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…

 

 

 

Swindon Calais Solidarity on BBC Wiltshire

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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.)

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Welcome to the Calais Jungle

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P1030137So on Sunday 27th September 2015 my son and I left home at 4.25am to join the Swindon to Calais Solidarity group for their first trip to the Calais Jungle – the refugee camp at Calais. Although I’m not actually an official member of the group I’ve been quite involved with the preparation for this trip, through acting as a collection point, campaigning for donations and making up individual toiletry bags, and the day before the trip Steve and I helped load the van.

12079678_513618662134910_125848176187001059_nI’d met a couple of people from the group but was a little apprehensive about who our travel companions would be and I know Dan was too – but everyone, without fail, was fantastic. I couldn’t wish to be associated with a more lovely group of people!

Once assembled we were a group of twenty travelling in a long wheel base Transit van and four cars, accompanied by a film crew from BBC Wiltshire. They had to take a security guy with them, so we stopped off at a hotel in Ashford to collect him (and have a quick wee) before heading on to Folkestone and onto the Eurotunnel across to Calais.

After a quick regroup at the motorway services we collected Riaz, out “man on the ground”, and then went to one of the distribution centres to unload the van. I wasn’t really sure what I’d expected but I was blown away by the size of the place and the amount of stuff in storage! There were lots of volunteers there who all seemed to know what they were doing while we stood around feeling useless and generally getting in the way! Eventually we worked out that a large lorry was being loaded with sleeping bags for the camp; we’d brought a load with us so we set up a chain gang to manhandle them all from our van to the truck. However, a lot of them were buried under tents so my job was to stand in the van and pull all the tents out of the way so other people could get to the sleeping bags. Once we’d got those out of the way we loaded up trolley after trolley with tents and roll mats, ready to be stored in the distribution centre till they’re taken to the camp. I was a bit worried that everything would stay there indefinitely but we were told that the van of sleeping bags was going to the camp later that day. Knowing that stuff we had brought over would be used by someone that evening was really reassuring – and sure enough we did see the lorry in the camp later that day.

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Once we’d unloaded the van it was time to visit the camp to distribute the packs of toiletries, some tinned food plus a few other bits and pieces we’d brought over. I was a bit apprehensive about what the camp would be like but actually it was so friendly and there wasn’t a single moment when I felt threatened in any way. The TV security guy did tell us the atmosphere would change as the day went on, though, and it was certainly a little rowdier when we left at his recommended time of 4.30pm – I can imagine it might be a scary place after dark.

As soon as our van parked up an orderly queue built at the back of it, even without us asking. I guess the refugees are used to people coming with donations and know the drill. As soon as the back doors opened there was a bit of a scrum but it was all very good-natured and we managed to control it fairly well. It was very quickly obvious, though, that these are desperate people who ahve very little. Some of them had only the clothes they were wearing, so donations are much appreciated. Anna-Maria, our group leader, showed them what we had – toiletries – and quite a few of the men (for at this stage it was all men) wandered off, but we still had quite a crowd waiting and we spent probably an hour giving out toiletries. Because there was a bit of a gaggle at the back of the van I took a rucksack and moved away a little, and Dan and I handed them out to anyone who wanted one. Sometimes people wanted something in particular – we were asked for shampoo and deodorant – and I was pleased we’d mixed up the contents a bit, as we were able to swap bags and give people what they needed.

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We also had some food to distribute – mainly pasta, rice and tins of soup, beans, rice pudding and fruit. By this time I’d started talking to some of the refugees and Dan and I had a lovely conversation with two young men from Syria. It turned into a bit of banter as I was trying to get rid of a tin of vegetable soup and they weren’t impressed; they kept telling me “No soup! No soup!” It became a bit of a joke as I tried to sell the benefits of this bloody soup to the men, to no avail. Eventually they said they would like a bag, so I managed to get hold of an empty rucksack for them and gave it to them – on condition that they took the soup as well! They were so friendly and it was a really funny situation (probably one of those where you had to be there!) – and later on we saw them again and they called out “No soup!”

P1030169So no soup, but they do like cake! At one point a group of lovely ladies came in with big boxes of cream cakes, which went down very well with the camp inhabitants – though there was a bit of a rush for them, and some of our team helped with the distribution. In fact, we are planning on taking cake, biscuits and other treats to the camp next time we visit.

