20 Miles Away - a poem about Calais

In August 2018 Vicky Marsh, from the Safety4Sisters management group accompanied Southall Black Sisters to support and give solidarity to L’Auberge des Migrants, Help Refugees and the Dunkirk Refugee Women’s Centre who support the men, women and children in the refugee camps that still line the border of France.

On the 1st November, in Stretford, Manchester, there will be a screening of the film ‘Calais Children, where the director Sue Clayton will be participating in a Q&A session about the some 2000 children who were displaced in the huge camp eviction of 2016. Vicky will read the poem which she wrote on her return from Calais; a reflection on the group's experience there that bears witness to the brutality and starkness of the camps in their current state.

This poem is published here as a testament to the spirit and bravery of the women and children we met that seek safety and freedom and who kindle hope in these inhumane conditions. We want to emphasise the incredible work of those organisations that we met, who work in increasingly volatile and violent conditions to bring care and humanity to the camps of Calais and Dunkirk.

As a feminist, anti racist group supporting migrant women in the UK we look at the global challenge that camps such as Calais and Dunkirk mean for us, and we want to urge everyone reading this poem not to turn their back on either those seeking asylum in the UK. or those at the edges of France, only 20 miles away.

20 miles away

Entry into Calais - first impressions

Gaunt, thinly clad Eritrean men, recuperating, exhausted in the grass besides the road

 as Lidl pulls in the English bargain hunters in shiny cars, care free.

Luxury & entertainment beside destitution & fear.

Indifferent privilege beside dispossession & suffering

Nightly desperate leaps in the dark, under lorries whilst Brits passports can lie casually in back pockets

 A twenty first century street in France

This is colonialism, exploitation, racism, the far away media images of migrant “others” laid bare before us

A grotesque exaggeration of the hostile environment we witness spreading virus- like at home.

Ugly British barbed wire marking out French boundaries to African men & women

What is this place,

Why is this place

This desolate, concrete, abandoned port terrain

This is where forgotten lives are still lived

This is where hopes and dreams of freedom, safety, of families reunited, still drive acts of bravery & unimaginable risks

This is 20 miles away.


The Warehouse

We are witness to Ironic opposite flows of humans across the English Channel,

 choice or survival, dictating direction borne of layers of imperialist history,

New, white, volunteer arrivals, in their shoes which cross borders, pass by those whose feet are deemed illegal here

Beyond to the volunteer’s compound, behind whose locked gate these young people work tirelessly, like bees in the hive,

brought together by rejection of a world dictated by fascist, racist misogynistic crazed men.

 Their arrogant power games. 

Seemingly powerlessness in face of the worlds inhumanity, volunteers make their statement,

take off their privileged shoes to make a positive footprint.

Some seek out new ways to live beyond prejudice & judgement at home.

The warehouse breathes a new life of cooperation, purpose, solidarity and care.

Experiences and learning nurtured within this frame work,

 respected & held onto like gold dust by newcomers.

No appetite for patronising or pity.

Consequences of their actions dissected intelligently to make new and better paths.

Accepting responsibility beyond their experiences. 

Face to face.

Distributing resources for survival.

Restoring a little dignity & respect thrown brutality aside on the migrant journeys,

and again, here by police violence and their unaccountable violations.

This is 20 miles away 

The Women’s Centre- Dunkirk camp

We follow the woman volunteer dancing with the children like the pied piper through the groups of men congregating round the phone charging van

Others wondering aimlessly & exhausted alone,

 or huddled in groups looking on bewildered, some smiling as she and the children skip past

The bare open field emerges, bordered by  motorway and tents packed into the trees beyond a ditch.

Volunteers hiding sorrow and shock, create a joyful energetic, happy world for a moment, where children play, and run and jump like children do,

Tactically hoping mothers will follow

and so

the Women’s Centre evolves slowly before us.

 No roof or walls, no chairs, no safe space,

few words,

 only feelings, expressions, hands touched, eyes acknowledging pain & fear.

Smiles of solidarity as women together we can create space for care & laughter despite this hell.

Inside we struggle unable to breakdown the invisible barrier, this visible divide,

only imagining what women have been through to reach this point and what lies ahead

We are there & then gone.

They suffer.

They must survive, for themselves and their children,

 the trafficking bullies, the mafia,

the police raids pulling apart their tents, dragging out their possessions, their last and now lost possessions.

 The constant fear of sexual assault,

The rapes.

Fear for what the next part of their journey will demand of them.

Fear of being torn away from their children.

Proud resilient Kurdish women

 and their heroic acts of strength & struggle to keep their families safe.

Sacrifices made to give hope for a future,

go on unseen, undocumented

 This is 20 miles away


This is 20 miles away - But is it?

The faces of these women are the faces of the women in Manchester

Turned away by the state, left destitute.

Continually moved on.

Under state surveillance & control,

forever reporting.


Police, hospitals, doctors, housing, social services departments mean immigration questions,

mean fear.

Threatened with deportation.

Detained indefinitely.

Undeserving of protection and support by bureaucratic systems

 and those unwilling to challenge the systems.

Patriarchy and violence throughout migration continues,

 fueled as women are marginalised, isolated, forever the “other”

UK feminism

Are we here?

Are we 20 miles away?

Or are we just mumbling limited resources, illegal immigrants,

no recourse to public funds.

Will those same Kurdish women refugees be left to fight alone again for survival and safety in UK? 

True solidarity, empowerment and hope can emerge.

The witnessing of lives in Calais & Dunkirk,

mirrored across the bordered world,

can go beyond a poem or a blog, a tweet or a post,

Feminism can have no borders.

Should have no borders.

We fight for safety as a right not a privilege.

We leave no woman behind.