Desperation and resignation in the Calais Jungle (trip 11)

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Having only visited the Calais Jungle on Sunday I wasn’t expecting to go back for a few weeks – but seeing the destruction of the camp begin on Monday, and the violence used by the police towards the people there, I was feeling very angry and helpless, Four of our team – Anna, Darrell, Dan and I – decided to do an additional trip to the camp yesterday. We wanted to see for ourselves exactly what was going on with regards to the demolition of homes and police aggression, and get an idea of what the general feeling is like. We also heard about an #istand demonstration taking place on the No Man’s Land area between the camp and the motorway, so we were all geared up to take part in that, but for various reasons it didn’t happen.

Rather than give you a chronological account of our trip, this time I’ve going to focus on the main themes of the day…

When we got back, Anna posted on the Swindon-Calais Solidarity Facebook page:

I didn’t think I believed in heaven and hell .. Until today! Now I know at least one exists …

Raging fires
Black skies
Ungodly hailstones
Iranians with their mouths sewn together

A dystopian fucking nightmarish scene from the depths of despondency ….

So here are our themes for this post.

Raging fires

The biggest issue we encountered yesterday was fire – seemingly random fires breaking out in houses around the camp. The first one started directly opposite the Iranian area that’s been cleared. A shout of “Fire! Fire!” went up and several volunteers – including Darrell and Dan – ran across to see what they could do to help. From a small plume of smoke, very quickly the flames took over. Dan helped pull the building apart so other people could get water and fire extinguishers onto the fire, but it caught hold too quickly and very soon not one but two homes had been totally destroyed.

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A few minutes later we again heard “Fire! Fire!” this time from the opposite side of the road. Smoke billowed from one house and was quickly smothered, but then a house a couple of metres away was on fire, and then another a few metres further along. At this point we began to question what exactly was going on. There have been plenty of fires in the camp, mostly accidental ones from candles or cooking stoves. It’s also thought that tear gas canisters can ignite and start fires. But this – this seemed different. No one was in any of these homes when the fires started so there were no open flames, and despite the heavy police presence there was no tear gas. So what was the cause?

The media has reported fires as being started by refugees, who would rather burn their own homes than see them destroyed at the hands of the French government. But the long term volunteers we spoke to aren’t convinced about that at all. The first mysterious fire, on Sunday night, started in the famous pink caravan, the place new arrivals go to get a sleeping bag and some advice. Why on earth would refugees set light to that? It doesn’t make sense. So the theory is  there is someone working undercover in the camp who is deliberately starting fires for some reason. It could be the police, creating diversions from the demolition – if everyone is away fighting fires there’s no one left for the police to deal with. But a more sinister theory is that it could be the work of fascists, who are looking to cause chaos and damage the refugee cause…. Whatever the answer, there definitely seemed to be a pattern to those early fires yesterday.

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Later on there was another, much bigger fire that destroyed a huge, solid building with a corrugated metal roof. This time the fire truck (a jeep with hoses in the back) was employed and again Dan and Darrell got involved with fighting the flames with Dan waiting till the fire was nearly burned out to check it didn’t spread. It was interesting to see how many people used it as an excuse to warm their hands! Again we don’t know what the cause of this fire was – I have read that it was a simple cooking stove accident, or kids messing around, but no one really knows. It’s all a bit worrying.

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Black skies

So obviously there was a lot of smoke in the sky, plus the sky was leaden grey for most of the day anyway. But for me, the real “black sky” was the air of depression, desperation and despondency that has taken over the camp. Every time I’ve been in the past I’ve been inspired by the atmosphere of hope within the camp. People were so positive they would make it England, that their God, whoever he may be, would look after them. Even when people suffered injuries or were arrested and beaten or were separated from friends, they said “Maybe England tomorrow, inshallah” and smiled and laughed. But yesterday very few people were laughing. The overwhelming impression I got was that everyone has given up; they are resigned to whatever happens now. No one really knows what to do any more. Many people are trying, trying trying to get to the UK (and some are still succeeding – just as we drove onto the train to go over to Calais, I had a phone call from John, one of our Eritrean friends, to tell me he had made it to London in a lorry, along with another lad we’ve met. Yay!). But others simply don’t know what to do any more. They know they can’t stay in the camp, they know their home is going to be destroyed, if not in the next few weeks, then in the coming months – but they don’t know where else to go. We were told that the last of “our” Eritrean boys to be in the camp, Filimon, had also made it to England – but alas it wasn’t to be, as we later found him and were shocked to discover he’d been badly beaten by the police. Seeing his beautiful face battered and bruised nearly broke me. Later, Anna and I had tea with Muna and Auguta, two lovely Eritrean girls and when we went to leave they were both tearful. “What shall I do? Where shall I go?” one asked. And we didn’t have any answers. In our hearts we wanted to bundle them up in the boot of the car and bring them back with us, along with other dear friends like Filimon and Gypsy. But in our heads, although we’ve never once been stopped and searched on the way home from Calais, we know that the one time we tried anything like that would be the one time we got caught – and we just can’t take that risk. Instead we have to walk away with promises to come back soon. There were a lot of tears in Calais yesterday.

Ungodly hailstones

Now in my experience, when it hails, it does it for a minute or two. Not yesterday. Not in Calais. As the sky got darker and heavier, the heavens opened and we endured a hailstorm the likes of which I have never known before. It went on for at least ten minutes with no let up in its ferocity – tiny bullets of ice pounding down on the ground, the tarpaulin roofs, and anyone unfortunate enough to get caught outside. We dived for cover in an abandoned house but even then, it was pretty scary hearing the ice crash down and the wind whip around, and my hands very quickly went numb! It was a hailstorm of biblical proportions that turned an already difficult situation into a scene from hell…

P1000372Fortunately once it finished the sun came out and we were offered some warming soup in the Ashram Kitchen. Although I’ve heard about this place loads of times before I’ve never actually been there. it’s one of five (I think) kitchens in the camp that provides thousands of free meals every week, to both refugees and volunteers. We had a cup of delicious chunky vegetable soup and some pitta bread, and we took shelter and warmed up. The Ashram Kitchen is a place of happiness and comfort, where everyone is welcomed warmly and invited in out of the cold. It’s devastating to think that places like this are also going to be demolished very soon.

And of course the storm made me realise a little about what it’s like to live in the camp. We were soaked and cold and didn’t warm up until halfway back to Swindon, once we’d filled our bellies at the terminal and put the car heater on full. But what if you live in the camp and have nowhere warm to go? How do you survive the elements when your only home is a small wooden shack, your only clothes are the ones you stand in? What happens then?

Iranians with their mouths sewn together

Perhaps the most chilling part of the day was when a group of young Iranian men appeared in a silent protest at the way they have been treated by the French government in particular (but also, by its inaction and erection of the fences, the UK government). In a bid to be heard, these men have taken the decision to sew their lips together … to be heard, they have to be unheard.

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There was a lot of media around and I wasn’t able to get very close to take decent photos – which is as it should be. After all, my photos only go on here, whereas the media pictures have been all over the internet. But you know what was really weird? Usually when you see a media scrum on the TV there’s a gaggle of accompanying noise as the journos ask for comments. But this time there was no noise at all. Just as the Iranians have taken a vow of silence through the act of sewing their mouths up, so too the journalists entered into their own vow of silence, perhaps as a show of respect. There was certainly a very eerie atmosphere as everyone realised that this was France in the 21st century – and these are the lengths the refugees feel they have to go to, to be heard. It’s not something I am likely to forget for a long time.

A dystopian fucking nightmarish scene from the depths of despondency ….

P1000387A strong police presence meant we couldn’t get close to the area currently being cleared but we could clearly see the bulldozers and diggers smashing into homes in the Sudanese area of the camp; the Iranian area has already been cleared. Anyone who has been to the camp will know how tightly packed together the homes are in most areas – so it was a real shock to see how big an area has already been destroyed, just since Monday.

Staring across land that once held hundreds of homes was really depressing, especially as I wondered where all the people have gone now. We’ve heard that some have simply left the camp – perhaps to try their luck in another country, but more likely to find a new base somewhere else in Calais; there are already reports of smaller camps springing up around the area. Some have been rehomed in the Jungle, but with the available space decreasing all the time, it’s going to be more and more difficult to house people safely.

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P1000360The idea of destroying the only home someone has is horrific, and it’s such a waste of volunteers’ time and money too. Volunteers and refugees alike have worked so hard to build something from nothing, and yet it’s pulled down without any thought at all. We had something of a stand-off with the CRS at one stage, and it was interesting to note that very few of them could look us in the eyes … I don’t know how they and the prefecture demolition team can sleep at night.

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So what next for the camp? Who knows. The plan seems to be to destroy the south side within the next four weeks, then take a break and apply for a court order to remove everything from the north side. People will be encouraged to move to other refugee camps in France, apply for asylum in France or enter the prison-like storage containers the government has erected, at a cost of 12 million euros. So there are some tough decisions to be made. And of course we will be watching the situation closely and assessing when or if we return again.

Many people have asked me how they can help, so here are a few ideas:

1. Make a donation to one of the many charities working on the ground:
– Care4Calais (purchase and distribution of supplies I’ve sleeping bags, tents, torches etc) http://care4calais.org/donate/
– Calais Kitchens: providing free meals and food parcels:https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/calaiskitchens
– Help Refugees: supports the camps at Calais and Dunkirk, and also funds the women’s centre, youth centre and other facilities:http://www.helprefugees.org.uk/donate

You can also donate to Swindon-Calais Solidarity to ensure we continue our visits there: https://www.gofundme.com/7x2uq3dk

2. Write to your MEP ( MPs have no influence in what happens in France; MEPS can have mor of an effect) via https://www.writetothem.com (I found a great post earlier today with some ideas of what to say, can’t find it now but will post if I come across it again)

3. Buy items to send directly to Calais: go to http://www.leisurefayre.com a click on the banner at the top. The site shows the most needed items and offers a 20% discount plus free delivery direct to a Calais charity warehouse. Just make sure you choose “Send to a refugee” as the shipping option

4. Sign petitions:
https://you.38degrees.org.uk/…/bring-syria-s-lost…
https://secure.avaaz.org/…/Premier_Ministre_Valls…/…

5. Join your local Calais solidarity group … Searching in Facebook for your town and with Calais or refugees should find something. (There was a list but it doesn’t seem to be working right now) Local groups raise money, collect donations, visit the camp, organise events etc.

6. Tweet a photo of yourself with #istand in the photo

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7. Read and share blog posts written by people on the ground – including mine! http://www.alisonmthompson.co.uk

The beginning of the end for the Calais Jungle? (Trip 10)

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Back to France we went yesterday, this my 10th trip to the Calais Jungle, the refugee camp that’s home to people from war-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, and dictatorships like Eritrea. Home to people I have come to consider my friends; people who have inspired me with their ingenuity, their determination, their generosity and their warmth, all maintained in the harshest of conditions. Of course this time we weren’t going to see my dear friend Ridwan, who has recently claimed asylum in Germany, or Abel, who has done the same in Holland, or Ibrahim, who has been safe in Scotland for several months. But there were other people I wanted to see, and aid to take over, and stories to hear.

P1000298We started our day at the warehouse of L’Auberge Des Migrants. I’d collected a boot full of stuff from another volunteer who had too much to fit in her car, and my passenger had donations too, so we unloaded camping equipment, tents, clothing and toiletries at the warehouse while the rest of the team applied for passes to gain us admittance to the camp should the CRS riot police make trouble. While we were there we had a quick look inside and spoke to someone about the new rota they have for ensuring every part of the camp gets food on a weekly basis; it’s a complicated system but it certainly seems to be working, for the desperation we’ve seen for food parcels on previous trips was no longer evident inside the camp.

Between us as a team, we’d fulfilled a personal shopping list for three beautiful young Eritrean women – leggings, underwear, make up, earrings, moisturiser and hair oil – so my first stop was to their small house, recently relocated to the rear of the Eritrean church. However, the house was empty and we soon discovered that the girls were at Hazebrouck, a lorry stop where many refugees travel daily to try and get passage to the UK. On all our trips we’ve always been under the impression that the Hazebrouck attempts were a weekday activity, when the lorry stop was at its most active, so I was surprised they were there on a Sunday. In fact, this was a story we heard all over the camp – it seems, with the recent news that the local prefecture judge has ruled for the destruction of the south side of the camp, people are more desperate than ever to find a way to England and are trying their luck every possible moment.

Having been thwarted in our plans to see the girls we left our gifts in their tent and began distributing food parcels around the Eritrean section, though unlike on previous trips where people were clamouring to get something, there was less of a rush and we even had some people turn down the food! After a while we were invited into a neighbouring tent for warming Eritrean tea – sugary and spiced with cinnamon and cloves. It was most welcome, and we did our best to talk to our hosts, though language was a bit of a barrier.

P1000303We then moved on to a section of the camp reserved for women and children and again gave out food as well as lip balm, hairbrushes and pain relief. We talked to a family from Afghanistan who have been in the camp several months; with small children around, I have no idea how they plan to get to the UK and I’m not sure they know either. I spotted three small girls playing on a makeshift swing and gave them toys donated by a friend – sparkly tiaras, magic wands, hair bobbles. It was so delightful to see the smiles on their faces as they dove into the bag to choose their goodies, though we did later hear them arguing about who had taken the most! It was a big reminder that these are kids, just kids – just like any other group of kids, anywhere in the world. Yet they are living here, amongst the mud and shit and destitution.

We’d not been able to find two more friends, John and Filimon, so we were over the moon when Filimon found US! Hugs all round; it was so lovely to see this guy, who was in hospital the last time we visited. Good to see him looking so well. He was on his way somewhere but we were to see more of him later on.

