You can read the original on the Huffington Post here.
I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write this. If I’m honest I didn’t know where to start. Sometimes, with an experience as emotive as my trip to Calais maybe it’s best to sit on it for a week and see what bits stays in your mind, those will be the most important things to write about. Nine days on and I’m left with images so vivid that it feels like yesterday I was there. Knowing how close it is to me, to all of us here in the UK, it’s impossible to forget the squalor that is being ignored by so many people.
During my six hours in ‘the Jungle’, the refugee camp just 37 minutes from Dover, I experienced surges of extreme emotion. From arriving and getting stuck in, feeling useful and proud of the difference our campaign made; to anger so charged I had to hold myself back from arguing with a French policeman; to a sadness so deep I was left sobbing uncontrollably in a field.
It took Lliana Bird and I just over two hours to get to Calais. That’s how long it takes me to get to Bristol to see my sister and nephews. It’s so close, and even though I knew that, it still shocked me. I had expected to drive through military-style security gates to get in, but there was nothing. Rather, after passing numerous people stomping along a motorway to the tunnel entrance we were driving away from, the camp just appears. A sea of tents, mountains of rubbish. You drive down, you take a left, you park the car, you are in. It’s completely open for anyone to get right into the heart of it. But then, I guess that’s kind of the idea.
I was nervous to arrive at the ‘Jungle’. I’ve spent the last month practically begging the public to help a situation that I hadn’t seen with my own eyes. The responsibility of that was quite overwhelming, and faced with the possibility that I might not feel the way I presumed I would when I arrived caused me real worry. I was scared I would be frightened, threatened, even appalled. That the huge amount of sympathy I’d felt throughout our online campaign wouldn’t be so strong when faced with the reality of the situation. That I’d see something that might change my mind.
As we parked, Josie was there to great us. She was kneeling down, chatting to a young boy on a bike. The two of them were smiling and hugging. This was not the first thing I expected to see. I had expected herds of young men in hoodies, who would come up to the car to ask me what I had for them. I’d expected to see drama instantly. What kind of drama, I’m not sure. But I didn’t expect the first thing I heard to be “Hey, this is my friend”, which is what Josie said when Lliana wound down the window. The little boy smiled and waved. He was so sweet, so happy. We gave him a box of Jaffa Cakes and he was so grateful. As we parked up and headed into the camp, we promised we would find him later. I meant it too, I wanted one of those cuddles.
As I got out the car those nerves came back. I’d been warned that I might find the amount of men intimidating, so I was prepared for that, but I didn’t feel it. Not at all. After chatting to that gorgeous kid on the bike for a few minutes, Lliana and Josie and I headed in.
Our first destination was the new Family Field that had been created that day. A field, just next to the main entrance of the main camp, where all families could stay. It had been created by volunteers and, L’Auberge Des Migrants (the primary charity on the ground there) in a bid to keep families and children safe. Volunteers were busy building wooden shelters, mothers were feeding their babies. It felt like a community that had been there for a long time. Of course some of them had been, and some had just arrived. One young mother came and lead me by the arm to her shelter, she urged me to look inside. A small baby was asleep in a pile of sleeping bags, she told me that five of them lived in there. And that it got cold at night. She wasn’t complaining. In fact, she was happy not to have to be in a tent.
Across the field I saw Philli, one of our team who’s moved to Calais to work alongside the local French charity, L’Auberge Des Migrants, and coordinate the building of shelters. She was on the phone to someone at the warehouse telling them what was urgently needed – she smiled and waved. Another happy face, just getting on with it. I felt strange, I wanted to keep saying things like “this is great”, “that’s brilliant”, “how amazing” in reference to the amount of volunteers, and to the wooden shelters that were being built in front of us. But I couldn’t say that, because none of it was great, brilliant or amazing. It was all completely shit. Even the wooden huts would provide little shelter when the weather turns. Downpour will wipe out the field. Beds will be drenched in mud, the air so cold the children wont sleep, the conditions so hideous the parents will fear for their families lives. I was impressed by the positivity and the drive, but all I could think was how the fuck these people will survive the winter? Already the main road through the camp is thick mud with puddles too deep to walk through. Despite the attempts to build shelter, it will all be futile when the rain comes. But that is the best they’re going to get.