 

 

We had a bag of about half a dozen football with us and they really went down well! Wherever you go in the camp you see people playing footie, so again, I think this is definitely something we’ll try to cater for in future deliveries.

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P1030213Many of the men wanted jackets and shoes, neither of which we had (having been recommended to take no clothing over!) and it was gutting to have to tell them no. However, after a while two huge trucks arrived from the distribution centre, loaded up with shoes, and huge queues formed with men waiting two hours and more to get a pair. We had to move the van to let the trucks in, so that was our cue to split into smaller groups and see a bit more of the camp. We decided to take the remaining toiletry bags into the camp, so we loaded up several black sacks and ventured in, later returning to re-fill our bags with food. I also took a few scarves, a woolly hat and a pair of gloves that my mum had given me.

The camp resembles the Glastonbury festival in a way; there are places where all you can see is a sea of tents, though many of them are actually hand-made, with tarpaulins draped over flimsy wooden frames. I was surprised to see how much structure there is in the camp – there are lots of “buildings” made from offcuts of wood, metal sheeting and tarpaulins, acting as restaurants, bars, cafes and shops. You have to remember that many of the refugees here were living good lives before war forced them to flee; just because they are refugees doesn’t mean they are penniless, and I’m sure some people are doing a roaring trade there.

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There’s a real sense of community in the camp, and we saw a church, a meeting house and various tents used for other community reasons. In one area there was a power generator and rows of power points for people to charge their mobile phones – vital for people thousands of miles from home, who might want to talk to family. There was also a small music system and speakers and the men there were obviously enjoying socialising and relaxing a little. One guy even invited Dan for a dance! There’s a caravan that serves as a medical centre, and further into the camp I’ve heard there are more churches, a library and a school. I was surprised to find there were half a dozen portaloos near the entrance to the camp – funded through a community group – and we also saw a couple of water pipes where people could wash and collect water for cooking etc. I was concerned there was no sanitation at all, so that was good to see. However, there are around 4,500 people in the camp and six toilets don’t go far ….

So exploring the camp was really fascinating – what really came across was that the people who live there want to live as decent a life as they can, considering the circumstances. They are hard working, innovative, motivated and ingenious – these are certainly not people who want to sit back and let other people provide for them.

But the best part of the day was the people we met, especially once we went off into the camp itself. We met so many people who were all really friendly and welcoming. However, there were a few people (who shall remain nameless …. I’m not good with names!) who we really connected with.

Lots of the men we spoke to were really upbeat and had a great sense of humour, despite the horrors they must have encountered in their homeland and on their journey to reach Calais. We chatted to three men from Afghanistan, two of whom wanted to come to the UK; the third said “No, England bad! I want to go to Germany, Germany welcoming.” It was obviously a source of amusement among the three of them, and the other two teased him about it. Then they asked us where we were from and we said Swindon – near London. “Ah London!” one of them said. He linked his arm through mine and said, “We go to London together!” When Dan said the guy wasn’t going to take his mum anywhere, he linked arms with Dan and said “We go to London then!” It was all so good-natured and funny – they were obviously well aware there was no way we could take them anywhere, and it was all very jokey.

I also got propositioned in another way! We approached three men, one of whom was sitting in front of a tent. “Ah, you come into my tent,” he said. “We get …” He shook his body around, and laughed. As soon as he discovered I had my son with me and my son was 6 feet tall he changed his mind – but again it was all very light-hearted, not threatening at all, just a joke between friends. Actually what came across strongly was how much respect the refugees have for the volunteers here – and we respected them back.

What you hear all the time is that there are no women and children in the camp – and yes, the refugees there are mostly male (there’s a separate camp for women and children) but we encountered quite a few children and women there – including several pregnant women, which was really shocking (and we are trying to do something to help one woman in particular, who is about seven months pregnant). There was a young girl from Iran, she must only have been about 15 or 16. Really pretty, intelligent, pretty good English.  She reminded me so much of my daughter! I don’t think she’d been there long and I’m quite worried about how she will cope.
P1030171At one stage Dan spotted a guy doing some washing in a bucket. He went over to talk to him and give him some toiletries, and they had a chat and a manly handshake. It was just such a lovely gesture, seeing him engage with people like that.

I had my own moments too. One man I spoke to said he didn’t need toiletries, so I asked if he’d like a scarf. He said he would, that it was cold there at night, so I wrapped the scarf around his neck and he touched me on the shoulder in thanks. Such a small gesture but it was quite a special moment.