Having distributed all our food and most of the other bits and bobs we had, we wandered around for a while taking photos of the graffiti-decorated shacks, chatting to people here and there. Our overwhelming impression was that the camp seemed much quieter than usual – almost eerily quiet. It was rather like the calm before the storm – which, following events today, it does seem to have been. But more on that later.

P1000321Eventually we headed to the north side and visited our friends Afredo and Aziz in their restaurant. Except Aziz told me that his business partner was actually called Afridi …. all these months I’ve called the guy Afredo and he was too nice to put me right! I won’t make that mistake again, Afridi it is! They made us milky Afghan chai, which is always delicious, and we spent some time chatting. They’d built the restaurant after giving up hope of reaching England, but with the proposed demolition of part of the camp – and potentially their restaurant – they are once again contemplating the prospect of trying to jump on a train or hide in a lorry. The restaurant was busy when we arrived and got even busier when a huge group of French volunteers poured in, so we drank our tea and gave up the seats, but not before we were entertained by a round of singing by the volunteers and refugees.

P1000305Opposite the restaurant were the burned out remains of a house, and we met one of the guys who’d lived there, yet another Eritrean who has only been in the camp a few months. He lost everything in the fire and literally had the clothes he was wearing – yet he was still smiley and jokey and happy to tell us about himself. Already volunteers had built a new home for him and his housemates. The dedication of the long-term volunteers to respond to an ever-changing situation never fails to amaze me. I would love to be there for more than a day here and a day there, if only my circumstances enabled me to … That way I’d maybe feel like I’m really making a difference.

We were heading to the end of our day and went back to the Eritrean part to find Filimon – and John was there too! So lovely to see “our” two remaining boys on this trip. We were again treated to hot drinks in a neighbour’s tent – sweet thick coffee this time – and we all piled onto the mattress and chatted. There was another lad there who I assumed was a new Eritrean, but it turned out he was actually from Guinea, and has been living legally in France for 5 years, studying. He had helped out in camp and befriended a few of the refugees as his home is near Calais and he now visits regularly. We also met the famous Gypsy Builder, a lovely Afghan guy who is so well spoken, so intelligent and so knowledgeable about the political situation. He talked passionately about the millions of pounds the UK government has spent on keeping out the few thousand refugees in Calais, and we all expressed our disgust at the situation that taxpayers’ money – OUR money – has created. Having recently moved into David Cameron’s Witney constituency I am especially horrified at how “my” MP has responded to the refugee crisis.

IMG_8223While I was drinking tea Dan disappeared outside with Filimon and I soon discovered what they were up to – across the road from the church was a kind of hang out spot, a darkened room where mostly Eritrean guys (and a few girls) gather to drink beer and smoke. Eritrea is 50% Muslim, 50% Christian so presumably it’s the Christians who partake in this particular activity! Anyway, the guys invited me in too so we spent the last half hour of our day sitting round an open fire, drinking beer (Coke in my case, as the designated driver) and putting the world to rights.

And I had a bit of a “moment” there too… Recently I’ve started questioning the validity of our trips to the Calais Jungle. The warehouse seems to have got itself better organised and delivery of food, toiletries and clothing to the camp happens more efficiently, so there doesn’t seem to be the huge demand for supplies as there was last year. It costs us around £100 per car to get from Swindon/Witney to Calais and back – and I was really beginning to think we were spending more than we were effectively achieving, and that perhaps the money would be better off being donated directly to Care4Calais or one of the other organisations there. And while I had bonded strongly with Ridwan and Abel and Ibrahim, I wasn’t sure my presence was so needed any more by the other guys and girls we’ve befriended.

But when we were in that drinking place, around the fire, Filimon looked me in the eyes, put his hand on his heart and said, “I’m happy.” Why are you happy, I asked. “Because I haven’t seen you in two months, and today you’re here. And for four months you’ve been my Mami, bringing me food and clothes. And I can share it with my Eritrean family here. And that makes me happy,” he replied. And then his beautiful face broke into a beaming smile.

This is what it’s about. This is why I have to keep going back to the camp, until there isn’t a camp to go back to.

P1000304But that, of course is the big question – what DOES the future hold for the Calais Jungle? The ruling last week stated that the north side of the camp was to be demolished, but that it wouldn’t happen for three weeks, and that it would be done in conjunction with the organisations on the ground, to ensure everyone was safe and rehomed. But the very next day officials were walking round the camp, marking homes as occupied or unoccupied, asking refugees to go on buses to new locations. We’ve already heard about people being bussed to Spain with the promise of accommodation and support, only to be dumped in the middle of nowhere, with no support in sight. And guess what those people did? Came straight back to the Jungle – the only home they have. Wherever we went in the camp people asked us if we knew what was going on, what was going to happen, where were they going to go? And we had no answers…

And then early this morning volunteers reported on Facebook that there was a huge show of intimidation by the police and the local officials, as over 50 police vans surrounded part of the camp and around 20 homes were taken apart by men in high viz jackets. I don’t know what the plan behind this was. Some have said it was to clear an access path for fire vehicles, though others have disagreed. Perhaps it was a show of power, a demonstration that the authorities can come in and do what they want whenever they want. Maybe it was just to shake the people up a little, heighten the tension, scare people… If so, it’s certainly succeeded. The aggression is still going on there, several hours later, with police firing tear gas at refugees and threatening them with rubber bullets.

P1000309It’s all so cruel, and so unnecessary. The one thing that has hit me most in my trips to the camp is that these are PEOPLE – no more and no less. Men who want the best for their families, women desperately doing their best for their kids, young men and women who want more from life than their country’s government permits them, kids who want to play football and laugh and smile and go to school. Ordinary people who just want the simple things in life that WE take for granted, like security, safety and freedom. There are also people there who have British passports but wives and children who have been refused entry; people who’ve lived in the UK before; people who want to be reunited with mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters.

Our government has spent billions on keeping people out yet the cost of building an assessment centre, letting people apply and giving safe passage to those who have a good claim for asylum or reunification would be a fraction of the cost. In fact, we could open the doors and let all 4000 Jungle residents into the UK, house and support them for a year and the cost would be less – and the effect it would have on our culture, our safety, our daily life would not even be noticed. Instead those in power let them rot…It’s wrong, it’s sickening, it’s heartless and yet there’s nothing we ordinary citizens can do except sign petitions, write to our MPs and take over our tins of fish, our toothpaste, our love and support. It just doesn’t feel like that’s enough.

A sad farewell, Jungle-style (my 9th trip to the Calais Refugee Camp)

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If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll know that, following my 8th trip to The Jungle, the refugee camp near Calais in northern France, I was debating whether my trips there would continue in 2016. We’ve had lots of personal stuff going on this year already, not least a house move, and it’s kept me busy and not so involved in the humanitarian crisis. And to be honest – and this sounds completely selfish – I’ve enjoyed the time off. Going to Calais every two weeks for three months has been emotionally and physically draining and I felt like I was becoming obsessed with the situation over there and not focusing on my own life. Taking time out helped me refocus and I was starting to view Calais from a more detached viewpoint, as something I’d done my bit to help with, rather than something I was emotionally bonded to. But then the Swindon Calais Solidarity Group announced another trip, my son said we’d be going … And that was it, I found myself slap bang back into being involved – and even more so when we learned that our dear friend Ridwan would soon be leaving the Jungle and this would be our last chance to see him, and to say goodbye.

P1000262You may remember we met Ridwan on our very first trip, back at the end of September 2015. Just 14 years old, he had left Eritrea and travelled to Calais alone, leaving behind his parents, four younger brothers and a sister. We gave him a scarf, chatted about football – he’s a big Man United fan – and wished him well. The next time we went Ridwan found us – “Hey, do you remember me?” he asked – and spent much of the day with us, telling us a little about his life, proudly showing us his small, neat tent and pointing out the route he’d taken to get to the camp on the wall map in the Jungle Books library. We were won over by this beautiful boy’s charming smile, infectious laughter, sense of humour and positive spirit, and a friendship began. Since then we’ve sought out Ridwan every time. On our third trip we took him a bag of clothes after we learnt his possessions had been stolen; by then he had moved into a large tent with three other Eritrean guys. Next time they’d moved to one of the small shacks built by volunteers; over the following weeks we took them food, clothes, shoes, a wood stove. They made us tea and shared stories with us, talked about their lives back in Eritrea, their love for the country they’d left, their hopes for a brighter, more free future in the UK. People came and went – one of our friends made it over to the UK, others left for Germany, Sweden, Holland. We love all these guys, and the Eritrean girls who lived next door but Ridwan… Well, Ridwan is special. He became my son, my boy, and if there had been a way to bring him to the UK safely and legally, and bring him into my family, I would have done it. But of course there isn’t, and I’m generally a law-abiding soul with too much to lose by smuggling him in the back of the car … Though I can’t say I haven’t been tempted, many times.

Ridwan and I have kept in touch via the Viber app and he called me last week to tell me he had given up any hope of reaching the UK and decided to go to Germany and claim asylum there. His friend had already left the camp and claimed in Holland, and I was already sad about not seeing him again – but the idea of losing Ridwan broke my heart. Which is why, despite having detached myself from Calais in many ways, I simply had to go yesterday to see my boy one last time and say goodbye.

And so we headed off to Calais yesterday with other members of the Swindon Calais group and two cars full of food parcels – sardines, noodles, tomatoes, onion, banana and chocolate – plus another bigger bag of food for Ridwan and his friends, a pair of walking boots – and a beginners German book! I was nervous about what we might find at the camp, because a couple of weeks ago the Calais prefecture ordered the demolition of a 100m strip of the camp – including the area where Ridwan lives, and the family area. Fortunately volunteers managed to move all the houses before the bulldozers moved in, but I was anxious about what the mood would be following such devastating and unnecessary action. There has also been intense police action in the last few weeks, including reports of volunteers being deliberately tear-gassed, and only the day before we’d heard that the police were demanding volunteers had official passes, asking for ID, fining people for minor car issues, turning people away. However, my anxiety was misplaced, for this time the camp was calm, the police mostly lurked in the shadows and the people were as welcoming as ever.

Before we drove to the camp we went to the L’auberge des Migrants warehouse to collect our passes and I was surprised to see mountains of food there – piles and piles of canned beans and vegetables, boxes of fresh onions and carrots, crates of milk and so on. It made me wonder why we had bothered bringing over our 170 individual food parcels, when there was seemingly so much food headed for the camp. Yet when we arrived, we met up with Ridwan and he and Dan (my son) handed out all our food parcels in no time. It could be that the food at the warehouse is all destined for the camp restaurants, which provide thousands of free meals every day. However, there are still big communities who want to cook for themselves, so perhaps the individual food parcels are still worth taking over. It’s something we need to think about for future trips.

While Dan was distributing food, I was being hosted by a trio of beautiful Eritrean girls in their late teens, who made me tea, applauded and giggled at my attempts to speak Tigrinya and gave me their personal shopping lists, which included leggings, eye liner and nail polish! Again, the idea of “personal shopping” is something our group is going to discuss for future trips – it’s these little luxuries that give people their dignity and humanity and some semblance of a normal life. However, it’s not clear how much longer we will actually be visiting the camp – more on that later.

P1000228Ridwan then took us over to the recently demolished strip and we stood on the spot where his house used to be. It’s now situated near the Ethiopian-Eritrean church in the centre of the camp, and most of his friends are nearby, but you could see he was sad for the loss of the sharing caring community they had created in the area near the bridge. The strip extends 100m from the motorway bridge to the main “road” running through the camp and as far as the eye can see to the left and right. It’s shocking to see such a huge bare expanse of land where people were only recently living; it’s even more shocking to realise just how far the camp extended along the edge of the motorway.

Next we walked back into the camp and along to the restaurant run by our friends Aziz and Afredo, where we ate chips and drank sweet milky Afghan tea. This has become a regular event for us, and it’s lovely to see our friends and support their business, especially as we first met them when the restaurant was just a wooden frame.

P1000273I also came across other buildings I’d not seen before, including the recently moved school, a youth centre and a legal advice centre. I asked Ridwan if he knew about any of these places and he said he didn’t; these are all in the centre of the camp and of course he lived in the bridge area for many months. A lot of the volunteer organisations seem to think all the camp residents are aware of the facilities available to them but this obviously isn’t the case. I wonder if knowing about the school etc would have made a difference to Ridwan’s life in the Jungle? Perhaps there’s a case for getting information out to people more consistently.

domeI was determined to visit the Dome, where community groups run art activities, and this time we made time to find it. It’s actually two domes – a small transparent outer dome which leads to a larger, enclosed space used as a theatre and music venue. We only stood in the outer area but for me, it was a place of peace and tranquility amid the chaos and hubbub of the camp. However, my two teenage companions were soon bored of the peace and quiet and dragged me back to Ridwan’s home, where we chatted, listened to music and danced.

We’d taken some first- and second-time volunteers with us and they joined us in the hut when a heavy hailstorm beat down on the camp. It’s great to take new people to the Jungle so they can see it for themselves and take back their own experiences to share with those people who only see it though the eyes of the media. They told us they’d been blown away by the kindness of the refugees, and when Ridwan’s friend made tea and served it with biscuits, they were bowled over by the generosity of people who have so little to give, but who are so keen to share.

Our time in the camp was coming to a close and we walked back towards the car, with Ridwan in tow. He got a phone call from another friend who had attended the local hospital with an arm injury; he’d been discharged and was concerned about the walk back to camp, because the weather was very bad. We had tickets for the train and simply didn’t have the time to collect him, but I spotted a volunteer “taxi” minibus and asked if they could help, only to be told it was their last trip of the day and they couldn’t. I understand they have limits to what they can do, but it was frustrating not to be able to help.

