Nora Lorek on journalism and activism and her Panos print ‘Jungle disco’

Before I went to Calais, I was looking a lot at the pictures that were in the news, just to see what I didn’t want to reproduce. I felt it was important to show what is happening when we’re not seeing the front page kind of news. It also felt it’s important to show what capacity there is within these communities. It’s so beautiful to see how in a couple of months, they’ve built five mosques, a church, ten restaurants selling a ton of amazing dishes. It is really just amazing to see the creativity that comes out of situations where people are forced to be creative. Who probably always have been.

In the same year I had been working as a volunteer in Sweden with mostly Syrian refugees arriving here, and I felt it was very difficult for me to use the position that I was in to do stories. I felt I had to help with whatever needed to be done. But I wanted to document this situation that a lot of European countries were facing, of increased migration, where they were not really sure of how they would deal with it, everyone was treating it differently.

Dandan, Wessam and Ibrahim refugees from Syria, met in Calais in the autumn of 2015 and moved into a shelter together in an area mostly housing Syrians from Daraa in the so-called ‘Jungle’ refugee camp. For the first few months they tried to smuggle themselves on trains and trucks, but in the end they managed to collect the money needed to pay smugglers. However, even with smugglers they failed dozens of times before eventually making it to the UK where, since July 2016, all three are living there with relatives.

When I was at the camp the first time in December 2015 it was a very dark and cold month. In Calais city you barely had any lights. People were staying indoors. When you came out to the refugee camp where people had to move around, because they only had small shelters, you had bustling streets, shelters that were even restaurants or tea cafés or like in the picture, a little nightclub where they were watching Bollywood movies and smoking shisha and serving meals from home. It was a way to try to feel at home while waiting for the next step on this way to a new place.

Calais was a very important project in my life, because the people who I met were very welcoming to me. They included me in their families and that made it quite easy to find a place. The only meaningful thing for me to do became to document everyday life.

Calais, France. A group of men warm themselves around a fire in the so-called ‘Jungle’ refugee camp.

A couple of years later I was able to pitch a story to National Geographic. I had been reading about the fact that in 2015, while we were so focused on the European refugee crisis, Uganda had been taking in just as many refugees as the whole of the European Union.

In Calais the vast majority of people in the camp were men, in Uganda, it is mostly women who have fled South Sudan. That is a very big difference in who I met and how we worked with people. In Calais even though there were some entrepreneurs and businesses, there is also a lot of waiting. But in the big camp I worked in in Uganda, Bidibidi, people knew that they would be there for at least a couple of years, in fact they have been there for many years now. So people know that they need to build up a new life there. It’s not just an in-between.

Irene Sonia (17) says she wants to become an accountant but in Bidibidi they do not study the right subjects. She helps her mother Esther a lot at home. She once stood in the line for more than nine hours for the monthly food distribution. ‘Life is difficult. My friends are still in South Sudan and I don’t even have a phone. I really miss them.’

I was very lucky because I got teamed up with Asha Catherine, who is a refugee herself. She fled from Yei in South Sudan. She was placed in zone five of Bidibidi, which is about an hour and a half drive from zone one. So it is a huge area. We picked her up on the first day, and realised that she had her one and a half year old son Elvis with her. And he came along on that assignment, which was obviously amazing that she managed to do that, but also an amazing way in to talking to people; to have a person who is part of the community, who knows a lot of people, and who also knows what’s the most appropriate way to approach the community. I’m very grateful that I was so lucky to meet her at that point.

