The Yehudi Menuhin School Jungle Journey.

Richard Tanner writing in the Yehudi Menuhin School newsletter (63, Spring 2016)

Taking supplies to Calais and performing for the refugees and migrants.

At the start of the Centenary year, pupils and staff from the Yehudi Menuhin School took food and other supplies to the (now demolished) centre for refugees and migrants known as “The Jungle”, in Calais near the UK border, and performed for them

The contents for 100 food parcels filled the Square Room and took pupils and staff the whole afternoon of 19 January 2016 to pack and load into the minibus.  The Christmas concert goers had responded magnificently to an appeal for funds for food, both for the local Trussell Trust foodbank and for the camps at Calais, and over £1000 of tuna, sardines, oil, long-life milk, kidney beans, chickpeas, tinned potatoes and tomatoes, and fresh vegetables and fruit as well as bags of sugar, tea, flour, salt, and raisins were spread out on tables around the room.   Groups of pupils divided the dried goods into smaller bags and sorted out toiletries kindly provided by student Aida Lahlou’s (17) mother. Sara Nathan, wife of YMS Director of Music Malcolm Singer, had done a massive online shop and bought some great value products, so that each bag cost just under £10 and Morrisons came up trumps with 100 free “bags for life”.  Each pupil went round the circuit of tables loading up a bag and closing it by tying on a helping hand created and decorated in the art room.

What to do about the refugees and migrants camped on the UK border in Calais?  We offer no solutions here, but give a human response in the spirit of Yehudi Menuhin. He was among the first to perform classical music at the liberated camps of the Second World War.  Following the liberation of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen on 15 April 1945, British occupation forces established a Displaced Persons’ camp for survivors in the nearby barracks of Belsen and on 27 July 1945 Yehudi Menuhin and Benjamin Britten gave a concert there. Malcolm Singer felt it was most appropriate to take students from the school to give a concert in the Calais camp known as “The Jungle” right at the start of Yehudi Menuhin’s one hundredth anniversary year.  Two Englishmen had set up a community theatre in a large dome tent called “Good Chance”, which was right in the middle of “The Jungle”, and that was where we were heading to give the first ever classical concert there.

Planning had to be rapid, flexible and risk-aware.  Although only a small group of seven pupils and four adults were going, every pupil was to be involved in the journey, making it an educational as well as a humanitarian response to a critical issue of our time. The school gathered for a talk on Tuesday evening and pupils were deeply moved by the story of Ahmad, a young Syrian man who has just been given refugee status in the UK, who told us about his experiences of life in the chaos of the Syrian war and the dangers he faced in fleeing to safety. At 7.00am on Wednesday morning we set off with the food bags and instruments in a minibus bound for Calais via the Channel Tunnel and after a very smooth trip we arrived at the French border control: “What is the purpose of your visit?”  “We are going to give a concert in Calais.” “Are you going to the Jungle?”  “Yes.”  “Have a good day.”

First we drove to the warehouse on an industrial estate a few miles from the camp which is run as a food, clothing and shelter distribution centre by L’Auberge des Migrants. This is an amazing place – huge and wonderfully humane, workmanlike and delightfully welcoming. It is run by volunteers, many from the UK, who operate a kitchen producing over a thousand hot meals daily, and parcel up and distribute the donated supplies to the camps in Calais, and now also in Dunkirk. We unloaded our 100 food bags by trolley and wheelbarrow and were taken to see a large board that detailed the daily operations.  Carefully the timetable was explained as a response to the different needs of the nationality groups within the camp.  Our parcels would be delivered the next day to the Somalian section and we were set to work as part of the production line preparing vegetables for the kitchen and packing rice and tea from bulk supplies into smaller bags ready for distribution.

“What we would really like you to do is play for us.” Let’s have an impromptu concert in the warehouse then, “Get the instruments!” A corner cleared among the shelves, plastic tubs for piano stools, David Horvat (18) and Kevin Loh (18) tuned up and started to play. Very soon we had brought the place to a standstill as an audience gathered and work halted. Magical music in an unforgettable concert hall greeted with warm applause and a unique confetti-like shower of chopped celery and lettuce from the kitchen!

It was soon lunchtime and we had brought a packed meal but were invited to share a delicious rice and vegetable stew. “Come and join us, we cook a hot meal for all our volunteers.” The day was cold and bright and we sat outside in the sunshine among pallets and industrial debris. Then the “live link” by phone to Dr Hillier [the headmaster] and the School gathered in the Recital Room – Paul, the cook, described the scale of the kitchen operation in a broad Scottish accent, “Menuhin rocks!” and we described what we had seen and done so far.

It was time to drive to the Jungle and a volunteer from the camp navigated the minibus by a circuitous route round the Calais ring roads, past a solitary police bus into the camp entrance. Gravel had been laid over the mud of the main track and flimsy tents had been replaced by stronger wooden-framed, plastic covered shelters. Brian Harris drove carefully up “The Street” past a few pop-up shops selling tins or tea and a row of portaloos providing some very basic sanitation. School minibuses were not a common sight and we were greeted with stares and smiles and we waved back.

We turned a corner and parked next to the “Good Chance” dome.  Our hosts offered us a walking tour of the camp – no photos – and as we walked we advertised the concert in half understood English or French and Aida’s more useful Arabic. It was a compact tour of the world’s conflict zones, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Syria living in a shanty town a few hours away from Surrey. A church, a mosque, the “Jungle Books” library, a First Aid caravan brought some community support into the sea of shacks and mainly displaced young men on the move. They had taken many risks to get this far. We met two twelve-year-old boys from Afghanistan who had got here on their own, sharing a tent and a blanket. We walked past clean white stacks of containers that the French authorities had converted to provide warm and solid accommodation, but the surrounding fence was off-putting and most people were staying in their ramshackle shelters instead. Tea was taken in the “Three Idiots Café”, a wonderful shelter decorated with a Bengal Tiger and enlivened by Bollywood dance music.

Back to the “Good Chance” dome and a hitch – the new generator was not working. Brian’s engineering skills came to the rescue and the concert could begin. The acoustics of a dome tent are unconventional and the listeners had little knowledge of classical concert conventions either, but the audience grew from forty or fifty to a hundred and fifty.

Malcolm Singer commented that “our pupils are from Serbia, Spain, Morocco, Canada, Singapore and the UK – the audience cheered each of them – particularly the Canadian cellist – they obviously rate Canada as the place to go. Afghan musicians took over at the end of our concert, and they were playing and dancing when we left at about 7p.m. The Metro newspaper claimed that there was trouble in the Jungle on that day – we certainly didn’t see any of it – just an upbeat mood and a very welcoming environment – a great way to kick off Menuhin’s centenary.”

Dusk had fallen and with a lighter load we set off back across the channel. A pizza in Ashford brought us back to our normal lives and we were back in school by 10.45pm after a day trip to Calais that none of us would forget.

Jungle crew were: Andrew Samarasekara, David Horvat, Lorena Cantó Woltèche, Jean-François Carriere, Ursula Perks, Kevin Loh, Aida Lahlou, Malcolm Singer, Sara Nathan, Brian Harris and Richard Tanner.

Photo credit: Richard Tanner.

Zamira Menuhin Benthall, a Governor of the Yehudi Menuhin School and Honorary President of Live Music Now, Germany and Austria, comments on the above: “This day trip by the School would have been strongly commended by my father. Among the activities organized by LMN in Munich and Vienna are performances and workshops for refugees. These were among the many innovations discussed at an international meeting in London convened by Live Music Now UK on 16 April 2016″.