I was dreading the moment when I had to say goodbye to my darling Ridwan. While I’m happy that he’s made the decision to leave the camp, which is no place for a young boy, and seek sanctuary in Germany, I’m also devastated that it bursts the dream I had of taking him into my home, as my son – even though in reality I know that was unlikely ever to happen. But finally the time came. Dan and I hugged him tight and we all shed a few tears. We wished him luck and I told him I loved him. “I love you too, Mami,” he replied. And then he turned and walked back towards his house, and I, inconsolable, returned to my car ready for the long drive home.

It’s the following morning now and just thinking about Ridwan makes me cry. Part of me wishes I’d never met him, never been to Calais, because then I wouldn’t feel so much pain. But we can’t live life like that, can we? We can’t not do things for fear of how it will affect us emotionally. All I can do now is stay in contact with my friend via the wonder of the Internet, and wish him all the best on his journey to Germany and his future there. He’ll be fine, I know he will. After all, he travelled from Eritrea to Ethiopia, through Sudan to Libya, across the Mediterranean to Italy and then up into France to Calais on his own. Getting the train to Paris and another to Germany will be a piece of cake! And I know he will have a much better life in Germany, where he can be fostered, fed, educated and do normal teenage boy things, than he has in the camp. But I can’t help feeling sad, almost grief for the loss of this wonderful boy who has touched my life in so many ways over the last few months. I truly hope that our bond helped make his life in the Jungle a little better, and a little easier to bear. And I also worry that the six weeks between my last two visits may have played a part in his decision to go to Germany; maybe he felt I’d deserted him. But then again, maybe I’m overthinking this, or overplaying my role in his life. I might just have been a nice lady who came to visit now and then and brought him chocolate. But I hope not; I hope it meant more to him than that. I hope we mean more to him than that.

So what does the future hold for our trips to Calais? I’ve realised that my last several trips have been focused almost entirely on supporting Ridwan rather than refugees generally; yes, I took food, scarves, other supplies over, but the main reason I went was to see my boy, and I’m not altogether sure that was a good thing. It’s reflected in these blog posts – initially they were full of lots of different people’s stories, and then they became more about what we’d done with Ridwan and his friends. So any future trips need to be focused more on the camp as a whole rather than specific people, and that should be easier once Ridwan has moved on, though I’ll always have a soft spot for his Eritrean friends. I’ve promised to do some shopping for the three girls we have befriended, and I know other members of our team have personal shopping lists they want to fulfil. But I think my focus now will be back on meeting people, hearing their stories – if they want to tell them – and giving support and love wherever it is needed, rather than bonding with individuals – and, of course, sharing my experience via this blog so other people can learn the truth about Calais, albeit the truth as I see it. Other members of our team had different stories from yesterday, including meeting a family who lost three children on their trip across the Med, and being rushed by the riot police during a peace demonstration. There are so many stories that need to be told, and I know I can tell them, so I probably will continue with the trips, but with a different objective in mind.

However, the biggest question is how long the camp will even be there for us to visit. The destruction of the 100m strip seems to have been only the start, as we heard the worrying news yesterday that the Calais prefecture is determined to remove the camp totally by the end of March. Although the number of people there has reduced significantly in the last few weeks, there are still around 5000 people there, including families, young women, teenage boys, disabled people, children and babies. Where are they supposed to go? It’s almost impossible for people to get across to the UK now and these people cannot return home. Germany and Sweden are limiting the number of refugees they accept, France seems generally hostile to immigrants and other countries are not so welcoming either. These are human beings we are talking about, people with hopes and dreams who deserve a decent, safe, free life. What will happen to the people if the camp is destroyed? It’s a very worrying situation.

 

Celebrating an early Christmas in the Calais camp (My eighth trip to the “Jungle”)

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Apologies for the tardiness of this blog post. I made my eighth trip to the refugee camp at Calais two days before Christmas, accompanied by my kids, Katie and Dan. We'd originally planned to go over only to see “our” Eritrean boys and take them a few treats. However, it seemed like a long way to go just for that, so I asked on Facebook and via my business newsletter if anyone wanted to contribute £3 for a food package. I thought we might be able to make up maybe ten or perhaps even twenty, but was blown away when £400 dropped into my PayPal account from over twenty-five different people who wanted to help! Eventually we spent around £200 on food to make up sixty food bags, each containing kidney beans, tinned tomatoes, sardines, noodles, fruit juice, an onion, a banana, a KitKat, a bag of cheese biscuits and a chocolate snowman. Enough to give sixty or so people a decent meal and a couple of treats. We also bought a good supply of food for the Eritrean lads we've been supporting. The other £200 was given to the Swindon Calais Solidarity group and they went into the camp between Xmas and New Year with more food.

Because it was the holiday period, our choice of train was limited to 8.20 or 12.20 so we were up ridiculously early and on our way down to Folkestone. On arrival the boards reported a half hour delay but after grabbing some breakfast we were soon on our way under the Channel over to France. My biggest concern was where we were going to park – food parcels are very heavy to carry and we knew we wanted to get to the Eritrean and Sudanese part of the camp near the bridge, but on previous visits the police had been stopping people going in that end of the camp. Once again the road through was blocked with CRS vans, but we drove round and in at the other end, all the way through the camp and were able to park right by the section we wanted to visit! There weren't many people around and for once we were able to get the bags out of the car and walk where we wanted without being mobbed. The paths were also a lot less muddy than we've seen recently; I think there had been a welcome dry spell.

In fact, it was the calm atmosphere that really struck me. A few trips earlier we'd been horrified by the desperation, as crowds of people asking for food surrounded us at every turn. This time people seemed more relaxed, and we were greeted with lots of smiles and waves. I don't know what might have changed – perhaps it was the spirit of Christmas, the slightly better weather, a recent delivery of food … Who knows? Every time we've visited the atmosphere has been different; it's something you need to be prepared for.

Anyway, we found our boys and Dan immediately set about handing out the food parcels to the Eritrean people while Katie and I were invited into the new community kitchen for a cuppa. In fact, Dan did a marvellous job of distributing the food – Katie gave out six bags and I didn't give out any, because Dan did the rest himself, including walking deeper into the camp to reach the Sudanese section. It was lovely to be able to give people some much needed food – thank you so much to everyone who contributed!

However, I was also struck by the futility of our actions. It took so much time and money to buy, sort, pack and transport the food, plus the expense of travelling over to France, yet we were able to provide enough for one meal for less than 1% of the camp …. It really hit home just how mammoth a task it is to provide 10,000 people with enough food to survive.

Once Dan had run out of food we visited our friends' house where we spent a happy hour laughing, chatting and singing! Dan had gifted them a Bluetooth speaker and we'd taken over a memory card with some rap music (at their request) and we had great fun singing along to Tinie Tempah and Eminem! We also listened to Eritrean music and were taught how to dance the Eritrean way – it's all in the shoulders!

Then we moved on to our favourite restaurant and ordered enough food to feed a small army! Beef stew, fried chicken, rice, salad and flat breads soon filled the table and we encouraged our friends to eat as much as they wanted! For 35 euros, seven people had a veritable feast! Our friends taught us Eritrean and we taught them English, and soon we were all saying we were “zageeba” (the Tigrinya word for “full”). We drank sweet Afghan tea and shared a shisha, and chatted like good friends about our hopes and dreams. There was a lovely atmosphere in the cafe – people were watching a weird Arabic music show on the TV (it looked like a lot of bored housewives dancing in their kitchens!), and were singing and dancing along with it. It was one of the most wonderful times I've had in the last year – just friends enjoying each other's company. The boys said for them it was their Christmas Day, their Christmas meal. That made my day… And broke my heart too, that they didn't have anything else to look forward to.

After the meal the boys went back to the tent to rest up a little before making their last attempt before Xmas to hide in a lorry, and we went for a wander. I wanted to find the dome that's used for art, music and theatre, but we headed off in the wrong direction and instead ended up at a new part of the camp where the French government have bulldozed the land and are installing huge white containers for people to live in, within a fenced compound. Rumour has it there will be armed guards, the residents will all be fingerprinted and no one will be allowed out of the compound. While I appreciate that the containers will be warmer and drier than tents and tarpaulins, I fear it will be more like a prison camp whereas The Jungle, for all its problems, has a wonderful community spirit.

There's a lot of artwork in the camp and I'd quite like to photograph it all, but this time I just took a few photos – but I did get the chance to check out the Banksy that appeared recently on the underneath of the bridge. The Daily Mail had reported that refugees had covered it up and were charging people 15€ to see it but we certainly didn't have to pay! It's very cool, and the graffiti written around it – plus the tent on the left and pile of tear gas canisters on the right – fit in well.

We went back to our friends' house and spent the last hour of the day chatting some more, listening to more Eritrean music and playing dominoes! Finally we dragged ourselves away – we had to collect some clothing from near the Eritrean church to bring back for a couple of people who had made it over to the UK. We said our sad farewells and left our friends behind, to face Christmas in the camp and who knows what in 2016.

Because I really don't know what the New Year holds in store for them, or what my involvement in Calais will be going forwards. Taking time out over Christmas has given me the chance to reevaluate the situation and how I can help, and I'm really struggling to know what to do. Part of me would love to go over there for months at a time to do what I can to help – perhaps helping in the kitchens or the warehouse, or providing some sort of support on the ground. But the problem is I have commitments here – a family, a home, two businesses. 2015 was a bad year for the businesses anyway and my heavy involvement in Calais since September has distracted me further still, so I'm now poorer than I've ever been. And while that's not a problem compared to the problems of the people in Calais, I can't help anyone if my own life is in chaos. We are facing a second house move in eleven months and there's stuff I have to do, and I absolutely have to refocus on earning money so I can support myself and then support other people. I've also invested so much emotionally in Calais, at times I've felt close to breaking point, and I feel I have to take a break now, step back and care for myself for a while. If that's selfish, I'm sorry…

And then there's the huge scale of the problem. As a group we have spent thousands of pounds on transport to and from Calais, supplies and food, plus of course hours of our time, and that's just not sustainable long term. We are all feeling fatigued and in need of time to regroup and refocus on our own lives for a while. Plus, of course, for all our effort we are able to help just a tiny percentage of the people there, maybe one or two per cent.

So I am going to step back for a little while, get my house move completed, see how things stand in February and then decide how to support the refugees from there on. It might be through raising awareness or campaigning for political change; it might be raising money for the groups already on the ground to provide support; of course it might be I go back and help long term. But the fortnightly trips are likely to stop, because they just take too much time and money to help too few people. It's perhaps got to the stage where we are actually going over more to satisfy our own needs, to see our friends rather than to provide support and help, and maybe that's not the best use of our resources. I don't know right now what the best solution is, but my head is currently full of packing and house moves and there's no room for much else. Once that's out of the way I'll perhaps have clearer vision of how I can help effectively over the long term. It's going to break my heart not to see Ridwan, Abel and the other boys for a while, but I really don't know what else I can do right now.

 

Life and love in the Calais Jungle: my seventh trip

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Yesterday I made my seventh trip to the Calais refugee camp known as “The Jungle”. Last time we had a pretty horrendous time – conditions were atrocious, people were desperate, distribution was near-impossible and the founder of our team had her possessions stolen. I'd promised “my” Eritrean boys that I'd be back in a fortnight but in all honesty, I was dreading the trip and wondering whether I could keep doing this, whether it was good for my mental health, whether it was actually making any sort of difference.

And what a difference a fortnight makes. Yesterday's trip was wonderful and amazing, heartwarming and inspiring. It totally restored my faith in humanity, and helped me see that yes, we are doing good work by going over there, but actually it's a two way process, for I came home a stronger person too.

We were a much smaller group this time, just three cars and nine people, and our focus was on taking food because that's definitely what seems to be most in need. However, rather than do a mass distribution we wanted this to be a more personal visit, taking time to talk to people and show them love and support as well as giving them something to fill their bellies. I also had bags of hats, scarves, colouring books and pens, cuddly toys and wrapped presents that I'd taken and failed to distribute last time, and I was adamant I wasn't bringing them home again!

So what was it that made this trip so much better than the last one, just a fortnight ago? There are probably a number of factors. Firstly we didn't have a van with us – we took cars, sorted our bags before we arrived in the camp and were able to get supplies out of the cars and into the camp without attracting too much of a crowd. Secondly, the weather was better than it has been – though it drizzled all day, and the paths are nothing but slippery mud tracks now, there was no wind, no tents flapping madly, and it was much easier to get around. We'd heard that last time we went at the end of a particularly bad week – there are people smugglers in the camp causing problems, there was tension between different nationalities and perhaps we just arrived at a bad moment generally.

This time the atmosphere was much more relaxed, people seemed happier to stop and chat, there was music blaring out all over the camp and it had regained the festival-like feeling of our earlier trips. There were even signs of Christmas arriving at the camp, including fairy lights in the shop windows and trees decorated with silver foil outside the Eritrean church. There were a few warning signs, not least the fire damage and the unnerving sight of a pre-pubescent boy carrying a Stanley knife blade and making throat-cutting gestures in Ridwan's direction. “It's no problem,” he told me. “Some people fight with punches and some just cut you.” I think he meant to reassure me with that, but it didn't work! On the plus side, some of the property stolen on our previous visit had been found and was returned to its owner; a sign that while there are bad people in the Jungle, as in any society, good normally wins over evil. We also saw a very heavy riot police presence at the front entrance to the camp, and heard rumours that they weren't letting anyone in or out – including volunteers. This time, however, that could actually have been a good measure, as there was apparently a far right demonstration just outside the camp, probably because of the French regional elections, and perhaps the police were trying to prevent any trouble this time, rather than starting the trouble. I'd like to think so, anyway.

