Burying refugees who die in the Calais 'Jungle'

2016-04-06 20:58


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Calais - The mourners gathered at Gomaa Makeen's funeral may have recognised the names engraved on the grave markers besides his.

The newest graves at the Muslim section of the Calais cemetery belong to former residents of the "The Jungle", a refugee camp on the outskirts of the city. 

They serve as a reminder for some of those present that their dreams of reaching England might never materialise.

Around 70 people - a mix of local Muslims, aid workers, and refugees - gathered on the bright but bitterly cold spring afternoon to bury Makeen, a Sudanese refugee.

Makeen had left Sudan last year, making his way to Libya before successfully crossing the Mediterranean Sea into Europe.

Spurred on by the success stories of other Sudanese men who had reached England, Makeen continued onwards through Europe's border-free Schengen zone to the northern French city of Calais where only an almost 40km stretch of sea separated him from his intended destination.

It was in Calais, however, that the 53-year-old would spend his final six months, separated from the elements by a thinly sheathed tent he shared with dozens of other Sudanese men.

With complaints of low blood pressure and other ailments, Makeen's journey ended in the camp.

"I went to wake him up, but he wouldn't move… I thought he wanted to sleep longer so I left him alone," his friend Moussa said, describing the day he found Makeen's lifeless body.

It was on his second attempt an hour later that Moussa, a fellow Sudanese refugee, realised his friend would not be getting up.

"He visited the camp doctors and they told him about his low blood pressure but he didn't do anything else about it," he said ruefully. 

Duty of Muslims

For Moussa and the other men who shared Makeen's tent, mourning quickly gave way to concern about how they would bury their neighbour in accordance with Islamic tradition. 

The costs of leasing a burial plot, coffin, transportation and other fees quickly mount up - money Moussa and his fellow refugees either do not have or can ill afford to spend.

Their first port of call was aid worker and Calais native Lahcen Tourabi.

The 28-year-old, who is a member of the small Muslim community in Calais, has taken it upon himself to negotiate the bureaucratic and financial hurdles involved in burying refugees who die in Calais.

Tourabi, who works for the Mercy Mission organisation, told Al Jazeera he decided to take a more active role after noticing the increasing number of deaths among refugees.

"There was a Syrian woman who got hit trying to get on to a truck on the motorway and another boy, a teenager from Sudan, died in the same way," Tourabi said, recounting how some had lost their lives.

"They died in a lot of ways … some drowned trying to swim to the ferries at [Calais] port, others from electrocution because of the poor safety standards at the camp," Tourabi recalled.

"We have a duty as Muslims to make sure their [refugees'] needs are taken care of and they have a dignified burial."

Most of the 14 refugees buried in Calais in the past year were Muslims, according to the local council. Christian groups similarly take on responsibility for burials in cases where the dead are known to be Christians.

Tourabi has the support of Islamic funeral home director Brahim Fares - based in nearby Dunkirk - who only charges for the actual cost he incurs for these funerals.

Fares has helped arrange 20 refugee funerals in the wider Nord-Pas-de-Calais area and like Tourabi, he told Al Jazeera he felt duty-bound to help.

"We want to contribute. It's in our culture and religion, that's how we've been raised. When we see someone who needs help, we help him," Fares said.

"A funeral costs in general between €2 400 ($2 700) and €3 000 ($3 360) and we know that they can't afford it, so for the migrants we charge €1 600 ($1 800) … we don't make a profit."

The sum is collected from donation drives at mosques in the area or paid for entirely by organisations such as Mercy Mission.


Fares described Makeen's funeral as one of the simpler ones he had arranged and the only one resulting from natural causes.

The refugee's body was released within two weeks of his death when a coroner ruled he died naturally of heart failure. But authorities can take up to two months as they confirm identity, determine the cause of death and contact relevant consulates. 

Back at the funeral, mourners took turns to carry his body from the entrance to the Muslim section of the burial ground, eventually placing his coffin near what was to be his grave, facing the Islamic holy city of Mecca.

Those present then formed three rows and performed the funeral prayer, which was led by a local imam.

Makeen's body was quickly placed into his grave and buried within minutes, after which the imam turned to the crowd to lead them in a final speech.

"Every soul will taste death," he said, quoting a verse from the Qur'an, finishing: "What is this life but the enjoyment of delusion?"

Tourabi spent his time consoling Mousaa and Makeen's friends with promises that he would come and see them in the camp shortly.

"Who knows what's written? Anyone could be here next," he said.

Read more on:    france  |  migrants  |  religion

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