Mostafa looked no older than 18. From Iran, he had traversed 10 countries to reach the refugee camp that has emerged close to the port in Calais, and which was home to 6,000 people when I visited, all desperate for lives better than those that they have left behind.
He told me of his journey, which included the perilous trip across the Aegean Sea, as we washed and dried the dishes in the Ashram Kitchen – a sanctuary of sorts to hundreds of refugees who turn up every day for hot food, as well as for a sense of belonging and acceptance. “I’m like Marco Polo,” Mostafa told me and when doing so, a huge smile emerged and I felt warmly welcomed.
Mostafa’s warmth and positivity is not uncommon among refugees in the camp. During the several days I spent volunteering in the Ashram Kitchen, I felt compelled by the hospitality, kindness and grace that abounded among those I met.
I went to Calais because I, like so many others, felt deeply moved by the images I saw on TV and online of people driven to the edge by conflict, or because of an impending sense of hopelessness for their futures in their homelands. I went because I wanted to somehow help, and because I wanted to show solidarity to people whose pains I could not comprehend. I went, too, because we are instructed in Deuteronomy to “love the stranger”.
But here’s the thing. The people I met in Calais didn’t feel like strangers. They were people whose hopes and desires are like mine. People with industry and imagination, vulnerabilities and frailties, humour and hope. More than that, they showed me hospitality. They taught me something of grace, of hope, and of humility. When asked: “How are you?” their response was always: “I’m fine. How are you?”
Each day that I was there, Mohammed, an elderly refugee from Northern Iraq, would bring his enamel teapot into the Ashram Kitchen and serve the most delicious sugared tea to the volunteers as we washed the dishes, and chopped vegetables in preparation for the early evening meal. This generous act was one of many that I experienced in Calais. Each one reminded me of past encounters that I have had in the homes of people I’ve had the privilege to meet in my work with Christian Aid. Even in the poorest of homes, and in the poorest of places, I have always been warmly welcomed with tea, and an invitation to share in the lives and the stories of the people I meet.
Save for a brief moment in time last summer when the usually hostile rhetoric around refugees shifted following the tragic death of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, and members of his family, we have all too often failed to see, let alone love, the stranger.
In doing so, we are the ones who as societies are all together poorer, because as my few days in Calais confirmed for me, there are no strangers – there are only our neighbours.
God commands us to “love the stranger”, but in the refugee camp in Calais, unsurprisingly I found myself among hospitable friends, rather than strangers. Now my question is, how can we as a society show the same spirit of hospitality to the very few refugees who are finally making it across the UK border?