The barbers of Calais

The client studies his reflection in the hand-held mirror. His hair looks good on top but needs a little more trimming elsewhere. ‘Anyone got the number 2?’ calls the barber. After another careful 10 minutes’ work, the young Ghanaian has a perfect haircut – 1 cm on top and neatly shaved around the back and sides.

Having daughters myself, I’ve never been to a barber’s before and had no idea male grooming was so complicated. But this is no ordinary barber’s shop. It is outdoors on a rough patch of grass in Calais on a chilly April day. The barber and his client are refugees.

Refugees in northern France

Several hundred refugees from East and West Africa, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and other countries are currently stuck in Calais, Dunkirk and other parts of northern France. Mostly young men, they have made a long, expensive and hazardous journey through Europe to France, hoping to reach the UK. Many have relatives here, speak good English or have another connection to the country. Others believe – rightly or wrongly – that a better life awaits them in the UK. But the French authorities do not accept their presence and don’t want refugees to gather in any semblance of a settled community. So the police regularly destroy their camps and disperse them. The refugees are forced to sleep rough in bitterly cold temperatures and move regularly.

Refugees collect aid
Refugees come to Care4Calais for vital supplies. (Care4Calais Facebook page)


I travelled with a delegation from Brighton & Hove Stands Up to Racism (SUTR) to volunteer for a weekend with Care4Calais. This charity helps refugees in northern France to maintain their dignity in the horrendous conditions. Care4Calais volunteers visit the sites where refugees gather. They distribute fresh clothes and hygiene packs, and provide important services and space for relaxation. I worked on the tea stand, serving hot drinks and snacks, while others brought out footballs, cricket sets and board games to play, phone charging and wifi facilities. The barber’s is the most popular area.

I was struck by how courteous and friendly these young men were, making conversation, telling their own stories or discussing politics in general. And even cracking jokes: the first man in the queue for our hygiene packs on Saturday did a slow-motion run to the van as we sang the ‘Chariots of Fire’ theme tune.


Brighton and Hove Stands Up to Racism volunteers for Care4Calais
Brighton and Hove Stands Up to Racism volunteers at the Care4Calais warehouse (Care4Calais)


Everyone can help

With just a weekend to spare and the generous offer of transport from Brighton, our SUTR group was able to tidy supply rooms, sort donations, prepare and deliver services, and chat to refugees. If you’re not able to go in person, it’s easy to collect good-quality donations for Calais or encourage donations to Care4Calais. And mostly importantly, please spread the word about the shocking human rights abuses taking place on our doorstep.

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