Guest post, by Lydia Mizon.
On the evening of Friday 13th November 2015, I travelled to Calais with sixteen Cambridge University students to volunteer for a weekend. In two minibuses we drove to Dover and boarded the ferry. As we disembarked at Calais, our phones regained signal and informed us of the terrorist attacks, still underway, in Paris.
It’s one of those moments. People will always remember where they were when they heard. I was sat at the front of a minibus in Calais and feeling everything at once. For the next hour I would play it cool with my family, not daring to mention it for fear of a) informing them of the attacks and worrying them or b) seeming afraid. Those of us in the minibus had no idea if it would affect our safety, or the safety of other volunteers and those in the camp. On arrival at the house, those students with friends or family in Paris quickly employed all useable phones to ensure everyone was safe, and we settled down to bed. I couldn’t stop refreshing Twitter though, in that sort of slightly shameful, information-hungry way which descends on many of us when breaking news takes over social media.
And then the camp was on fire.
It’s times like this I both adore and hate Twitter. I was lying in a child’s bed in the small hours of the morning, refreshing Twitter like a woman possessed in desperate search of cold, hard facts instead of anything from Russia Today or wild speculation. As I forced myself to sleep, all I knew was that the people we were aiming to help over the weekend were currently having all their worldly possessions destroyed, possibly in retaliation for something they couldn’t possibly have been involved with. When we finally heard late the next day that it had been an electrical fire in a makeshift restaurant, we felt a palpable sense of relief.
Crouching Toilet, Hidden Message
On Saturday morning we arrived at the warehouse, our main rendezvous point for the weekend. The location of the warehouse is secret, so as not to be reported by the media and as such we were asked not to photograph the exterior. Despite its anonymity, several groups of people turned up during our time in the warehouse to donate goods; some pre-sorted and good condition, some totally the opposite.
Upon arrival we were briefed by volunteers who, given the events of the night before, had been awake for almost 24 hours. We were to stay in the warehouse all day, sorting donations; the situation at the camp was still fraught, and given that dozens of people had lost all their possessions, sorting and distributing tents, jackets, warm socks and clean shoes was an absolute priority.
The pile of donations was simultaneously uplifting and daunting.
Taller than any of us and seemingly increasing all the time, the pile of donations was our day’s work. Two volunteers unloaded new donations from lorries which arrived intermittently, a small group sorted them into basic groups (Mens/Womens/Kids – the vast, vast majority of the donations are clothing) and then the larger group sorted them into sizes.
There are some perhaps unexpected rules when deciding what can and can’t be donated. No white clothes – the camp is so dirty that these are ruined and disposed of almost immediately. No skirts of any kind – too impractical. No trousers above a men’s size 36 – almost all the refugees are smaller than that. No scarves or clothing with holes – they are likely to catch if and when being worn while climbing over barbed wire.
The conditions at the warehouse are grim. There’s basic electricity but a severe lack of facilities. I ate my lunch out of a pan lid. Volunteers eat what the refugees eat; always leftovers which are driven back from the camp to the warehouse and reheated. Somebody had brought us a box of wine. Somebody else had brought sweets. The toilets were described as ‘festival like’ but were actually wooden structures with no seat, no flush- just a hole inside which went straight to the ground; crouching was a must. A lot of the volunteers are there all day, every day. Nobody is paying them. There is a mattress on a trolley and some scarves on which exhausted volunteers can sleep for an hour or two. Some have rented a flat in Calais for six months – eight of them in a two-bedroom flat. We asked how they were affording to stay for so long, unpaid. “We’re not” was the usual reply – they are barely scraping by.
If you want a generalised glance at the complexity of humanity, spend a day sorting items that humanity has decided to donate to other humans who have nothing. We disposed of an unspeakable amount of soiled, unusable clothing. We came across a baffling number of smart women’s high heeled shoes, ties and other items which would be impractical in a refugee camp. We found numerous t-shirts with highly inappropriate slogans on- some choice highlights:
- “Beach Bum”
- “Born To Run”
- “Cherish the journey”
- “So far from home and so alone…”
Donated unthinkingly, I am sure – but REALLY?! We also found more cheering items. Leinster Rugby club had donated dozens of warm, woollen scarves. Someone had boxed up brand new, warm, waterproof coats in a variety of sizes. Then there were the messages.
