CALAIS, FRANCE —
Odai Ahmed cycles hard every day and dreams of reaching England. But as weeks turn to months, the 24-year-old Syrian feels like he's on a road to nowhere.
Like most of the thousands camped near Calais hoping to cross the English Channel, he's tried more than a dozen times to breach security at the nearby ferry port and more distant terminal for cross-Channel trains. Each time, networks of newly constructed 15-foot-high (5-meter-high) razor-topped fences and boosted police patrols have defeated him. He's already been arrested and held for five days in Calais after nearly boarding one train.
Disillusioned, Ahmed spends his afternoons recharging his smartphone on a stationary bike with a manual generator. It takes 2 ½ hours' pedaling to fill the battery.
It gives him time to think. That maybe, he and his Syrian tent-mates might have to turn back and claim asylum somewhere on the continent. He finds this idea particularly frustrating because he's studied English for half his life and knows barely a word of French or German.
"If we knew the situation was like this, maybe we would have tried to settle in Germany instead," he said. "We can't live here. Syria is better than here."
Near Ahmed's cycling station, a public notice board lists more than 200 camp residents by name, nationality, age and cell phone number. They all seek refugee protection in France and await allocation of state-funded housing. That can take many months in France's overwhelmed asylum system, particularly for single men, who receive lower priority for shelter.
A 50-year-old Pakistani man, Zerdullah Khan, looks for his name but it's not on the board yet. "Maybe next week," he said, describing his own doomed attempts to scale fences or sneak aboard trains.
"Younger ones may feel free to risk their life, but I'm too old for this," he said. "I will try to learn French."