An account from a volunteer.
I open my eyes. “I must have been asleep for ages” I think to myself as I reach for my phone to see what time it is. 3am – only two hours then. Go back to sleep? I have to be up in under an hour, decide it isn’t worth it despite the fact I only dropped off at one o’clock and go outside for a cigarette.
Fast forward a couple of hours to Dawn and Jasmine’s house where I drop off a loaded van (They were still in the camps in France when we loaded the vans on Saturday), say brief hellos to Christina and her husband Darby and hop in the Land Rover with Jon. We have to make tracks because our trailer full of pallets will slow us down and we want to ensure we catch our train.
Those of you who know me will know that for the last four months the plight of refugees has taken over my life. I was raised a Quaker and whilst not particularly subscribing to the Christian aspect of the faith, I abhor conflict and violence in all its forms. All my life I have observed the futility of war and listened to the lies our leaders have told to justify military action. Anyone who really thinks the rest of the world is bombing ISIS/ISIL/Daesh to stop them in their tracks either has no interest in or chooses to avoid the bigger picture.
In the summer, I began to note the increasing regularity of stories of refugees in the Calais jungle, the Greek islands and many points in between as they made their way across Europe to find somewhere they could feel safe and secure. These stories went into overdrive when pictures began to circulate of Aylan Kurdi, the 3 year old Syrian boy found washed up dead on a Turkish beach..
Shortly afterwards, I learned of a collection for refugees organised in Guildford by Christina Manning and Bethany Halliday, gathered up a carload of clothes, food, toiletries and my late father’s smartphone and drove them to the hall they were using for the event. I was amazed by what I saw. There were people unloading cars next to some kids making up cardboard boxes outside and went inside to see a hive of activity. Like me, many people had come along just to drop things off but stayed for hours sorting and packing. I couldn’t leave things at that and got more and more involved. I helped take the donations to the CalAid warehouse in Slough on the 4th October and saw for the first time how the news of the refugees had touched the heart of a nation.
Van after van was queueing up to unload donations. It became apparent that the only way we would be able to get our vans unloaded more quickly would be to get stuck in so for about 4 hours we helped unload other vans and carry donations upstairs.
Soon after, I met with Christina and her brother Ben Rogers to plan the next drop-off day in Guildford. Learning from the previous event and the chaotic scenes in Slough, we decided to appeal for a few specific items in the knowledge that we would then have items more appropriate for the refugees and we would also be able to dispatch these items more quickly.
While not as busy, our collection weekend was still a success. We managed to raise over 3500 items and sort, pack and itemise them all on the day. A big worry was the cost of storage and transport but after appeals, some wonderful people came forward with offers of vans and storage space whilst the volunteers brought plenty of cake and drinks. Total cost (no kidding) of the weekend: 99p for a bottle of milk. We realised that we had about 3 large van loads of donations. Some unused pallets were spotted at the council depot we had used for the weekend and a phone call later we had permission to take as many as we could carry.
That Sunday evening, I met with Christina, Dawn, Jasmine and Bettina to plan the best method of getting everything to those in need. We all quickly decided that the best thing would be to take everything to the camps in Calais and Dunkirk ourselves just over a couple of weeks later and got organising. We arranged to meet up at 5am on Monday just gone and then drive to Folkestone…
Everything surrounding the global movement to aid refugees is chaotic. Governments can’t or don’t want to know (then they would be responsible), larger organisations tend to send teams of people in on “fact finding missions” before they decide the best course of action, smaller organisations are even more woefully equipped and all of the time, masses upon masses of terrified, confused, traumatised, hopeful, sick, young, old, fit, pregnant, none of the above, some of the above, all of the above keep coming and keep coming and keep coming. So and so needs this, her over there needs that, baby is crying, baby is silent (worse), toddler is lost, Grandma can’t walk, he is stunned, they are shouting, all are desperate.
Best laid plans and all that. We eventually arrive (about three hours later than intended) at the Care4Calais warehouse. Care4Calais is an independent organisations that survives with the help of volunteers and donations from the public. Its warehouse in the Sangatte area of Calais is run by Claire Moseley and John Sloan – a retired warehouseman with a lifetime’s experience of managing large warehouses for the likes of Tesco and Coca-Cola. Trouble is, they don’t have the manpower or logistic support of a global company. John and Claire still manage to make things work and run a 7-day a week operation receiving, sorting and distributing public donations with a constantly changing team of volunteers. Some had been there for a few weeks, some for a couple of days. We are greeted by John and instantly impress him with our printed sheet itemising everything we have brought over. He tells us that some things are very useful, some less so and agrees to take all of it.
