To save this months blog being mammoth I am just going to blog about my time volunteering with Care4calais in Sangatte. I’m “blogging” on my phone on the journey back home from France which ended with my best friends beautiful wedding in Pertuis. I am in that wonderful morning after state that only a wedding can leave with you -that is a mix of crippling fear and hungover doubt that you will die alone, alongside a feeling that all you really need is love and love is so simple and so beautiful and you’ve never felt more alive but maybe you need a lucozade or some water or possibly a hair of the dog?? Who knows. Anyways on to the blog!
Like many people I get a little bit numb to the images I see on the news, but when I saw Aylan Kurdi’s tiny little body washed up on that Turkish shore it was not something I could ignore. I think about that image a lot. So when I was invited to a wedding in Marseille it made sense to book time off work the week before to go and volunteer in the refugee camp in Calais. To try and do something. Anything.
Walking in to unknown situations usually terrifies me, but I felt quite calm as I wheeled my luggage in to the Care4Calais warehouse. Partly because I’d had hardly any sleep the night before and caught a 5am train to be here and was maybe delirious, but also partly because I just felt this was a good place to be. I was greeted by friendly faces, told to sign in, put on a hi vis vest, grab a cup of tea and take a seat.
After a welcome and brief from one of the team leaders I am assigned to “primary sorting” this is the first stage of sorting the boxes and bags of donations into piles. The warehouse here is a well oiled machine but it doesn’t take too long for you to get the gist of things and start sorting and labelling at a record pace. I then moved on to “secondary sorting” which is getting everything in to size order to make the distribution of clothes in the camp as quick and successful as possible. There’s much excitement when we come across some brand new men’s trainers.
There are currently around 6800 people in the camp and 200-300 of those are women and children. The rest are men. So we are able to keep the best donations for women and children only sending them almost new items.
The “jungle” as the camp is often referred to, has fallen out of the UK media a lot lately so donations are slowing down even though the camp population continues to grow.
So much time is spent sorting, it’s wonderful to see how much people donate but some of it does make the mind boggle. There’s a dirty old and still damp sleeping bag? A sequinned body con dress for night clubbing and a bag of odd shoes? By the end of the morning we have just as many dirty, damaged or inappropriate items as we do have things we can send to camp.
But the overall feeling is people do still want to help and these donations can make a difference to the lives of the people on the camp.
Some images from the warehouse
“Litter picking” was my first job on the camp and seemed like a good way to get stuck in to helping. Walking in to the camp wasn’t as daunting as I thought it may be. It’s an uncomfortable comparison but being in an unstable environment, surrounded by men and sticking out like a sore thumb is something I’ve got used to working in a prison for 10 years.
This isn’t the last time the camp reminds me of prison, and I am not sure who that feels more tragic for? The prisoners? The refugees ? All I know is that somewhere we got things very wrong and it will take lifetimes to make it right.
There aren’t any proper rubbish facilities on camp- as it is an illegal settlement the authorities don’t want/don’t allow the residents to become too self-sufficient/settled – but because they don’t want a full on humanitarian crises on their hands (I think they have one?!) they allow volunteers in to the camp to help clean up (the politics of this place is ever-changing and hard to get your head around)
So, litter picking, it doesn’t take more than a couple of hours for six volunteers to fill up the two roles of bin bags we’ve bought with us. They are filled with old food and drinks containers and general waste it’s a rough job and I put my hand (with a protective glove on) on a dead rat more than once.
To my niave suprise I am also constantly picking up empty tear gas shells. They are everywhere. A stark reminder that this is a place of conflict. I’m told the French police often use tear gas and rubber bullets in the camp, that things have been more heated lately since they dismantled part of the camp.
One volunteer who had been back in Febraury says that it feels like there is less hope in the camp now. She says it has to do with things like Brexit. I feel a weird pang in my stomach. It’s a strange feeling. I realise it’s shame. I feel ashamed to be English! What a terrible thing to feel when I come from a place full of so much and so many people to be proud of, but in that moment it is how I feel. I feel this “shame” twice more in just one day. I feel it again when I see the fence around the camp. I read in a newspaper back home that the UK government spent 7million erecting that fence?! I stare at it and imagine just what could be achieved here with 7million and we chose to build a fence?! A fence??!!!!!
I feel it again when talking with a man from Sudan.
“-where you from?
-England, London. England
-why do you hate us so much? ”
I didn’t take any photos on camp but I wish I had some to show people. Not to see all the bad conditions. They are awful, so bad people are getting sick with things like skurvy. I wish I could show photos of some of the homes , shops, schools, churches people have built here from nothing! Some are beautiful, colourfully decoarated with messages of hope.
We take a break from clearing up and go to a “restaurant” and buy a cup of tea. It tastes so good. For a moment you could mistake yourself for being in a bohemian afghan run coffee shop in Camden. This is the most surreal place I have ever been.
While litter picking we have found an old camp poster. Inviting the community to gather for silence and remembrance of those killed in the recent attack in Nice.
You can learn a lot from someone’s rubbish.
I felt very uncertain about putting my hand up when they asked for volunteers to teach in camp. I came here to help and give something back but I also want to challenge myself and develop as a person so I figured I should try something I was scared to do?
As with most things, the reality of the situation wasn’t as scary as I had thought. Over a long and tiring three hours, different men came over to learn some English. Sometimes on their own and sometimes in groups. One young man, Mustafa, from Sudan, sat with me for the whole session. We had a set of flash cards with images on. I told him what they were in English, he repeated them, wrote them down and put the Arabic next to it. He was creating his own English dictionary.
Another man from Afghanistan had no English at all and could not write in his own language. It was hard for us to communicate but we had fun pointing at body parts and labelling them. I’m not sure what “nose” translates as to him but he found it hilarious, he just kept pointing at his nose laughing and going “nose nose nose” -it won’t exactly help him navigate legal documents but it’s a start!
One man asked if I could teach him French but I couldn’t help. He already had perfect English. He explained he was a Doctor and where he is from, Syria, all Doctors learn english.
Our team leader came and told us to pack up and immediately head to the meeting point. The police were in the camp. From what I understand they do not routinely have a prescence on or patrol the camp so if they are there something has or is about to happen. The atmosphere changes very quickly to one where you don’t feel safe at all and I instinctively check my inside pocket for my passport. That tiny little booklet that means I have more human rights than Mustafa who says “I want to say thank you. Your help is good” before taking his “homemade dictionary” and leaving too.
As we are leaving we see a group of police offcers. They are armed and wearing protective masks. None of us like the idea of being tear gassed or caught up in what’s maybe about to happen.
As we leave i notice refugees heading back from the main bridge. Many of them are seen here. It’s one of the only places to get phone signal on camp and, I assume, a spot to wait for a passing truck headed toward the channel tunnel.
There are more police vans outside the camp. As we drive away we see an industrial digger headed towards camp.
I feel very uneasy to be living in a world where I can no longer tell which are the “good guys” anymore.
When I get back to my room i think I am just exhausted from the working days, the traveling, the long hot walk to and from the warehouse each day. I feel really emotional. In bed that night I just feel so much stuff!
I feel anxious to be going to my friends wedding at the weekend all alone. Then I feel selfish for even thinking that when I’ve just seen what the refugees are facing each moment.
I feel stressed that the place I’m staying added an extra tax I didn’t know about and if the hotel in Marseille does the same I will run out of money. Then I remember it’s a bed in a room. Not a 5 man tent that I have to share with 15 others.
I cry that night and I’m not even really sure why but being on the camp has got to me. In just days. I have a really vivid dream about that little boy on the Turkish shore. I sleep with the light on for the rest of the night.
Distributing donations in the camp has changed recently. Care4calais are trying new things and doing everything they can to reach everyone in the camp but even in summer, a peak time for volunteers, it is an ambitious task. With the camp at almost 7000 people and volunteers at around 30-60 a day the odds are against them. At the moment they are operating a ticket system. Residents can “order” what they need to be collected the next day from the container.they hand out around 300 tickets a day and hope to cover the whole camp on a three week rota. Before volunteering to help we are reminded that this will be challenging and only to put our hands up if we really feel we can manage it. The team leader asks for men to help with “security”(I notice that female volunteers seem to really out number male volunteers)
Once it’s decided who will be at the distribution we are given a clear brief on what we need to sort.team leaders explain time and again that things can escalate quickly in the camp and can get heated. These people have nothing and will be waiting in line for hours if we have made a mistake with their order tensions will run high, people without tickets will try and line up. You can’t let them it will be hard. Some of the residents think we work for the government it is hard to explain you are a small team of volunteers trying your best.
We practice our line up. I will form part of a human wall which will protect the line and stop people cutting in.
We check the orders. Everything is packed and checked and checked again. My admiration for those running care4calais just continues to grow.
We are briefed again before heading to camp.
They want to get this right.
It’s a hot afternoon and i am covered in sun cream. I’ve done a wee we all have!
(Going to toilet on camp would take a strong will so volunteers hold it! We have that choice, we don’t live there. I think about the women on camp. I recall the “nightmare”Moments I’ve been caught somewhere with a sudden need for a tampon and nobody has one. I can’t imagine this on camp. I can’t imagine)
So we set off and the distribution goes really well.my arms are stretched and aching from holding them up as part of the wall and we need to call for “security” a couple of times but mostly we have a positive time talking to people in the line, helping people, it feels good. At one point a guy in line plays a Justin beiber song on his phone. He has no shoes. This is the strangest place on earth.
Today is the first time I see a really tiny child on camp.he is about 18-24 months old toddling about, kicking a ball, laughing, he doesn’t have a care in the world.
How did he get here?
How did anyone get here?
How did we get here?