On our arrival we were able to park up right outside the back of the camp and after grabbing the first lot of bags I was off into the camp with my son Dan and Brad, a volunteer there on his second trip. My priority was to get supplies over to Ridwan and the Eritrean boys we've befriended, but the bags were heavy and I was thankful for the assistance of my two strong male companions! I had a bag of mixed things and I managed to give out a scarf here, a bag of food there as we slipped and slid through the mud and puddles to the far side of the camp. One man asked for paracetamol and was delighted when I produced a packet and even more pleased to discover it was from the UK – apparently the French tablets are not as effective!

We reached Ridwan's “house” – a wooden and plastic tarpaulin structure about 10 feet square shared by six Eritrean guys between the ages of 14 and 25 – and were delighted to see him, John and Abel, though the other guys were elsewhere in the camp and there were two strangers sleeping in their beds! Turns out there was a fire in the camp the night before that had destroyed two houses next-door-but-one to Ridwan's house. These guys had lost their home and Ridwan and his friends had offered up their beds for the day so they could catch up on some sleep. Rumour has it the fire was started deliberately, but nobody knew by whom. I was delighted to learn that the fire extinguisher I'd taken over last time had been used to control the blaze; less pleased to hear that the fire brigade had taken half an hour to arrive. Later I spoke to a young woman who told me she'd lost everything in the fire, including her mobile phone. “How am I going to call my Mami?” she asked me. I didn't know what to say; I simply held her, kissed her on the cheek. She showed me a friend's house where she was sleeping till her own could be rebuilt, the clothes other people had given her. She offered me tea, danced with me to the Eritrean pop music being played in another house. She'd had nothing, lost everything but was still able to smile and laugh and enjoy life. Her story seemed to sum up the ethos of the Eritrean people, who I grow more and more fond of with every encounter. They are such a caring, sharing, loving community. We Brits could learn a lot from them.

We lugged the bags into Ridwan's tent and started unloading the food – tins of tomatoes, beans (his favourite ful medames), potatoes, fruit and fish, cartons of juice and milk, quick cook noodles and rice, bananas, biscuits and eight half-baguettes I'd picked up cheap and had in the freezer. Despite the weight of the bags I know the food won't go far in a house of six guys, and I told them about the camp kitchens where they can get meals for free if they're prepared to queue. My fear is that I won't be able to go back for a while and they'll run out and be hungry.

As well as the food I had other gifts – some trousers for Ridwan, firewood for their stove, a Christmas present from my mum, tinsel and fairy lights to decorate their house, a wind up lantern and seven Xmas stockings I'd made up, each containing an orange, a set of hand warmers, a pair of socks, some chocolate, a couple of toiletry items, a notebook and pen and something to occupy the time – puzzle books, juggling balls, colouring books and pencils, playing cards and dominoes. I was a bit disappointed they didn't unpack the stockings while I was there but maybe they wanted to wait till the other guys were back, I don't know. However, they loved the tinsel and lights and strung them up around the walls of the house, and Ridwan was delighted with the parcel from my mum. He was delighted by the mounds of chocolate and treats she'd sent (“To share!” I said) but when he discovered the Man United annual at the bottom his face lit up. “Ah, Rooney, Mata, Aguera!” he said, pointing out the players on the cover, before spending the next five minutes flicking through the book, occasionally pointing to someone, a big smile on his face as he told me who they were. She'd also sent a card and I was really impressed that he was able to read the message without help (though admittedly she did use the special handwriting she uses when writing to children!).

I said we had to go but we'd be back later, and he begged me to stay for another five minutes … All part of a cunning plan becaus John had gone off to make us tea on the rocket stove we'd taken over last time (bought by Wootton Bassett Refugee Support, who'd secured good deals on them, and to whom my mum had made a generous contribution). Lovely to see it it being used, and apparently they share it with neighbours so the benefits go further than just our group of friends. We had tea, and then another cup, and chatted with the guys, and it was lovely. Abel had messaged me to say Ridwan had a cold and bad cough so I gave him some Lemsip capsules and throat pastilles, and Rennies for Abel as I know he suffers from indigestion. But eventually we managed to extricate ourselves from their house on the promise that we'd be back later.

We went back to the cars to reload and this time we decided to head into the family area of the camp. This section didn't exist back in September when I first went, but there are so many families there now that it's important to give them a safer area. Spotting a group of young children playing, we approached with our bags and there were squeals of delight as they helped themselves to colouring books, pencils, cuddly toys and wrapped presents containing toy cars, sweets and pocket money gifts, lovingly donated and wrapped by a friend. It was so lovely to see the smiles on their faces and we were thanked over and over by the parents, to whom we gave food parcels and baby wipes. Truly humbling to be so thanked for such a small gesture. One lady invited me into her house and it was clear to see the pride on her face as she showed me the “kitchen” and their living quarters. We talked a little about her life in Iraq, I played with her children for a while and we gave them food, chocolate and lovely fleecy hat, glove and scarf sets donated by a friend of my mum. We met another family in a caravan, three kids under the age of five, and gave them toys and teeny tiny mittens donated by another friend of a friend. Seeing the smiles on the children's faces was both heartwarming and heartbreaking – they are just normal kids, but kids who've seen horrors, who've been on incredible journeys, only to end up stuck in a caravan in the Calais mud. It seems so wrong …

We saw another young boy and went over to say hello and give him and his older brother the last two wrapped presents, and they invited us in to their house. It was a lovely homely space, lined with blankets and with a wood burning stove keeping it nice and warm, though apparently there is a leak in the roof and even at lunchtime the light was poor. Inside was a group of volunteers from London who were there for the first time, and had been playing guitar and singing in the family area. We chatted for a while about how the camp had changed in the brief time we've been visiting, and then when they left we stayed and chatted with the family. Mum spoke little English so Brwa, the 15-year-old, translated for us. They were from Iraq; the father is a soldier in the Iraqi army but is trying to escape. Their town had been bombed and the mother and her four sons, aged 17, 15, 12 and 5 had left and walked from Iraq to France. It had taken them seventeen days of walking … I still can't get my head around how you could even do that, a mother and four kids. The two older boys had been trying to get to the UK on the train in the hope that they could then bring the rest of the family over, and the 17-year-old had made it and is now in Manchester. I found I couldn't tell them that it's not as easy as they think to bring relatives over – it was obvious that was the hope they were clinging on to and who am I to dash their hopes? Mum bemoaned being 40 but when I said she had nothing to worry about, I was 44 she laughed and said something to her son. Puzzled, I asked Brwa for an explanation. “She says you are beautiful,” he told me. “She says your face is more like 30,32.” Way to go to make my day!! Brwa told us he wants to finish his education and then train to be a doctor; he attends lessons in the Jungle school but found it too easy really. The younger boy had a big box of toy soldiers and action figures, donated by volunteers, and he and Dan played fighting games with them under the light of a torch. On the surface this seemed like a happy family but the camp is no place for them – but where else will they go? Most people are too scared to apply for asylum in France, because the rejection rate is high and could mean a swift return to their homeland and no chance of applying anywhere else.

We met many more people, some who wanted to tell us their stories, others who just wanted to shake our hands or pass the time of day. One guy told me he'd just been released from a French jail after being caught on the Eurotunnel train; he'd been locked up for 45 days. He'd also spent eight months in prison in Hungary; it shocks me what people have to go through to find sanctuary. We had hats and scarves to distribute and there is something very special about wrapping a scarf round someone's neck, something very personal and caring. When we ran out of hats I offered my own hat to a teenage boy who said he was cold. He tried three times to turn it down, saying it was mine and I should keep it, but eventually I just put it on his head. He hugged me, a beaming smile on his face, and I got the most enormous sense of satisfaction from being able to do something for him. This is what I mean about these trips actually being a two-way thing. Our aim is to support people in need, but we get back just as much as we put in, if not more. Some people say that's wrong, we should be self-sacrificing and expect nothing in return – but would we continue to return, over and over, if we got nothing from the experience? I doubt it. To be motivated to do something there has to be something in it for you, that's human nature, and so long as our focus is always on helping, I see nothing wrong in us benefitting from these trips too. However, the moment I find I am going solely to satisfy my own needs is the moment I stop going. I sincerely hope that moment never comes.

(Coincidentally the hat was a Snow Patrol hat I won in a competition back in about 2004. I was a fan of the band just before they became famous, and the hat was a bit special to me – but when it comes to it, it's only a woolly hat, and the boy's needs were far greater than mine!)

If you've read my earlier posts you may remember Aziz and Afredo, the two guys we met on our second visit who were in the process of building a restaurant, having decided not to risk getting to the UK any more. We've visited their lovely restaurant several times now, and this time we decided to take Ridwan and Abel for some tea and food. We were welcomed warmly by Afredo and Aziz, who then did a bit of joking around about the food, saying that chips were going to cost us thirty euros! Poor Ridwan took them seriously and kept saying “Mami, we have to go, this is too expensive,” but Aziz kept winking at me and eventually Ridwan caught on to the joke! We bought chips and tea, and then Aziz brought me sweet Afghan tea on the house. We ordered an apple shisha and then spent an hour or more sharing the shisha and chatting like old friends. We shared tales of our homes and families, the boys told us their hopes for the future, they taught us some Tigrinya – their language – and laughed at our attempts to speak it. Dan decided to teach them some “chav street talk”, as he called it, and they howled with laughter at his bizarre accent. We talked about Christmas and, spurred on by the success of a friend who made it over to the UK a couple of weeks ago, they joked that they would join us in Swindon for Christmas dinner. Dan provided the beats while Abel rapped about life in the Jungle – I tried to capture it on my camera but failed miserably, which made them laugh once again. It was the most wonderful, relaxed time with two lovely young men who are a credit to their families and their countries, young men who dream of studying and having careers, young men who are so kind and caring and just the most lovely company.

While we were there I noticed a woman nearby who keep looking at us, smiling, and then scribbling in a notebook. Eventually we had a chat and it turned out she was doing a sketch of us! Anna was from Paris and had been in the camp for the last five days, documenting life there through her sketchbook. She has done art projects with the homeless in Paris and was keen to get her sketches of the Jungle printed in a French magazine or newspaper, to show people what life is really like there – she said she was keen to highlight the community spirit of the place, rather than the desolation. We talked a little about politics, about the attitude of French people to the refugees, about the ingenuity that the refugees have shown in creating a community in the wasteground of the camp. It was a really interesting conversation, and I truly hope her sketches find a wider audience.

Eventually we got a call on the radio that our team would be heading off home soon, and reluctantly we said our goodbyes to Ridwan and Abel. Abel said that this afternoon was what they had been waiting for since our last visit, that we had made their time in the Jungle so much better. Ridwan just smiled and hugged me. Finally I was unable to hold back the tears. Spotting my eyes welling up, they came back and gave me big hugs. “Don't be sad, Mami,” they told me. “We are fine. We'll be in the UK soon, don't you worry.” I have everything crossed for them. I truly love those boys – and if there was anything legal I could do to help them start a new life in the UK, I'd do it.

Apologies for the lack of photos. I meant to explore the camp and take pictures of some of the art projects and community areas, but we spent the day with people and it just felt intrusive to ask to take photos of them.The one of us with the guys in the bar was taken at their request :)

 

Tears turned to anger … My sixth visit to the Calais Jungle

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Yesterday I made my sixth visit to the refugee camp known as “The Jungle” in Calais. Usually I write about the people I've met or the stories I've heard: tales of horrors overcome, regimes escaped, hopes and dreams of new lives in the UK or France. Often it takes me a while to process what I've experienced enough to be able to write about it, but I get there in the end. And today is no exception but there are no happy stories here today; there is no hope. The Jungle is becoming a wasteland, a hell on earth, a place so desperate that even the best efforts of people like us to help seem to be futile.

Before we ventured into the camp we took a van full of clothes, shoes, tents and bedding to the new Care4Calais warehouse. Together we helped unload the van and put everything in its rightful place. When we tried to deliver shoes to another warehouse a fortnight ago we were told they had a backlog and weren't accepting any donations, which was pretty disheartening. However, this new warehouse seems like a slick operation and it was good to be able to leave plenty of stuff safe in the knowledge that it will soon be in the camp where it's most needed. Hopefully they'll get plenty of help to ensure there isn't a backlog there too.

Once we'd unloaded we set off for the camp, going in via the back entrance with the intention of delivering food parcels. Two weeks ago I'd been shocked at how much the camp had been devastated by the worsening weather, so I was fully prepared for that this time. The roads are even muddier and in places huge pools of water have collected, meaning your choice is either to wade through ankle deep water deep or to slip and slide your way around the muddy banks. I was wearing fairly watertight boots and went for the easier path. But many other people, in nothing more than flip flops or too-small shoes, were clambering around the edges. There's lots of mud everywhere and most paths are difficult to traverse. The are still lots of damaged tents, tents flapping in the wind, abandoned tents, but there's also much more building of temporary structures going on, including several huts in the area near the church where a fire wiped out fifty tents last week. Volunteers are also taking pallets in to give to those people still in tents, in the hope that raising them off the ground will help.

However, my resolve not to get emotional this time disappeared when we saw a man being carried by his friends, agony visible on his face. I don't know what had happened, whether he was ill or injured, but it was a harrowing sight to see someone in so much pain in a place where medical attention is basic, at the least. Later Dan came across a guy with a broken wrist; he was determined to get him some help and devastated when the medical centre was unattended.

The running theme of this visit was mostly about trying to find a safe place from which to distribute food parcels. We stopped initially by the church and a few individual food parcels were delivered to friends. However, a large crowd quickly drew around the vehicles and our calls of “No line, no line” were ignored. One man asked me for paracetamol and I eventually managed to find him some, but had to fight my way through the ten people trying to root through the boot of my car. Someone offered out a tin of sweets and the crowd grew even larger, grown men arguing about whether they had had one or two tiny chocolates.

