In the moment of crisis, the wise build bridges, the foolish build dams.
I’ve been looking at my passport with greater attention lately. It worries me that much of my privileged existence is tied up in a pocket-sized book sealed with the stamp of approval by Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth II. The much sought-after British passport. To acquire this privilege, I did nothing other than to come into this world in a hospital in an industrial city in the heart of England. The hospital no longer exists, but I still have my passport.
The golden coat of arms of the English royal family printed on the front has somewhat faded from frequent bouts of wanderlust and the thumbprints of strangers. Like the Border Officer in the port of Calais just a few weeks ago. Taking in my physical appearance, I’m sure he noted to himself that my face was not so different from the refugees trying to escape. Sitting comfortably in a rented car with friends, we drove effortlessly into a waiting ferry. It carried us back to the white cliffs of Dover across the English channel, a mere 25-mile stretch from the French coast.
We left behind towering security fences topped with razor wires. On the other side, thousands of refugees remain trapped between the homes they fled and a searing rejection in the lands they chose to seek refuge. In a mere five days, my life was shifted by those resilient to all that life threw at them and the people who buoyed their hopes in troubled times. Determined to join forces, me and my friends came together to offer a lending hand. From six different faith traditions, we went with one common cause. We pooled our resources to work with grassroots organisations taking the place of the Welfare State. We slipped into their cohort of an Anglo-French band of brothers and sisters, to offer hospitality to guests lost in the land of strangers.
On our arrival at Calais, the air around me felt heavy and burdensome as if trudging through thick mud. We drove a short distance to the charity warehouse hidden away in a desolate industrial estate. Straight away we joined in the hub of activity brimming with life. With two daily meals needing to be prepared every day for refugees scattered around Calais and Dunkirk, we chopped through endless boxes of vegetables whilst making sure the bread baskets were never empty.
On other days, we sorted through clothes to help insulate our guests from distant lands, not familiar with the cold European climate. Great efforts were taken to ensure each blanket and tent taken from refugees was promptly replaced. Somewhere in Northern France, there are piles of ripped tents and sleeping bags soaked with teargas. We kept warm in the freezing February temperatures with layers of hats, scarves and thick coats as we worked. When our feet became numb with the cold, we took breaks with steaming hot cups of tea. I wondered how much warmth is generated by the morning distribution of firewood given to refugees dispersed in the woods of Calais.
On the final few days, I had the opportunity to join the food distribution teams. Pulling up in our van on a disused plot of land, the landscape was bleak and barren of trees and instead dotted with pylons. Serving measured portions of curry, rice, and salad I was happy to remove my apron and join the crowds on the other side of the serving table.
I spoke to Eritreans, Ethiopians and Afghans in a language I didn’t know we had in common; Hindi. In our globalised world it’s often easy to forget that we may have more common tools at our disposal than we realise. They spoke of their hopes and fears. Their wishes to join family members on the other side of the English Channel. Their deep faith and conviction shone through the downcast sky of late evening.
Driving to a food distribution site in Dunkirk the following day, we arrived at a somewhat different environment, to a quaint nature reserve. The reflection of a setting sun sank slowly into the lake near us as we served the evening meals. Communicating with some of the refugees through broken bits of English, I wished that I spoke Farsi or Arabic. But their English was good enough to understand my love for “Maulana.” A single word that still lights fires in hearts around our world. Like them, Maulana Rumi was a refugee who fled from war, in his case, by invading Mongol armies in modern day Afghanistan.
Soon enough, my thoughts had become distracted. I was haunted by the images of a scene I had witnessed the day before. Clouds of tear gas chased a group of refugees as they fled from people in power holding emptied canisters. I turned to the words of Maulana for guidance in how to hold opposing feelings in the palm of my hand, of joy and sorrow as my heart opened and closed,
Observe the qualities of expansion and
in the fingers of your hand:
surely after the closing of the fist comes the
If the fingers were always closed or always open,
the owner would be crippled.
