(If you haven’t yet, read the previous posts from this blog series before this one:
On Monday the 20th of March I woke up feeling nervous, knowing that an uncertain experience awaited me. After two days of volunteering in a warehouse sorting out clothes and creating emergency food parcels, it was finally time to work in the refugee camps. Although I had read a lot about the camps, received training and even spoke to people that had already been in them, I didn’t know what to expect. I was aware of the bad conditions I would encounter, but that was it.
The first camp my group and I went to was ‘The Jungle’, next to the Calais port. It is also in an industrial area, surrounded by chemical factories. As soon as we got off the car, I smelled the revolting odour in the air: it is unsurprising that many residents in the camp have breathing problems. Beside the site there is a bridge, full of graffitis and messages. You could tell that many of the paintings were done by asylum seekers and migrants, due to the content and meaning.
The entrance to ‘the Jungle’ isn’t restricted, nor is the exit. Anyone can go in and out freely, from aid workers to asylum seekers and migrants. This is probably because the camp is an informal settlement that isn’t managed by any organisation. Still, there are police vans in the surroundings, watching over the area.
My first impression when entering the site was how silent and empty it was, something comprehensible since we got there early on the morning. There were a few residents awake and following the advice of someone who had been in the camp before, we tried to greet with a “Hello, good morning!” and a smile to everyone we saw while walking. Some of them stopped to talk us with us amicably, asking us how we were and from where we came. Everyone we talked to was very friendly. At some point, we got invited to drink tea and coffee by some of the residents, an offer that’s common in camp and that we happily accepted.
The variety of ethnicities and nationalities in ‘the Jungle’ is palpable: you can perceive different accents when people talk, and you can see a variety of flags while walking around. Residents in the camp are predominately from African and Asian countries, many coming from regions affected by ongoing conflict, insecurity or/and persecution. In addition, the site is divided in sections by country of origin. There are also services, like schools and community centres, which cater to particular groups, in addition to open spaces established by NGOs and grassroots organisations with specific purposes, such as medical advice. It is important to point out that while many residents in ‘the Jungle’ are young and middle-aged men, there is also an increasing number of women and children, including unaccompanied minors.
Our plan for the day as volunteers was dividing ourselves to help in a kitchen and in the women and children’s centre. Yet, after asking in both places, we found out they no longer needed volunteers for the day. Consequently, we decided to go to the library and learning area, known as ‘the Jungle Books’, to see if we could be helpful there.
While we were on our way to the place, an enthusiastic Afghan asylum seeker stopped some of my peers and me, and spoke to us about life in the camp and his aspirations. He explained how weeks after the destruction of the Southern part of the camp, accessing certain services, such as legal advice information points, was hard. He also told us how hopeful and positive he was about the future and how he expected things to improve for him and others at some point, wishing the best for the world in general. I found the conversation with him very uplifting and I admired how resilient he and other residents were despite the situation in which they were.
When we arrived to ‘the Jungle Books’, we found a group of asylum seekers waiting for a French language teacher that never turned up. Hence, after asking what they wanted to do, we decided to carry out English lessons (finally put my TEFL qualification into use!). Some of the residents had a medium to high level knowledge of English, others quite low or non-existent, so we divided ourselves to work 1:1 according to needs. I paired myself with a Pakistani asylum seeker who had a good level of English, and we practised everyday conversation skills. We talked about food, places we had travelled to, sports, hobbies… It was an interesting conversation, sometimes funny other times grim due to the topic. For instance, one minute we both laughed at the simplicity and boringness of the film industries in our home countries, the next one I felt bad when he told me that he wanted to be an engineer one day, with plans to study once he got to England. As a university student doing the course of her dreams, I felt exceedingly privileged in that moment and I thought about how unfair the whole situation was.
After a few hours of lessons, it was time for lunch. My group and I agreed to eat in the camp, to support the restaurants and shops owned by the residents. Guided by one of the asylum seekers we befriended earlier, we chose a place to eat and sat inside. The meal was delicious, it reminded me of my dad’s Congolese food.
