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'Life Stories' at the Jungle refugee camp, Calais: 'University for All'

The Centre for Narrative Research has begun short university courses on ‘Life Stories’ with residents at the Jungle refugee camp in Calais.Teaching started in November and continues in 2016. Photography, art and poetry workshops will also be offered. Camp residents will be co-organising all these initiatives, as well as participating as students.Participants are reading life stories (for instance, those of Nelson Mandela and Barak Obama, as well as Malala Yousafzai), discussing them, examining poems from those of Mahmoud Darwish to the recent work of JJ Bola, as well as photographic representations of lives, and creating some of their own.

Life Stories’ has been taught at Jungle Books, a library and school build and manned by volunteers and residents. Students currently enrolled come from a range of countries – Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Ethiopia, Eritrea. Many are professionals – electrical engineers, opticians – or university students or graduates in a range of subjects from English literature through political science to physics.  All are keen to further their education, and also to use this course to gain a more public hearing for their stories about their journeys and lives. We hope to facilitate camp residents co-authorship of a book as a result of this project.Residents already engage in storytelling through forums such as Refugee Voices, initiated by a resident who wanted to share stories from the camp. The dome tent, set up by British playwrights, is another platform for the residents’ storytelling and art projects. Currently a photo and art exhibition is at display. Our hope is to establish a collaboration with such local initiatives.

Photo exhibition in the ‘Good Chance Theatre’ dome.There are around 4000 people living in this camp, with few facilities as the camp is informal. Many residents with English skills and often, family connections to the UK, have been trying to reach that country. Currently, efforts to do so by road or rail are heavily policed and highly dangerous. There is no clear political commitment from France or the UK to resolve the situation.

The lack of food, water, shelter, clothing, sanitation, and health care in the camp makes the residents’ difficult lives there a human rights issue.Supported by UEL’s civic engagement strategic fund, we are running courses and workshops at the camp this and next year, under the heading, ‘University for All.’ Education is, of course, an important human right. We are being greatly helped by other volunteers working in the camp, for instance, those running l’Ecole du Chemin des Dunes, and the Jungle Books Library, and, notably, by many camp residents themselves, particularly Amin, Samir and Naqib at Jungle Books, and Alpha at l’Ecole des Arts et Metiers –  his own project. Zimako has also started a school with which we hope to collaborate.Many academic colleagues, at for instance UCL Institute of Education, London Metropolitan University, Manchester University, and Manchester Metropolitan University, are also keen to participate, and we will be holding a network meeting about such possibilities, and how we might expand them, early next year.

The team for this first course is Corinne Squire, from CNR; Katrine Møller Hansen, visiting CNR, from the University of Copenhagen; Natalie Ludvigsen, UEL; and Tahir Zaman, from SOAS (and Visiting Fellow at UEL’s Centre for Migration, Refugees and Belonging). Also participating are Hanna Rasmussen, Mohammad Azeem and Samina Rana, also from UEL, and the photographer Gideon Mendel.

If you are interested in finding out more, or participating in University For All, please contact Corinne Squire

Photos by Katrine Møller Hansen. Please do not reuse without permission.

In a pilot project, part of the University for All initiative and of UEL's Life Stories courses at Calais, photographer Gideon Mendel worked with residents of Calais refugee camp to create visual records of their lives, from their own perspective. Please see further details of the project: