Calais Trip June 22nd -29th June
Helping in the Refugee Camp from 23rd to 28th June inclusive, 6 days.
Four of us from JCRAG, Laura, Gaia, Catriona and I left London on the 22nd of June and travelled to Calais on the Eurostar. That evening after checking into our accommodation we drove to L’Auberge des Migrants, where Laura and Gaia would be be working with Calais Kitchens. Laura had heard that they were in desperate need of cooking oil, which was confirmed on our arrival so using JCRAG funds we bought them a supply of 85 1 litre bottles.
The following day Catriona and I drove Laura and Gaia to L’Auberge and we continued across Calais to the Care4Calais warehouses, where we had arranged to meet one of the longer term volunteers, Alexandra Simmons, with whom we had been in contact.
Care4Calais is a UK charity, founded by a group of volunteers, the inspiration of Clare Moseley, who was moved by the plight of the refugees and the defamatory comments towards them from UK residents. It aims to help any refugees fleeing war, poverty or natural disaster with basic needs and quality of life by giving fresh meals, warm clothing, heating and important legal and medical support. Care4Calais works with the larger organisation L’Auberge des Migrants and they assist the English Medics, who run the First Aid Caravans.
A day as a volunteer for Care4Calais started with work in the warehouses in the morning and moving to the camp in the afternoon. It was Ramadan when we were there, so work started a little later, at 10am, as the Muslims, who make up the majority in the camp, were fasting until dark and so rising later in the morning. At 10am we gathered for the morning briefing of what was to be done in the warehouse that day. Jobs varied from primary sorting of donated clothing and other goods to rearranging the toiletries aisle, making up food packages for groups and families and loading the van with donations to be handed out in the camp that afternoon. At the meeting we could volunteer for the job that we wanted in the morning and were we wanted to help out in the camp in the afternoon, teaching English/French, art or giving out donations to the refugees.
Lunches which were an excellent selection cold meats, cheeses, humous, beans, salads and bread were provided free of charge on site.
At 2:30pm after an initial briefing with each of our team leaders for either teaching languages, art or handing out donations, we left the warehouse for the camp, which was about 15 minutes away, sharing transport. On some days volunteers drove to either Paris or Lille taking a small amount of donations were also taken to small secret camps.
During my time in Calais I volunteered in all areas possible with Care4Calais to gain as much information as I could. My previous teaching experience had been during my nursing career, which extended from teaching individuals to giving talks on various health related subjects but teaching in the camp is very informal, on a one to one or one to three basis.
I found the art most rewarding. Various mediums were provided on different days, from crayons and painting on paper to colouring t-shirts and caps using special felt pens, brought over by an artist from the UK. Some men just came to watch others gained confidence with encouragement and started to draw. We had been told during the briefing to gently encourage them, ask them to depict what was in their hearts or what made them happy, as sometimes they could draw their journey or emotions but were unable to express them verbally, because of language or psychological reasons. Art can be a therapy to assist their recovery from the the traumas they have gone through and are still going through. Some came back day after day and you could watch them unwind and gain confidence in themselves. We were privileged to learn a little of their story without pressurising or interrogating in any way. I was surprised by their warmth, thankfulness, generosity and hope for the future despite the tragic circumstances in which they found themselves.
Here are a couple of the stories that touched my heart. One Afghan, who had worked for the UN, was too inhibited to express himself on paper but stood watching for some time told me that he liked to come to watch the people of different nationalities including English, French, German, Afghan, Sudanese, Eritrean working and laughing together. Later with the help of a volunteer he expressed himself on paper colouring in the outline of a figure black but with a red heart and the caption above it read “All of my life is black but my heart is now red”. Another man, who was Sudanese drew a picture of a man hanging from a tree, climbing up the trunk of the tree was a snake, underneath the man was the sea out of which an alligator was peering, mouth open wide, to the other side was the desert, where a lion was roaring. He explained that the tree with the snake was Africa, the sea with the alligator was Europe and the desert was the USA, there was nowhere to go where he would be safe and in the sky was a vulture circling, waiting for its chance.
