Founded in June 2015, the "New Jungle" is a 44-acre plot of land with exceptional views of nearby factories and highways. Today, it houses 5,000 refugees. Some live in a refugee camp that was put into place in January; others are in tents or wooden cabins.
Part of the camp is currently slated for demolition, which will result in the eviction of half of the "jungle's" southern zone. Nonetheless, life in the camp goes on, despite extremely unsafe conditions.
The "Jungle of Calais" is a misnomer. Inside, it's a veritable buzzing city that unfolds, with a main commercial strip and small shops. Among the different makeshift buildings that crop up from the ground a bit haphazardly, there are hair salons, a hammam, places of worship, a theater, a library, a school, and many restaurants, offering Kurdish, Afghan, Sudanese, and Pakistani specialties. The shops are managed by refugees or migrants who survive by cooking and selling culinary specialties from their country of origin.
On this February morning in the jungle, the city slowly wakes up. The whirring sound of generators blends in with the music coming out of the shops. It is still early, but a few restaurants are already open.
Two naans hanging in the window indicate that bread is being made here. Inside, the first section is devoted to baking, where a young man kneads dough. Then there's the kitchen, which opens out onto the dining room. Around ten men are sitting on large, elevated seats installed on the earthen floor. "Hello, welcome!" calls the baker, with a smile on his face. Here and across the camp, English is the working language.
The cook is already busy at the stove. Azlan* is around 50 years old, with grey hair. He easily inspires sympathy. A large pot is boiling on the stovetop, and his face lights up when he talks about cooking. "It's tcherkarai, chicken," he explains. "It's an Afghan dish. I'll let this simmer for an hour with tomato sauce, salt, spices, and grains of coriander…We call them 'dhanya' in Afghanistan; they're hard to find in France. You can only find them in Paris in Indian and Pakistani restaurants, but in the jungle, many vendors sell them.
A man enters the restaurant and shakes Azlan's hand. "I work right next door, in a store, so I come here often. Azlan's food tastes just like in Afghanistan, even though there are fewer ways to cook here," he acknowledges. "We've known each other a long time. We come from the same village in the Kandahar region, and we both landed here."
A teenager who has come in to warm up and hang out with his friends approaches me. "Urdu? Pashto? Arabic? Persian?" he asks me. We have no languages in common. One of his friends chimes in: "France is our country now." He proudly displays a laminated card from the organization France Terre d'Asile (which translates as "France Land of Asylum"). "We're going to Marseille on Tuesday. We've waited two months to obtain the right to stay; now we're good."
At lunchtime, the restaurant fills up. Many English and French volunteers take a seat at the long, central table surrounded by benches. "There is spinach, rice with raisins and carrots, string beans, chicken, chickpeas and tomato sauce…The best thing to do is grab a little of everything and share," suggests Azlan. "In Afghanistan, we eat from our own plate, but at funerals and weddings everyone shares from the same plate."
The air is humid. The door stays open, but that's not enough to let out all of the steam from the kitchen. The dishes are brought to the table, along with salad, tomatoes, and onions, and of course, the naans, which are fresh out of the oven.
Further down on "Cameron's Street," the front façade of a building bears another restaurant's name in huge graffiti: "The 3 Idiots." It's impossible to miss; the place is packed. "Hello, where are you from? France? Oh, you are very beautiful," asserts the owner, overacting a little.
The three Pakistanis who manage this place put on a business-savvy smile and tell a story they've probably told a thousand times: "Our plan was to go to England, but since we got stuck here, we decided to open a restaurant together and call it 'The 3 Idiots,' like us!" concludes the owner, laughing.
They've worked hard to create a warm environment. Dozens of multicolored balloons hang from the ceiling, along with stuffed animals here and there. It's a pop-infused atmosphere as colorful as the Indian music videos playing on the TV screen in the dining room.
In the large kitchen, separated from the dining room by a serving hatch, two young cooks are hard at work.
"Our specialty is Pakistani food. We make chicken, lamb, lentils, samosas, spinach, kidney beans, and even fries—but that's the French part!"
At White Mountain, a large establishment on the main road, Mohamed* greets customers in French with a certain ease. "One hour a day, I go to the secular school set up in the camp to learn French." The school he refers to was created in October 2015 by Nigerian refugee Zimako Jones, and offers French lessons for children and adults. "I've been taking classes for a month. We started with A, B, C, D…But it goes quickly, and I'm very determined."
Inside, the floor is covered with tile. Around 15 men are sitting near the electrical outlets, to charge their phones. Some are drinking tea. In the kitchen, you'll find some of the same delicacies. "There are many Afghan restaurants, but we each have our own way of cooking," promises the cook. He prepares fried eggs with tomato sauce, which he serves with bread: "That's for breakfast, it's nice and hearty."
Sharifi, the baker, handles the naans. With a colorful scarf on his head and a winning smile, he is quite the charmer. Three pretty photos of him are hanging on the wall. "He's in the top 10 of the best photos in the jungle," jokes a regular, who then turns to Sharifi. "Don't you think he looks like Bruce Lee? He's bound to land a part in the next episodes!" Sharifi can't stop laughing.
One of the managers proudly presents the surroundings. "White Mountain is a reference to a mountain in Afghanistan, but I can't remember which one exactly…When we started construction here four months ago, it was an empty lot. It was just jungle. Six of us built out the restaurant for a month. We were a little lazy, so it took a while!" he remembers, laughing. "It cost us 10 000 € in materials and equipment, but it doesn't make much money. Most people come by to keep warm and pass the time, charge their phone, and drink some tea. But we don't know how long this will last. Everything could get destroyed on any given day. My goal is still to go to England, so every time the weather allows for it, I take my chances…"
* All names have been modified.
This article originally appeared in French on MUNCHIES FR.