When we were talking to the families, I wanted to hear what they brought from South Sudan and there was one word that kept coming back, which was milaya. I asked Asha what milaya meant and she just said bedsheet. So when fleeing, say they heard shooting at night, they had to collect their belongings onto the bed, put it all together and wrap it in the bedsheet and carry it out into the bush, and just flee. So I thought let’s see if they’re willing to do a kind of studio in front of this sheet, and when the first family pulled out the sheet that they had brought from South Sudan it was this beautifully embroidered sheet which had a flower ornament which almost looked like an elephant and I was just like, Oh wow that’s amazing – are they all like that? and the mum of the family said Oh no, this is such a bad one it’s old, it’s got holes, she felt shy about it. Being interested in sewing and making clothes myself, I was amazed by the craft that it took. The family started to tell me more about the stories behind the milayas, how they use them for funeral ceremonies, and for newborns. It was so beautiful to see how proud they were of this craft. It also became a great way to approach new families and to create portraits with them.

Rose Jaun (38) in front of her Milaya (a traditional hand-decorated sheet) in the Bidibidi refugee settlement. L-R: Moses Taban (28), Ferida Aate (13), Rose Jaun (38), Kenneth Tereka (1), Rose Gaba (16) and Eva Gala (17). Rose lost both her brother and husband in South Sudan and is now taking care of six children. She is one of the female leaders in the Bidibidi settlement.

When the images were shown there were so many people reaching out to us asking: where can we purchase these amazing sheets? And it’s amazing to hear that but at the same time it’s frustrating because we knew the answer was, well you can take a flight to Entebbe in Uganda and then you can drive for 13 hours and then you can ask your way around and see if someone wants to sell. So we decided we had to find a different way to make this work. Nina Strochlic the writer for The National Geographic and I went back there to try to work out a way to professionalise production so they could be sold online and exported to the US and to Europe. Now there are around 80 women who are embroidering pillowcases and wall hangings, Asha Catherine is the field coordinator of the project, which is a nonprofit. So we’re still very close. They’ve just started a collaboration with a very cool Ugandan design company, to embroider recycled clothing. It’s a way for them to make a living and to spread the craft.

Working on the milayas project probably takes almost half of my work time, and it’s not something I make any money from, but it’s something I really love doing. In the same way that I chose to not do a journalistic project out of the volunteer work that I was doing in Sweden, it’s difficult not to turn the journalistic projects into some kind of activism after. I also think it’s important to rethink what we as journalists are doing. We create an awareness, but when we create an awareness, and then people want to help, but we don’t give them the tools to help, or the contacts to help well, we don’t create the bridges. If we don’t build those bridges, who’s going to do it?

Jungle disco

Calais, France 2016

A disco in the so-called ‘Jungle’ refugee camp at night. This was the biggest of the three discos that were set up and one of the few places in the camp where alcohol was sold. The Jungle was a refugee camp near Calais in northern France. Before it was demolished in 2016 it was home to over nine thousand men, women and unaccompanied children living in a muddy expanse of tents and temporary shelters which they had built themselves and decorated as best as they could. They all had the same goal: to go to the UK.

During 2015 the infrastructure inside the Jungle developed rapidly. There were churches and mosques built out of sticks, tarpaulins and plastic, with blankets insulating against the cold. Syrians, Afghans, Sudanese, Kuwaitis, Kurds, Pakistanis and many more lived side by side among the seventy restaurants, shops and hairdressers that stretched along the main 'street' of the camp.

In October 2016, the French government decided to demolish the camp and evict its inhabitants. Tear gas cylinders were fired to disperse crowds, the diggers came in, and within three weeks, the camp was agone.


About Nora Lorek

Nora Lorek is concerned with issues of migration, culture and human rights. She works on projects in refugee camps and informal settlements, with the aim of visualising life in migration beyond the statistics and headlines. Nora has accompanied refugees and migrants on their way along the borders of Europe and East Africa, showing solidarity with those in need of protection.

In 2016 Nora began an ongoing project in Bidibidi, one of the world’s largest refugee settlements in Uganda. During her time there Nora co-founded the Milaya Project, a non-profit organisation which connects South Sudanese women in Bidibidi refugee camp with customers who want to support the production of these embroidered bedsheets (Milayas), a traditional artform and valuable cultural heritage preserved by these women in exile.