Previously I'd taken bags of sorted goods and had struggled to make up mixed bags to take into the quieter parts of the camp. This time I'd deliberately mixed up the contents of each bag to make the task easier but there wasn't ever the opportunity to go for a walk, talk to people and offer whatever they needed. I tried to get individual bits and pieces from the car – a food bag for a family with nothing, a hat and scarf for a small girl – but every time I opened the boot the crowd pressed around and eventually I had to give up. I did, however, managed to pump up a football for a couple of guys who were adamant the muddy ground wouldn't deter them from a game.

We drove round to the front of the camp and parked up under the motorway bridge. We've left the cars here many times before, but this time a group of riot police came over to move us on. One tapped on my car window and said “Leave. Now.” I wasn't going to mess with him, so we drove back into the camp, turned left at the crossroads and parked up alongside some restaurants. One of our team did some distribution from the car window but it was a bad idea, and soon her car was surrounded by desperate people. The restaurant owner wasn't too happy about the crowd either, and banged at a car with a big stick, telling us to move away. We moved further along but by now the crowd was so big that there was no way we were able to get anything out to walk into the side paths.

We rejoined the rest of the team and the van and went to the back entrance, hoping to distribute out there where it was quieter. Again the riot police closed in on us, threatening to tear gas us if we didn't move away. We didn't resist. At one point some guy – I assume he was one of the long term volunteers, but I don't really know – came over to tell us if we weren't up to the job of distributing we should just go home and take our stuff with us. I pointed out that this was our sixth trip and we'd managed to self-distribute successfully every other time, except with the shoes – and we'd learnt our lesson there. I said we weren't novices, we knew what we were doing, but the situation was very different this time round. I'm sure he meant well, but it was difficult being criticised by someone simply because we wanted to help.

Eventually we decided to go right out of the camp and transfer everything from the cars to the van. Having only one vehicle was easier to manage and we parked near the church and were able to organise a single line and let a few people through at a time to the side door, where we gave them individual food bags. It was much more orderly and a couple of refugees helped out too. We probably had hundreds of pounds worth of food, but it didn't go nearly far enough, and when the food ran out there was still a huge queue of hungry people who had to go without.

One of my missions yesterday was to take a load of stuff over to “my” boy, Ridwan. Since I “adopted” him on our second visit there, he's moved into a “house” with six other Eritrean lads, and now I've become Mami to them all – so taking over provisions isn't quite as simple as it was initially. I had a huge holdall stuffed with coats, fleeces, tshirts, underwear and shoes, plus a rocket stove, wood and a big box of food. I saw Ridwan early on in the afternoon but then the challenge of doing the food distribution kept me busy for a few hours. However, eventually I was able, with the help of the rest of our team, to lug all the stuff over to his house and he and his friends seemed delighted to see us, delighted with the food and clothes … and even more delighted with the football I gave them, as a last minute gift! We stayed and chatted for a while, made plans to go over again before Christmas and take decorations for their house – of the six, four are Christian and two Muslim – talked about how I would help them when (never if, always when) they make it to England. “I'll call you Tuesday, from Swindon!” Abel told me. Another Eritrean guy I'd befriended had made it over to England in the back of a lorry on Saturday, though after a phone call and a few texts he's been incommunicado. I'm worried for his safety, but the fact that he made it there has revived the hopes of the rest of the guys. On the other hand, one of their housemates was missing – apparently he was arrested near the station and had been held by police for the last five days. At least he has a roof over his head and three meals a day, I joked… I'd taken food over for them a fortnight ago but that had run out and they'd only received one meal since, they told me. I left them a twenty euro note, encouraged them to eat at one of the restaurants that night, and hoped vainly that the provisions I'd left them would last a fortnight till my next trip.

After all the hassle of the distribution my spirits had been lifted by seeing Ridwan and his friends, but sadly our day was to have a sting in its tale. At some point a bag containing an iPad and some personal obsessions was stolen from the van, which was of course very upsetting for those involved. I guess over the last three months we've got to know some of the refugees pretty well; it's easy to forget that not everyone is so honest or trustworthy. For some people it would be easy for this experience to colour their view of the camp as a whole and make them less willing to want to help. After all, we have worked our butts off to make a difference here and for a while this felt like the ultimate betrayal. But of course one thief a community does not make. In every society on earth there are good and bad people, but we don't lose faith in the good because of the bad. Yes, people in the camp are desperate, and desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures, but the people we told about the theft were visibly shocked and I don't think this incident is any indication of the nature of the refugees as a whole.

There's a deepening sense of hopelessness and desperation in the camp. Many people came here not knowing the UK border is actually in France – they assumed the French authorities would be happy to let them leave and that it would be easy to get to the UK and apply for asylum here. Others were brought to France by people smugglers who took money to deliver people to the UK and then abandoned them in Calais. Yet more people didn't really know where they were going and followed others, only to end up stuck at the edge of France with no safe forward passage possible. Many people still try daily to jump onto the train or sneak into a lorry, but others have given up all hope of ever reaching England. Some have applied for asylum in France, only to be sent back to the Jungle while their application is processed. Others have been luckier – a Syrian family with two young children we'd befriended have now left their caravan in the camp and been moved to more suitable accommodation while they wait to see if they can stay in the country. But the look of despair is evident in the eyes of most people – they smile, they laugh, they thank you for your support but their eyes are always filled with sadness, hopelessness, desperation.

One of the questions I tend to ask people is why they want to come to the UK and the answers always fall into one of three categories – they want to study; they want to work; or they have family there. Not one person has ever mentioned benefits as a reason to come to the UK, and I must have talked to dozens of people if not more. Why not stay in France, I ask? They tell me the French people are hostile to them, they've heard work is hard to find (especially if you are black), education opportunities are not good, they don't know the language – after all, English is taught in every school around the world, more or less. As a country we've done a fantastic job of turning English into THE global language, of highlighting how welcoming and inclusive we are as a people, of turning “Britishness” into THE global culture – you only have to look at how well supported English football clubs are in Africa and the Middle East. So why are people so surprised when refugees escaping atrocities and war want to make Britian their home? Where would you go if you had to leave your homeland – a country with a hostile attitude and alien language and culture, or a country where you felt you would have a fair chance of integrating?

So I totally understand why so many people have got as far as Calais, but it's almost unbearable to see the horrendous conditions they are living in. It was pouring with rain at one point, there were gale force winds, and we saw people washing their feet at the cold water standpipe and then putting their socks and shoes back on. There's lots of illness – coughs, colds, scabies, flu and worse. Everyone is starting to look tired and depressed and malnourished. Kids scrabble around in the dirt, or are huddled up in inadequate coats, or stomping around in boots several sizes too large. Pregnant women receive no medical care; babies are living in damp caravans or leaky tents. I saw a blind man being accompanied around the camp by a friend, a man on crutches, others with bandages on facial wounds. How do you keep injuries clean when there are only four water pipes for 7000 people?

Last time I found it hard to hold back the tears. This time I kept it together in the camp but on the way home I had a good cry. I told my son that in some ways I wished I'd never gone to the camp in the first place. If I didn't know what it was like, I wouldn't have known, wouldn't have felt so upset, wouldn't have bonded with Ridwan and his friends. They wouldn't have known any different either. I said I didn't know how long I could keep doing this either, yet I feel I have to now, have to carry on, have to keep going. Dan pointed out that I've made a huge difference to the lives of so many people and I've done the right thing – and will continue to do so – and that I'm strong enough to carry on. He talks a lot of sense, does my son.

So yes, I'm feeling emotional again, but this time the overriding feeling is anger. I'm angry that fellow human beings have been forced out of their homes for whatever reason, only to end up in hell on earth. Angry that in the 21st century, in a developed, wealthy country and just 20 miles from Britain, there can be a third world worse than any developing country. Angry that the major charities have turned their back on Calais because it's not an “official” refugee camp. Angry that the police are making it as difficult as possible for volunteers to help. Angry that the French government don't seem to give a damn about what is going on on their soil. Angry that Britain claims to be a welcoming civilised nation yet the British government has spent millions of pounds on fences and security to keep out the people who most need our support. Angry that people can stand by and watch from afar as people suffer. Angry that so many people seem so hostile, both to the refugees themselves and the people who give up tiers time and money and energy to help them. Angry that the media is generally portraying this so negatively. Angry that a vast part of the UK population believes what they see in the media. But mostly just angry that this can be happening at all. Where has our humanity gone?

 

Desperate times, desperate people: Stories from the Calais Jungle part 5

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Having only been to Calais last weekend, I'd decided to opt out of yesterday's planned trip with the Swindon-Calais Solidarity group because I didn't think I could cope with doing the trip two weeks running. It's a long day, physically and emotionally draining, and I have a family to support and a business to run …. But the terrorist events of Paris on Friday and a text from “my” Eritrean boy telling me he had no food conspired against me. When a spare seat became available late on Saturday I ummed and aahed about whether to take it until Steve said: “Just go, you know you want to.”

Like everyone, I was shocked by the attacks in Paris – innocent people slain as they went about their everyday Iives. I was also shocked by the early revelation that one of the terrorists may have been posing as a Syrian refugee… But mostly because I knew how that was going to affect attitudes towards the refugees already in Europe, not least those in Calais. I've been fighting so many hostile and outright racist commenters over the last few weeks and this news will only add fuel to their fire. If ever my Calais brothers and sisters need our support, it's now.

And so it was that I found myself heading to the Jungle for the fifth time in two months, armed with love, support and a hastily bought bag of groceries. After four visits I thought I knew what to expect, but this was the trip that threatened to break me … Because over the space of a week the situation there has got so, so much worse.

During the last week riot police have attacked the camp on three consecutive nights, firing tear gas and rubber bullets into areas where people were sleeping. On Friday an accidental fire spread through the Sudanese part of the camp, destroying 50 tents and leaving over 250 people without shelter. It's rained every day, and strong winds have ravaged most of the tents, leaving many more people homeless or trying to patch up ripped canvas, broken poles and missing pegs. At one stage we watched a tent take off and fly high into the grey sky over the camp

Last weekend there were some muddy areas but the camp was reasonably easy to navigate. This week rivers of mud run along the main pathways and areas of the camp resemble Glastonbury at its very worst. Yet the people here don't live in the knowledge that they'll be going home to their warm homes and comfy beds in a few days. This IS their home

Last weekend I was shocked by the increased number of women and children, families living in the camp. This time I saw pregnant women, newborn babies. I walked along with a family from Syria who had just arrived. The father was carrying a tent, four sleeping bags, a single roll mat. The mother was laden with blankets and struggling to stop her two young daughters from slipping in the mud. One girl was crying

As I looked around at the mud, the tents flapping in the wind, the scenes of utter devastation my heart broke and I couldn't help crying. Many times I had to step away and find a quiet corner where I could cry in privacy. It didn't feel right for my sorrow to be witnessed by the people who have nothing, who are struggling on bravely in the most horrendous circumstances, who are still able to greet you cheerily and share a smile and a hug.

We dropped off blankets and tents at a storage container where they could be distributed to new arrivals or those whose homes had been destroyed. I noticed faeces near the container and it took me a while to realise there were no dogs around. Late I watched children playing in the shit-infested mud.

Shoes are in high demand in the camp, now more than ever. Trainers don't last long when you're walking in ankle deep mud and many people have only canvas shoes, sandals or flip flops. We'd taken along dozens of pairs of sturdy shoes and boots, all bagged according to size, and in our naivety we thought we could distribute these from the van. We spent the best part of an hour trying to get people to queue in single file so we could safely open the doors and give the shoes out. Every time we opened the door the crowd surged forwards, turning the single line into a melee. At one stage I was crushed against the back of the van by the weight of a hundred people. “One line, one line!” we called out, over and over. Eventually the cry turned to “No line, no line!” as we realised that to continue was to put people at risk and to dehumanise people already treated by so many as animals.

We moved the van to a different location to try again and I slipped away to find Ridwan, the 14-year-old Eritrean boy I've taken under my wing. I'd not let him know I was coming and the joy on his face when he saw me broke my heart again. I popped into his hut to say hello to his friends Abel, Philimon, John and Alexander, and discovered they have a sixth housemate now, another Abel. Four Muslims, two Christians, living in harmony. “In my country we don't care about religion, we are all brothers and sisters,” Ridwan told me. He showed me a photo on his phone of his “old Mami” – apparently I'm his Mami now. I felt honoured he'd let me into his family – and so sad for him when he kissed the photo and told me how much he loved her.

My walkie talkie buzzed; it was Darrell, one of the founders of our group. “Where are you?” he asked. I told him I was with Ridwan, by the bridge. “Get out, get out!” he shouted. “The police are there with tear gas.” I panicked, told Ridwan I'd be back later, and fled. I've read that tear gas can get under contact lenses and result in temporary blindness, and I was terrified. I made my way back through the camp to our vehicles where I met the others. I was lucky; some of our team got caught in the attack, though fortunately they weren't badly affected

Ridwan came up to find me. “Why you so scared of the police?” he asked me. Why you run away? Gas is just normal here.” Cue my heart breaking once again. This is a teenage boy, a boy who should be going to school, playing football, doing teenage boy things. Instead he's stuck in a hellhole and tear gas attacks are just a way of life for him

There's a new sense of desperation amongst the people at the camp. I don't know if it's down to there being more refugees, or fewer volunteers / fewer donations, or the increasing realisation that the dangerous journeys they've made to get this far have been pointless as they are now stuck. We loaded up wth food from the cars and set off towards the family section to distribute. On previous trips we've been able to move around fairly easily to get to the areas we wanted to cover, but this time we were instantly surrounded by a crowd of desperate people. “I have family, they are hungry,” one man told me. “My family, my family!” a young boy begged me. “Please help me feed my babies,” a woman pleaded. We had bananas, fish, chocolate, biscuits. Our meagre supplies didn't go very far.

