As 'Jungle' demolition nears, refugee-owned shops hold closing down sales

The shadow of a migrant falls on a sign with the population of The Jungle at the end of the first day of the evacuation.
The shadow of a migrant falls on a sign with the population of The Jungle at the end of the first day of the evacuation. PHOTO: REUTERS

CALAIS, France (AFP) - An island of comfort in the squalid Calais "Jungle", the Khyber Pass Cafe is one of the few still serving customers even as migrants heed an eviction order and camp residents move out.

Open since April, the cafe has been housed in a large forest green-coloured tent. Inside, migrants and aid workers sip tea and coffee, and eat succulent-looking traditional Pakistani dishes, including beans soaked in a spicy sauce and saffron rice.

"Our menu is limited today. We are hours from closing down," said Mr Soheil, its 33-year-old owner, who did not reveal his last name for security reasons.

When Mr Soheil arrived in the Jungle on April 7, he was "shocked" by the state of the camp, which migrants have used as a launchpad for dangerous attempts to reach Britain.

"I decided the only way forward was to set up this cafe. I go to work the very next day," said the former sales executive, who spent several years in Dubai and speaks good English.

It took Mr Soheil two weeks to build the Khyber Pass Cafe, named after his native region, which borders Afghanistan.

Its flimsy walls are covered in silver and gold paper, with flags of Egypt, Sudan and Syria pinned up, as a welcoming gesture to guests from all over the world.

In some ways, it serves as a symbol for the community spirit some see in the Jungle.

In Pakistan, Mr Soheil was an influential member of his tribe. But after an assassination attempt by the Taleban last year, it was the elders of his own tribe who advised him to flee, he says.

Asked whether he dreams of returning to Pakistan, he says his "priorities have changed now. I used to put my tribe first".

Now, he plans to keep his cafe open for at the most another day, and to evacuate by Wednesday.

"My dream is to end up somewhere in Brittany. I have never been, but I have seen pictures, and it is beautiful. I want to open a restaurant, a proper one this time, and I want to help others who are less fortunate," he says, sitting back on a green couch.

"I will also call the new restaurant Khyber, just like this one."

Nearby, Mr Jaan Sina, a 26-year-old from Afghanistan braves the chilly Calais weather as he stands by his stall, looking for buyers for the last of his merchandise.

He sells shoes, cellphone battery packs, plastic cutlery, umbrellas, padlocks, washing up liquid and cigarette filters - an odd mixture of goods that are all vital for day-to-day survival in the Jungle.

But Mr Sina, who used to be a taxi driver before he came to the Jungle, is now advertising discounted rates, as he too gets ready to leave.

"As soon as everything is sold, I am getting out of here," said the young man, wearing a grey scarf around his head to keep out the cold, but only flip flops on his feet.

"These shoes used to cost 17 euros (S$25.76). Today, I'll give them to you for 10!" said the keen salesman, holding up a pair of black and fluorescent green trainers.

Like many others in the Jungle, Mr Sina fears being separated from the community he has built here.

"Here in the Jungle, all Afghans are one. But from now on, each of us will go our own way. That is what makes me sad," he says.

As the end of the first day of the evacuation draws near, most of the shops, restaurants and cafes that were once bustling with life here are already shut.

But even now, music still blasts in the background from a loudspeaker as a group of men sit around a camp fire for a last night in what, for better or worse, has become home for several thousands.

One group of Afghans gather around another stall a short walk away along a muddy alleyway, sharing tea.

"Everything you see here, even the shoes, you can have them at 1 or 2 euros," said Mr Muman, a 23-year-old also from Afghanistan, pointing at all that remains on sale at this bare-looking street stall.

"We're leaving the Jungle. We don't want trouble with the police," said the young man, in a brown leather jacket and grey trousers, who used to work as a farmer.

All he's waiting for is to sell off a pair of black trainers, two phone covers and a few battery packs. "It's over. No more UK for me. I'm staying in France."