Memories of Calais

I wrote this in June of this year, before the demolition of the camp in October 2016. With all of the misconceptions surrounding Calais and refugees in recent weeks, I decided to post it, to shed a small light on a profoundly misunderstood subject.

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Like so many people, I have been shocked to watch the daily news reports about the ongoing refugee crisis that is currently occurring across parts of the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. So, in the spring of this year, I decided to research how to go about volunteering in the so-called ‘Jungle’ refugee camp, located near the port of Calais in northern France. The camp has existed in one form or another for some years, but has become increasingly well known during the last 18 months as the population has soared. In March of this year the south side of the camp was demolished, forcing thousands of refugees to migrate to the smaller north side – which has led many people to erroneously believe that the camp no longer exists. It is still very much in existence, only now with a higher concentration of people living in a much smaller area.

Eventually, after much research, I came across Care4Calais, a charity that provides humanitarian assistance by distributing essential items such as clothing, bedding and food, to the more than 5,000 refugees currently living there. After contacting the charity to offer my help, in May of this year, armed with a car load of donations from the ever-generous people of Nottingham (including some Nottingham Forest attire), and with the biggest pile of blankets you have ever seen (purchased with the money I raised via my JustGiving page), I found myself on a one-woman road-trip to Calais.

When you arrive at Care4Calais, the first thing that happens is a morning briefing and a cup of tea (hurrah! Although sadly not Yorkshire Gold…). Then the morning is spent sorting through donations, organising boxes of items, preparing the van to take it to the camp for the afternoon distribution. The afternoon distribution happens at the same time every day, from a large industrial container owned by the charity, situated in the centre of the camp. It is an intense and often exhausting job, and is a harsh reminder of the reality of what the people of the camp are living: standing in line for hours, in the hope of getting a toothbrush, a pair of shoes, or a waterproof jacket to withstand the brutal storms of the north coast of France (it is freezing in Calais!). Seeing men of my father’s age queuing up for every-day items that we simply take for granted was an extremely humbling sight for me.

The camp itself is divided into two sections – a large section for men and unaccompanied boys (minors, the majority of whom have travelled alone from countries as far away as Afghanistan) and a smaller government-controlled section for women and children. The majority of people in the camp are young men between the ages of 18-35. Despite what is often reported in the media, it is not a camp comprised solely of Syrian refugees – there are men and women from a wide range of countries, including Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea, Syria, Iraq and Libya. This means that there are a whole host of languages being spoken, although the most widely spoken are Arabic, Pashto and Farsi. It is the ultimate hybrid of peoples. This is part of a journal entry that I made one week into my trip; “Today I was sat outside an Eritrean make-shift church, talking to a Pakistani man, watching a group of Afghan men play cricket for hours non-stop; not far away a group of Sudanese men were playing football. A small Syrian boy was digging in the sand with one of the volunteers. In the distance there was the sound of the call to prayer, as men made their way to the make-shift mosque…”

On my second day of volunteering, I was asked to take a child to hospital (ambulances will not enter the camp). He was a fourteen year old unaccompanied minor from Afghanistan who could not speak a word of either English or French. Unfortunately, his condition meant that he was forced to stay in hospital for two weeks, so one of the other volunteers and I began visiting him each evening, to see how he was doing and also to keep him company. Days are long when you are alone in a hospital bed, with no one to talk to. Eventually we realised that there were other refugees in the hospital, and so we started to do the same for them. Despite the language barrier, I think they were happy to see a familiar face each day, and even happy for the poorly pronounced, “as-salamu alaikum” that greeted them.

The same volunteer and I also set up an arts and crafts afternoon in the main community tent; it became extremely popular during my time there, and was a great way for volunteers to spend time with the refugees doing something that was more than just ‘charity’; something that meant we could all be normal together – or as normal as one can be in such a situation. It was also a good opportunity for us to help the refugees with their English (they were all very eager to practice!) and, for me, to put my one year of Arabic study to the test! I am not ashamed to admit that I did want to give myself a high five whenever I recognised a word or a phrase, but I managed to keep the self-congratulations to myself. My attempts at other languages were less successful – I must confess that one of the Afghan refugees found my attempt to speak Pashto amusing to say the least – he actually laughed in my face!

After a few days of volunteering, the camp begins to feel very familiar and the people living there become friends. Friends who will offer you the little they have to make you feel welcome – inviting volunteers to drink tea or eat with them (FYI Afghan food is truly a supreme cuisine), to talk about what life was like for them back home, or just to chat about the every-day things, like football and Leicester City winning the premier league. I even found myself warming to the idea of cricket – I have never been fussed by it, always found it rather boring and uneventful (yeah, I said it). However, watching an Afghan cricket match on a barren wasteland in the camp felt like watching a football match back home, mainly owing to all of the drama and excitement. But I think the most humbling moment of all for me was when I was forced to stay in hospital myself overnight: I woke up to discover that one of the refugees had walked from the camp to the hospital to visit me, just to check that I was alright – it is a two hour walk each way.

I took so much away from this experience, and I would encourage anyone who would like to support refugees of Calais to check out the Care4Calais website (or any of the other humanitarian organisations working in Calais) for ways you can help. The ‘Jungle’ is just 20 miles from our shores, and yet when you spend time there, you feel like it cannot be that you are just 20 miles from home; surely this is not Europe? But it is. You really can make such a difference, regardless of how small or seemingly insignificant the task – each volunteer plays their part to keep the wheels in motion. I found that almost none of the pre-conceptions that I had about the camp (obtained principally from the media) were true – I am so glad that I spent the time seeing what it is really like, and how we can help, in all of our small ways. I look forward to going back again.

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