Life on the French Border

“Adventure” is far too flippant a word for this blog. I’ve just returned from my first visit volunteering for L’Auberge des Migrants (one of a handful of small charities attempting to meet the basic needs of 7,000 refugees living in abject poverty in the camps of Calais and Dunkirk  (https://www.facebook.com/LAuberge-des-Migrants-358496450338/?fref=ts). So far, the French and British governments have responded to this humanitarian crisis by erecting fences, drafting in additional security, and generally hampering the small charities’ aid efforts. What aid is getting in is mainly due to  the determination and dedication of an army of volunteers (many of whom are from the UK). This is humanitarian aid DIY-style, in the absence of anything else. Here’s a taste of some of my experiences

Day 1.  Journey from London went very smooth. Dropped off donations from Nottingham and London at the warehouse. Will be back tomorrow morning to volunteer. Asked them what they were most in need of, sugar and tinned fish was the answer. So, we went out panic buying sugar, drawing lots of weird looks in the supermarket. Another 400 Euros left to spend in the next few days on whatever’s needed. You lovely generous people! Not sure what’s happening in terms of the bulldozing of some of the camp. Eating cheese and chillin now – more news tomorrow…

 

Day 2. Busy, busy day spent mainly in the sorting warehouse. Started out packing up kits for individual men – a bin bag containing a pair of socks, pants, gloves, hats, scarves, hygiene kit, t shirt, jumper We ran out of gloves and me and another volunteer drove off into Calais to clear the contents of another shop shelf. After being fed a delicious veggie lunch, we switched jobs and moved onto boxing up specific types of clothes such as women’s waterproof trousers into sizes. These boxes will be taken into the camp for distribution. After work, we stopped off at the supermarket, and drew lots of curious looks by buying more sugar mountains, tins of fish and permanent markers (at the Warehouse’s request). Haven’t been to the camp yet – may go tomorrow and help out with conversational English class. Felt I was more useful in the warehouse today, as didn’t have a specific purpose on camp. The warehouse is great fun – lots of really interesting volunteers of all ages. Made lots of new friends today

Day 3. Spent most of the day helping to pack up some of the food bags which are delivered into the camp each day. First of all we made up lots of big packs for larger groups who cook and eat together. Then we made up some smaller packs for individuals. It was very busy work and made me fully realise the scale of this operation.

In the afternoon, we went into the camp for the first time and took in some notebooks, pens and felt tips(from donated funds) to Jungle Books. My friends made music in the lovely afternoon sunshine whilst a guy from Dafur told me of his love of Noam Chonsky. Then we went in and chatted with people at the conversational English class. During our visit, we met men from Sudan, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Syria. Everybody was very keen to talk with us. It’s a very difficult time afoot for the camp residents. They’re just learning about the plans to bulldoze their current home, and nobody really knows what will follow next. It may not be paradise, but there is a sense of community – shops, cafes, a library, churches, games of footie – it’s all they’ve got to call home at the moment, and it might all soon be gone.

Day 4.  Sorry guys but too shattered and strung out to do this right now. Today’s been a bit of a rollercoaster ride – been out to the camp in Dunkirk – and nobody should have to live in these conditions, let alone children! Will update tomorrow night when I get home and have had chance to process it all!

Day 5. Today I’m back home, feeling totally overwhelmed by grief and a new sense of uselessness. These are the images my mind keeps replaying.

Meet Abdul from Darfur. We sit in the fading afternoon sunlight outside Jungle Books and talk literature. With no formal education, he has taught himself. He tells us of his love of linguistics and Noam Chomsky. His favourite book is Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. I later learn that he’s a genocide survivor. His eyes, the windows of the soul, reveal the trauma stamped upon his core by being witness to sights that no eyes should see. UN estimates assess that since the start of the conflict in Darfur in 2003, more than 2.5 million people have been displaced and 300,000 killed. Since January, 73,000 civilians have fled their homes to escape the violence of the militias. Within the Darfur camps, there is little humanitarian aid or guaranteed safety.

Meet Safi, a Bidoon from Kuwait, with his face disfigured by a police beating, with his family displaced around the globe, with minimal English, with his desperate attempts to reach his brother in the North of England. It’s a one to one phonetics class, interspersed with stories of violence and family love and the weight of Safi’s hopes and dreams pinned momentarily my way. But all I can offer is my knowledge of the English language and a little human compassion. All my questions are wrong – he’s wifeless, childless, and doesn’t have an occupation. Despite having been settled in the North of Kuwait for several generations, the Bidoon are denied citizenship and classified as illegal residents in their home country. They are unable to obtain any official documentation such as a passport, a birth, marriage and death certificate, and a driving license. Their human rights are totally violated with children unable to register for schools and adults unable to get access visas to work. Marriage is impossible and procreation pointless. Safi’s only been in the Jungle for 6 days and he has sparkling twinkling eyes. I hope they stay that way.

Enter the Dunkirk Jungle. Imagine you’ve escaped persecution, you’ve escaped genocide, you’ve escaped a war zone, you’ve travelled over 3,000 miles and witnessed your loved ones dying unnaturally at home or en route. And then you wind up at the world’s worst festival with 3,000 other people living in tents covered in tarps amidst acres of mud with inadequate toilet facilities. There’s no entertainment… there’s no nothing…just a sea of mud and a general air of desperation. It’s snowing but the French police (subsidised with British funds) won’t allow in firewood, duvets, sleeping mats, pillows or blankets. You need to be fit and strong to grab any of the food supplies that make it through the gates.

Meet Sophia, the 7 year old, wading solitary and smilingly through the quagmire, joyously clasping her brand new toy to her chest, in a place where a 46 year old woman has doubts as to her own personal safety.

Meet Mog, the silver tabby, sitting in the ocean of mud, determinedly trying to clean the mud from her matted fur.

Meet the swifts in Rob Cowen’s Common Ground; the miracles of nature that never touchdown, that know no borders, that in their lifetime travel a distance of 3 million miles (to the moon and back 6 times) in order to survive and to feed and breed, birds in decline and at the threat of manmade meteorological change. They’ll be here soon passing the camps on their way North to Britain. I wish they could lend their wings. We are all nature and the patterns of nature have no inherent understanding or comprehension of the concept of borders. This is the tip of a colossal melting iceberg.

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