Life and love in the Calais Jungle: my seventh trip

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 ๐Ÿ™‚


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