North, France – Grande Synthe, a makeshift refugee camp near Dunkirk and Calais, is located on a former railway line.
About 250 people live here and try to beat the freezing winter temperatures, which can drop to -5 degrees Celsius (23 degrees Fahrenheit), by huddled in tents and small wooden shelters, or by lighting fires.
Two months have passed since 27 people died in a refugee boat tragedy between France and the UK that shocked activists and sparked a diplomatic row between neighbors over how to stem the crossings.
But the arduous journey has failed to deter asylum seekers from northern France hoping to reach England.
Of the victims identified by French police, 16 were Iraqi Kurds, some of whom lived in Grande Synthe, commonly known as the Kurdish refugee camp in northern France.
Most of the refugees here are Kurds, and there are single women and children among them.
“Grande Synthe is run by Kurdish smugglers,” Claire Millot, general secretary of local charity Salam, told Al Jazeera. “In Calais, there are still people who don’t have smugglers, who try their luck alone.
“In Calais, life is much harder. The police evict people and take their tents every other day, but it’s a little more comfortable, there are toilets, showers and water points. At Grande Synthe there is none of that, but evictions are rarer, about two or three times a month.
As they queue for water, food and clothing donated by local NGOs, people are finding ways to keep their spirits up. Often it is with storytelling – recounting memories of their homeland and praying for a safe arrival in England. These personal stories are embodied by the important objects they carried with them: a little girl loves her scooter, a young man keeps his football close to him, another wears his country’s flag as a necklace.
Al Jazeera spoke to the refugees in Grande Synthe about their treasured items:
“This scooter is like my best friend”
Haven, 10, from the Kurdish region of northern Iraq
“I have no friends here so this scooter is like my best friend. It means so much to me. Just got it two days ago from a local charity, a volunteer gave it to me , and I haven’t put it down since. I had a bike similar to this in Rania, but had to let it go when we left for the trip. I couldn’t stop thinking about it during our long way to here, i felt so sad without it. i left everything in kurdistan. here i am very poor, the scooter is the only thing i have. it makes me so happy to have it .
“I had to say goodbye to so many friends in Kurdistan. I used to take a lot of boxing lessons with a lot of them too. I was champion there, I’m very strong. I miss them all very much, but I still talk to them on my mother’s phone. My friends ask me if I’m in France and how I’m doing, I tell them I’m happy, I’m going to England.
“This photo is very important to me”
Hide, 30, from the Kurdish region of northern Iraq
“Here is a picture of me as a paramedic in Rania, Iraqi Kurdistan. This photo is very important to me. It makes me happy because it reminds me of how I helped many people as a paramedic. People were calling me for help and I was there. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I was mostly very busy. My salary was very low, but I never regretted anything. I was happy because I was helping people. I did this job for eight years, and I hope to be able to do it again one day, maybe in England, but I don’t know if I will have the opportunity.
“I was a professional footballer”
Dyo, 25, from the Kurdish region of northern Iraq:
“I was a professional footballer in Kurdistan, I played for 15 years, even for the national team. I was a goalkeeper. My phone wallpaper is an image of Zidane, my favorite player. In 2006, when France lost in the World Cup final against Italy, I was so sad that I didn’t eat for a whole day.
“Before coming here, I was in Germany for a year, but then they wanted to send me back to Bulgaria, the first country I came to. [because of the Dublin regulation]so I went to Italy, and stayed there for two years, mainly in the northern city of Bolzano.
“I come from Soran in Iraqi Kurdistan, I left because all my friends also left for Europe. I plan to go back now as my mother is very sick and I really miss her and the rest of my family.
“I regret having left Kurdistan now. When I was in Bulgaria I regretted it mostly because they put me in jail and gave me a small can of fish and a piece of bread in 24 hours. If I came back halfway, I would be ashamed. What would my friends think of me? If I talked to my friends back home now, trying to go to Europe, I would tell them “don’t go”. For some people it works, but for me life was better there.
“Since I left Afghanistan, I have this necklace with me”
Senzai, 29, from Afghanistan:
“Eight months ago, I walked from Afghanistan to Austria, passing through Iran, Turkey, Greece and more. It was only after Croatia that I came by car, and also from Austria to France. I had no money to move otherwise. I left with a friend from Afghanistan, but we separated in Tehran. I have been in Grande Synthe for a month and have already tried to cross twice. I can’t really explain why I want to go to England, I have friends there, I’ve heard good things about them.
“Since I left Afghanistan, I have had this necklace with me, of the Afghan flag. In Hungary, when the police arrested us and robbed us of everything, I had to hide it. This necklace [is] so important to me because in Afghanistan we gave so many lives because of it, and now the Taliban don’t accept it. This flag is all my heart. It shocked me that the Taliban took power and removed it everywhere.
“A phone dealer took my phone”
Nowaz, 28, from Afghanistan:
“I am from the province of Logar in Afghanistan, I was a farmer from a very young age. I have been at Grande Synthe for a week. I left Afghanistan five months ago. It was very dangerous for me and I was afraid of the Taliban. I think England is a good country and I want to spend the rest of my life there. I like the law there, and I think people have a good sense of humanity.
“The phone was the most important thing for me, I could contact my friends and family in Afghanistan and find information in Europe. But I was in Austria a week ago, and a smuggler pushed me and took my phone, for no reason. Now that I am at Grande Synthe, without a phone, the few friends I have are the most important to me.