Following lunch, I went to walk around the camp in search of a toilet, and ended up speaking with Eritrean and Ethiopian asylum seekers, who invited me to visit their church (built by them!) and showed me the beautiful religious paintings inside it (drawn by them!). During the short visit, I spoke with an Ethiopian woman who kindly offered me some of the bread she made earlier. She also talked to me about how long she had been in the camp and expressed her lack of hope about the possibility of things improving soon. I didn’t know how to respond to her concerns other than listening and showing understanding. I wish I could have told her that everything would be alright, but I don’t make promises about things I can’t control.
On the afternoon we found little to do, so some of us ended up leaving the camp around 5 pm, heading back to the city centre to do some shopping and then resting in the hostel. I must admit that I felt like if the day wasn’t very productive in terms of volunteering since I didn’t have a specific role to carry out. Yet, talking to asylum seekers and listening to their concerns and stories made me feel useful. Sometimes people just want to have someone that will listen to them, to feel heard and understood. This can make them feel better since active listening is a good way to support someone emotionally (something I learnt during a volunteering training course). And I didn’t even have to ask questions: asylum seekers opened up to me freely.
However, the next day was more active, and I had a specific role. So did the rest of my companions. That’s because the refugee camp we went to work in, the one in Grande-Synthe (Dunkirk), is much more organised and formal. It is being built to comply with international humanitarian standards. The site is ran mainly by one organisation, Utopia56, while MSF funded it, together with the local authority of the area. All this happened because the previous camp and settlements in Dunkirk had horrible conditions, even worse than ‘the Jungle’, and the major of Grande-Synthe decided that something had to be done about it, despite the indifference of the French government.
The Grande-Synthe camp is next to a motorway and is less dispersed than ‘the Jungle’. To enter you need to register and work with an authorised organisation. The majority of residents in the site are Iraqi Kurds, and there is a higher number of families, women and children than in the camp in Calais. The conditions in it are much better also, with communal places like toilets that comply with health and safety standards. Although it is still in construction and things need to be improved.
I spent the majority of the day working in the children’s distribution centre, only going out for lunch, to then come back and continue my work. My role was sorting out clothes and shoes into boxes depending on gender and age, as well as helping women and children who came in for stuff they needed. I actually spent more time helping residents to find what they wanted than sorting out boxes. Sometimes women came alone, other times they came with children. And other times, children came alone. Sometimes we could find what they wanted, others we couldn’t. I tried to keep a list of things heavily needed, to ask the co-ordinators of the camp to bring them from the warehouse. Another thing I also did was help a woman to take her bags full of clothes to her shed after she requested my help. She was lovely and grateful, just as the rest of women and children who came to the centre, even if they ended up leaving with empty hands because they couldn’t find what they wanted.
On the morning, the distribution centre was quite busy, yet after 3pm, hardly anyone came. After finishing sorting out the boxes, I sat down with some of my peers working in the women’s distribution hub, which is beside the children’s one. At one point, an asylum seeker approached us asking about a woman who had been working in the distribution centre the other day but we couldn’t help much. Nevertheless, he ended up sitting down with us and we had a conversation for a few minutes. He asked us from where we were and then he spoke to us about why he had to leave his home country, Kuwait. While I can’t give personal details, I can direct you do an article in which the general situation of Kuwaiti asylum seekers is explained: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2016/03/bidoon-fleeing-kuwait-stuck-calais-jungle-160327123602407.html
Later on, I ended up going to the children’s play area, which was just in front of the children’s distribution centre, and entertained a few kids that were drawing and playing around. At end of that day I was exhausted, and although it was my favourite day of work from the whole trip, I couldn’t wait to go back to the hostel to rest. That was also our last day volunteering in France, the next day we headed back to England at noon. And like that, our trip was over. Yet my involvement in the Refugee ‘Crisis’ wasn’t. Why? You will find out in the next and last post of this blog series.
You can check all the pictures I took of the trip here: https://flic.kr/s/aHskwWNWzv
(PS: I’m sorry about the bad quality of this post (mainly towards the end) and the delay in posting it. Due to personal problems, I couldn’t finish writing it before. And because I haven’t been feeling emotionally well lately, writing has been hard. Again, sorry. Hopefully the last post is much better.)