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

Standard

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.

Swindon-Calais Solidarity on Facebook

Help us raise funds to pay for future trips

 

More stories from the Calais Jungle

Standard

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

Standard

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,

 

Swindon Calais Solidarity on BBC Wiltshire

Standard

When the Swindon to Calais Solidarity Group went to Calais last weekend we took a BBC film crew with us, and also a reporter from our local radio station. For the last five days BBC Radio Wiltshire have been running a series of reports on our trip and on the situation in the refugee camp generally, including interviews with refugees and migrant who are there. I’ve put all five bits together …. all credit must go to their roving reporter Iona Hansell, breakfast show presenter Ben Prater and the team at BBC Wiltshire.

You can listen to it on the audio player below.

If you would rather you can download the file to your computer and listen at your leisure!

Download file (Right click the link and choose Save As.)

12079678_513618662134910_125848176187001059_n

Galvanised into action to help refugees

Standard
Flickr / Pedro Villarrubia

Flickr / Pedro Villarrubia

Bad stuff happens all the time but sometimes there’s something that grabs my attention, gives me a kick up the arse and makes me take action. And for me, that bad thing was baby Aylan being washed up on a beach in Turkey – another tragic victim of the refugee crisis that’s affecting Europe right now. I’d been keeping an eye on what was happening for a few weeks, since I read a couple of articles in the Guardian: one about a young man – a boy actually, younger than my own son – who had fled Eritrea and was now in the Jungle refugee camp at Calais, and another about what life is like for women at the camp in Calais. Poor things, I’d thought. How awful to have to leave your home, flee your country of birth and travel thousands of miles to start all over again – only to end up in a camp where you’re lucky if you get one meal a day, where resources are limits, where danger is at every turn. So it was there on the edges of my conscience but I wasn’t doing anything about it – after all, what could I do really? I don’t have money to spare, and I couldn’t see any other way I could make a difference.

Then the story of Aylan and his family broke and it really hit me hard. here was a child whose life had been snuffed out, a child who hadn’t even begun his life properly, a child who could have done amazing things in this world, or who could have just lived a happy life …. if only he’d had the chance. Whatever the circumstances of his family’s departure from Syria and later Turkey, I just knew they must have been pretty desperate to do what they did. What parent takes risks with their children unless they absolutely feel there is no alternative?

But once again I found myself wondering what I could do. Nothing, I thought. Until I came across an article giving suggestions on how to help, and I joined the Calais Migrant Solidarity Group, and discovered there was a group local to me. I made contact, went along to a meeting, and soon found myself collecting warm clothing and toiletries, and becoming a collection point in my town. On Wednesday I joined the group to make up hundreds of individual toiletry bags – toothpaste, toothbrush, soap, shampoo, razor, that kind of thing. The packs are destined for Calais, where we are travelling on Sunday.

I’ve also found myself embroiled in arguments with people on social media. Some of the arguments have been ridiculous – people saying all refugees are scroungers or terrorists, that homing just 2 people will change the character of a town, that our British culture is at risk if we let people come here. The argument I’ve heard most often is “Why help refugees when we have so many people in need here? We should be looking after our own!”

And yes, we should look after “our own” – whoever they are, for we are all humankind, we are all “our own”, surely? But there’s nothing to stop us from looking after anyone who needs help, wherever they are in the world, whatever their circumstances.

Making up toiletry bags for Calais

Making up toiletry bags for Calais

And in fact, the campaign to help the refugees is helping those in need in Britain too. Not all the donations are suitable and lots of stuff is being given to UK charities, refuges, hostels so it can benefit people in need here. And with so much stuff having been donated, even the most useful things can find a home here, if they’re needed. On Wednesday I heard about a guy who sleeps rough in a park in Swindon. He’s homeless, but doesn’t want to live in a house; he gets his meals from the local soup kitchen and breakfast club. What he needed was a new tent, some warm clothes and something to keep clean with – so a tent,  a sleeping bag, a huge holdall of winter clothing and a bag of toiletries was put aside for him. We’re helping refugees – but we’re also helping our own. They are not mutually exclusive.

Anyway, I shall be heading off to Calais on Sunday, with my son and twenty other people from the Swindon to Calais Solidarity Group. We’ll be delivering sleeping bags, tents and foods to one of the distribution depots being run by charities, and then we’ll meet some of the refugees, hear their stories, give them our support and pass on the hygiene packs, so they can maintain their dignity and health while they are at the camp. We’re also taking a few other bits and pieces too, like sweets, fruit, scarves and hats – little gestures, but things that I hope will be appreciated by those we meet. I’ll let you know how it goes.

A bit of a break

Standard

So this blog has been sadly neglected, as has the Do Something Different challenges. Out of the blue we were given two month’s notice to quit our lovely house so the last few weeks were consumed with ranting and raging, house hunting, decluttering, packing, unpacking … The good news is that we have found an even lovelier house with lots of perks (wood burning stove!!)and although we’ve only been here a couple of weeks it already feels like home!

Anyway, hopefully things will be getting back on track soon and I’ll get back to doing the many challenges I’ve promised to do!

Crowdfunding, ADHD and How I Discovered My Passion

Standard

Last year I decided to write a book. I’d wanted to write a book since I was a child, but the time never seemed right, I didn’t know what to write about, and who was I to write a book anyway? But eventually I decided to just do it … and in March 2013 I published The Boy From Hell: Life with a Child with ADHD. It was about the journey my son Daniel and I have been on, from the early toddler tantrums that went beyond anything I’d expected, to his first school exclusion at the age of six; from diagnosis of ADHD and medication with Ritalin to the cold January afternoon when we went to our local police station for Daniel to face assault charges.

