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…