Another recipient of a scarf was a young lad from Eritrea. He was 14 years old and all alone in the Jungle (the name used by the refugees for the camp). He’d travelled from Eritrea on his own, leaving behind his mother and four younger brothers. He was intelligent and polite, a big football fan (Inter Milan and Man United!), full of hope for the future. I really hope he can find asylum somewhere – the camp is no place for a teenage boy to be, he should be getting an education, playing footie, out with his mates. I told him he could be my son – if I could, I’d bring him home!

He wasn’t the youngest person in the camp though. Many of the “men” are actually between 13 and 18, but there are younger people there too. One was a young Afghan boy who said his father lived in Birmingham; we don’t know the circumstances but presumably they got separated somehow. The boy was a cheeky chappy, very friendly and with a good command of English, and quite a few of our team befriended him. For a while we were really concerned this boy was there on his own because he was only ten years old …. We have since found out he has an 18-year-old brother who is taking care of him, but we’re trying to find out where the father is and if he’s in the UK legally – and if so, if there’s any way this family can be reunited.

P1030201We also met a man from Syria who had two young children with him, a boy and a girl aged 4 and 6. One of our team had taken a rucksack of soft toys and there was a really lovely moment where she gave these children some toys. The boy chose a cuddly Dalmation and it brought tears to my eyes to see him cuddle it, kiss it and bite its nose. The look on his face was a picture… While they were there a young woman made a beeline for the rucksack and pulled out some toys for herself – as she walked away I realised she was only about 13 or 14. She stroked the toys as she walked away and I hope they gave her some comfort; I can’t imagine what living in the camp must do for your mental health, especially for a young girl.

Towards the end of the day we went back in with food, though it was quite hard to get rid of some of the things that had been donated. However, we came across a young woman who had a very tidy makeshift tent with a row of spotlessly clean washing hanging on a line outside it. We found out she was there without a man and had two children aged 6 and 5. With two hungry mouths to feed, we gave her all the food we had left … hopefully her kids will have full bellies for a while.

(While I do have some lovely photos of a few of these amazing people I can’t post them here – if they are ever in a position to make a claim for asylum it could prejudice their case, and I wouldn’t want to be responsible for that. )

On the journey home we heard what others in our group had done. Some people stayed to help with the shoe distribution. Others went off with black bags to do litter picking; they went quite deep into the camp and were met with friendliness wherever they went. They were even invited into one of the restaurants for tea and soup, despite admitting they had no money on them. The welcome shown to us by the refugees was just incredible.

P1030143Meeting the refugees and migrants in the camp was amazing, it’s as simple as that. These are people who just want a better life; they want what we have – a roof over their heads, food in the fridge, a job or an education, the chance to be safe and happy and contribute to society. It must be difficult to maintain your dignity when you’re reliant on handouts from strangers, but these people are so dignified, so appreciative and so grateful. We were welcomed and thanked, and I really didn’t expect that.

But the day wasn’t just about helping people in need, or making new friends, or doing our tiny bit to make the world a better place. It was also a day for self-development, for reflection, for learning. I know I have grown as a person through our actions, but the real surprise of the day was how it affected Dan. Dan is the boy with Aspergers who finds social interaction difficult, the boy with ADHD who was permanently excluded from school twice, the boy from hell who was in trouble with the police at the age of ten …… There have been many times when I despaired of what would become of my son, but yesterday was the moment when my boy became a man. He started the morning as a nerdy, anxious teenager but by the end of the day he’d grown in so many ways. He struck up conversations with refugees from around the world, showing them empathy and compassion; he found practical solutions to problems; he was willing to be interviewed by the TV crew (and appeared on the local news the next day – you can watch it here); he encouraged other volunteers to keep going when they were running out of energy; and he demonstrated real leadership qualities. He’s keen to go back again to do more volunteering over there and I believe he can make a real difference to the lives of many. I couldn’t be a more proud mum.

So many memories of this incredible day, but this will have to do for now. I came home feeling heart-broken yet overjoyed, frustrated yet inspired. Whatever your political stance on immigration, these people need our help. The conditions in the camp are pretty appalling and they are only going to get worse as winter arrives and the weather worsens. We are going back twice more this month to take some treats, warm clothing, coats and shoes, and a group is also raising funds for multi-fuel stoves so the people there can cook and make warm drinks. Donations are gratefully accepted, (click here to see the latest list) or if you have time to give, find your local group here.

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