I didn’t expect anyone except my mum to buy the book but to my amazement is has sold over 1000 copies and has over 40 five star reviews on Amazon! But the most amazing thing has been everything that’s happened as a result. My business has changed completely – I now focus more on helping other authors self-publish their books – and I realised that I had a passion – my life desire was to use the knowledge and experience I have of parenting a child with ADHD to help other parents and carers. I’ve spoken at conferences around the country, appeared on local and national radio, featured on a Channel Five documentary about ADHD with Olympic gymnast Louis Smith and have had articles published in SEN and Bella magazines. All very exciting!

But I wanted to do more, and so this year I have been training as an NLP Practitioner and Coach. The plan is I want to work with parents of ADHD kids, helping them to overcome barriers, grow their confidence and inspire their kids to reach their full potential. I graduate in September, and in October I am holding an ADHD Inspiration Day in Swindon. it’s a day packed with speakers, workshops, information, advice and the chance for parents and carers to meet other people in similar situations. I want people to go away feeling inspired and confident about helping their kids to achieve amazing things.

The trouble is I know money can be hard to find and my ticket price of £50 was prohibitive to many parents. So I’ve launched a crowdfunding project to raise enough money to fund fifty tickets. So far the project is 38% funded, and there is a very generous donation to be added – somewhere in the region of £700, the result of a fundraising afternoon held by the Highworth (East Swindon) Athena Networking group last week. That will take the total to around 75% funded …. with only a few hundred pounds left to go.

So if you have a pound spare, or a fiver, or any amount at all, you’d be doing the most amazing thing by pledging it to my project. Thank you in advance!

My second famous client!

Standard

I was very excited to open the Guardian Weekend magazine this morning and read an article by Peter Jones about his version of Boxing Day. Excited because Peter is one of my proofreading/editing clients. Three or so years ago he sent me the first three chapters of a novel, and over the next couple of years I worked on the rest of the book, and another (non-fiction ) book he'd written, called How to Do Everything and Be Happy. As I started working on the first chapter I knew he was onto something – I had to stop myself so many times because I was reading rather than proofreading, always a good sign!

Anyway, the book was self published by Peter and has done amazingly well – so well that it was picked up by Harper Collins, who will be publishing it themselves in January. And now Peter is writing for the Guardian too! Makes me feel very proud of my second* famous client :)

You can read Peter's article here and make sure you get his book too, because it is very very good! *The first doesn't consider herself to be famous but is an author, journalist and daughter of a very well known and much loved poet laureate … I'll leave it at that!

 

A favour – please buy the Justice Collective song and make it Xmas no 1!

Standard

I remember the Hillsborough disaster well. I was sitting in the pub with my boyfriend, listening to the football on the radio, when the report came in that someone at the FA Cup semi final between Liverpool and Notts Forest had died. We were shocked. This was football … people didn’t die at football. We couldn’t quite take in the events as they unfurled, and later that evening, as the horror of  what had happened finally hit us, we hugged each other and sobbed.

There are some disasters that affect you more than others, because you have a personal link to the events. For me it’s Zebbrugge (we’d recently been to Holland and Denmark on the ferry), Dunblane (I had a young child) and Hillsborough – because I am and always have been a football fan, and at the time of Hillsborough I regularly attended matches. What really hit me was that it could have been any ground, any match, any fan – perhaps even me.

When the news broke in the summer that the cover up had finally been revealed I was pleased – because the families of those that died so badly need to get justice. So when I heard that a group of artists had recorded the Hollies’ song He Aint Heavy to raise money for charities related to the disaster, I had to buy it. OK I’d also like to stop the X Factor winner getting the Xmas number 1 too – but justice for the Hillsborough victims is a charity I can really get behind.

So the favour …. please buy the song. It’s less than a quid, at least 50% of that will go to the charities, and it might even get to number 1. You can get the MP3 from Amazon or iTunes, or I guess from your favourite record shop! You need to buy it in the next couple of days if you’re keen to keep the X Factor off the number 1 spot!

And if you’ve not heard it yet, here it is.

101 things … and a rant about Royals

Standard

Just realised I have a month exactly till my 101 things in 1001 days challenge ends, and a new one begins. I’ve failed miserably on a huge number of tasks and I can’t even afford to complete number 32 (Donate £5 to charity for every unfinished item on the list) so that’s another one I’ve failed. But over the next month I’m going to try and do as many outstanding things as time and money allow, and then anything I still REALLY want to do will go onto the next list, for the next 1001 days.

Number 14 on my list is to write on my blog every day for a month and, considering I like writing and am actually not bad at it, it’s scandalous that I haven’t attempted that one yet. So with exactly a month to go, this is the first of 31 posts on this blog to complete the challenge. Yeah, it means I’ve got to write on Xmas Day and Boxing Day, but I’m up to the challenge!!

So here’s a little rant …

A married man and a woman are having a baby. And she’s suffering extreme morning sickness. Hold the front page!

OK so the man is second in line to the throne, and the baby (babies?) will be third in line but come on, is it really that exciting? With any luck we’ll be a republic before they take on the mantle anyway!

I’m no fan of the Royals – bring on the revolution! – but the news that William and Kate (how come she was Kate till she became a Royal, and now she’s Catherine? Is Kate too common a name?) are having a baby has horrified me because of course we’ll hear nothing else for the next six months, and then the baby will be star of the show for months after that. Aaargh! I’m starting to think it might be time to hibernate … or emigrate! Is there any country where this isn’t going to be front page news for the foreseeable future?

Anyway, rant over. Now you know where I stand on the matter! Though personally, I’m beginning to wonder if the morning sickness isn’t as a result of the mixing of reptilian and commoner genes …