Catriona’s background was in teaching and during her career she taught juniors, secondary and adults. Here are her reflections: I spent most afternoons teaching individuals- all adults and all male— English or French. In some instances, especially with English their level was impressively fluent and due to the temporary nature of our presence there we simply chatted. They would open up and seemed to feel better for the chance to speak one to one with someone who cared. Others were near beginners and would hugely benefit from a more structured programme, as the lessons clearly give them a sense of purpose. There were two main groups involved in teaching when we were there: Care4Calais Volunteers and local French volunteers operating out of Jungle Books and the next door classroom , both groups working in the afternoon. I worked twice at Jungle Books and joined the Care4Calais teaching group on other occasions. Some of the conversations and people were particularly memorable: an Afghan Economics student, clearly suffering from depression, who asked me what I felt about the camp…the Ethiopian politician who had been imprisoned for opposing his government…the young lad with impeccable English who had concluded French was his only way out of his present situation and was painfully grateful for assistance to help him learn. It was a very sobering experience relieved by the overall incredible cheerfulness of residents in the face of such adversity, the feeling of community and the presence of so many volunteers from all corners of the world.
The volunteers all had their stories too, interesting backgrounds, qualifications and ambitions for the future.
Alex Simmons and Karen Dexter, both longer term volunteers were amazing, so helpful and always willing to answer questions about the camp and organisations involved or find answers, despite being really busy. Alex arranged for us to visit the Unofficial Women and Children’s Centre, an old double decker bus, the top deck of which has been converted into an indoor play area, with an outdoor secure children’s play area to one side. We were not allowed in, as the areas were all in use.
I was surprised when walking around the camp the presence of women and children is not evident, I saw no more than three or four women and perhaps two with small children. I did wonder where they all were but hoped that they had their own safe areas. More questions to be answered.
The Official Women and Children’s Centre called Salaam (Peace) is outside the camp is run by a French government funded organisation, La Vie Actif. It houses approximately 180 women and 45 children in container dwellings. There is a French government funded school on site for 6-16 year old children. Some women are hesitant in residing in this camp as they are separated from husbands, they have to be finger printed, so they are concerned that they will be forced to claim asylum in France and they would find it difficult to get out at night if they intended to try to enter the UK on a truck or some other illegal means.
Both charities receive a large amount of clothing and goods for the smaller number of women and children compared to the men. Distribution is carried out in two tents one for women’s clothes and one for children’s near Salaam. They try to run the distribution of donations as a shopping experience by giving out tickets on a Monday and Tuesday, which entitles a woman to half an hours shopping slot in each tent.
We did hear a lovely story, from the Unofficial Womens and Children’s Centre of a family who had been granted asylum in France and provided with accommodation in a small town. When they arrived the Mayor came out to meet them and held a gathering in the Town Hall. Residents came and gave them small gifts and food to help them settle in. We asked how long it took for a family to be housed once they had been granted French asylum and were told about 2 months.
A census of the number of people in the camp is carried out on a monthly basis. The May census, which came out on the first weekend in June showed there were 6,123 inhabitants in total. 4,444 outside the containers, approximately 257 being women. 700 children, 544 of which are unaccompanied, 24% more than the previous month.
Care4Calais have divided the camp into 4 areas, a longer term volunteer in charge of each area, with local refugee community members providing information regarding the vulnerable, sick and newcomers. The organisation owns 47 gas bottles for cooking, which it hands out to vulnerable families and groups, rotating their use to different areas of the camp. More gas bottles could be used throughout the camp but the charity struggles to find funds to refill 15 per week. Each cylinder lasts approximately a month.
Care4Calais has ideas for a number of exciting long term projects, to improve life in the camp by catering for the inhabitants social and educational needs, but they would need funding. From building a restaurant, with a room for a social worker or workers attached, to a more structured approach to teaching by having one teacher on a year’s contract, with several others, who were willing to come for preferably a month or more. A structured curriculum, so that as one volunteer left another would find it is easy to pick up where the other left off but keeping the same informality for the teaching process.
There is so much more to tell, together with amazing stories but I hope that what I and Catriona have written gives you some insight into the workings of the camp and the refugees, who despite the fearful situations they have fled, the terrible journeys they have endured and now the deprived, impossible conditions they find themselves living in have not lost their love for the world, strength and generosity of spirit. It could be us in that situation. They are our brothers and sisters.