Last night the four of us from Friends Not Foes got back from our trip to Calais, and although it sounds strange to say it we had a great time. We left on Monday morning and arrived at our campsite that evening at around 6ish. We started on Tuesday and worked 10-6. The general structure of the day was organisation of the warehouse from 10-12:30, and then distribution to the various camps/settlements in the afternoon.
‘Distribution’ consists of a number of services that Care4Calais (C4C) provide to the inhabitants of the camp. They cannot take food because there are lots of regulations about food distribution that charities have to follow closely. So instead of food distribution, C4C offers things that I would say ‘humanise’ people. They bring a choice of two items, such as deodorant, t-shirts, or women and children’s packs (sanitary items etc.) which are then distributed out the back of the van. They also take two generators and a number of extension cables so that people can charge their phones, in order to contact people back home, etc. The generators are also used in conjunction with a ‘hair set’ that C4C brings with them each time. In it there are hair clippers, disposable razors and shaving cream, etc. This is actually a really important service because it helps them to feel clean and is a good social experience. It is not always the case that the barbers are experienced – some have never cut hair before – but that’s almost beside the point. They also serve hot drinks and biscuits. As far as I understand, this is as close as they can go to the food distribution but I think it’s a good service for them.
On Tuesday and Thursday distribution took us to Dunkirk – there isn’t really a big enough camp left in Calais to warrant regular distribution trips as far as I understand. The camp at Dunkirk was out the back of a gym on a side road, with 200 people sleeping inside, and another 300 in tents outside. The majority of people there were men, but there were also some women and children, and were generally from the Middle East. We spoke to men from Iraq and Kyrgyzstan, who told us of their attempts to get to the UK over the past few months, some of which included 48 hour trips curled up in small compartments on trucks, or a 36 hour trip with winter jackets and a sleeping bag in a freezer truck. Needless to say it was an eye-opening experience. It was unusual to actually see the camp and the people in the flesh, rather than on the news or in pictures. It wasn’t much different than talking to Ahmed or Suhaib, but their stories, and their location really emphasised it all. On Thursday, the police were somewhat obstructive, asking us to move our equipment. To me, this was an example of the hostile environment, not dissimilar to that created here in the UK by the departing Mrs. May, that authorities across the channel have adopted. They obviously just wanted to inconvenience us, and hoped that, by extension, they could encourage us to leave early. But we didn’t – stick it to the Man!
On Wednesday, we took a trip to Brussels. This was a surprise to us but was because of the lack of aid work in Belgium. To be completely honest I was not aware that Belgium has camps/settlements such as this but it does. I hesitate to use the word ‘camp’ because it doesn’t apply to what exists in Brussels. There were about 300 young men, mainly from Africa, in a park (with swings and play apparatus) in the city centre flanked by construction sites and 50 storey, modern, glass buildings. None of them had anything but the clothes on their backs. No tents. No sleeping bags. The lucky ones got to sleep under a piece of tarpaulin. The same services were provided by C4C as in Dunkirk. On the pavements and streets next to the park, life carried on as normal, almost oblivious to the obvious crisis happening right in front of them. Perhaps the best image for this was the lady who walked past clutching a Michael Kors bag. What is happening is by no means her fault, and if anything this raised the issue of guilt and blame in our own minds, but it was just an interesting contrast.
That idea of guilt was difficult for us to tackle. The night before we left we went to the pub with some of the volunteers. Me and Shay got to talking to two Gambian men, Mohamed and Ousmane, who had started working for C4C when they met the group as it came to the old Jungle in Calais, where they were living. Our conversation covered a number of interesting topics, such as the unity of Senegalese and Gambian people that exists despite their separate colonial histories under French and British rule, and the borders drawn up by the Europeans as they left. Overall, it was just a nice conversation. We all clicked really well and had a good chat, laughing and smiling, talking about school and friendship. We also began talking about their desire to come to the UK, and how that night (Thursday night) they would try once again to leave for the UK. We both remarked later that it was quite admirable that they worked to help refugees and asylum seekers by day, and yet by night worked hard to advance their own situation. Mohamed and Ousmane were both aware of the difficulties of their situation, and as they left for yet another attempt, in their goodbyes to those volunteers working again the next day they said: “see you tomorrow.” It was almost as if they knew that what they were trying would not work. I tell that story because it links to that idea of guilt. We all felt a bit strange just hopping on a ferry to come home, and eventually going back to our nice warm homes, beds, and families, when it was clear that M and O had probably not made it. But we resolved that their situation, and the situations of the hundreds of people we met, was not our fault. We were not directly responsible for what has happened to them, and that we had to go home and continue to live our lives. In fact, we recognised that what we had done in Calais, and what we all do with Friends Not Foes, is so much more than the vast majority of people do.
I’ve tried my best to put our experience into words, but most of it is difficult to articulate. We all feel like it’s something we share, but it was difficult even to express our thoughts and feelings to each other, despite our mutual experience. We thoroughly recommend going to work for Care4Calais. They are a fantastic organisation who do great work for refugees and asylum seekers.
Jared – Friends Not Foes
Colchester Sixth Form College