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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Givens

A Little Girl is Dead

We will be returning to the USA for the end of our first term in June. We’ll be staying there through August. While there, we’ll be tasked with sharing about our ministry and about the things we have done and experienced during our first two years in Calais.


The imminent approach of our visit to our home country has got me (Joseph) thinking (a surprise, I know. But I do have thoughts sometimes). It’s got me asking myself questions I don’t know how to answer. One central question I have is this: How do I put into words something that can only be felt? How do I share my experience here with people who have no basis for understanding what it means to sit up at night worrying that someone you love is going to drown in the sea? How do I express the joys I feel when we have a beautiful dinner together around a common table, all the while sharing laughter and stories in various languages and cultures? How do I make people truly, deeply understand the emotions we have experienced so far, the highs and the lows?


To those questions I have no answer. The best I can do is tell my story and tell the stories of those I have come to love here in Calais. I may never be able to make people truly and completely understand the depth of emotions that we experience in our work here, but I can give them the ability to feel something. And so I will share about something that has happened here recently, something that has broken the hearts of our friends, family, and the people we serve. Something that never should have happened.


Today as I look out the window, people are going about their normal lives. Cars pass by. People walk to their workplaces or to school. The sun is shining, and the spring weather has broken through the winter gloom, bringing life to the city.


But somewhere out there, I know one family is not experiencing today as a normal day. Indeed, it is one of the worst days of their life. Somewhere out there a family is missing their little girl. And all the sunshine and blue skies in the world cannot bring her back.


A few days ago, a family was on a small inflatable boat in the canals of Dunkirk. The boat sank and their seven-year-old daughter drowned. I know because the news was shared with me. There were two short articles, one in English and one in French. They simply say that a 7 year old girl from a migrant family drowned in the canal. That’s it. That’s all she is to the people here: another migrant trying to enter the UK illegally. It’s barely even news at this point.


And yet, if this same thing had happened to a little white French girl, it would be front page, international news. We wouldn’t be able to get away from the story of this poor little girl and her family. It would receive widespread coverage, and we would have heard about it in America.


But because she is not wealthy, white, or from a privileged country no one cares. All she is is a migrant. She is disposable and a symbol of people who are invading our Western countries. She is not the little girl that loved flowers and playing and dancing. She is not the daughter of a family that fled their home country because of a violent dictatorship and is seeking a better life for her and her siblings in Europe.


She’s just a migrant. That is all.


Today is the funeral. The organizers have asked everyone to bring flowers to lay on her grave, because she loved to put flowers in her hair. I help find flowers, but I don’t go to the funeral. I tell people I’m not going because someone needs to stay at the house, since all the volunteers are going.


But that’s not the entire truth.

The truth is that I can’t bear it. I can’t stand to hear the mother cry. I can’t handle seeing the tiny casket lowered into the grave and having the dirt piled on. I can barely think about the scenario without imagining my own children being the ones who drowned. I fear for their lives every day as it is, sometimes irrationally so. But I will never be forced to flee my home country and put myself and them in danger to seek a better life somewhere else. It’s because of where I was born. If I had been born in Iraq, or Kuwait, or Eritrea, or Iran, I could very well be in this same situation. But I am not. And I never will be. And it breaks my heart that anyone should have to deal with this.


Instead, Rachel goes. She takes several of the women from the Maria Skobtsova House with her. They feel that they must go support the mother in her time of grief. Most of them are mothers too, and they know all too well that it could have been them.


And so, from here, I will let Rachel finish the story.


I wasn’t sure at first if I could or would go. I have been to many funerals… of people I both have known and love and those I didn’t know. I am no stranger to death and know that life is short. Knowing this I dread the day it comes again. I fear losing my children, my husband, my family, my friends – new and old.


We arrived early in hopes to bring others from the camps who wanted to come. But no one else needed a ride, so the two women who came with me and I walked through the cemetery, remembering the many others who have tried for safety and failed. Then we saw the small grave. The hole was there with the pile of sand right beside. In America, I don’t typically see the pile of sand. I’ve seen people lowered in but don’t remember that pile of sand. I don’t understand all Muslim customs but have learned through our experience here that it is very important that family and friends cover them.

Once the family and little Roula’s body arrived everyone was waiting at the entrance of the cemetery. We all were holding flowers at her mother’s request. Roula loved putting flowers in her hair and her mother asked for flowers to be laid at her grave. There were hundreds of flowers and over 50 people there to support them. We walked through the cemetery to the very back to her grave following the hearse. Listening to the prayer song of the mourners.


As we stood at the grave and the mourners continued their service, hearing her mother’s wail shook me to my core. I felt her pain and sorrow. I remembered my grandmother as she too lost her only son. The little girl’s brother cried and asked questions in disbelief, I was brought back to my childhood and the tears of my siblings as I tried to be the brave big sister during our father’s funeral. Though their religion is different than mine, I felt their hope. I saw their renewed strength through the support of many around them. I was proud to be able to support our women in supporting them. We stood together rubbing each other backs. I listened to them share words of comfort in the soothing tones of Arabic. The women from our house helped hold Roula’s brother and comfort him.


After the prayers, they lower the little casket into the grave and begin filling it in. They make sure her three brothers and father get the chance to shovel the sand. They take special care at the end making it smooth and round. Once finished we wait. There is silence as we wait. Then, her father and friends gather flowers from those around the grave and begin placing them around her. Then naturally a line forms and everyone passes by her mother some sharing words, some holding her arm, and others unable to look at her. She is standing there tears streaming down her face, holding two beautiful pictures of her little girl facing out so all can see Roula.


Once the flowers are laid, we wait again. Silence. Then her father speaks, he thanks everyone and said that this was hard to bear but would have been especially hard to bear alone, but since he is not alone and was surrounded by love and support his strength was renewed. They invite everyone to a meal at the current accommodation, another house of hospitality here in the north.


We go. I didn’t know what to expect or what I could do or say, but I knew our women needed to be there, so I drive them. An association here in Calais has catered the food and many desserts were made both by our house and others who have come. I sit with our women, listening to them share stories and words in Arabic. Not understanding but being present. Before we eat, one of the volunteers from the house welcomes everyone and thanks those staying in the house for welcoming the family and taking care of them during this time. I can tell Roula’s brothers already feel at home. We eat and drink lots of tea. Then we head home.


During the drive home, I reflect remembering the details of the day cementing them in my mind. I pray for the family, I pray for the many others here on the border and borders around the world risking their lives for a chance at a safe and better life. I pray for protection. My heart is heavy and I know this will happen again all too soon.

 So that’s the story. Pray for those who have lost their loved ones to the depths of the sea. Pray for peace and justice to be done in Calais and at borders around the world, and that those seeking life and prosperity for their families find safety and welcome in their new countries.


Most of all, pray that no more little girls have to suffer the same fate as little Roula. It didn’t have to be this way. The blood of this child is on the hands of those in the French and British governments who have made a conscious decision to seek political wins and let people suffer.


Shame on you, politicians. You are responsible. We will not forget.

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