September Philip and I travelled to Calais for one week’s volunteering with Care4Calais. Before we went we spent a couple of days sorting and repacking donations that had been collected locally. This was my first trip to Calais but Philip’s sixth so I felt confident that one of us at least would know what they were doing. On arrival in Calais we drove straight to C4C’s warehouse to unload the car. Volunteers from Oxford Refugee Solidarity Group were preparing to drive to Brussels to distribute food, blankets and shoes. Just after they left four Glaswegian men arrived with their vehicle loaded with clothes and food they had bought in France with donations from a support group in Glasgow. They too drove to Belgium. That first day we spent sorting clothes in the warehouse.
The pattern of the week was generally warehouse work in the morning, a shared lunch and then distribution trips or other activities in the afternoons/evenings. Philip was surprised and concerned about the small number of volunteers compared with his former visits. This was his first since the dismantling of the ‘jungle’ and we assume that the lack of media coverage recently has had an impact on the volunteer numbers. Obviously fewer volunteers affects both the work in organising and tidying the warehouse and the workload for those who were there.
We soon learned that the refugees in and around Northern France, Paris and Brussels, approximately 2,000 in all, were living in very poor conditions, mostly in the open, on wasteland, in parks and forests.
During the week we visited a large group living in a park in Dunkirk, the site of a previous Women’s and Children’s camp which burnt down earlier this year. On the first visit we parked some distance away and walked towards the park. One volunteer drove his vehicle, which carried a box of toys, to the end of the park drive. We were soon overwhelmed by a large group of young men who were asking for clothes and food – we had none. It soon became apparent that toys were not enough, several refugees made attempts to take other things from the car so once the box of toys was dispatched it was parked elsewhere. We learned later that the driver’s passport had been taken from the car.
Having re-grouped and no longer the centre of desperate attention, our small group ventured into a wooded area of the park. There, amongst trees dappling the afternoon sun, we came across a scene of dystopian grimness. Families – women, children, babies and toddlers – were the predominant residents of a ramshackle shambles of tiny tents and tarpaulin sheets which stretched between the saplings. This had been their home since the former camp caught fire earlier this year. Toddlers played in the mud with sticks and an old cycle wheel, their clothes, faces and hands caked with fresh brown mud. The mothers who watched protectively wore faces weary and despairing but they still managed a smile and welcome greeting. At times this felt like voyeuristic self-indulgence but it needed to be witnessed.
Three days later we returned. Police had cleared the ‘camp’ and removed most families to reception centres across France. Five families who had refused to go, remained. This included at least one mother with a small baby. They had no shelter and just the few belongings they were able to gather from the clearing and stuff into plastic bags. The police threatened to return and remove them by force.
Many of the single men had simply disappeared into the forest and fields. As soon as we drove up; this time three cars packed with volunteers, blankets, some clothes and emergency food; male refugees and a few children began to emerge. The police had only just left so we were one of the first charities to get to the site. Again, it became too chaotic to distribute anything safely and at Philip’s suggestion we retreated so we could better organise the distribution.
Parked at the edge of a nearby supermarket car park, we spread out all we had brought and quickly made up individual packs. Philip and I bought some additional food with funds donated by friends in England. As we worked on the packs, a lone refugee wandered over to us, wanting whatever we could give him. I turned to see a permanent Care4Calais worker, we think a refugee himself, swapping his own new trainers with the other guy’s filthy, tatty canvas shoes.
Before we returned to the site, we packed everything into Philip’s car boot as his was the only vehicle which had independent locking for the boot, and we practiced a ‘funnel’ formation which would allow safer distribution. At the site these preparations paid off and we were able to distribute all the packs calmly and efficiently to ensure everyone received something.
The next day a smaller group, including Philip, went back to the site with more emergency food packs, blankets and jumpers. Again the distribution had to be suspended because of problems with queuing but was resumed with the help of an English speaking refugee.
While Philip and I were busy in Dunkirk on our second visit, three volunteers headed for Paris with a van load of supplies for refugees living on the streets there. Pierre, a volunteer who is a refugee from Burundi, now studying for a Masters Degree in Belgium, was delighted at the opportunity for a first visit to Paris and after the distributions the trio managed just a little sight-seeing for him.
Former residents of the ‘jungle’ were to be found close by the cleared site, living on waste land at the edge of an industrial estate. As we parked we noticed the only refugee in sight was an African man stretched out face down on the grass verge. For some moments we feared the worst as his body was so still but as a small group of refugees arrived they assured us, and then checked for themselves, that he was just sleeping. This group had access to running water through a stand pipe and portable toilets – both facilities provided by the local authority and while we were there a minibus arrived with several children who had either been to school or a day centre. We distributed cereal bars, toothbrushes and paste, socks, hats, gloves and boxer shorts. We also had the phone charging board so that was put to good use. We had been told that there had been fighting here earlier in the week but all was quiet and several of the young men were enjoying a relaxed game of football.