I spotted a young girl and recognised her as someone I'd met on our very first trip to the camp at the end of September. She'd just arrived, having travelled alone from Iraq. I didn't ask her story then and I didn't now either. Some people volunteer information about what has led them to Calais; others are too traumatised to talk about the horrors they have witnessed. I greeted her, said I remembered her, showed her the photo I'd taken back in September, said she reminded me of my daughter. She told me her name was Shani and she was 18. Then, almost apologetically, she told me she was hungry and asked if I had any food. My bag was empty but I managed to find her a banana, a tin of sardines, a packet of Bourbon biscuits. She thanked me warmly, hugged me, wished me good luck. I just wished I could do more.

I reloaded and took my bag of groceries over for Ridwan and his friends – tinned fish, bananas, tomatoes, beans, fruit juice and cereal bars, plus a Snickers bar each and a tin opener. They were thrilled; their supplies were down to a stale baguette and a packet of table salt. I put some to one side for Ibrahim, another Ertirean I've befriended, as he wasn't in his tent. Ridwan promised to pass it on to him, and after we left Ibrahim messaged me to say thank you and he missed me. Ridwan, his friends and I chatted for a while but unlike the jokey atmosphere of my last visit, there was a sense of despair amongst these bright young men. John was lying under several blankets, shaking with a fever. We found some paracetamol and throat pastilles, gave him extra bananas and juice. Later I heard that John had started vomiting and they'd managed to persuade an ambulance to come to the camp and take him to hospital. I hope he's okay.

We went back to the van and attempted to distribute shoes again. A Sudanese man on a bike was wearing a pair of women's open toed sandals. Other people had shoes too small, or too inadequate to keep out the rain and mud. A young Afghan guy was wearing trainers three sizes too small, the backs walked down. He looked so sad. We had shoes; we had to help. We gave out a few pairs, including some to the Afghan man, but they were too small. He gave them back, asked for someone else to benefit from them. The line quickly became a scrum. We tried distributing one size at a time but a scuffle broke out, grown men fighting over a bin bag of second hand trainers and wellingtons. It was difficult to watch, degrading for everyone involved. Intelligent people who are utterly and totally desperate and broken. The Afghan guy managed to get another pair of shoes but again they were too small. He handed them back, his sad face becoming even sadder. It was heartbreaking to see. We tried giving shoes out to order, finding the people most in need, but every time we opened the van the crowd pressed closer. The Afghan man stood nearby, waiting patiently. “Shoes?” he kept asking. “Please, shoes?” We conceded defeat and decided to move the van somewhere else. I spoke to the young Afghan and asked him to come with me and I would try and get him shoes, but made him no promises. As we walked, he told me his name – Refaz – and a little about his life in Afghanistan, where his family had been killed, where he had been tortured. It was a harrowing tale. Eventually we found a quiet spot and I asked Darrell to please try and find some shoes for my new friend. When I handed over a pair of sturdy shoes Refaz's face lit up. He put them on – they were a perfect fit – and the sad look was replaced with a beaming smile. “Thank you, my friend, thank you,” he said. It was such a small gesture, but it made such an enormous difference to this man. This is what going to Calais is all about – helping as many starfish as we can.

While we were debating what to do with the shoes I watched the daughter of our group's founders playing with two young refugees, Mandy and Mohammed. They'd exchanged toys and were having great fun splashing in the puddles, shrieking in joy as they splashed mud onto people nearby. Normal kids doing normal things …. But living in the horror of the camp. These children live in a caravan in the camp; others aren't so lucky, and shelter in broken tents or rudimentary shelters. What is wrong with our world that this can be allowed to happen, that innocent children can be allowed to Iive in such squalor, in a civilised country in the twenty-first century? It's just so wrong, so unfair.

I also became teacher to yet another Afghan man, Habib, newly arrived, who was keen to learn English. He pulled out a piece of paper with the alphabet on it, spelled out his name, asked me to spell out mine. I wrote down the town I live in, and he did the same. I wrote my age and he did the same. We laughed about things neither of us understood. It was a moment of comedy in a day of despair.

Our time in the camp was coming to a close but I wanted to visit Afredo and Aziz in the restaurant, so I made my way there and they seemed happy to see me. The restaurant was packed with people drinking tea and charging their mobile phones, but Afredo cleared a space for us. “Sit, sit!” he said. “I'll bring you tea.” We couldn't stay long, and soon the message came over the walkie talkie that we were preparing to go home. We took our sweet Afhan tea with us, said we'd be back in two weeks. Afredo seemed sad to see us leave. In fact everyone seemed sad to see us leave. Two weeks is a long time when you're living in hell. I felt heartened that our visits could make a small difference, but destroyed that we can't do more.

I walked back to the bridge area and waited for the rest of the team to arrive. Abel was there, and he asked me if I had any more shoes. He has tiny feet, size five. Last time he only had canvas shoes on and I'd promised him a pair of trainers my mum had sent over but had then given them to a woman who only had flip flops. This time he was wearing flip flops and socks, the canvas shoes long since disintegrated in the mud. I told him we'd moved the van out of the camp and said if he walked up to it, I'd try to get a message to Darrell and see what he could do. I didn't see Abel again but heard from Darrell that he'd been able to sneak some trainers to Abel. What a relief

A smartly dressed man was standing near the bridge and we got into a conversation. He spoke perfect English with an American twang, and he told me he was from Afghanistan and had been working for an American company running their operations in the south of the country. When the Americans pulled out he applied for a visa to travel to America but had been rejected. His wife and two young children had been killed. His parents had told him to leave the country and travel to the UK where he has two uncles, where he will be safe. He'd tried to travel legally but had been again refused a visa, and had walked most of the way to Calais in the hope he could join his family. He's been in Calais ten days and feels completely stuck; he has no idea what he's going to do now. We talked politics and he said he'd listened to Cameron's speech to the EU summit in the week and thought it was pathetic. He said he wasn't fooled by the apparent empathy and knew the Conservatives were going to do nothing to help people like him. I agreed and said that were our group in charge, things would be very different. “Thank you for everything you do for the people of the Jungle,” he told me. Yet it all seems so little.

I quickly sneaked back into the Eritrean section to find Ridwan and say goodbye. “Goodbye Mami,” he said. “See you soon.” I walked away but turned round to see him watching me go. He waved, I waved back, my heart broke again and the tears rolled down my cheeks. It's almost unbearable to have to leave behind this bright, friendly, caring boy, time after time. If there was some way I could bring him back with me legally, I would.

Reluctantly we left the camp and I let the tears run freely. So much emotion held in for so long; it's not good for the health. I was exhausted, caked in mud, hungry and tired. Yet the people of the Jungle are dealing with this hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month. And yet they still smile, welcome us warmly, share with us what little they have. I don't envy them their situation, but I do envy the dignity and compassion they have, qualities that are sadly lacking in much of our world.

The Paris attacks have meant security is tight and we spent an hour waiting to check in for our train, another hour getting through border control. One of our party was removed from their vehicle and held for an hour because of certain stamps on her passport. One of our cars was stripped down and searched. We were lucky; only a cursory inspection of the boot. We moaned about the delay, then felt bad for complaining about our lot in life, which is so much better than those we have left behind. As we drove back we caught up on Facebook posts from people questioning why we are helping refugees when they are “obviously” all terrorists, that we are supporting the next terrorist attack, that we should be ashamed of ourselves.

OK, I fully accept that there are bad eggs in every part of society but that doesn't mean we should become suspicious of everyone, that we shouldn't help those in need. People like Ridwan and Refaz, Abel and Afredo, Habib and the Afghan guy with the American accent are not terrorists, they are people fleeing terror, fleeing military conscription, people who want to live in peace, not start wars. People like you and me. In another life, under different circumstances, we could be them. I am not ashamed and I will never be ashamed of what we, the volunteers, are trying to do.

On previous trips I've taken lots of pictures of people who were willing to be photographed. This time it felt wrong to be so intrusive when people are suffering so much. So I make no apologies for the lack of variety in the photos I've included here, though I hope they get across just how miserable the camp is right now. With winter setting in, it's only going to get worse.

Calais nearly broke me yesterday. At times I wondered what I was doing there, how I could really make a difference, if I'd have the strength to go back again, having seen what I saw. I've come home muddy and tired, yet I have the luxury of a shower, a washing machine, a cosy bed, four walls and a roof to protect me. And I know that however hard it is, however much harder it is going to get, I will continue to return to Calais again and again. The people I met today are desperate people in a desperate situation with no end in sight. Now more than ever they need our support …. Please help if you can.

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Truth and honesty: more stories from the Calais Jungle

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I opened up my writing app to start this blog post, stared at the empty screen and didn’t know where to start. After another day spent at the Jungle, the refugee camp in Calais, I find myself feeling numb. It’s as if I’ve got to the stage where I’m so overwhelmed with emotions that I’ve become numb, unable to process what I’ve experienced. And then I think back to the men I saw sitting by the main drag, staring into space, their eyes dead, their spirits broken and I begin to understand just a tiny fraction of what it must be like to be them.

But let’s start at the beginning. This was my fourth trip to Calais with the Swindon Calais Solidarity Group. Once again we’d loaded our cars with food, clothing and treats, and a van had gone ahead to deliver coats and blankets to the distribution warehouse, to be taken to the camp at a later date. On previous visits we’d been in touch with one of the organisations on the ground, L’Auberge des Migrants, and had been allowed into the camp unhindered. Now the French authorities are trying to make life even worse for the refugees by making it difficult for volunteers to access the camp. This time each of us had to register with the organisation and on arrival we had to collect permits for our cars, to prove to the police we were there on “official” business – yet even with the permits the CRS (the French riot police) refused us entry. We had to double back and sneak into the camp another way – but we were determined to get there.

Each car had a variety of things in it and our biggest issue was transferring the boxes of food and clothing to bags for us to carry around the camp. Immediately we arrived a small crowd appeared by the cars. “Line, line,” we shouted, encouraging the refugees to line up so we could give them fleeces, donated by a local business who’d changed their uniform and wanted surplus old stock to go to a good cause. Once the fleeces had gone we tried to distribute the rest of our supplies amongst the team. “No line, no line,” we called. But it was an impossible mission, and we had to walk into the camp and wait a while before the crowd subsided enough for us to return. Even then, it was a bit of a scramble, and many of the things I’d chosen personally to give out were distributed by others volunteers, which was a bit of a shame, as I’d wanted to give out the notebooks and pens, cards, gloves myself. I did end up with plenty of supplies and at least my things would have been distr mibuted anyway. I think we need to find a new way to organise ourselves for next time though.

And so into the camp we went, first to the family section behind the church. On our first trip just six weeks ago we saw very few women and children as they were normally rounded up and taken to the nearby Jules Ferry Centre. Now, however, there are too many women and children to go there, and many have come as families and are desperate to stay together in the main camp. We talked to an Iraqi family – father, mother, sister, three children – who had only been there a short while, and gave them food, toiletries and sweets. The two little boys spotted we had footballs in our bag and were so excited at the prospect of having one each. We started pumping up one of the balls (a donation from a friend of my mum) but the bloody needle adaptor broke! I was devastated at the idea of letting down the boys but thanks to the determination of Bob, one of our lovely volunteers, we managed to pump up two of the balls just about enough to make them usable. I’ll be buying more adaptors and taking the remaining balls next time.

Whle we’d been struggling with the pump Dan (my son) had wandered off to talk to another family and I looked over to see him tucking into a plate of food! We went over to introduce ourselves and the family, who were from Iran, invited us into their home, gave us food, told us a little about their family and their life in the camp. They had very little English but we managed a conversation and thanked them for the rice and beans, which was delicious. We gave them some supplies and returned to our car to get a bottle of water for one of the girls there. These people have so little yet wanted desperately to share what they had with us. I was humbled by their generosity.

We’d already seen my “adopted” son, Ridwan, a 14-year-old from Eritrea, and we were anxious to get over to his part of the camp to visit him and his friends. Last time we saw him he was wearing clean clothes, and we’d given him more stuff. This time he was wearing different things again, and he’d asked me to bring some tshirts for him. For a moment I wondered why he needed so many clothes – and then it hit me. There are a few people – women, mostly – who you see washing clothes but for most people the lack of access to clean water or drying facilities and the wet weather means it’s impossible to get clothes clean or dry. So presumably the only alternative is to keep getting new clothes from volunteers bringing donations, and discarding the dirty smelly clothes in a rubbish pile. When you’re living in such poor conditions, knee deep in mud, it’s no wonder clothes and shoes don’t last long.

