Friday, 25 September 2015

Jungle Books

By Catriona Troth

On a piece of waste ground outside Calais, rapidly turning into a sea of mud in the autumn rains, is a tent city of refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan. Many of them are highly educated people whose studies have been curtailed by war. Others are children who are desperate to go to school.

In the middle of this, lie a couple of brightly decorated tents which house Livres de la Jungle -  the Jungle Library.

The founder of the Jungle Library is Mary Jones. Originally from Wales, Jones now teaches in Amiens, some 160km from Calais.

“Ever since the previous centre at Sangatte closed, I’ve been keeping an eye on things here. I knew I wanted to do something, but I kept telling myself I was just too far away. But then I thought, ‘just go.’ Perhaps I could offer English lessons.”

She spent a lot of time just sitting and watching, trying to understand what the needs really were.

“I knew the reason a lot of them wanted to get to England was in order to study. I thought maybe I could get books from people like the Open University. But I knew reading should also be for pleasure.”

She began by clearing out her own bookshelves, and the library grew from there. Livres de la Jungle
was set up in a couple of tents. After an article appeared in the Guardian, they were flooded with books, especially novels.

"It's lovely. But what is really needed can be quite specific. There are different groups of users. Some are highly educated and desperate to continue their studies. They can be looking for books about chemistry or engineering, say. Others want very basic books to help them learn – not just English, but French too. And then there are the children.”

There are simple practical needs too. A generator to provide electricity. A lock on the door. Warmth. Jones set up a crowd-funder (now closed) in order to address some of those needs and to deflect people from spending money on expensive postage for books.

“A photographer provided us with some laptops, which were already loaded with the language teaching software, Rosetta Stone. We have no security, and when they first appeared, a few of them walked out of the tent. But then a few days later, they walked back in again.”

She would love to be able to provide decent WiFi, which the refugees could use to speak to their families via Skype, or to access free online courses such as MOOCs.

“My ambition is for this be a warm space where people can come and just have a few minutes of normality. “

One group supporting the Jungle Library is Exiled Writers Ink. They are going to be in the Jungle Library performance space one day during the week of 5th October. Exiled and refugee spoken word poets and prose writers will perform their work in the languages of the refugees. They have put out an appeal specifically for books in Arabic, Tigrinea, Amharic, Dari, Pashto, Farsi and Somali, to be brought to the Exiled Lit Cafe night at 22 Betterton Street, London WC2 9BX, on 5th October, having first contacted

The day I interviewed Jones, two other things happened. Firstly, another of her great supporters, the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green London, brought over a delivery of donated books. Secondly, French police choose to bulldoze a small encampment of Syrians who are outside the Jungle.

“They had built themselves a little community by on old warehouse and garden,” Jones tells me. “I don’t think their relationship with the neighbouring houses was that great. I had bought them a generator, but they told me they didn’t dare use it because it would make too much noise.

“They were already traumatised, by what they had left behind, and what they had been through to get here. And one of their group had recently been electrocuted. And now they’ve lost everything, all over again.”

Simon Key from the Big Green Bookshop witnessed the aftermath.

“The people in the camp are in an impossible situation,” he wrote on Twitter. “It was horrible to see how they were treated.”

The Big Green Bookshop has raised almost £3k for the library. It began as a local appeal, after Key read about the library in the Guardian. Then their appeal was mentioned in the Telegraph and picked up on BBC News, and the whole thing spiralled. At one point they were receiving twenty parcels a day with books to take to Calais.  As a final flourish, they had a mammoth sale of second hand books. Then on 21st September, they drove over to Calais with the donated books.

That morning police in Calais blocked all the entrances to the Jungle and they were redirected to a massive warehouse. They described seeing people picking through the rubble of 300 smashed up tents, looking for their stuff. "Everyone came to help," Key told me. "The camaraderie was incredible."

“The people here are so friendly & positive, despite all that's happened," he wrote, when they arrived in the Jungle.  "Their attitude is inspiring."

And their books did make it through to the library, as Jones confirmed to me a couple of days later.

"I don't want this to be a one off." Key told me. "I have been contacting other indie bookshops, so we can make this a regular thing. We want to ensure the library always has fresh supply of books."

At the end of our interview, I asked Jones what her greatest hope is. I was thinking about her greatest hope for the library, but characteristically, her vision was much broader.

“My greatest hope is for these lovely people to be able to live a normal family life. To build a home somewhere that isn’t on a rubbish dump. To be safe and secure.”

If you would like to help the Calais Jungle Library, PLEASE DO NOT JUST SEND BOOKS. They have set up a Facebook page, and they will be using that to let people know about specific requirements for help.

If you have connections with any of these things:

  • Materials for teaching either English OR French as a foreign language
  • Academic books, especially science, maths and engineering
  • Books in the languages of the main groups at the camp (Arabic, Tigrinea, Amharic, Dari, Pashto, Farsi and Somali)
  • Dictionaries from those languages into English and/or French 
again, DO NOT SEND THEM DIRECTLY, but please contact Mary Jones (maryjones[at]orange[dot]fr ) and ask how best you can help.


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