The 10-month experience in the refugee camp of some 10,000 displaced people from war-torn countries is like a rite of passage for a 14-year-old
FOR 14-year-old Seif Jamalulail, life has been anything, but conventional. While his peers were confined to a classroom learning about the world, Seif and his siblings were home schooled by his mother, Sofinee.
The biggest school trip, so to speak, was the now much-publicised “By Road to Malaysia”, when his very unconventional family drove in a motor caravan from Seaham in England to Malaysia in July 2013; geography was learnt as they drove through the deserts and up the mountains.
While his peers spent their school breaks going on holidays, Seif was helping his parents feed thousands of displaced people in the refugee camp of Calais, a port in the north of France.
Now, Seif is penning his first book on his experience as the Jungle Boy in the refugee camp that was home to him for 10 months.
I first met Seif in the Ramadan of 2013; a shy 10-year-old who hardly spoke and went about his errands quietly; his job was to take photographs as they drove across 26 countries.
For Seif, the experience in the Jungle of Calais that was temporary home to some 10,000 displaced people from war-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and more, was like a rite of passage that saw him mature beyond anyone’s imagination.
“I intend to share my insight, living inside the camp 24/7 and hope to inspire others to do the work that we did. When I first went to Calais, I was 12, but during the time I was there, I turned 13. Initially, I didn’t think much of the camp and the situation itself, but the longer I was there, it started to really hit me about what was going on,” said Seif, whose voice came out stronger in written words then when spoken aloud.
The meaning of “normal” went out of the window for Seif when he met children his age; some of whom had trudged thousands of miles, in dangerous situations, to escape what was more dangerous in their homeland.
He had heard numerous stories of hardships, exploits and even deaths; the saddest incidents were those who had actually made the treacherous journey only to fall victim on the very roads that were to
take them to, what they perceived, as their paradise on earth.
“The jungle has honestly changed my life around in so many ways. It has given me so many opportunities to meet amazing people and do incredible things.
“The thing that has impacted me the most is the way of thinking, seeing brothers and sisters from across the globe escaping war-torn countries; some smiling and happy and they made me happy, too,” said Seif of his encounters with some child refugees who were seeking to rebuild their lives for a better future.
From peeling potatoes and onions to serving numerous plates of rice cooked in Kitchen in Calais (KIC), Seif had become a deft hand in the kitchen.
“He would take on any task. I taught him how to cook rice. And, at the age of 13, Seif could already cook rice for 1,000 people!” said Sofinee, reminiscing on the days they spent away from the comforts of their own home in the idyllic sea side town of Seaham.
He became the translator and interpreter for his parents as he had easily picked up Arabic while mingling with the refugees. The Jungle was a great language classroom for him.
“I think everyone in the Jungle who I’ve spent time with has made me who I am today,” Seif added.
He recalled his friends Alaa from Syria and Rafiq, a volunteer from Malaysia; friendships that had a great impact on his young life.
Seif has taken a lot of pictures during his time in The Jungle, and many, too, were of Seif running away from being tear-gassed that made their way to the local media. But one picture touched me immensely. It is one of a young boy standing on top of the roof of the kitchen, watching fire razing some tents to the ground.
It was the start of the destruction of the place he and thousands of others had made their home for a period of their lives.
Seif recalled: “It was the second day of the eviction. It was a tiring day because the night fire was raging nearly all night. I went to sleep late. The next day, my parents went to the railway station to send off two volunteers. I was in the kitchen with three other volunteers. Not long after, the fire started.
“When the fire came near the kitchen, I could feel the heat. It happened so fast. I was just really scared, but also sad seeing my home and my town for the past 10 months being burnt down before my eyes.
“We were all just watching helplessly. Eventually Naeem (a volunteer) said we all had to go, so we escaped.
“There were explosions from the gas canisters, it was like a war zone. I escaped on foot, running through the burning jungle with the rest,” said Seif.
All these and more will be in Seif’s book. He will remember the happier times playing basketball in the grounds of KIC, sitting on the roof of KIC watching the sun go down and most of all, he will document the friendships he made in the playground and classroom of The Jungle.