The first time we met Ridwan he was in a tent on his own; the next time his tent and possessions had been stolen and he was sharing a tent with two other guys. This time he had a different home again. Their tent had been damaged in a rainstorm and they had been given a shack built by one of the dozens of volunteers working to create structures that might survive the winter months. Built around a wooden frame, the hut has thick plastic sheeting on the outside and is lined with donated blankets and duvets on the inside. It has a proper door and even a corrugated plastic window! Measuring about eight foot square, this is home to five Eritrean guys who share the mattresses, sleeping under donated blankets and sleeping bags and even a Bradford City FC duvet! Not sure if this has been donated at an official club level but I saw several new arrivals walking around with similar duvets in bags. Nice gesture if they have … Though having looked on the main club forum for any information and see some horrific anti refugee comments, I doubt the majority of fans would be so pleased…

We were invited into Ridwan’s new home, met his housemates Abel, John, Alexander and Filimon, and chatted about their lives both in Eritrea and Calais, and their hopes for the future. After Ridwan, Abel is the next youngest, just 17 years old. He speaks very good English and he asked me if I knew what Eritrea was like and why they were in Calais. He seemed quite impressed that I knew about the military regime, where boys are enlisted into the military at 15 or 16 and then have no control over their lives at all … The military tells them where they will Iive, what they will do for a job, when they have time off, and pays them a pittance for the privilege. As Abel told us about his life in Eritrea I looked at Dan and Bob, both 18, and realised just how lucky we are in the UK to have such freedom of choice. Abel told us that even in the capital city, Asmara, there can be problems with the electricity and running water and the people there are very poor. I asked them all what they wanted to do when they reach England and they were adamant they wanted to work or study, and earn enough money to send back home to support their families. Abel wants to be a computer animator, Alexander a car mechanic, Filimon a carpenter. John was just happy to do any job he could find. No mention of benefits or scrounging – these are young men who want to have some control over their lives and earn an honest living. How can anyone deny them what we in the UK take for granted?

We gave the guys the remainder of our supplies – including some tins of ful medames beans that Ridwan had specially requested. They also had the tshirts and we gave Ridwan my old iPhone, with some credit on it, so he can contact friends via Viber, or use Facebook. They told us about the rain leaking through the roof, the coldness at night; about the heavy police presence, about the tear gas attack earlier in the week, of how the gas had seeped into their house even with the door closed. For them, this has become a way of life, and one from which there may be no escape.

We’d left our shoes outside the house and Dan discovered that his had been stolen! Bit of a catastrophe, especially as the paths are now very muddy and wet. The Eritran guys were really shocked and immediately started a search for the boots – and five minutes later they’d retrieved them from a Sudanese guy. “Eritrean people are honest, we would never steal,” Abel told me – and I believe him. They are the nicest bunch of people I’ve ever met and my heart breaks to think of them stuck at Calais. Some of them have given up on the idea of coming to the UK though they are totally stuck in the Jungle now, with no way of going home or anywhere else. Some still try to get on the channel tunnel train every night. Ridwan is now travelling every day to a place called Hazebrouck, where he tries to smuggle himself onto a truck heading for the UK. When I asked the others why they are not also doing that, they said that as adults, if they are caught they will be sent to prison. Apparently because Ridwan is so young the police will be more lenient and just send him back to Calais.

There were several other new “houses” in the camp, and I never cease to be amazed by the ingenuity that goes into the building of them. One guy was very proud of his new home, which he only moved into yesterday. The door is a sleeping bag and it zips open to allow entry. Inside, however, it was very dark, and I wouldn’t like the idea of sleeping in there st night – especially not when he was planning on using a gas stove we for warmth. But a shack is better than a tent, I guess, especially as the winter closes in.

We needed to return to the cars for more supplies but first I wanted to look for the restaurant we saw being built by a lovely trio of men a few weeks ago, and Ridwan reckoned he knew where it was. I lose my bearings easily in the Jungle, especially because every time we go there are more structures, new tents, more people. True to his word, he took us to the now completed restaurant where we were reunited with Aziz and Afredo. The third musketeer, Ibrahim, has claimed asylum in France and moved to Paris; Aziz and Afredo have decided to give up on their dreams of England and make a life in the Jungle.

The restaurant is amazing – built from old pallets and tarpaulin, it has seating all the way around the edges, a large table in the centre, a kitchen area, a shop, and sleeping quarters behind. The inside is lined with old sheets and duvet covers in an array of colours, and there’s bunting, tinsel and even a flashing disco ball hanging from the ceiling. They serve fried chicken, rice, beans, delicious spicy milk tea, shishas. Somehow powered by a generator, many of the people there were drinking tea while they waited for their phones to charge on the numerous 4-way adaptors around the room. We were welcomed warmly by our friends who remembered us, even remembered our names, gave us the guided tour, gave us tea. We promised to see if we could bring loudspeakers and SIM cards next time, and returned later for more tea and chat, including to a man from Syria who has left his family – wife and four sons – in Aleppo while he tries to find a safer place to bring them. I often struggle to make friends in the UK, people are sometimes hard to get to know, but the residents of the jungle are so friendly and welcoming, so dignified, so humble, so industrious, so ingenious. We have a lot to learn from them.

Just along the main drag from the restaurant a fight in a bar overspilled onto the path, and apparently a hammer was involved. Scary stuff – but the first example of violence between refugees that I have seen on my visits to the camp. However, tension must be very high and it’s easy to understand how such things happen.

Eventually we made it back to our car – the paths are muddy, stony, wet, hard going for someone whose commute to work is a couple of feet along the landing, and I was tiring fast. We loaded up with the last of the food plus a few hats and scarves, and went back to the Eritrean part of the camp to give food to our friends’ friends. We found a large group of young women and shared out the chocolate, fruit juice and fish amongst them. I was nearly reduced to tears by the smile on one girl’s face when I gave her a bar of chocolate, on my knees with emotion when we ran out of food and people began sharing between themselves. We spotted one young girl on her own and gave her our last pack of fruit juice. She thanked me and we held hands for a moment. She was so cold; her hands were like ice. I found a fleece scarf (I’d actually given it to Ridwan but he was already wearing the Arsenal scarf I gave him last time, and he was happy to give it up) and wrapped it round her, hugged her, told her we cared. Bob took off his hoodie and gave it to her, though she tried to refuse it.

Our final stop of the day was to visit Ibrahim, a quietly-spoken Eritrean who had shown me his beautifully-decorated tent on a previous visit. He invited us in, introduced us to his new tent mate, let us rest our weary feet. We talked about politics – he’s very aware of the British government’s rejection of the refugees in Calais, and was quite scathing about Cameron and his cronies. Then we took photos, shared handshakes and hugs with our friends, promised to keep in touch and return soon.

As we walked back towards the cars we saw a newly constructed building being moved from one part of the camp to another. It was certainly another take on the phrase “mobile home”!

We arrived back at the car and as soon as I opened the boot to put our empty bags in, two small boys jumped in and said “London!” If only we could take them with us. Instead, we had to manhandle them out and leave them behind in the Jungle while we drove back to our privileged lives in the UK.

And now I’m sitting here feeling angry, and sad, and frustrated, and hopeless, and helpless, and totally broken. We, and other caring volunteers, are spending our free time and money to travel to Calais to help our fellow brothers and sisters, to feed and clothe them, to build them homes and provide them with medical care, love and support. Yet the government spent millions of pounds of tax payers money – OUR money – on building fences to keep them out of the UK. That money could have supported every one of the people in the Jungle until they were able to support themselves. We are an ageing population and we need fit young men and women to build our houses, run our health service, start new businesses, yet we are turning our back on the people of The Calais Jungle, letting them rot in a hell on earth. How can we, as a developed nation, do that to our fellow humankind? How can we sit by and watch?

 

 

More stories from the Calais Jungle

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Last Saturday a group of us from the Swindon-Calais Solidarity group went on our third trip to “the Jungle”, the refugee camp just the other side of the English Channel in Calais. Some of our group had already gone ahead with clothes and shoes for the warehouse, to be distributed at a later date, but we also had lots of things to give to people on a more personal basis, like bananas, wind up torches, hats and scarves, biscuits and food.

This time my son Daniel stayed at home but my daughter Katie came with me. She was a little nervous, naturally, and her nerves weren’t helped when we spotted at least four CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité) vans and a bus at the service station nearest to the camp. The CRS are the French riot police and we had heard rumours of impending tear gas attacks, so I think we were all a little on edge.

On our previous trips we’d been lucky enough to have blue skies and sunshine, and the paths in the camp had been dry and dusty. This time the sky was grey, the air cool and on arrival at the camp it was obvious that the weather has turned as there were lots of puddles, and huge areas of sticky, churned up mud, some of which have been covered over with stones to make navigation of the main paths easier for those on foot.

We parked at the back entrance of the camp and were immediately surrounded by a small crowd of people. Makes me so sad and angry that the people there have been so neglected by the authorities that they are desperate for provisions. We gave out a few things from the van and then started the tricky task of filling our rucksacks – tricky because the only way we could do it was to get into the back of the van to do it!

My main task on this trip was to take a bag of clothes to my young friend, the 14 year old Eritrean boy we had met previously. The group had managed to find small trousers, tshirts, jacket, underwear, trainers and walking boots from the mountain of donated clothes and I’d bought him a Man United hat, plus a few other bits and bobs. Katie and I headed off to the Eritrean part of the camp and found his tent but there was no sign of our friend. I’d spoke to him on the phone only a couple of days before and I was pretty sure he was still in Calais, so I called him and asked him where he was. “Hey! I’m in the Jungle!” he said, sounding excited to hear from me. I couldn’t understand where exactly he was so we walked up to the main street, called him again and arranged to meet near the mosque, which I knew was on one side of the camp. We started walking in that direction and spotted Riaz, one of the volunteers working on the ground at the camp, and I asked him where the mosque actually was. “Well there’s one there… And one there… And one there…” he replied, pointing out about five mosques in the area. Aargh! We stood around for a while, wondering if we were ever going to find Ridwan, and then I saw him walking up towards us. I waved, he waved back and came rushing over towards us, calling out “Hello Mum!” Big beaming smile on his face – I was so pleased to see him! He asked where Daniel was, was really pleased to meet Katie, who he immediately declared was his sister. He was looking pretty well dressed in a Banksy sweatshirt (the artist had sent over building materials from his Dismaland project, plus clothing from the gift store) and new trousers, but when I explained that we had clothes for him he was so pleased, as he explained that a thief had taken over his tent and stolen all his possessions – including his clothes and the Chelsea FC scarf we had given him previously!

Ridwan took us over to his new “home”, a larger tent he shares with two older men – including the man with a broken foot we met last time. He seems to be on the mend, and we were able to give him a supportive orthopaedic boot that had been donated. Such a horrible situation for Ridwan to have had his home taken from him, but at least now he’s living with other people who are looking after him. We gave him the clothes plus a torch and some food, including a packet of chocolate fingers my mum had sent. When I explained who they were from Ridwan’s face lit up. “Your mum? My grandma!” he said.

Our previous trips to the camp had been on a Sunday and there’d been almost a carnival atmosphere there, with people sitting round drinking tea or chatting, music playing, spicy smells coming from the many restaurants. This time we went on a Saturday and the atmosphere was quite different because everyone seemed busy – doing their washing, making repairs to tents, constructing buildings from pallets and canvas, picking up litter. The atmosphere wasn’t helped by the huge number of riot police patrolling the camp either. Before we’d only seen two or three gendarmes watching over the camp from an embankment near the motorway, but this time there were groups of six or eight police walking round the camp, wearing full riot gear and carrying guns and gas masks. The refugees didn’t seem bothered by them at all but as a volunteer, I found them very intimidating. Fortunately there was no trouble but the idea of living in a place with such a heavy, armed police presence doesn’t sit easy with me.

Ridwan stayed with us for the rest of the afternoon and helped us give out goodies to other people. We met a mechanical engineer from Iran who had only recently arrived in the camp. He’d seen his uncle killed and decided he had to leave for his own safety. His brother runs a pub near Norwich and he thought he’d be allowed to join him, but is now stuck in Calais. We met groups of children, including the cutest little girl, just two years old. Katie gave her a teddy bear and later a little chick toy that jingled. Katie shook it to show her what it did, and put it in the girl’s hand. She immediately put it back in Katie’s hand and “helped” her shake it again. We chatted to a young Syrian woman who was hanging out a line of perfectly clean clothes, all washed in a bucket of cold water. We visited the church and the library, where I left a stack of Harry Potter books (apparently often requested!) and chatted to another volunteer who had taken her young children with her. They were so at ease amongst the camp, and the refugees seemed to get a lot of joy from seeing them. We helped do some distribution from the van, giving out clothes and shoes to people who are desperate for warm clothing before winter sets in. We delivered stoves and food to the Afghan cafe and were given sweet Afghan tea, chatted to the owners about their hopes for the future. We saw people on crutches, a man with one leg, people with facial injuries and bandaged hands – whether from their journey to Calais or their attempts to get through the tunnel, I don’t know. Other members of our team met a woman totally traumatised by life, trying to care for a one year old baby, and a Afghan family with six children trying desperately to reach relatives in the UK.

You know what sickens me most? The media talks about “swarms of migrants”, describes refugees as animals who only want to come here for benefits, dehumanises them, treats them as a single entity, but these are real people with hopes and dreams, backgrounds, families and friends they’ve left behind. They’ve escaped war, torture, poverty and enslavement, travelled enormous distances, taken the most incredible risks, all because they want to find somewhere they can live safely and start afresh. Some of them have applied for asylum in France but have been sent back to the camp while they wait for their application to go through; most want to come to the UK because they have family here, or they speak the language, or they just feel we will be more welcoming than the hostile French. I wanted to help every one of the people I met – and help more than by giving them a banana or a wind up torch. I wanted to throw open the doors to England, let everyone in, welcome them with open arms, for these are intelligent, hardworking people with skills and abilities that will be an asset to the UK – rather than the drain that the media portrays. It just seems so unfair that by an accident of birth I can live here reasonably comfortably and have so many opportunities, while other people are desperately seeking what I have.

We did a bit more distribution from the van and then Katie and I got into the back of the van while it was moved to a new position. Suddenly the back door opened and a young guy jumped in. I guess he was hoping for a lift to the UK but he got the shock of his life when he saw us sitting in there! He apologised over and over and then, in his panic to escape, couldn’t get the back doors open! We shouted for help and Darrell (our driver and one of the leaders of the group) opened the side door and was just as shocked to see the guy in the van with us! It was a funny moment but also one that brought home to me the desperation of the people there.

