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My Time In Calais – Aria Shahrokhshahi

Nights in the camps

It all started when I was on a trip with my friend and we happened to pass by a camp known as “The Jungle” which is right next to the port. I did a few Google searches and realised the vast numbers of migrants that lived there. I felt I had to see the camp for myself, as we had only stopped by quickly. I learnt that there were a huge number of Iranians there and after briefly seeing the living conditions, I had the urge to go back to really see what was going on.


When I first arrived in Calais I got to my hotel, dropped my bags off and made my way to one of the entrances of the camp. The moment you step foot in the camp you are confronted by around 10 CRS guards (a private force of French ‘police’, if you can even call them that) in full riot gear and armed with handguns, tasers, pepper spray, tear gas launchers and batons.  I later found out that they regularly gassed and beat up the migrants. Despite this situation I found there to be a strange sense of positivity among the migrants, like The Jungle was a stepping stone on the way to a better life, even if it meant staying there for sometimes up to 6 months or more.


Even though the main objective of the trip was initially to photograph the horrible conditions of the camp, the trip turned out to be much more of a personal journey for me. The Iranians I stayed with welcomed me as if I were their own family and I basically lived with this group of men for three days, becoming close with them and so it felt strange leaving them. I was just another white English bloke with a camera coming, doing his rounds then going back to his warm bed, fridge full of food and British passport; what makes us so special? Just because we were born here do we deserve a better life? I think the trip ended up being more about seeing and experiencing this aspect of life we are so sheltered from in the UK with the photographic aspect becoming a by-product. I always hoped that maybe these photos would be an insight how hard life really is there, but after visiting I didn’t know if my photos could do it justice.

screen-79The refugee crisis we are facing at the moment is infinitely complex. It’s not as black and white as it is often portrayed: on one side of the coin, a minority of refugees are choosing to live in The Jungle while attempting to get into the UK despite refuge being available in other countries, and on the other, there are a large population of people in desperate need of refuge, fleeing their countries from political unrest and war. It is easy in this situation to consider one person to be more in need of help than another, and forget that these are real people.

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My dad came to England from Iran when he was just 16, not being able to speak a word of English, and he takes great pride in his dual nationality. Ever since I can remember my Iranian heritage has been a strong part of my upbringing and life and so finding out that there where thousands of Iranians at the refugee camp really hit home. I wanted to document this to show the conditions people are living in, and hoped to remove so much of the negative stigma that is attached to being a refugee.

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The easy option here would be to use a picture of a child looking very sad deep into the lens. Even though that side of the story is a reality, I think it’s really important to also focus on all of the people working together to make this place a little bit better to live in. These people are residing in such difficult conditions but have still found the time to build a church and a library, teach English or build and run a school for the children so that even though they have to endure this, they can still get some sort of an education. If there is one thing to take away from these situations, it’s that human beings always find a way to breathe life into the most inhumane situations.

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When I went to the Iranian part of the camp, three men living together in a hut invited me in for Chai (tea) as this is a very common and polite practice in Iran when someone is a guest (as I was an outsider to the camp). We started chatting and it honestly felt like we were in Iran, chatting with friends, having a laugh and enjoying ourselves. They showed me around, we ate together, and after a few days they even invited me to stay the night in their shack (again, this is a very polite and common thing to do in Iran). I’d like to think I formed friendships with these guys and it felt strange having to leave them behind when I came home. They showed me true hospitality, even when they were in such a dire position, giving when they had nothing and taking pride in what they could give. If that isn’t one of the most beautiful things a human being can do for another I don’t know what is.


Words and Photos by @ariamark

Edited by Daniel Hawksworth