includes refugees from Pakistan, Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan and elsewhere, who have settled on the outskirts of this port city in northern France. “What is more important than food?” muses Cecelia Bittner of Calais Kitchens, an umbrella organization that supplies staples to both individual and volunteer kitchens. “People in the Jungle now know they have access to food; being able to cook for themselves is critical. Weekly, we give out 4148 kg of lentils, 8112 tins of tomatoes, 4348 tins of red kidney beans, 4148 kg of sugar, 4348 liters of milk, 108,700 tea bags, 5000 kg of onions, 2174 liters of oil and 2174 packets of biscuits.”
Joannes Leo Africanus (c.1465–1550), the diplomat and explorer who wrote “Descrittore dell’Africa” in the 16th century documented an early recipe for aseeda prepared with argan oil. “When you eat this dish, you remember many things back home, all the family gathering together,” explains Rasha’s friend Hamada. In the Jungle, when flour is scarce, aseeda is sometimes prepared with stockpiled stale French bread, crushed to a fine powder. “It makes aseeda look strange to us but the taste is okay.”
July 14th is the day when France celebrates Bastille Day, which commemorates the storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution. Shortly afterward in 1789, the Assembly Constituante issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Article XVII states: “Property being an inviolable and sacred right, no one can be deprived of private usage, if it is not when the public necessity, legally noted, evidently requires it, and under the condition of a just and prior indemnity.” However, this bill of rights does not apply to undocumented asylum seekers, who were forced from their shelters with little notice, or time to gather their modest belongings. A failure on the state level, as perceived by some, to offer basic hospitality to those in need.
W.H. Auden once wrote: “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” In the Jungle, public tap stations are the only way to access running water for washing or cooking. Clean water remains in short supply in this former landfill, and must be carried long distances through the encampment to boil tea or coffee on makeshift stoves. Tim Shenk of @doctorswithoutborders reports: “Today the Jungle sits on half the surface area of the original site and overcrowding is heightening tensions within a vulnerable population….Additionally, due to the constant flow of arrivals to the Jungle, water and sanitation facilities remain a major concern.”
Milly Scott-Steele supervised a soup kitchen in the Jungle known as “One Spirit Ashram” for six months. The Manchester student says: “My Dad is a head chef and my Mum was born into the hotel world, so I was brought up in pubs and restaurants. I love the hospitality side of it, sharing meals with people. That’s why I went into the Jungle.” Most grassroots food efforts are fueled by crowdfunding and social media campaigns. “We put together meals from whatever is donated,” says Scott-Steele. “Mostly vegetarian curries. One day, the warehouse at L’Auberge des Migrants got an overload of canned salmon, so we served salmon and cream cheese for breakfast. The line cooks were mostly [Kurdish] refugees, who brought their own recipes. I’m still in touch with almost all the guys who worked in the kitchen.” Scott-Steele is currently headed to King’s College in London to commence graduate studies in global ethics and human values.
Housed in a festival tent with a shipping container for a pantry, The Ashram Kitchen served about 1,000 hot meals daily before this section of the encampment was demolished. “I was there that morning, when the riot police came into the Jungle,” says Milly Scott-Steele. “Pretty crazy times.” When forced to move, this soup kitchen transferred operations to a smaller yurt in the northern section of the Jungle. And while Little Ashram Cafe burned down in May, when a fire swept through the Jungle, the volunteer organization keeps rising from the ashes to serve hot meals and act as a community gathering space.
“People will nominate a driver, hire a van, haul it over. They turn up with whatever might be useful. Onions are massively in demand. They’re the base for so much. We do get some random deliveries. We’ve got way too many sweets and fizzy drinks.” Burr is one of the four “Feed Sisters,” who drive the @calaiskitchens delivery van in the Jungle. L’Auberge Des Migrants and @helprefugeesuk are other umbrella organizations that have evolved their methods and response to the refugee crisis as required, whether relocating hot meal facilities or providing ration packages or bulk food collection and dispersal.
Originally from Pakistan, Rahet preps naan dough for his tandoor in a provisional bakery set up last winter. For €1, he sells two pillowy, chewy loaves of bread straight from the scorching hot oven, which is cheaper than the average price of a baguette in Calais. “I sleep here too,” he says. “The oven keeps this place comfortable.” Some refugees have opened modest shops and restaurants in the Jungle, where their countrymen can get a taste of home.
“We’re completely hand-to-mouth,” says Mary Jones of Kid’s Café and Jungle Books. “But kids were disappearing, there was no place for them to come, be safe, or study their lessons, and the best way to encourage that is through a kid’s stomach.” Jones partnered with a refugee named Sikander Noristany to open a restaurant and rec room where children could get a free hot meal in a safe space. (At current estimate, over 500 unaccompanied minors, ranging in age from 8–17, are living in the Jungle.) “When we have the funds, we serve about 200 meals a day, normally a Kabuli pilau of rice, carrots and raisins along with a meat korma, because the majority of the minors are from Afghanistan.” Jones, a British citizen who resides in Pas-de-Calais, has been volunteering in the encampment for 15 months. “Sikander is the one who is really running it,” she says. “He’s an uncle figure to the kids.”
Ali has a degree in economics but learned to cook from his mother. “In Pakistan, I helped my Mum in the kitchen,” he grins. “She said I would make a wife very happy.” Ali prepares the same menu day after day: plain rice, spinach saag, kidney bean and lentil dal, masala chicken thighs. French fries, it turns out, are the lingua franca of mealtime; in this Babel of food cultures, everyone eats them. Ali’s restaurant, called “3 Idiots” after a Bollywood blockbuster, is often busiest at five o’clock in the morning, when weary men return from unsuccessful bids to climb into trucks, but when the weather is inclement, as is often the case on the blustery north coast of France, it’s also a far more companionable shelter than a tent.
While his friend Ali cooks at 3 Idiots, Osom, a 47-year-old Pakistani manages their adjacent grocery shop and safeguards valuables of volunteers dining in the restaurant. He sells canned goods, hand-rolled cigarettes, bananas, and energy drinks, popular with Jungle refugees staying awake all night to plan onward travel. “We’re from the same region,” he explains, when asked about meeting his business partner. “But then we found each other here, and said, ‘Oh, you’re here? You’re here!’”