The Jungle by Pooja Puri
Ink Road, 2017.
“Better to wait here than in the camp,” said Leila, kicking her legs against the wall. “I hate it there. I hate that they call it the Jungle.” She pointed to the houses. “We lived like that once. We went to school, went shopping, watched films. We didn’t ask to leave our lives. Why can’t they see? We’re just like them. But we might as well be from another planet.”
Mico escaped danger in Kenya after a tragic fire at his family’s farm, with the instruction to find a new, better life for himself. Now he languishes in the ‘Jungle’ refugee camp at Calais, with thousands of other desperate refugees, anger simmering and often boiling over.
He sees his share of tragedy, as people try jumping trains to the UK, or swimming across the Channel. The only other way to get there is to pay the smugglers, whose rates are extortionate and passage is not guaranteed.
Mico is 15 and determined to prove he’s a grown man. He shares a tent with two men: Hassan wants to be an actor; he is kind to Mico, watching out for him and remaining upbeat against the odds. Sy is quieter, more cynical, and works as much as possible, obsessed with earning enough to get on a truck to England.
When Mico befriends Leila, a young girl who dreams of being a famous artist, his world seems to get a little brighter. Leila and her pregnant sister Aysha have just arrived in the camp. Leila is a force to be reckoned with; bright, bold and cheeky, her antics give Mico some hope.
After some scrapes, they find a small boat in the bushes. They set about repairing it, figuring it’s their only way to England – out of the hellhole of the camp. But when Sy betrays them, things come to a head and Mico’s and Leila’s dreams are shattered.
The story doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrors of the reality of the camp, and the sheer hopelessness that gradually eats away at even the most resilient of survivors. Violence is commonplace, but portrayed in a way that is understandable, when you herd a group of people into a cramped space with inadequate facilities, and give them nothing to do and very little to hope for.
Social media hype drew this title to my attention, and the stunning cover made me buy it. The story did not disappoint. Looking at the world from the perspective of a refugee within a refugee camp was a new experience for me and one I will not easily forget.