DUNKIRK, France (Reuters) – A couple of days after migrants started to set up tents in a new location along an old rail line in Dunkirk in northern France last week, Dawan Anwar Mahmud quickly took the opportunity to build the make-shift camp’s first restaurant.
Made of a wooden frame using nearby trees and covered in tarpaulin, the restaurant was built in a day and is slightly sturdier than a tent.
It is a precarious existence: on Tuesday police arrived at the camp, evicted the residents and tore down their tents and shelters.
Speaking before the police arrived, the owner, Mahmud, a 30-year-old from Qalat Dizah in Iraqi Kurdistan, described how he was keen to start earning cash, having lost 1,600 pounds ($2,100) to a smuggler when he first arrived in France towards the end of the summer.
“I opened a little restaurant to go to England,” he said on Monday. Attempts by Reuters reporters to reach him by telephone after the eviction on Tuesday were unsuccessful.
Last week, a boat of at least 29 people capsized in the Channel, the 30 km (19 mile) stretch of water between Britain and France. Only two people survived, highlighting the great risks migrants take to reach Britain across one of the world’s busiest waterways.
But even before this, Mahmud was terrified of the Channel crossing. A month ago, he was taken to the coast by another smuggler and backed out after he saw he would be sharing the boat with 47 people. “I said ‘no, I’m scared!’ He hit me and broke my phone to make sure I didn’t call the police.”
With his restaurant he planned to raise enough money to get on a boat with fewer people, or better still, to avoid the sea and take a truck. It is rare nowadays for people to cross the Channel hidden in a truck due to increased controls.
MUDDY GROUND, WET SHOES
As the route becomes trickier, the price goes up: a truck ride to England currently costs around 4,000 pounds, compared to 2,500-3,000 for a boat ride.
Mahmud makes between 40 euros and 70 euros a day and employs two workers, who receive 25 euros per day and are also working to pay their way to Britain.
At Monday lunchtime, the restaurant served Kurdish style chicken livers in a baguette with sliced tomatoes and onions. One customer, Usman, 21, said he knows the food from back home in Pirashahr, Iran, but hadn’t eaten it since he left his country last year.
Normally, it is not his favourite dish, although he likes it. For now, he says, “it’s the best sandwich in the camp because it is very national food.”
Another customer, Mohamed Husseini from Iraq, wasn’t so impressed. “It’s an average sandwich,” he said. The last time he ate chicken livers made like this was a few months ago in Turkey, where he lived for three years and worked as a blacksmith before journeying to France.
At night, when he is not cooking with his gas stove, Mahmud lights it inside his one-man tent and watches films. It is dangerous but he is freezing; the ground around his tent is muddy and his shoes are constantly wet.
The camp smells toxic as people start burning bottles and packaging to keep bonfires going. “Everyone is at home in front of their fireplaces, and we are here under a sheet of plastic,” he said.
Mahmud has a long term leg injury that flares up in the cold. The problem started back in Iraq 10 years ago, he said, when he was arrested, imprisoned for six months, and beaten up by the police, after taking part in protests against the regional government. Doctors said at the time that he may need to get his leg amputated.
Following violent repression in 2015, he said, he decided to leave his country. He moved to Sweden to join his sister but his asylum claim was rejected after six years waiting.
It was there that he learnt to cook in a Kurdish restaurant, where he became a specialist in kebab and flatbread. “I could make 800 pieces of bread on my own in one day,” he said.
Mahmud said he could not make this bread now as he doesn’t have a tandoor oven, and it doesn’t make sense to get one as migrants risk eviction by the police at any time.
Eventually, Mahmud’s goal is to open a more permanent restaurant. For now, he feels Britain is his best bet, but he keeps an open mind.
“For me, if it is France or the UK or Germany or Belgium, it’s the same,” he said. “I just came here to start a new life.”
($1 = 0.7495 pounds)
(Writing by Layli Foroudi, Editing by William Maclean)