Stranded in France: Two refugees tell their stories

Sohail Ahmed and Kamil Shamal no longer have to worry about the Taliban forces they fled, but life in the Jungle, a French refugee camp, brings other problems.

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Stephen Shankland
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Stephen T. Shankland

This is part of our Road Trip 2016 summer series "Life, Disrupted," about how technology is helping with the global refugee crisis -- if at all.

More than 6,000 people fled war and slogged across a continent to get to a refugee camp in northern France.

Now they endure political hostility in a place they don't want to be.

Sudanese, Afghans, Chadians, Syrians, Iraqis, Iranians and others live in a Calais camp known as the Jungle, and another in Grande-Synthe about 25 miles east, because the camps are the closest jumping-off points to the UK, the country they want to be in. That's where many refugees, who often speak English, have family and friends.

My colleague Rich Trenholm and I visited the camps in June to get a feel for how technology is -- or isn't -- helping refugees. Mobile phones provide a psychologically important link, but they can't help refugees scale 15-foot steel-mesh fences topped with razor wire or climb into moving trucks headed to the UK.

We've encountered fears that refugees coming to Europe mean lost jobs, the spread of Islam and even more terror attacks. We didn't encounter any of those motives while speaking to dozens of refugees -- only frustration at being stranded in this dreary French city, a three-hour drive from the thriving culture of Paris.

Here are the stories of two people we met.

Kamil Shamal, a 16-year-old from Afghanistan, shows his phone outside the Jungle refugee camp in France, but he doesn't want his face photographed.

Kamil Shamal, a 16-year-old from Afghanistan, shows his phone outside the Jungle refugee camp in France, but he doesn't want his face photographed.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

The would-be student

Kamil Shamal shows me why he fled Afghanistan.

Kamil Shamal's message: He's poor, a Muslim -- but not a terrorist.
Enlarge Image
Kamil Shamal's message: He's poor, a Muslim -- but not a terrorist.

Kamil Shamal's handwritten message: He's poor, a Muslim -- but not a terrorist.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

The 16-year-old balances my camera tripod on his shoulder and sights along its length to take aim at an imaginary target. Shamal is pantomiming a rocket launcher, but he puts it down with disgust.

The Taliban attempted to conscript Shamal, pulling him out of school and signing him up as a soldier for the fundamentalist Islamic group.

"I said no," Shamal tells me in the Jungle, the squalid refugee camp in Calais that he spent 13 months trying to reach.

In the US, kids Shamal's age live at home and study at high school. That's what Shamal wanted too. But the Taliban doesn't approve of education. With no one to turn to -- both of his parents are dead and he's lost touch with a brother who ran away from home -- he made his way across the Middle East and Europe alone.

"I leave everything," he says. "I have no home, no school and one shirt."

Now Shamal wants to make it to the UK, where his cousin lives and where he thinks he has a better chance to learn a profession. He speaks English too, though not fluently.

His prospects are dim.

See France's refugee camps for yourself

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I spoke to Shamal on a cold June morning as he trudged along the industrial road that leads to the highway. Every day, refugees tramp along the road through an industrial part of town, flanked by weeds and passed by lumbering trucks. Their hope is to jump onto a truck that will be shuttled to the UK by train.

For seven months, Shamal too tried this. Then someone he knew lost his grip, fell from a moving truck and had his leg smashed.

"I said, 'Stop, stop, stop!'" Shamal says, recalling the scene. "But he didn't stop."

The Restaurateur

Sohail Ahmed wouldn't spring to mind when you think of a refugee.

Sohail Ahmed's restaurant in the Jungle refugee camp in Calais, France

Sohail Ahmed's restaurant in the Jungle refugee camp in Calais, France, is decorated with space blankets.

Stephen Shankland/CNET
Europe refugee infographic
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Europe refugee infographic
Ian Sherr/CNET

The 34-year-old Pakistani traversed the world as a salesman for a Dubai travel company. His passport is stuffed with stamps from his journeys.

Kenya. South Africa. China. Germany.

Now he's in the Jungle, where he's reinvented himself as a restaurateur.

Using part of the $100,000 he saved while working in Dubai, Ahmed built a small Afghan food cafe called Khyber Darbar out of timber supports, plywood walls and plastic windows. Each panel of its wooden flooring cost 16 euros (about $18) at a Calais hardware store. But the interior decor, made from silver and gold space blankets given out by aid agencies, was free.

In the corner of the cafe, a generator-powered flat-screen TV plays a DVD of "I Am Legend."

The restaurant, which employs a cook and a few servers, offers a limited but tasty menu. Main courses of stewed chicken, beans or lamb come on a paper plate with rice, bread, a cucumber salad and a glass of fruit juice. Each meal costs 3 euros, which wouldn't buy you a glass of wine in the rest of France.

"You need a social life," and a restaurant helps refugees find one, he says.

I came to the Jungle to see whether tech was helping with the refugee crisis. Maybe it could alleviate their difficulties, maybe it was unimportant? What I found was that tech is far less important than spirit.

Ahmed is a businessman through and through. After leaving the travel company, he sold building materials to construction companies. One relic from his past life was perched atop his head: a worn hat promoting Roofing World.

He got married in 2014 and carries photos of the event on his iPhone. He had more than 5,000 guests, many of them high-ranking political figures and businessmen.

Then, the Taliban got whiff of his wealth.

"Every month they came. Give me $1,000, $1,500," he relates them saying. "If you can't pay, they ask you to come and join us. If you don't pay, they're going to shoot you."

He decided to flee. His wife stayed behind, a split that put an end to his marriage.

Watch this: Wi-Fi in the Jungle of Calais

He had an easier journey than many refugees, flying to Germany in 2014, and then traveling to France via Italy. His business travel credentials got him on his way in 2014, but his passport is expired now.

Ahmed feels trapped, though he hopes to make it to Canada. Still, he's a success by the standards of the Jungle. And he's happy his cafe provides a respite for the camp's 6,000 residents, all of whom want to be somewhere else.

"When I see them," he says, nodding to customers puffing on two hookahs he's procured, "I really feel happy."