When my friend Jeanette told me that she and a friend were going to Calais to help out at the refugee camp, I immediately felt I wanted to come along and do my bit. I have a comfortable life and and I do not often get out my comfort zone, but now I knew I wanted to do something for the refugees who left their homes and countries as they could not be there anymore because of war, poverty, or any other reason that drives somebody away. I had seen pictures of the camp in Calais, called the Jungle, and I was in shock about the conditions these people had to live in. Nobody seems to know what to do with them or for them; the French government just wants them out of there, but offers no alternatives. The British government is not doing anything at all (just giving some money for the security) and most of the people in the camp want to go to the UK. Major aid organisations are not allowed to do anything and so the basic survival of these people depends on the help of volunteers and some small volunteer organisations. Which I found out when I got there.
When you are preparing to come to the Calais refugee camp, you need to find out where to go and what you can do. We got the email and a website of a British lady called Clare Moseley who had left her home and family to help out and stayed to set up an organisation Care4Calais. she had sent us directions to a warehouse on the edge of Calais where we could report at 9 am in the morning to receive instructions about what we could do. When we finally arrived there was a group of people already there listening to Clare doing her briefing. The warehouse, or I should say warehouses, were impressive: filled with sacks and boxes of clothes, tents, sleeping bags and more, all labeled and ordered in a clear system. We got our different tasks assigned and got started, most of the jobs were about sorting clothes and putting them in the right boxes. Many clothes that are sent by people, not always suit the criteria of what is needed. The camp consists mostly of men who are usually a size small or medium, which may sound weird, but practically it makes sense that they not get clothes that are way too big as our European men are usually a larger size. Some clothes and shoes were really inappropriate and so they were hung on a so called Wall of Shame…
The warehouse is about 15 minutes drive from the camp, but that first day I did not get to see the camp yet, which suited me fine as I was trying to settle into the routine of the volunteer work. I got to talk to some of the other volunteers, and they are of all ages. Most of them came for the same reasons, feeling compelled to help out. Everyday people arrive, most just stay for a short period but some stay for longer and they end up being the supervisors as they then know the drill. It is not easy having to explain every day again to new volunteers what to do, but they did it with love and dedication, simply being grateful that the people had come. That first day we were also joined by a group of 50 Mormons who on a regular bases come from the UK to help out. It is funny to realise that they seem to have God inspiring them to do the work, I just feel it from deep inside myself as many others do.
In the Jungle
We went to a different warehouse this time, which was on the other side of Calais. As we were with 5 women in total and two of them are professional cooks, we decided it was easier to all go to the same place. Another big warehouse, this time filled with food and drinks, and also here many volunteers present. Two of my friends and myself were taken to the Ashram Kitchen, which is located in the camp. Now I was really going to see for myself what the camp was like. On the way to the camp and near the entrance there police cars with some police men observing the camp. While entering the camp, I felt I was entering another world: had the third world come to us? It seemed so as I looked at the muddy paths, tents covered with plastic to keep the rain and cold out, but also for the more lucky ones, wooden huts and structures, also covered with plastic. Walking around the camp later, I discovered that there were shops and even restaurants in some of the structures, even a church. Very enterprising, but sad in another way as these people were stuck there. A volunteer told me later that she felt embarrassed when she had a good time in one of these restaurants and expressed this to the man running it, he said to her that she must not forget that he had no place to go and that was his reality. She could leave at any time and go back to her home. So even though they may seem to occupy themselves with these activities and try to make their time there a bit more bearable, it is still a situation, nobody would want to be in. Did I tell you already about the toilets…let’s not even go there.
In the kitchen I met the volunteers in charge and they were working together with some of the refugees, who were from different countries like Iran, Afghanistan and Sudan. They seemed happy to help and feel useful. I talked with a young man from Iran: he only had a cousin and an uncle with him in the camp, where the rest of his family was, I do not know. He told me he had been trying to get on a ship from Belgium to the UK, but he was caught and I believe he had done more of these attempts. I asked him why did he want to go to the UK, why not go to the Netherlands for instance where he has more chance to get asylum. He looked at me and said: “UK OR I die”. I found out that more of the refugees who are in Calais and Dunkirk think like that – mainly because most of them have family there who had been sharing their success stories and gave these refugees the hope that they also would be able to make it there. But the sad reality is that UK is not going to allow them in as they fear that Calais will become a permeant gateway for refugees to get into the UK. I get that of course, but leaving them in the Jungle in terrible conditions is also not the answer. But then what is the answer?
I helped serving breakfast to about 600 refugees, all men from different countries and you could see that this was giving some problems between the people standing in line waiting. This time it went all right, but the next day I heard there was some fighting and I also witnessed myself an argument between two men which did not look like it was going to be solved peacefully. The volunteers do what they can to keep the peace, but the fact is that it is not a safe environment, especially not for the women and children. There is a special section in the camp for women and children but they feel threatened every day – which I get because when you have more than 5000 frustrated men together in a small space under these conditions, well there will be likely outburst of violence and unfortunately also rape, which is the case there or so I heard. I visited the women’s section and outside their meeting area where some kids – teenagers – and some young female volunteers who try to guide these teenagers and help them. They are unaccompanied children with no family to take care of them and I heard of this one woman who spends all her time with them, also sleeping where they are to keep them safe. While I was talking to one of the volunteers, one boy of about 12 years old started kicking the wall of the meeting area very violently, then he broke something while kicking a caravan door and I could feel his frustration, his anger, his fear and loneliness. He should not be there under these circumstances, why were not the French authorities doing anything about it and helping these kids to keep safe. In a first world country you do not expect these third world situations and they should not be there.
I went inside the church – which was built by the Eritrean community – inside I felt for the first time since coming into the camp, peace and quiet. Some women were praying – a little child playing with some chairs – and here things seemed almost normal. But of course they are not. I visited also one of the restaurants were there were big platforms where the guests could sit and relax – be out of the cold. The manager was from Pakistan and had been there for a few months, but before that he had travelled through many different countries to get here. He asked me if the UK was going to open up their borders for them, but I had to say no and he looked so sad. Still he was the perfect host and served us coffee while we were watching a Bollywood picture on a screen. Weird situation when you think of it, so unreal it all seems. I went back to the Ashram kitchen to do another round of serving food, this time it was not so busy and the music was on loud with everybody swinging along with the song. For a moment we could all forget why we were there.
In the evening we had a birthday meal for my friend Jeanette with 8 women at the apartment we were staying. We were not really in a festive mood, but discussed the camp situation and some tears came. We all felt so helpless, even though we were there to help. What does it take to turn this situation around? I personally feel that this is happening to make us more aware of the inequalities in the world. Living in Europe seems safe; we have food on the table, a roof over our heads, some job to keep us occupied and the troubles of the rest of the world just seem so far away. But we are all connected and having the refugees come to us, makes us realise that we cannot stay separate from the problems in other countries of the world. We need to work together and start focussing on closing the gap between the rich and the poor, balance out the inequalities and be human again as we were intended to be before money and power took over.
There was a third day of volunteering which I spent in the Kitchen warehouse, chopping vegetables, but that one day in the camp changed something in me and made me realise what is important. I have no solution at the moment – but I do know that we all need to stand up for these people and wake up the governments that they need to take action and not think that if they do nothing, that situation will solve itself. It will certainly not happen. If it was not for the many volunteers the situation in the camps would have been considerately worse with loss of many lives because of hunger and sickness. Is that what the UK and French governments want? So far it looks like it, so maybe we do need to take it into our own hands like we seem to do more and more anyway. so if you want to help, please go to the websites mentioned and donate your time, money or whatever you can spare.