Monday is Ladies Day. The make-shift Catholic church temporarily becomes a women-only space so they can get clothes, underwear, cosmetics and sanitary protection. We wandered a few minutes through the site to reach it, now I could really see the situation. It felt like the Thursday after Glastonbury, everyone still there. Wired, dirty, no idea how to get home. It was bleak, but active. It was obvious to all that I was a volunteer so numerous people approached me for help. One man, around 30, softly spoken, Syrian, put his hand on my shoulder and asked me for pants. Lliana asked him to clarify, “underwear, or trousers?” It was trousers that he needed, and I could see how demoralized he felt asking me for them. We directed him to a queue where men were queuing for clothes. He looked so happy at the thought of clean trousers. The refugees were pleased to see us, they know we are helping and they are very grateful.
At the church, boxes of supplies were laid out and women were taking what they need. There were all nationalities: Sudanese, Eritrean, Syrian to name a few. One women came and asked us for mascara. She said she was going for a meeting in Paris, and wanted to look good. Josie and I looked in the boxes but couldn’t see any, so when Danni (another one of our team) said she had an old one in the car, Josie ran back to get it. And that’s how the day largely worked, walking up to people who didn’t have shoes on, or whose trousers looked filthy, asking them what they needed, seeing where they lived, then one of the volunteers heading back to the warehouse to get it for them. We are literally handing out the supplies you sent to the people who need them the most. Sure, mascara is hardly a necessity, but I understood it. Many of these people fled from good lives in bad situations. They have standards, they are not poor, they have not lost all their self-respect. They want to feel good about themselves, in little ways.
As Ladies Day drew to an end there was unrest just outside of the church. Around six French police in riot gear had shown up. Behind them a swarm of volunteers and refugees filming them on their phones. If there was to be trouble then it would be on camera, no one innocent was getting the blame for anything they didn’t do. Days before, the French police has sprayed a group of women with tear gas as they hung by the side of the road. The unprovoked attack had caused great unrest in the camp. The French police and their brutal approach to all of this has been one of the main reasons the refugees don’t want to seek asylum in France. They treat them like shit. It’s quite simple.
We left the church and continued to walk the camp. Tent after tent crammed in. Some on higher ground, some at path level that would be swamped from just a spot of gentle rain. Some tents were so small I presumed they were for supplies, only to be horrified to realise they often housed multiple adults. I stopped and chatted to people as I walked. “How are you? Where are you from? How long have you been here?” Quickly I understood this was not a just Syrian camp, but multiple nationalities were there, and for multiple reasons.
Lliana and I looked up and saw three men lighting a fire under a piece of tarpaulin; they waved at us so we walked up a tiny slope to meet them. They offered us tea and got the fire going to make sure we were warm. They were so welcoming, so kind. Rain had started, and the temperature seemed to have dropped dramatically. They had little fire wood but used what they had to make us comfortable. I asked them where they were from, one man’s English was better than the others’ so he explained to me who he was. He was from Iraq, he’d been in Calais for five months but previously to that he was in a Greek prison for nine (simply for “not having the right papers” when he arrived in Greece). His wife and daughter are in London. His wife works for a major retailer at Westfield in Shepherds Bush, his daughter is nearly two. He hasn’t seen either of them for a year and a half. The British government isn’t allowing him into the country. You might think that’s OK, and that he should go back to Iraq and that his wife and daughter should meet him there? That him and his family are not our problem and that we should look after our own people before helping anyone else? But you see, he would be shot dead if he stepped foot inside of Iraq. Why? Because he drove a crane for the British Army in the Iraq war, and now we wont even let him get to his family. He IS our problem. We literally got him into this mess.
As soon as I heard his story I understood better than ever that there is no one kind of refugee in this horrific humanitarian crisis. There are all colours, all creeds and all sorts of different stories. We have to stop generalising, and acting like ‘they’ are all the same. That they are all from the same place, reaching for the same thing. Other than just ‘a better life’ the incentives vary so much. I want this man to be reunited with his family. He was a good man, and seeing him cowering under a single piece of tarpaulin in that way was hard to cope with. Lliana remembered a box back in the warehouse that had donated smart phones in it. Later on she went and got one for him, that night he was going to see his daughter’s face for the first time in months.
There are more men than women in Calais. Some sent ahead of their families to get to the UK, some trying to reach their families who are already there. Some young and fit, some middle aged and weak. But no elderly. None that I saw. Were they too weak to attempt the journey, or did they just not make it? Maybe a mixture of both. The journey to Calais is brutal. Many packed, cheek-to-cheek, in the back of lorries for days on end. No food, no water, no breaks. Like a soul-destroying rush hour that would drive us all to despair. Your relatively short commute should feel like a breeze tomorrow, when imagining the endless mission these desperate people have been on.