We unload our vans and reload one with sleeping bags and the other one with blankets to take into the Jungle camp in Calais. We need to leave the pallets here as we want them to go to Dunkirk so we find some where safe to leave Jon’s trailer. After that we have a briefing about how to distribute inside the camp. Everyone is given a role and we do a quick dry run before setting off.
Driving to the jungle we see many people walking in the same direction – obviously unsuccessful in their attempts to cross the channel the night before. As we get closer, a police van pulls out in front of us and deliberately drives slowly in a show of intimidation. We worry about getting stopped – particularly as some of the volunteers have travelled in the back of one of the vans as there aren’t enough seats. As we get closer, they pull to one side and we are free to go. Parking up outside the camp and I jump in the back of the first van with everybody else ready to drive into the Afghan zone of the camp. Pulling away, the road is smooth and suddenly the van darkens as we pass under the rail bridge. Suddenly we are tossed from side to side. “We are in the camp now” says one of the volunteers. The road is a lot more bumpy and we continue for a few minutes as she gives us some last minute instructions: “Some of them want extra for their families but are too embarrassed to ask. They are allowed to have them but they must queue again” I wonder if they will manage this or if someone they love will go cold that night.
The van stops and we are all told to stand side by side behind the shutter of the van before it opens so the refugees can’t see inside and start quarrelling. We get out and calmly a queue forms. I am to stand to the right of the van to prevent people from coming round the side and jumping the queue. I link hands with Oscar as we create a zone in front of the van for Bettina and Christina to hand out sleeping bags. The tail lift is raised (this way people can’t see when we are running out and start to fight for the remnants) and last checks are made to ensure all of us are ready and the queue is orderly. It is and we start handing out the sleeping bags. I start worrying about if things will get nasty but everyone has been through this before and they all queue calmly. I am pissed off at myself for worrying.
To the mostly male population of the Jungle, it is very important to preserve dignity. Any compromise to their masculinity is a no-no so pink along with other “feminine” colours are out. At the same time the rule is that if you don’t like your original choice, you have one further choice and its that or take your chances going to the back of the queue again. I see the obvious disappointment on the faces of those who, having rejected pink then get a thin or bulky sleeping bag (a compact sleeping bag with its own carry-bag is best – that way, it is easy to carry when running for a train or lorry or from the cops). A guy on crutches with one leg quietly stands to one side and a conversation ensues with one of us about what he needs. The less able, sick and old are the only ones to get concessions to the distribution system.
After about fifteen minutes the van is empty. There are some clearly disappointed people. I chat to J***l and M*****n for a bit. They want their photo taken. M*****n doesn’t want to show his face and hides behind J***l. I talk some more and promise not to publish their faces or names (obviously changed in this account) and the catch up with the rest of our group as we walk to the Ashram Kitchen zone where we will distribute blankets. A guy comes up to me with a scrap of paper saying “Facebook! Facebook!” He wants me to write down my name but I can’t find my pen – I’ve left it in my bag on the van – no-one else has one and I’m really annoyed at myself for forgetting it. We’re both disappointed.
This is my first opportunity to check my surroundings. The most rudimentary of shelters – tents and flimsy wooden structures – all covered with tarpaulins. Some in good condition, some less so. Some decorated with kids plastic toys, graffiti with words of hope or the name of their homeland, fuck the police.
On my way to the next distribution site, I chat to Ben, a volunteer from Washington DC. He has been in Calais for a few weeks but is going home soon for Christmas. Having heard this from a number of other volunteers, I realise that a tense situation is going to be made worse due to a lack of people on the ground over the festive period. A Muslim community let down by a Christian celebration.
Ben points out an area which as been cleared of tents and levelled out ready for some shipping containers to be installed to provide more secure structures which will be both weatherproof and fireproof. He explains that in order to move to this area, refugees will have to register and show their papers. I wonder if this will affect their chances of claiming asylum elsewhere.
We keep walking trough the mud and rubbish to an area next to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church where we hand out blankets. Here, there are a lot more chancers who try to jump the queue or push around me to look in the van. There is also a higher proportion of women who all try to push to the front of the queue saying “lady, lady.” It is the same rules for everyone and we point back, saying “Line” (everyone understands “line” rather than “queue”). Briefly, everyone starts chanting “line, line.” We all smile.
