The Geographic Lottery

The Evening Standard

Photograph by Greg Williams

There are no hot water facilities where they live, and the queue for a cold shower can take up to two hours. The nearest toilet is a five -minute walk away, outside. They share it with five hundred people. Five minutes can feel very long in the dark if you’re 2 and a half, 5, or 10, and there are rats to encounter on the way. The children don’t go to school. Rebecca misses it. There isn’t one where they live. There is cholera, scarlet fever, dysentery and impetigo.

Seventeen -year old Ben is their neighbor. He’s an orphan. He was sleeping by candle- light when the nylon of his sleeping bag caught the flame and burnt 70% of his body, leaving him in a coma. He woke on Monday, alone in a hospital, to discover that his leg had been amputated below the knee. Nobody in the hospital could explain what had happened to him because he had just arrived and cannot speak the local language.

Richard is a civil engineer. He loves to bake. He speaks three languages, fluently.

He hasn’t seen his wife and kids for a year and a half, and he winces when he speaks their names. He does not know when he will see them next. His parents and brother are in Canada. He, like Sasha and her family, is living in limbo, waiting.

That limbo is the largest refugee camp in Calais. The names above are actually Syrian, Ethiopian or Afghani, but the people and their stories are real. Richard applied for asylum in Canada in December. He qualifies for asylum, as do Sasha’s family. He is living under a tarpaulin. His wife and children are currently stuck in a refugee camp in Jordan; he is desperate to be reunited with them. Ben fled Ethiopia after his friend was shot during peaceful student protests. He also meets the criteria to receive asylum.

If you were to travel ninety minutes and sit face to face with these weary people and their stories you’d want to do everything you could to help. You’d be left breathless and outraged. You would look at Lily, Daniel and Rebecca, and be haunted by them afterwards, as you tucked your children in. You would think about their pregnant mother, what it must have been like for her, getting on a dinghy with her children, surrounded by black sea and strangers, because that was her best option. You would imagine the baker from Daraa, and his eyes when he said,

“I loved my country. I didn’t want to leave. This is not who I am.”

The image of Ben, in his hospital bed, the others, they take up residence in you. You think about geographic lottery, think of these people when you shower in hot water, when you wash your clothes, when your kids are wet after the rain and can get dry and warm.

“We are apathetic because can afford to be.” Volunteer Ruth Elborn says. “We watch it on the telly and say isn’t it awful, and then don’t do anything further, because we can’t engage with the tragedy of it. It’s the bystander effect; people think someone else must be doing something. And in this instance, very few are.”

There are under a 100 volunteers looking after the needs of 5168 people in Calais alone.

Britain was once known as a nation of compassion. We met war- time refugees with efficiency and kindness. This was our cultural identity, our legacy.

Please help.