Your movement is governed by these two
they are as necessary to you
as two wings are to a bird.
MASNAVI III 3762-66
My memory sped back to just a few months ago, to the hills of Kashmir. As I had watched my father being carried to the ancestral burial ground, a golden crested Hoopoe bird had perched itself on a kikar tree directly in my line of vision. I was mesmerised by this majestic bird native to the region, as my father, shrouded in simple white cloth, was laid to rest in the soil deep in the earth. Through swollen eyes tired from red-eyed flights and my unexpected loss, the beauty of this orange-breasted bird momentarily cut through my grief. Even in the darkest moments, beauty finds its way back to us.
I resolved to keep the warmth of the refugees I met and to guard our interactions in my heart. I felt no anger towards those following orders and abusing their positions of power, only sadness. Somewhere along the line, their lives had hardened their hearts and made them immune to the suffering around them. My sorrow was reflected back to me in the darkness of cloudy Calais skies and the desolation of a grey seafront. The image of waves of murky water washed over me,
Or its similitude is that depths of darkness upon an abysmal sea, covered by a wave above which is another wave, above which is clouds, creating darkness piled one upon another;
when he puts forth his hand, he would scarcely see it. He to whom God assigns no light, he will have no light.
I turned to my friends to buoy my faith. We spoke deeply and openly about focusing on the changes we could make, however small. Our kinship across different faith traditions and belief systems renewed my faith in humanity.
There was harmony in our exchanges to balance the dissonance caused by policies and decrees designed to separate and exclude. I reflected back and forth between our differences before resting on common ground. We created a circle of light between us, illuminated by awakened hearts. Our approaches were different but our aims were the same; to build bridges to transcend man-made frontiers. Working side by side, we worked with established groups of volunteers who had created a haven of inclusivity, respect, and mutual appreciation.
I reflected on the power of interfaith kinship in past times. I thought back to the first group of Muslims fleeing persecution by the Arab Elite in the 7th century. They crossed the Red Sea by boat to seek refuge in Abyssinia, modern day Ethiopia. The ruling Christian King was urged to turn them away, their reputations smeared as criminals. When that failed, the wealthy elites tried in vain to create divisions by pointing out the obvious differences in belief between the Christian hosts and the Muslim refugees.
The elites failed to sway the King, who instead chose to honour their shared love of Jesus and Mary. The refugees were saved. I looked at my group of friends and recognised a shared value for humanity that overrides any differences in semantics. Were it not for intolerance and grossly disproportionate power struggles, many would not have had to flee their homelands in the first place.
I’ve come back home with a heavy dose of reality, countered by an unshakeable belief in the volunteers who remain in Calais. Regular updates tell me that the inclusive vegan meals suitable for all, given by the charity, have been halted as I write. Meat and potatoes have been replaced on the menu made by hands which don’t hold the same love of the people I worked with. Despite this, my experience has given me a sense of optimism and hope that I have never felt before. It’s not a lazy hope flimsily held by magical thinking and vague sympathies but rather an authentic hope founded on affirmative action taken in a constructive manner.
On our final day, the clouds broke free to let the Sun takes its rightful place. I smiled as I looked up at the blue sky sinking into a sea brightened by much-needed light. The colour matched a bright blue feather I had picked up near my fathers grave in late November. A well- recited verse circled in my mind,
And when it is said to them, “Spend from that which God has provided for you,” those who disbelieve say to those who believe, “Should we feed one whom, if God had willed, He would have fed? You are not but in clear error.”
Beyond the battle between the ethics of right and wrong, beyond the basics of food and shelter, is the need to nourish the souls of others. Somewhere between the shores of Dunkirk and Calais is a man holding a Farsi-English dictionary learning a new language through translations of the poetic verses of Hafez and Rumi. Maybe one day I’ll understand the Farsi version and he’ll know the English version off by heart. One word that is shared between our cultures is khuda hafiz, (“God protect you“) our shared etiquette of saying goodbye.