We went on to another site close to the hospital but here found two other charities already working, including a van set up with wifi access and advisory facilities so we gave out what we had left and then returned to the warehouse.
While Philip had made his third visit to Dunkirk, I went with another volunteer, Mike, to a Calais Day Centre run by the local Catholic community. It was held in purpose built accommodation designed to provide non-residential sanctuary for up to sixty adults at any one time. We were told that on the previous opening, more than one hundred and twenty refugees had turned up and were offered hot drinks, washing facilities, activities and a quiet place to sit alone or with friends in a more social and ‘normal’ setting.
Mike and I had prepared a bag of games, books, art and sports equipment. We also found some copies of the Koran so put a couple of those in too. Not long after opening it was obvious that the numbers would soon exceed sixty and by mid afternoon I estimated that there were probably more than double that number. The largest room in the centre was used for art activities. Two UK based art therapists had a particular project set up on one table and several refugees worked with them during the afternoon. A smaller table was set up for ‘free’ art activities and the men who used these tables spent the whole afternoon concentrating on their particular work. I was presented with a drawing when it was finished as thanks for keeping the artist supplied with sharpened colour pencils. A smaller room gave refugees opportunities to use some musical instruments, to play card and table games and try jigsaw puzzles. Mike was kept busy playing Jenga with a competitive group of older men.
In the small outside yard games of volley ball, cricket, catch and football survived alongside each other with very little interference and a great deal of co-operation and laughter. The Afghan’s cricket skills were particularly impressive and they seemed to appreciate my cheering and clapping at displays of adventurous catches and fast bowling.
One morning iwas spent in the warehouse erecting newly donated tents to check their condition – all went fairly well until we were defeated by a green ‘pop-up’ which refused to go back in its bag. But we found 5 tents which could be used to offer a little shelter.
On our last full day in Calais we were joined by a small group of, mostly, newly qualified doctors from a UK based charity. They spent the morning checking on all the medical supplies stored in one of C4C’s containers and refreshing the First Aid boxes they would later use. Other volunteers were directed to put together another 300 emergency packs which involved Philip and Mike shopping for additional food and the whole team making up the packs. One hundred of the packs were loaded into a van and a car while 3 of the medics put medical supplies in their car ready for the afternoon distribution. The frenetic morning was disturbed briefly by the arrival of four Englishmen whose behaviour seemed rather suspicious so doors were locked and other precautions taken until the unwanted visitors left.
After lunch Philip stayed at the warehouse to complete the repair of five cycles while I went with other volunteers and the medics to meet a new group of Sudanese and Eritrean men who had fled across the Belgian border to escape police harassment. We met them in the city centre outside the Town Hall, surrounded by local residents, tourists and school groups visiting the impressive building. Targeted distributions were made here, emergency packs distributed to all who came and the medics ran their mobile ‘clinic’ from the boot of their car. After about 30 minutes police arrived and after the van was searched, we moved on to a less visible site.
The following day we had an afternoon return ferry so did not join the large group of volunteers who took the remaining emergency packs, along with blankets and shoes, to Brussels. Ian, who has recently been employed by C4C to work in both Calais and the UK and who was in charge during Clare’s absence, seemed to have strong management skills and told us about plans for opening a warehouse in England. This should be happening quite soon. As he was also going to Brussels he left Philip with the warehouse keys so it could be left secure when we left. We spent the day working on cleaning and reorganising parts of the warehouse. We cleared the kitchen of out of date food and other health hazards, and made the ‘sorting’ area a little easier to use. These are the sort of unglamorous little jobs that help the charity perform more effectively to support refugees but which are often missed when there are such small numbers of personnel.
Family and friends ask me ‘How was it?’, I can only reply that I am very pleased that I went and that I hope to go again very soon. I am also very grateful to Philip for making all the arrangements and doing all the driving.
The current situation for refugees in Northern France and Belgium is grim and with the weather now changing it will only get worse. The C4C website (http://care4calais.org/) regularly updates their list of ‘most wanted’ items – at present the need is for volunteers, blankets, sleeping bags, water-proof boots, food items, boxer shorts, hoodies, trousers, winter coats, (small sizes) socks, gloves and hats. Imagine trying to keep warm, clean and dry while living with no shelter and little or no access to any of the usual facilities for living – life pared right back to survival mode – this is what any donations can relieve.
by Helena Nwaokolo and Philip Horner