During the week of the 24th of October, French authorities began disassembling the ‘Jungle’ refugee camp in Calais as its residents were moved by coach to other parts of the country.
Watching the situation unfold from both sides of the channel, I had been left feeling deflated by the negative media commentary and social media response to the crisis. Splitting hairs over whether a person is 18 or 21 does not negate the fact that that person is a refugee. In any case, I am 21 years old and I cannot imagine how I would cope in such a situation.
Many negative comments I observed online are based in the belief (whether or not it be valid, I don’t know) that these refugees will impose a burden upon our society that we are not equipped to deal with, but what of the burden we are imposing on them? These people have risked their life (often to great financial detriment) to flee their homes in the search of refuge. How must it feel to be told “we really have enough on our plate at the moment, but we are willing to spend £2 million building a wall around you until we are ready to deal with the problem.”?
I’m not a psychiatrist but I think it is safe to speculate that the mental impact of such trauma and neglect following the harrowing experiences they have already endured prior to their arrival in Europe will be lasting.
It was a nurse in Calais who pointed out the great irony of the situation, being that through our inaction, we risk increasing the burden which we are so anxious to avoid: these refugees will have suffered great mental distress and through our failure to respond we risk amplifying the problem and, as a consequence, these refugees will be dependent on health services for years to come.
I recently read an article by a lecturer of mine highlighting human rights violations of states and the legal status of refugees within Europe. It was this article that first exposed me to the volunteer effort and, by reading about the first-hand experiences of a person known to me, the detachment I felt as a passive observer of the news was pierced.
Originally I was unsure whether I would be able to help at all: I am not a human rights lawyer, nor a doctor, nor a nurse. Well, as it turns out (somewhat embarrassingly obvious to me now) you don’t have to be any of those things to get involved.
During the October break from university I traveled 13 hours north to spend 3 days with Help Refugees and Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK) in Calais. Completely by accident I had committed my time during the week of the planned eviction and demolition of the ‘Jungle’.
After a long journey and a short sleep I arrived at the Help Refugees warehouse and I was instantly taken by the sheer magnitude of the operation. The warehouse, which acts as the logistical base for the distribution of essential aid to both the ‘Jungle’ and the refugee camp in Dunkirk, was huge and filled with donations. I was now standing in a warehouse physically surrounded by the good will of others and immediately the impact of the negative media comments I had read online began to dissipate.
What was most impressive to me, though, was the volunteer community. I was inspired by each person I came into contact with during my time with the organisation, many of whom had committed months of their life to the cause, and others, like myself, had come during the few days they had between work or school.
High School students chopping vegetables next to corporate lawyers, next to teachers – I have never experienced such diversity within a single group. People from all over the world, some as young as sixteen and others who had come out of retirement, all with a common selfless desire to help bring comfort, support and dignity to the residents of the camp.
At this time of great uncertainty, the effort of these volunteers was even more remarkable. It seemed that the authorities were not providing Help Refugees (or any non-government organisation for that matter) with any significant information about the demolition. Volunteers learned through social media that French President Francois Hollande had declared ‘Mission Accomplished’ regarding the destruction of the camp while there were still as many as 1500 minors known by the organisation to be living in shipping containers at the edge of the camp. These containers did not have the space to accommodate so many and as the supporting organisations were not permitted to provide them with tents and so many of these minors were forced to sleep on the ground outside.
Each morning began with a volunteer brief where we (temporary volunteers) were assigned our jobs for the day. On day one I was assigned to Tent World. I built, inspected, repaired/salvaged, dismantled and placed countless tents into the warehouse inventory. The last time I had used any kind of tent was at T in the Park in 2012 and that tent built itself on the Thursday and I made no effort to take it down at the end of the weekend and so I was learning on the job. Volunteers joked that they would be leaving Calais with a PhD in pop-up tents.
My second and third days were spent with Refugee Community Kitchen chopping vegetables, making salads and slicing bread. The kitchen was working overtime to help cater to the refugees who had been left behind following the demolition. I arrived at the warehouse every morning just before 9am and the kitchen was already in full flow, they worked tirelessly throughout the day to provide food, water, and hot drinks for the camp.
The work in the kitchen was therapeutically repetitive. I must have peeled hundreds of carrots, potatoes, onions, garlic… but the best part about work in the kitchen was the atmosphere. If you were to observe the kitchen for less than a couple of minutes, or consider that all the volunteers are free to take as many breaks as they wish for as long as they wish, you would be forgiven if you came to the conclusion that the operation might be a disorderly mess, however, this kitchen ran like clockwork. What’s more, it was inspiring to watch the chefs who took great pride in their work, creating varied and delicious meals for the jungle – a difficult task when you consider that everything was vegan or that, in its peak, they were cooking for up to 10,000.
There was a constant flow of tea and coffee provided to volunteers and our days were accompanied by the music of a donated iPod in the kitchen to keep spirits high. The iPod had every genre of music imaginable, perhaps a testament to the range of volunteers who had passed through the warehouse. One minute we could be listening to Norah Jones, the next some kind of soviet death march, and the next a Latin American Salsa.
The day for me ended whenever the work was done. The two evenings I spent in the kitchen lasted until as late as 9pm, with the never ending list of things to do, and the fast paced nature of the work, it was very difficult to escape the kitchen. I can’t remember the last time I slept as easily as I did on those three nights.
What next for Calais?
Of course I don’t know the answer to that question. Throughout my time in Calais there was an intense feeling of uncertainty. Many long term volunteers were making plans to move home or move on to other areas of Europe to continue to help the cause.
It was clear, however, that it was not the end, the ‘Jungle’ was gone but the volunteers and the refugees were not. Help Refugees and RCK were certain that they would continue to need volunteers to support the neighbouring refugee camp in Dunkirk and the various reception centres around France and indeed Europe.
After speaking to some Calais locals, it was obvious that this feeling was shared. One told me that this situation is not a new one, and that “as long as there is a port and human-smugglers, there will be refugees in Calais.”
Before my time in Calais when I told friends and family what I was going to be doing, many thought I was mad. Isn’t it dangerous? What are you going to do there? They don’t need you, they’re closing it down… and, in honesty I didn’t know the answer to these questions but I knew I would not be satisfied until I experienced it for myself. Despite all the negative commentary and the desperate nature of the crisis, I found my time in Calais to be incredibly positive and uplifting. I don’t quite know what I expected to find when I got there but I was very pleasantly surprised. A warehouse like that doesn’t fill itself and, while we might not read about it in the news, it was incredibly refreshing to witness the immense effort being made to aid in the safe passage of refugees within Europe.
Since leaving Calais, I have been glad to read that the unaccompanied minors who had been left behind have now all been transported to reception centres in other areas of France, and our own Home Office has resumed assessments to bring children to the UK under the Dubs amendment of the Immigration Act. Just last week I read about a group of girls who landed quietly in Edinburgh on a Saturday are believed to have entered the UK without any trouble. I only hope that this continues.
If you would like to learn more about the organisations mentioned in this blog or if you feel inspired to get involved, there are a number of facebook pages you can follow to keep up with organisations like Help Refugees and Care4Calais.
I would like to end by saying thank you to everyone I met whilst in Calais, and to Help Refugees, and Refugee Community Kitchen.