One lady is not happy with her blanket and motions with me to explain that she wants to change it. I try to say with sign language that she must queue again and the faster she gets in line, the faster she will be able to get an additional blanket. Another guy of Iraqi appearance comes up to me with his blanket rubbing his fingers together. I think he wants a thicker one so send him to queue again explaining to Jørg to give him a thicker one next time. This one is also obviously unsatisfactory and so the guy again rubs his finger and thumb together in front of my face. I tell him to queue again “line.”
“Line, line” he says looking fed up. Suddenly he changes tack and holds his hand up to me again. Same thumb and finger gesture “Please mister, I love you” He kisses the top of my head.
“Sorry, no. Line, line”
“Please, mister. I love you” Another kiss.
“Line, Line” my new friend goes to queue again. It turns out he wants a fluffy blanket, not a hard scratchy one. I realise that if you’re constantly exposed to the elements and can only wash and shave in cold water, maybe you have more sensitive skin, and its the feel, not the thickness of the blanket that matters most. Another guy has collected over ten blankets – obviously to sell and make money. Not good but we can do nothing as we need to keep the peace.
We return to the warehouse to collect Jon’s trailer and load up with more blankets ready to take to Dunkirk.
On the way to Dunkirk, we stop off at a house in Calais where Dawn stayed last week. I meet a lovely pair of French ladies who send us on our way with some clothes for an Iranian family who have nothing and a bag full of chocolate bars. They have been helping the inhabitants of the Jungle for years and have built up a close relationship with the refugees. We get onto the motorway and Dawn tells me of her experiences of the last two weeks in France giving spiritual help to the refugees while Diane explains a little of her work with refugees once they reach the UK getting them settled.
I’m so absorbed that I don’t realise we have pulled upside the camp at Grande Synthe just outside Dunkirk. It is about half an hour before sunset and the smell of burning wood and plastic fills the air. Back home at festivals, I used to castigate revellers for burning plastic. Here people have nothing else to burn (assuming the rain holds off).
We have been advised not to remain in the camps after dark so take the decision to get the pallets to where they need to go and not to do a distribution of blankets. Only a narrow road leads onto the Dunkirk camp so we have to carry the pallets to a makeshift tent where volunteers with Aid Box Convoy are building a social area for women. The mud is ankle deep. not a problem if you’re at a festival for the weekend but I see a family of five arrive at the entrance to the camp. The eldest child gives a piggyback to the youngest, the mother carries the next one up, the father carries the pushchair and the oldest struggles with the shopping. They have to wade through this quagmire for the foreseeable. One of the volunteers form A.B.C. shows me their marquee. A kitchen is inside serving hot soup, another area is a distribution point for clothes and bedding and there is a seating area for about thirty. Mud smears the floor. I go back for another pallet and walk past a family’s tent – evident by the array of different sized shoes outside. Their larder consists of a sack of onions and a sack of potatoes on the mud. As I walk, I see abandoned shoes everywhere in the mud. Obviously there are only so many times you can wear a muddy pair of shoes. I get back to the trailer and a guy is sitting on it trying on a donated pair of brand new white sneakers. He has to take them off and put his old ones back on to walk back into camp. Jon is talking to an Iraqi guy who has been in the camp for 100 days. He wants to go to Switzerland. “How has he ended up here?” I wonder to myself. I am offered tea, coffee, soup, food and I have to refuse it all because it is dark and my companions will worry about me. It is an insult to refuse hospitality to a Middle Eastern person. It tears me to bits to leave.
Dawn is trying to find the Iranian family but they are not there. She is distressed as she has all this stuff for them but we have to go. Just as we return to the warehouse to give back the blankets they call her to say they are now in the camp. We have a train to catch. It is so upsetting. She tells me this kind of thing happens all the time.
We all set off for the tunnel where shortly, a new wave of people will attempt to get to the place they will call home. We all have different tickets so agree to meet up at Folkestone services to finish our journey as a convoy. At Folkestone, we are all pissed off. So many coulda woulda shouldas, what ifs and if onlys. We talk it out until fatigue silences us.
Monday in spite of the couldas and shouldas was a massive success. If one stops looking at what we didn’t achieve and starts looking at what we did achieve; and if one looks at how much we learned and how that can be put into practice next time.
The most obvious solution would be for our government to take a proper share of responsibility both for what to do with the people in the camps and for the sequence of events that led them there. I travelled with Guildford People to People. We are not political, we are humanitarian. I’m saving my politics for a different discussion for I have heard so many stories in one day to know that things have to change and for that I want to raise awareness so that those with power have no choice but to act. For now, though, I look forward to doing this again and to help wherever I can. At the same time I know I have a responsibility to myself. I need to be able to return to do this another day. Please share this story if you think it will make a difference. If not, thanks for reading.
Guildford People to People