Mostly from children, these were the first things which really, really got to me that weekend. No judgements, no conditions – just one child sharing their possessions with another, whom they will never meet.
Then there was this:
Found in the pocket of a white jumper we couldn’t donate, we hid it in the inside pocket of a waterproof jacket which we sorted and boxed before resuming donations but it remained in my thoughts for a long time afterwards, along with that old Anne Frank quote people occasionally wheel out on Twitter: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart”.
The warehouse closed at 6.00pm and we went for dinner at the Family Pub in Calais, with the instruction that we were to be at the camp at 7.30pm for a candlelight vigil. Organised by the refugees, the vigil was to show solidarity with the people of Paris. After all, the perpetrators of the attacks were the very people many of the refugees were fleeing from. They too were disgusted and afraid, while also having to deal with being increasingly under suspicion; events such as this can delay or completely halt asylum applications.
The atmosphere in the Family Pub was one of a standard Saturday night; although hard to decipher the chatter going on all around us, people seemed unafraid to venture out into the city centre less than 24 hours after the attacks. There was only the odd reminder from the TV in the corner, which screened mostly rugby, of what had transpired.
We discussed our day, our lives, their courses of study. We didn’t make the vigil; several of the ‘orange jackets’ (more experienced volunteers) had decided against going due to weather conditions, and we fell in line. In addition, we felt it was the refugees’ vigil, not ours; they had organised it and we were wary of intruding on what must have been a much more complex kind of grief.
Arriving on Sunday, we began donations again before being quickly gathered around.
The guy in the picture is Eamonn; one of the full time volunteers living in the flat in Calais. He informed us that hundreds of tents had been destroyed and damaged in the winds overnight, and that every person in the warehouse would be deployed immediately to the camp to repair and replace tents. This is what you’ve been waiting for, right? The bit where we get to the camp? That was a little how we felt too, though it was a difficult feeling to vocalise. On the one hand none of us were here for ourselves, and wanting to see the camp felt like the worst kind of voyeurism. On the other we all acknowledged we were here to help those in need and understand the problem, and it was difficult to understand the problem without seeing it first-hand. So, after an hour of waiting around for a way of being transported to the camp, off we went.
I feel I should note here that pictures of the camp were taken at the request of the charity in order to spread awareness of the situation and the ongoing efforts of volunteers. We were acutely aware that we were in effect wandering into strangers’ homes and the ethical complexity and indignity of this. Where possible, I sought the permission of refugees.
You’ve never seen anything like it, and unless you’ve been to a festival that lasted forever, you’ve probably never smelt anything like it either.
Copyright and courtesy of The Guardian
My first reaction was a very strong need to cry, followed almost immediately by the overwhelming desire to help. We were handed tarpaulins which we were to take to an abandoned container the charity was using as a storage point. People approached us. “One”, they said, dozens of them, over and over again – “one”. This is how the camp’s residents gain their belongings. The people in these camps need EVERYTHING, because they have nothing. We couldn’t help them this time. We apologised. They retreated. We ended up by a bunch of large, new-looking royal blue tents. They were, we were told, provided by the French government for Syrian refugees only, as they are a recognised group in need. None of the other nationalities get help from the French government in this camp and this, as you can imagine, raises tensions. In one minute, we were asked to move by two French security guards who were patrolling the area. No reason was given but it was likely that by standing with supplies, we would draw non-Syrians to the area. We left and headed to the church.
Distribution line with church in the background
A distribution was taking place. These generally happen several times a day; as such, a line forms any time a van stops anywhere in the camp. The line was probably half a mile long; for the most part, people queued politely and patiently despite freezing weather and almost gale force winds. Despite the desperate situation, nobody who asked us for anything was pushy or aggressive. They were by and large happy to see us. There are tensions in the camp – between different nationalities, between camp residents and police – but we experienced none of that in the day we were there.
