A guest post by Mathilda Della Torre from Conversations From Calais
You wanted to play football so we walked to the grass and made two teams. As always your team won. I said it was unfair because you were too good at running away with the ball. You said it was unfair because I could run away anywhere in the world and no one would stop me.
I have been volunteering in Calais on and off for two years now, and every time I came back, I felt the need to share what I saw, heard and experienced there. I wanted to find a way to break away from how migrants are portrayed in mainstream media by remembering, documenting and commemorating banal but intimate and relatable conversations. So in October 2019, I started a project called Conversations From Calais, which aims to re-humanise those affected by the refugee crisis by using public space to share conversations volunteers have had with migrants met in Calais. It is a way of bearing witness for the thousands of displaced people stuck in Calais and trying to reach the UK, whose voices are so often silenced or ignored. This ever-growing collection of conversations focuses on capturing the diversity of experiences and avoids creating new stereotypes of refugees as villains, heroic figures or hopeless victims.
You asked me for a plastic bag and I thought you were a volunteer because of your thick London accent. You told me you had lived in the UK since you were 3, but a year ago you were charged with a minor offence and you were deported to Afghanistan, a country you couldn’t remember. As soon as you arrived in Kabul, you turned around and began your journey back home, as a refugee.
As the project evolved, I continued to share images of the posters on social media as a visual archive of every conversation, which created a community of people who reached out asking how they could help. I developed two ways to allow people to get involved, through a website. The first, was that I began collecting new conversations from other volunteers by setting up an anonymous submission page. Secondly, I made a guide on how to cover your city in posters and started uploading all the posters online, for whoever wanted to paste up posters in their own city. Somehow, people from all over the world started to get involved, and there are now posters in more than fifty different cities in five different continents. The posters have now also been translated in ten different languages, meaning more and more people can understand these stories.
You didn’t want a green or purple sweater, you wanted a black one. We didn’t have any black ones left so I offered you a dark blue one. You looked at me and asked if one day you’d have a choice again. I told you I really hoped so and handed you the dark blue sweater.
So 100 and something conversations later, we’re still talking, still documenting, still pasting and still sharing stories with the world that I think need to be heard. I am now also looking for more ways in which this project can expand and more ways in which we can keep this conversation going. Could we get the stories up on billboards? Could we exhibit 100 posters in an exhibition space? Could we present this project in schools or in universities? In what other ways could we take over public space? How do we get more and more people to read these stories? And most importantly, how do we re-shape the narrative surrounding migration and inspire social change?