(If you haven’t yet, read the previous posts from this blog series before this one:
Part 1. ‘My Decision to Volunteer’: https://findingmyselfinsideme.com/2016/03/29/trip-to-calais-dunkirk-part-1-my-decision-to-volunteer/
Part 2. ‘Arrival and Working in the Warehouse’: https://findingmyselfinsideme.com/2016/03/30/trip-to-calais-dunkirk-part-2-arrival- and-working-in-the-warehouse/
Part 3: ‘Working in the Refugee Camps’: https://findingmyselfinsideme.com/2016/04/02/trip-to-calais-dunkirk-part-3-working-in-the-refugee-camps/)
My trip to volunteer in Calais and Dunkirk during the 19th and 23rd of March is an experience I will forever remember, due to both good and bad reasons. Some things I did weren’t things I never did before, such as sorting out donations like clothes. Others didn’t require previous knowledge or perfect skills, such as creating emergency food parcels. Conversely, some things I did were things I had never done before, such as teaching conversational English to asylum seekers. Others required the use of good communicative and organisational skills, such as distributing children’s clothes in a refugee camp. Overall, I can’t describe the experience as positive or negative. I can’t claim I was shocked by anything I saw or did. But I can definitely say it was educational, enlightening and motivational.
I learned about how humanitarian aid responses work and how volunteers can be mobilised and organised in an effective way. I also unconsciously evaluated what was being done right and what could be improved by volunteers and NGOs working on the ground. For instance, I think that the language barrier should be better addressed, mainly for people who work directly with asylum seekers and migrants. I struggled to communicate sometimes with women who came to the distribution centre for clothes, and I didn’t like it. While I’m doing an Arabic course in college and it helped sometimes while being in the camps, I’m learning the modern standard version hence I can’t understand Arabic dialects well. In addition, not all residents spoke Arabic, other predominant languages were Farsi and Kurdish, which I don’t speak at all. I know that it is unrealistic to demand all volunteers to be fluent in those languages when working in the camps, but I believe that a small phrase book or at least list with basic sentences and words could help to improve practice and interactions. Also, this can apply as well to living in France while volunteering and having at least a basic understanding of French.
Another important thing I picked up is how dynamic and active life in a refugee camp can be. While working in the camp in Grande-Synthe, I saw residents helping one builder with construction work. Some asylum seekers and migrants in ‘the Jungle’ owned their own businesses in the camp, or worked in them, establishing their own ways to make a living despite their status. Others freely attended English and French lessons regularly to improve their language skills. Actually, I can’t deny how shocked I was when the ones who spoke English fluently told me they learnt the language in a year or so, by simply watching English speaking films and TV series. It took me 13 years to learn English at a decent level and I couldn’t speak fluently till I moved to live in England. This just shows how much effort people can put to get and achieve what they want. Moreover, in both camps, there are also schools for children, so they don’t miss out on their education. Although the quality and consistency isn’t great, and in ‘the Jungle’ there is no formal registration to know exactly how many minors there are and which are their educational needs.
When comes to enlightenment, meeting asylum seekers and migrants, knowing about their lives and dreams, seeing them living in those poor conditions, and leaving back to my comfortable hostel afterwards made me feel very uneasy sometimes. And it goes beyond the “Western saviour” issue. While I was born in Europe, my parents weren’t, both are African immigrants. As a black person, I have always been treated as a migrant. However, despite discrimination, I still own a Spanish EU passport that allows me to move freely in and out many countries, letting me travel without so much hassle. That’s my main privilege as a person born in Western Europe: legality under socially and politically constructed laws that dictate who is legal (worthy of entering a country) and who is illegal (unworthy of entering a country). It is a privilege I didn’t realise I had till the ‘Refugee Crisis’ started and the word “illegal immigrant” was plastered everywhere across European media, together with the use of the term “economic migrant” with a negative connotation.
In fact, when we were in ‘the Jungle’, I stood out from my peers as the only black person in our group and I knew that the “where are you from?” questions I received where about more than my nationality and where I lived. As I’m used to this, I didn’t care, and I mentioned my parents’ home countries as well. However, there was a time in which I didn’t received the usual “okay” or “ohh” response. We were speaking to Sudanese asylum seekers, and when I said that my father is from DR Congo, some of them repeated the name of the country with a surprised positive exclamation, pointing at themselves first and then hugging me. It was obvious they were in some way connected to my father’s country, they probably were partly from there. Their reaction didn’t cause any effect on me at first, but after thinking about it later in my hostel room, I realised of how odd my privilege.
Lastly, I should talk about how I plan on using the motivation I got from the trip to keep supporting asylum seekers and migrants only in Calais and Dunkirk, as well as in other parts of Europe. First, I will try to actively join student societies in my university that campaign for refugee, asylum seekers and/or migrants’ rights. Secondly, I will support more the grassroots organisations and NGOs in my city that are involved in the ‘Refugee Crisis’ in Europe (I already volunteer for the British Red Cross, but I will try to see if I can help with their refugee services, rather than just being a financial crisis project assistant). And thirdly, I will go back to volunteer in the Grande-Synthe camp in June, after my academic year is over and I have free time for a few weeks.
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.)