• Thu. Dec 8th, 2022

In a French migrant camp, a man sells sandwiches to increase the fee for smugglers | The larger picture

ByDebra J. Aguilar

Dec 1, 2021

Days after migrants began pitching tents in a new location along an old railway line in Dunkirk, northern France, last week, Dawan Anwar Mahmud quickly seized the opportunity to build the first makeshift camp restaurant.

Made of a wooden frame using nearby trees and covered with a tarpaulin, the restaurant was built in one day and is slightly stronger than a tent.

It’s a precarious existence: On Tuesday, the police arrived at the camp, evicted the inhabitants and demolished their tents and shelters.

. Dunkirk, France. Reuters/Juan Medina

Mahmud prepares tea to sell.

Last week a boat of at least 29 people capsized in the English Channel, the 30km (19 mile) stretch of water between Britain and France. Only two people survived, underscoring the great risks migrants take to reach Britain via one of the world’s busiest waterways.

But even before that, Mahmud was terrified of crossing the English Channel. A month ago he was taken to shore by another smuggler and backed off after seeing he would be sharing the boat with 47 people. “I said ‘no, I’m scared!’ He punched me and broke my phone to make sure I wasn’t calling the police.

With his restaurant, he planned to raise enough money to get on a boat with fewer people, or better yet, avoid the sea and take a truck. It is rare these days for people to cross the Channel hidden in a truck due to increased controls.

. Dunkirk, France. Reuters/Juan Medina

Mohamed walks after buying a sandwich from Mahmud.

Another client, Mohamed Husseini from Iraq, was not so impressed. “It’s an average sandwich,” he said. The last time he ate chicken livers prepared in this way was a few months ago in Turkey, where he lived for three years and worked as a blacksmith before heading to France.

. Dunkirk, France. Reuters/Juan Medina

Kurdish migrants stand near a fire.

At night, when he is not cooking with his gas stove, Mahmud lights it in his individual tent and watches films. It’s dangerous but it’s freezing; the ground around his tent is muddy and his shoes are constantly wet.

The camp smells toxic as people start burning bottles and wrappers to keep the bonfires going. “Everyone is at home in front of their fireplace, and here we are under a plastic sheet,” he said.

Mahmud suffers from a long leg injury that bursts in the cold. The problem started in Iraq 10 years ago, he said, when he was arrested, imprisoned for six months and beaten by police, after taking part in protests against the regional government. Doctors said at the time that he might need to have his leg amputated.

. Dunkirk, France. Reuters/Juan Medina

Kurdish migrants line up for food.

Following a violent crackdown in 2015, he says, he decided to leave his country. He moved to Sweden to join his sister but his asylum application was rejected after six years of waiting.

It was there that he learned to cook in a Kurdish restaurant, where he became a specialist in kebabs and flatbread. “I could make 800 pieces of bread by myself in a day,” he said.

Mahmud said he couldn’t make this bread now because he didn’t have a tandoor oven and it didn’t make sense to have one because migrants risked being kicked out by the police at any time.

. Dunkirk, France. Reuters/Juan Medina

Migrants stand around the tents.

Eventually, Mahmud’s goal is to open a more permanent restaurant. For now, he thinks Britain is his best bet, but he is keeping an open mind.

“For me, if it’s France or the UK or Germany or Belgium, it’s the same thing,” he said. “I just came here to start a new life.”

Photo retouching Gabrielle Fonseca Johnson; Text editing William Maclean; Layout Julia Dalrymple