Miss Bailey's Journey
Last week in Assembly, Head of Spanish Madeleine Bailey gave the following moving account of her experiences in the Calais Jungle. Madeleine was so inspired by the people she met during her time there that she is leaving the College on Friday to set up a school for Syrian children in Greece on behalf of NGO The Schoolbox Project. While this is clearly a big loss for the College community, it will be a big gain for the children who will be part of her new school.
"Even when you grow up and are apparently an adult, people still feel the need to keep giving you advice (sorry, but it’s true – it never stops!). A lot of the advice and ‘lessons’ I received as child came in the form of quotes (granted many of them were from Winnie the Pooh or Monty Python) and at school it was the same. I, and I imagine you lot, know so many clichés, quotes, and phrases simply because I’ve heard them so many times – "there’s no such word as can’t", "actions speak louder than words…" However, I have found that some of them have stuck. The quote touched on by Mr Winter in his Holocaust Memorial Assembly is one, and one which I have heard my father say more times than I can remember. Neither of these messages seemed relevant to me until I experienced a fraction of what they refer to.
I talked last academic year about the school I ran in the Calais Jungle and some of the wonderful and diverse people I met there, but it was spending the Summer there, living in the camp, and then the evictions and the violence of October half-term that opened my eyes to the cruelty and heartlessness of which humans are capable. I had never seen this before, although I had read about it in the newspaper and in books and I had decided to ignore it because my life was easy and it was too upsetting to engage.
However, these experiences also highlighted for me the power of human kindness and impact of one small act of love or defiance against the fear and hate people can become so easily accustomed to.
To illustrate both of these points, I would like to introduce you to a friend of mine called Omar, who is from a village near Juba in South Sudan, which is a relatively young country plagued by a long term civil war. The government is in disarray and conflict between ethnic groups is rife, which is further intensified by the militias which target specific tribes. In 2015 it was reported that more than 10,000 civilians have been killed in the conflict so far and there have also been allegations by both sides of crimes against humanity including extrajudicial killings, abductions, rape, torture and the use of child soldiers. More than 2.2 million people have also fled the country or are internally displaced and it is believed that four million people are at risk of famine. South Sudanese civilians, particularly women and children, have borne the brunt of the conflict as militias have carried out indiscriminate attacks on the population. A recent report by a UN panel monitoring the conflict warned that almost every attack by militias included abductions and the use of rape as a weapon of war. Since this UN report, the situation has grown worse with the government recently using chemical weapons against civilians.
Omar was working in the fields when the militiamen came and he heard the screams of his mother and sisters as they were tortured and raped. As he ran back across the fields towards his village, he was seen by militiamen and was shot - the bullet grazing his side - beaten, and left for dead. He recalls staring at the mutilated body of his youngest sister as he waited to die. Omar survived this ordeal and took the perilous journey across Libya, through Egypt, and into Europe where he dreamed of starting a new life. Despite being able to read and write in English, Omar never learned to read in his own language and studied the Roman alphabet at the Darfur school in Calais. He settled into life in the Jungle very quickly and developed a passion for building, leading the construction of the second classroom and office in the school and also carrying out extensive renovations on the make-shift mosque. Omar always said he wanted to go to the UK but never tried the lorries. He refused to claim asylum in France and refused too to get on the government buses during the evictions.
Omar is one of the gentlest people I have ever come across; he never shouted, or spoke in anger and seeing him being abused by the French riot police was one of the most upsetting things I witnessed in the Jungle, not because of the violence or brutality, which was nothing compared to other incidents, but because he took it as though it were acceptable and normal. He had been walking back to the camp from the centre of Calais when he was stopped by CRS, who took his shoes, hit his legs with batons, and shouted at him to crawl back to the Jungle, calling him an animal. I happened to be on the road to the School and walked with him for the last five minutes, while we were both shouted at. The police barked at him and laughed that he might understand that, if he could not understand English or French. Omar said nothing, he put his head down and walked in silence. He did not retaliate, or react in any way other than an offer to carry my bag. A few days later, the CRS were tear gassing again and lessons were disrupted as none of us could see; a canister – this one if fact, had been thrown, unprovoked, into the centre of our compound. Omar pushed me towards a shelter further from the teargas and told me to go to safety. “I am a Jungle-man, I am an animal. They can hurt me because I am not human anymore. You must go inside teacher, I will make you safe.”
After the demolition of the Jungle, Omar, having refused to get on the buses, had retreated to one of the unofficial camps, with no hope of getting to Britain. But the friends he had made in the Darfur School tried, and eventually succeeded, in persuading Omar to seek asylum in France and he is now living in a Welcome Centre in Brittany with many of our friends from Calais. He has been granted 10 years' leave to remain. I saw Omar at half term and asked him what had given him this new reason to survive and he replied that it was friendship, and knowing that he is loved.
Without people to care for him, show human kindness, and stand up for him, Omar would not have survived the trauma he has suffered and would have had no chance of re-building his life. Experiences and friendships like this one have motivated me to finally listen to the quote my father has repeated so many times and I can no longer stand by and do nothing while the refugee crisis worsens.
As many of you already know, at the end of this term I will be moving to Greece to open a school for Syrian children. Like Omar and millions of others, they have experienced severe trauma in their short lives. Trauma can severely damage brain development in young children and teenagers; it can stop their brains from developing and releasing the chemicals needed to start puberty, it can harm the development of sensory perception, their ability to learn new things, and their ability to form relationships, meaning that their future lives could be permanently damaged if no action is taken. I will be working with psychologists, neuroscientists and other professionals to build a curriculum, which will not only support the academic development of these children, but use trauma-informed techniques to control the long term damage inflicted on these innocent children by violence and fear. The hope is that we can give these children some chance of building a happy and successful life in the future.
There are so many ways to serve and to stand up for what is right and, while I have chosen a more obvious and extreme path, every act of human kindness or refusal to comply with the narrative of hate peddled in our newspapers, and even by some politicians, makes a difference.
This room is full of extraordinary young people with so much potential and I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to learn from you and your outstanding teachers, (who you are incredibly lucky to have), and to be part of this wonderful community. I hope that you too will listen to and learn from the quotes, lessons, and experiences that you are exposed to and remember that is your voices and your actions which will shape the world you live in."
Madeleine Bailey, Head of Spanish