Another trip to my beloved France. I’m not entirely sure why I am fascinated with France. I am slightly obsessed with the “French Chic” wardrobe. Enamored with French wine. Melted by French butter, bread and cheese. If you remember, my last trip to France was a family holiday to Brittany with Dave and the boys. And it was a beautiful (also frustrating because Isaiah was a sweet pain in the backside), memorable trip. Would this trip be the same?
Our connection to the city of Caen, in northern France, began with friends we met two years ago. Gerard and Chrissie have established a base for prayer and training right outside of Caen. Our ears perked when we met up with them in August and heard about the recent influx of refugees in Caen as a result of the “Jungle” being demolished in Calais (a close by city where numerous refugees were living whilst trying to get into the UK). They invited us to come and see. And we took them up on their offer.
We left our poorly little boys with overly capable adults and took the ferry for 5 days to France. The ferry ride was uneventful, besides that the friends we traveled with slept in a large, dark room with French students that decided it would be funny to run around naked all night. Needless to say, glad Dave and I opted to sleep on the restaurant floor of the ferry.
Once off the overnight ferry, Gerard and Chrissie met us to take us into the city of Caen. But before reaching Caen, they wanted to show us a new space lots of refugees were residing in. We weren’t expecting grand housing, but we also weren’t expecting to park on the side of the road and have refugees emerging out of the forest…their home. They didn’t live in houses. They didn’t live in apartments. They didn’t live in caravans. They lived in the forest. Hundreds of men that have fled their home countries out of fear for their lives. Living in forests. With no food. No shelter. No warmth. They emerged from the forest expecting food (as Gerard and Chrissie often have food with them). When was their last meal? Did they sleep at all in the cold, November night? And as soon as Gerard handed out a bag of bread, the police arrived to “shoo” everyone away.
Apparently, many locals want to get rid of all these refugees. They could be dangerous. They will ruin our businesses. They don’t speak our language. They are illegal. Maybe. But if I had fled all that I had known – my family, my culture, my home, my work – for my life and the life of my family, I sure as heck wouldn’t want to be “shooed” away like an annoying fly. I would want to be treated with dignity and respect.
From this brief stop on the side of the road, we continued on to the actual city of Caen. Caen is a university city that is accepting, accommodating, and open minded. A huge chunk of its residents are students, leading to a population that craves education, respect, and diversity. But we didn’t immediately go into the city centre. We went to a peninsula just next door that has been abandoned and ignored. Empty warehouses and eerily quiet streets. And lots of abandoned white worker vans. What was this place?
This peninsula, called the Presqu’ile, largely ignored by the government, had become home for refugees. Home until the warehouses they lived in had been burnt to the ground. They lived in squalor, yet even their squalor would not be tolerated. A month ago, in a matter of hours, their shelter and their few personal belongings were burnt to the ground. And they were left with the clothes on their backs and the cold winter ahead. Gerard and Chrissie are doing what they can to provide practically for these guys – with a weekly food van that provides a warm meal and lots of fun. They are seeking to meet practical needs and restore dignity to men that have had it stripped away.
But male refugees aren’t the only people residing on the this peninsula. Do you remember I mentioned white vans? These white vans are not just abandoned work vans. These vans are beds ready for service. What do I mean? Approximately 150 vans fill this space. And in each van is a working prostitute. She sits in the front of the van, half naked. If she is open for service, she turn on the battery powered candle in the front seat. And men roll up all night – all sorts of men – to benefit from her service. In the back of the van. And then they leave. Just. Like. That. Driven for sexual pleasure, these men overlook that most of these women have been tricked and coerced and forced to sit in the front of those vans. She may have been threatened, beaten, drugged, and raped. But they need their nightly pleasure, so what does it matter why she is there?
We left the Presqu’ile with our eyes opened, our hearts breaking, and anger flaring. Where is justice? Where is human dignity? Where is compassion? Where is action?
The rest of our trip was lovely. It was spent in the French countryside eating 3 hearty meals a day, drinking lots of wine, praying, singing, reading, and laughing. A contrast to the start of our trip. And I didn’t feel at all bad enjoying the pleasures of life. But justice screamed as I ate, drank, and enjoyed – ” They should be enjoying the same pleasures!!”. And yet, they aren’t. They are starving and cold in a forest. They are being exploited for sex. They feel used and belittled and inferior.
Can you turn a deaf ear and close your eyes to the injustice that abounds around us?