Over the summer, I spent some time with a charity working with refugees in Calais and other European cities such as Dunkirk, Paris and Brussels. There are no words or photos that can portray the horrendous conditions these men, women and children live in. Nothing to convey the injustices and brutality they face at the hands of the police. And nothing to describe the anguish and pain these people endure every minute of every day.
These refugees had as little as a wet and soiled sleeping bag, yet their smiles and hospitality were heart-warming.
Whilst volunteering for Care4Calais, I had the pleasure of meeting Pierre, also a volunteer. However, Pierre was not your typical volunteer. He was a refugee. A man who had endured the hardships of fleeing from persecution and struggling with adapting to a new life on a different continent, with new languages, culture and people.
I interviewed Pierre about his journey from Burundi, a small country in East Africa, to Belgium where he has eventually settled.
Burundian unrest began in April 2015 when the president of Burundi announced he would be seeking a third term in office, which is a violation of the country’s constitution which states no president can be elected for more than two terms. This resulted in widespread protests when the highest court approved Nkurunziza’s return to presidency — after four of the seven judges fled the country due to death threats from members of government.
Despite the peaceful demonstrations, government referred to those who protested as ‘terrorists’ and shut down all universities and closed the internet and telephone networks. Those involved with the protests started being arrested and killed, thus leading to thousands fleeing the country. Pierre was one of the many peaceful protesters.
Pierre counted himself as one of the lucky ones, stating that most of his friends who were involved ended up ‘in prison or had been killed’. He said ‘anything unthinkable you can imagine, happened’. Women and children were killed, raped or forced into sex slavery and the country turned into a violent dictatorship.
When did you flee Burundi?
I fled two years ago, I am 34 years old now, so I left when I was 32.
Did you leave any family behind in Burundi?
When you talk of family in Burundi, you mean everyone. Not just your mother, father and siblings, but everyone you know. So yes, some people remain in Burundi, some were killed and some managed to flee. My mother still lives in Burundi, I haven’t seen her for two years.
How did you manage to escape Burundi?
I had a childhood friend in the militia, and although our political views were different, he didn’t want to see me killed. He came to my mother’s house in our village, and told me I had to leave right away, as people were coming to arrest me. I didn’t tell my mother I was leaving, so I didn’t get to say goodbye to her. I left straight away and walked miles, through the bush, where there are dangerous animals, to my grandmother’s village. I didn’t tell my grandmother why I had turned up so late in the dead of night, I didn’t want to worry her, but I hid out at her house.
After safely getting to your grandmother’s, what did you do?
Even though the militia were killing and raping people, there were still good people in it, who wanted to help. I was taken to a passport office at 4 a.m. in a blacked-out van, and they issued me a passport so I could escape. You could bribe some of the people in charge.
I managed to get to Ethiopia, then Rwanda and then to Germany where I lived in a refugee camp.
Could you describe your life in the refugee camp?
It was really hard, no one spoke the same language, so we had to use hand signals and communication was really hard. There were people from all over the world; Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Rwanda etc. As I could speak English and French, I tried teaching some of the other refugees English too. Everyone was missing home and their families, and everyone had faced horrendous ordeals. There were sometimes fights between the refugees and food and supplies were often scarce.
When asked what the worst thing about living in a refugee camp was, Pierre replied: ‘everything’.
Despite the difficulties that Pierre faced in the refugee camp, he regarded his experiences as much better than those surrounding him. Pierre compared the refugee camp in Germany to the situation he was witnessing in Calais and described the refugees in Calais as much worse off. Since the ‘Jungle’ was evacuated, refugees have had to sleep rough on the streets or deep in a forest and face police brutality, with far less resources available to them.
How long did you live in a refugee camp?
I lived there for three months. I then went to Belgium, where I claimed asylum. Most people want to get to the UK and so don’t claim asylum in other European countries, but I wanted to go to Belgium.
Why did you want to go to Belgium?
In Belgium, when you claim asylum, you are automatically given a centre to live in and they try very hard to get you a good education. So it is much better than here in Calais.
What was your life like in Burundi before the persecution? What was your job and family life like?
In Burundi I was a teacher. I went to university and studied English and was then an English teacher for students of all ages, I was a teacher for seven years.
Before I fled I was doing another degree at university in Public Health, I was in my fourth and final year before I had to flee the country.
I have a big family, my father is dead. We lived in a small village where everyone is like family. Our mother tongue was Kirundi, but the official language is French.
Do you still have contact with your family and friends back home?
It is dangerous to contact them. If anyone in Burundi is found to speak to someone who has fled, they would be killed. So I cannot Facebook them. I can sometimes call my mother, but not often.
Do you hope to return to Burundi and your home village?
I hope to go home one day, but at the moment it is way too dangerous. I am scared my mum will die without seeing her again, as she is old and I don’t know when it will be safe for me to go home.
Since getting asylum in Belgium, what have you been doing?
I am at a university in Belgium, in my first year of a Masters. I am currently waiting for my results of my first exam!
I hope to work in the UK for a bit in the future, but I don’t want to claim asylum there. And for a bit of time now I am volunteering with Care4Calais to help other refugees.
What do you think about the conditions the refugees are experiencing here in Calais?
I am shocked to see what refugees are still experiencing, in comparison to the refugees in Calais, I had very good conditions.
Pierre’s account of his journey from Burundi to Belgium was painful and distressing to hear, yet his story is in no way an isolated case. Pierre even acknowledges that he was ‘lucky’ compared to others experiencing fleeing their own country. He was able to get a plane and therefore did not face treacherous and dangerous journeys by sea and foot, and his asylum application process was relatively fast.
It is disturbing to think that Pierre was ‘lucky’, he was far from it. Fleeing everything and everyone he knew due to persecution is something that the majority of readers will never have faced.
More needs to be done to tackle the refugee crisis in Calais and in many other European countries. Help is needed. Structural change is necessary, short-term relief and assistance is not enough. Governments and government-funded organisations need to begin changing their policies to give the thousands upon thousands of displaced refugees a chance for a good life.
In the meantime, please help people like Pierre in any way that you can. Volunteers are in desperate need, as are essential items such as clothes, sleeping bags, tents, toiletries and shoes.