Near the end of the day we walked back to Ridwan’s tent and met his neighbour Ibrahim, another Eritrean guy we’d talked to on our last visit. He invited us into his tent, which he shares with Mohammed, and offered us cake. His tent was beautiful in a quirky kind of way – his bedding was covered with a bright pink Barbie duvet cover, scarves were laced through the tent poles, and there were little trinkets hanging off them – a gold bauble here, a sparkly ladies handbag there, some tassels over there – all things Ibrahim has found round the camp. It was so peaceful and pretty in there, for a moment I forgot where we were. Ibrahim told us about his life in Eritrea, how he was desperate to be a vet, how he’d been studying veterinary science at college but had been called up to the army and how he’d fled the country rather than become a slave to the military. He told us about another Eritrean living nearby in the camp, who had escaped the army after thirteen years of service, being paid $10 a month and with no opportunity to visit his family. As he talked, I realised just how lucky we are here, having the freedom to choose what we do with our lives, and my heart went out to this softly spoken man who so desperately wants to work with animals – but who, instead, is stuck in the Jungle being branded an animal.

It was time for us to leave and it was difficult to say goodbye to our friends, not least Ridwan, who has captured the hearts of so many of our team. We exchanged hugs and handshakes, wished him well, promised to bring him my old iPhone next time so he can stay in touch with his family more easily. As we walked away ready for the long drive home, I had to resist the urge to bundle him up, put him in the boot of the car and take him with me…

 

 

 

Making friends at the Calais Refugee Camp

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Yesterday Dan and I went back to the refugee camp at Calais with the Swindon Calais Solidarity group. It was a day of really mixed emotions, and a day when we began to make friends with some of the people who live there.

The idea of this trip was to take “luxury items”: fresh and tinned fruit, tinned fish, scarves, hats, gloves, torches, cake and biscuits – that kind of thing – and explore the camp better, meeting people who are less able to get to the main thoroughfare where most of the mass distributions take place. We set off at the crack of dawn as a convoy of four cars but disaster stuck when the lead car had a puncture on the M4, leading to a lot of milling around on the hard shoulder, a wait at a service station near Slough and an excursion to Heston Services, where a new tyre was fitted. As well as the expense of the tyre itself, it lost us a lot of time and we arrived in Calais a good two hours later than planned.

Then followed some chaotic packing as each car had a variety of things in it and we all wanted to take a mix of items into the camp. The original idea had been to have large rucksacks and stick to one type of thing in the main body of the bag and then smaller things in the pockets, but all very orderly so we knew exactly what was where. However, we were having to make do with a range of rucksacks, holdalls and smaller bags and I ended up with a mixture of scarves, torches, food and other bits in my bag, plus three solar radios Steve had donated, which I was determined would go to the restaurants where they could be enjoyed by many people, rather than to individuals.

On arriving at the camp I immediately noticed how much busier it seemed than a fortnight ago; there were also many more buildings being constructed along the main paths, most destined to be restaurants or cafe bars serving basic food and hot drinks. When I say buildings, these are actually shacks constructed from bits of pallets and branches covered with thick plastic or tarpaulin. You have to admire the ingenuity of the people there, who are using the most basic materials to good effect.

We split into smaller groups and Dan and I headed off along one of the paths with some other people. I wanted to get into the heart of the camp but we made the mistake of stopping to talk to some guys and as you do, we asked them if they wanted some biscuits. Big mistake, because as soon as I opened the holdall we were mobbed! We tried to get people to form a queue but it was more of a scrum really, and as Dan and I had such mixed bags of stuff it was really difficult to find the things people wanted and there was a bit of pushing. One refugee, a very tall, quiet guy, came to our assistance and asked people to get into a queue and found me a place where I was safe (I was in danger of being pushed into a spiky bush!) and I did my best to hand things out but it was all a bit chaotic and a little bit scary – even though people were being very polite, thanking us for the things we had and with lots of smiles. The only time I was seriously scared was when I gave the holdall to Dan. Seemed there had been more respect shown to me than him, as people did start pushing and shoving a bit and it was very difficult to control the situation.

I'd taken wind up torches over – a wonderful gift bought with money donated by my daughter, and thanks to Maplin doing me a good deal I'd managed to get fifty torches, which had been shared between the groups of volunteers. They were really sought after and I wished I'd been able to take more. Next time, maybe…

One guy spotted one of the radios in my bag and reached in to take it. I tried to stop him and told him I wanted them to go to the restaurants but he grabbed it and made off with it, which I was a bit upset about. Another guy asked for one and again I said I wanted them to go to the restaurants and he said he had one. I gave him a bit of an unbelieving look and he said “No, I show you” so I managed to break away from the melee to go with him. Turns out we were standing about twenty feet from his 'restaurant', which is still being constructed! He introduced himself as Aziz and we met his friends, Afredo and Ibrahim. They are building the restaurant between them and hope to have it open in a week, though they need more pallets and plastic and I said I'd see what I could do to help them. I offered Aziz the radio on condition it be used in the restaurant and then we got chatting about where they'd come from (Afghanistan and Pakistan) and where they were hoping to go. They'd all originally wanted to go to the UK but were finally realising that the chances of them making it there were small and had decided to stop risking their lives on the trains and build a life in the camp instead. One of them has already applied for asylum in France but has been sent back to the camp while he waits for his application to be dealt with; one is thinking maybe Sweden as a final destination; Aziz seems to be planning on staying in the camp and making a home and business there. They were such sweet guys – they made us Afghan tea (very sweet and quite spicy), created a space on the pallets for us to sit and Aziz said when we next go back his restaurant will be open and he'll cook me anything I want!

While we were there Dan got talking to the quiet guy who'd helped keep some sort of order and he asked me if we could give him the final radio as a thank you for keeping us safe. Seemed like a fair deal to me, and the guy seemed so pleased to get one too. Then another man approached me, I can't remember his name (so many names!). He was from Sudan and spoke really good English – he said he'd studied it for many years and had learned to speak it from listening to the radio, but since he'd been in the camp he'd not been able to listen to Englsih programmes and he was worried he would stop developing his language. I was so sad that I didn't have one left (and annoyed with the guy who stole the first one!) but he understood and thanked me for helping anyway. That brought a tear to my eye, that a man we hadn't been able to help was thanking me. This is what I've noticed most in the camp – almost everyone is so dignified and polite, even in their desperation. There's a lot we can learn from them.

While we were drinking our tea three small children came along. We knew we had some sweets and bits and pieces in the bag, so we called them over and gave them a colouring book, some felt pens and a teddy, plus a load of sweets. The two little girls were really chatty and friendly but their little brother was very shy and seemed quite scared of us. You have to wonder what horrors they have endured in their short lives… It was lovely to be able to give them a few bits and pieces, and later we saw them again and gave them a frisbee. Breaks my heart that they are in the camp and not having a normal childhood somewhere safe.

And then along came an old friend. If you read my post about our first trip to Calais you may remember I talked about a young lad from Eritrea. Fourteen years old and in the camp on his own. Well, this time Dan shouted at me and I turned round and there was this lad walking towards us! He went straight up to Dan and said, “Do you remember me?” and Dan said, “Of course I do, buddy, how are you?” And that was it, the start of a beautiful friendship, soul brothers and a surrogate son for me. Ridwan stayed with us for most of the day and we learnt a little about his family and his life in the camp, where he dices with death every night trying to get onto the trains through the tunnel. He showed us a bandage on his leg where he'd fallen from a fence and hurt himself, and a cut on his hand from the razor wire, and to him it was just part of life, something normal.

By now we'd pretty much run out of stuff so we walked back to the car and loaded up with what we had left – some more tinned fruit and fish, coffee, a couple of scarves and hats, and lots of biscuits and sweets – and asked Ridwan to take us into his part of the camp so we could meet some of his friends. The Eritrean part is near the entrance and as we walked in a guy approached us and asked us if we had a doctor with us. One of his friends had fallen from a bridge and broken his ankle and they'd been unable to get any medical help for him. So gutting that we couldn't do much to help other than give him a few bits of fruit and cake and wish him well – though later we did get hold of some painkillers for him.

One of the things I noticed on this trip was that there were a lot more women in the camp – and when I say women, I'm talking young women, late teens and early twenties. As we walked through the camp we spotted one such woman struggling to lift a big bucket of water and Ridwan rushed over to help her with it. We also chatted with a group of girls who we gave chocolate and pretty scarves to.

Then Ridwan offered to show us his home, so we follow him deep into the Eritrean part of the camp, meeting people along the way. A group of men were making coffee and I gave them some biscuits to go with it. They spoke very little English but by using a mix of gestures and words we managed to communicate. They offered us a cup of coffee – such generosity from people who have so little. We also met other small groups of people who we chatted to and were able to give a few things to. Just so humbling to see how thankful people are for a tin of tuna or peaches.

Eventually we reached Ridwan's tent and I was so relieved to see it was in pretty good shape – one of those with a zipped compartment inside, so it seemed quite cosy in the daylight, though I noticed he only had a blanket, not a sleeping bag, and I can imagine it's very cold at night now – and only going to get colder. I'd found a wind up torch buried in the bag and gave that to our friend, along with some tuna (he loves tuna!), a couple of pots of fruit, a cake and some biscuits.

We started walking back to the main part of the camp and again we were stopping and chatting to people all the way. One man who sticks in my mind is Barry – not sure if that is his real name as he said he named himself after the England footballer Gareth Barry, but everyone was calling him it. Barry is a huge football fan – he told me he'd supported Arsenal since 1998 and when I said I was a Chelsea fan he burst out laughing and pointed out that my team are 16th in the league while his are second from top! Barry is another Eritrean and he has incredibly good English. Like so many, he wants to get to England but for him it's not to work but to continue his education. Apparently in Eritrea the highest level of education is a degree – Barry has a degree in applied physics, he's specialised in and written papers on laser technology and he wants to study further. He's obviously a hugely intelligent man and it's so sad that he has had to leave his homeland and travel so far and risk so much to be able to fulfil his dreams of studying for a doctorate. We had a really lovely chat and he thanked me for helping all the people in the camp. If only I could. He was so dignified but did accept some fruit from me, and I've promised to go back with an Arsenal scarf for him!

Time was running out but I was keen to find the Jungle Library, which I've read about on many blog posts about Calais. Ridwan didn't know where it was so we asked around and found out it was near the church. He was a bit reluctant to go – “I can't go in a church, I'm Muslim,” he said – but we reassured him he wouldn't have to go inside and he came along with us. The church is quite remarkable, constructed from white tarpaulin and offcuts of wood, and the Jungle Library is next door, along with an extension building that's used for classes and music sessions. Ridwan pointed out the Koran – “My book,” he said proudly. Then, “Your book,” pointing at the Bible. I didn't have the heart to tell him I'm an atheist! – and then showed us on a map the route he'd taken to get to Calais – from Eritrea to Ethiopia, then into Sudan and Libya, across the water to Italy and then up into France. Sometimes walking, sometimes travelling illegally in vehicles, across the water in an over-filled boat. All this at fourteen, and on his own. The mind boggles at how he managed it, or had the strength to do it. I asked him about his family and he said his mother calls him once a week to check up on him and always asks him if he's behaving himself! He also has a baby brother back home he has never meet. I wonder if he ever will.

While we were at the library I spotted some information about various services at the camp and Ridwan started reading it – though the signs were in English, French and Arabic and his main language is Tigrinya. A volunteer came along and she told our young friend about the daily English language classes that happen at the library. He said he would definitely go along because he wanted to learn English for when he came to visit us in Swindon … I was so pleased that by taking Ridwan to the library with us we'd introduced him to something that might really help him.

I said if I could I would take him home with me and explained that sadly, if I was to take him back I could face 14 years in prison. He was really surprised to hear that but then kept joking about coming with us, hiding in the back of the car – he even held up a packet of sardines and said he could hide in the box and come back in my pocket. If only it was that simple.

It was getting late and I knew we had to head back to the cars and leave these wonderful people once again. We walked slowly back through the camp, admiring the basketball hoops some of our team had put up, stopping to chat to people, being thanked for helping. I could feel my emotions beginning to take over because really, we'd done so little – we'd handed out a few cakes and tins of tuna, a few torches, but there's so much more that needs to be done; I simply don't know how or where to start though.

Back at the cars we had a few last bits and pieces to get rid of and this time, with many of the men having already set off on their nightly trip to the tunnel, there were fewer people crowding around. There was also a heavier police presence – four up on the embankment and a van that kept driving along the main road. Fortunate no riot police though – there have been many instances of riot police firing teargas into the camp and attacking people with pepper spray, and we'd met many people who'd been affected – including one guy with very sore eyes and lips who asked if he could use the Chapstick we'd given him on his eyes. I wished there was more we could give him. We gave away the last of the food and scarves plus a few mini footballs and packs of playing cards and once again we were thanked far more than we deserved. We shook hands and shared hugs, smiles and laughter with our new friends. Dan and Ridwan exchanged mobile numbers and hugs, I took the most beautiful photo of them together, and then I gave this lovely boy a big hug too and told him to stay safe.

And then Ridwan headed back to his tent to get ready for the long walk to the tunnel, we got into our car for the far safer drive home, and my heart broke into a million pieces.

If you want to know how you can help the people of Calais, have a look at the Calais Solidarity group on Facebook. My local group is Swindon to Calais Solidarity.

For more information about what life is like for young men in Eritrea, you might be interested in this blog post, posted by Linda Bates. Her brother Richard spent two years working with VSO in Eritrea, and together they put together a book, Books, Bicycles and Banana Trucks, about his experience,