The team we were in was assigned to the ‘Family Centre’; the area of the camp where mostly women and children were living. Our brief was to walk around the area and identify who needed help. People asked for new tents; we were told to assess whether or not their tent could be repaired. The first people I came across said they were a Syrian family of four who had arrived that morning. They said they had nothing at all. A fellow camp resident translated for them; they were told that help was coming but that had been some time ago; nothing had arrived. We were told to use our gut instincts; camp residents would ask for things they already owned, and then sell it amongst themselves. You can’t blame them really, but we had to be careful. The look on the face of the Syrian father made me hand the tent over almost immediately. I don’t think I have ever seen anyone so tired.
Next, myself and two others joined a group of Kurdish men whose tent had been completely ripped open by the gale. Only one spoke conversational English, and he co-ordinated the project. One by one the men went in, retrieved their possessions, put them in the dirt (where else to put them?) and we then began to dismantle. During this time, we spoke to the coordinator. He was Kurdish, from Syria, and had been in the camp for 45 days. He had no family, other than a sister. He did not know where she was. He had come in a boat to Greece and then walked to France. It had taken him 17 days, with two hours’ sleep each night. In Syria he had been a martial arts teacher.
Putting the new tent up – the gentleman in blue holding the tent was the co-ordinator
The others in the group had very little English, but often said ‘thank you’. I felt powerless. All 17 of us could work round the clock for a week and not make any impression on the overall state of the camp or the warehouse. However, we’d just provided several people with shelter, with the closest thing we had to a home. We could never fix this. But we could help.
Lunch was served in the ashram, volunteers eating among residents.
I took a picture of it because it was so delicious I felt I should really try and replicate it. Again, a quote came into my head: this time from The Simpsons and Seymour Skinner recalling his time in Vietnam: “I spent the next three years in a POW camp, forced to subsist on a thin stew made of fish, vegetables, prawns, coconut milk, and four kinds of rice. I came close to madness trying to find it here in the States, but they just can’t get the spices right!” Who knows what was in this – mainly rice, squash and onions – but there was loads of it and it was amazing.
The afternoon went quickly and it was time for us to leave; requiring the two minibus drivers, the group leader and myself (the only one with a GPS phone working) to find our way back to the warehouse. As we crossed the bridge, we could see that the police had barricaded the entrance to the camp. No idea why – this was quite a common occurrence. Still, it was a frightening sight.
One quick trip back to the warehouse for a debrief and we were on our way to the ferry. Reports were coming in of a manhunt in coastal France for an escaped attacker. We drove past a high fence topped with barbed wire, erected in June along the camp perimeter to stop them attempting to reach the docks opposite. Every 100 metres or so there was a scarf, a shoe, a jacket caught in the wire. How they’d even managed to get that far was beyond my imagination; the fence seemed impenetrable. I’d spent the entire day with my British passport in my pocket, and felt guilty. The people in these camps are us, save for that little burgundy book.
The weekend had different effects on all of us. Two of the boys had asked to be taken back to the warehouse early, feeling that none of us were being at all helpful. We pointed out that we’d helped provide several people with shelter. A couple of the younger girls tried to talk to all the children they met and said to each other that they were “having so much fun” and “loving this”. Both these responses seemed wildly inappropriate; yet, what was the proper way to respond to what we were seeing? In the service station at Calais, four of us sat in a large lobby with toilets and vending machines and wondered how many refugees would be able to live here. Fifty, we thought – with shelter and working toilets, running water and access to food. It would be a million times better than their current situation, if a million times worse than our own living situations. It seemed madness that we couldn’t turn over this entirely empty space to the people half a mile away who so desperately needed it.
48 hours from our return, I’m still catching up with myself. Catching up with the news in Paris, catching up with the events of the weekend, catching up with sleep.
I have to go back. There is so much to be done.