A man hobbles up to us on crutches. He made friends with Josie the day before. He threw his arm around her, and she was so happy to see him. He told her his legs were getting better, he’ll be well enough to “try again soon”. When he stumbled off Josie confirmed my worst fear, both his legs broke a few weeks ago when he jumped on to a moving train in an attempt to get to England. This was the moment my day turned. The reality. As if the lights in a TV studio zoomed onto the camp. This is the most intense sudden death round I could ever imagine.
I started to ask everyone I spoke to how they planned to get to Britain. “Jump”. “We jump”. “I will jump until I make it” were the answers I kept getting. The week before a teenage boy died doing just that. In the last two years hundreds have died attempting the same. The danger is no distraction from the prospect of a new life at the other end.
As you walk down the main strip, taking a thin path down the side in some parts as rain has swamped the main pathway, little businesses have been created. A symbol of the intentions of so many of the refugees. And no, this is not a case of the strongest getting to the donations first, then making the weaker pay for them. Many of the refugees have money, back home they had houses, businesses, cars. They fled war and constant threat of danger. They now use their money to pay motorists to take them to supermarkets, where they buy stock for their shops and cafes and sell them to the other members of the camp. It was oddly thrilling to see such enterprise. A society forming. Behind the counters of these little wooden huts, proprietors smiled at us and waved hello. Surrounded by such dehumanising conditions, it was a relief to see such pride.
Further around the camp we come across a crew of Irish volunteers busily erecting a large wooden shelter. “It’s the new women’s centre,” they told us. I watched as they happily hammered away, in awe of the many volunteers who had shown up to help. With no sign of any of the major charities, the grassroots organisations and individuals who have stepped away from their own lives to help the refugees in Calais are literally changing, improving, and possibly even saving, lives.
Further along our way we encounter a group of Eritrean men standing in a smoldering heap of rubble. A nightclub they had built burned down… no one knew exactly how it had happened. Two people had been inside, one now in the on-site hospital recovering from burns. The men were downbeat and shocked, although I got the impression this was an attack and they knew who had done it. A stark indication that violence, gangs and crime will only increase as the situation becomes more desperate. An unfortunate, but natural progression of human nature. Rumours of women prostituting themselves up on the road are also circulating. The women might not be safe for long.
The guys who had lost their nightclub (a wooden shack with a tarpaulin roof, not the glamorous party house that was reported by certain small-minded journalists) had also lost a place to sleep. So Josie, and another member of our group Tanya, headed back to the warehouse to get it for them, along with sleeping bags and other essentials. They were grateful to us, and we felt safe because we knew they needed what we had. But did we feel that we were walking away from the prospect of a revenge plot from them? Yes. And there wasn’t much we could do about that.
As the day drew to a close, the temperature dropped further and the rain kept falling. We headed back to the family field to say our goodbyes. Tanya and Danni were driving home with me, Josie and Lliana were staying a few days. I’d felt pretty strong all day, pragmatic, useful. But then I heard the shriek of a baby cry. A pang for my own eight-month boy was pulling me home like a leash around my neck. I turned to see a little girl, her head poking out a tent where I was told five people lived. She looked at me and screamed. Just a child crying, it’s nothing new. But the prospect of her future hit me hard. Would that child really be there, quivering in that tent through a brutal winter? Or would she be strapped to her fathers back as he tried to jump onto a moving train? Maybe one of those options, maybe none. But one thing was for sure, her future is unknown and frightening.
I left with mosquito bites like golf balls on my legs that drove me mad for days. The sanitation is bad and is attracting bugs, and soon disease, I am sure. Inspiring as it was to see the building of so many shelters that will absolutely give these people the best chance they have over the coming months, the situation still felt hopeless.
This is a massive problem and it’s only getting worse. There were 400 refugees in Calais in April, now there are over 5,000 and it’s growing every day. Whether you believe the refugees should be allowed into the UK or not, can we all agree that we should help them survive in the gruesome situation they are in?
I hope that’s how you feel. Don’t be the bad guys in the history books. Here’s how you can help:
Spread the word, you have a voice. Not enough people understand how awful this is, and if you can’t do anything else, you can help us help more people understand.
Image: Dawn’s Huffington Post article – ‘My Trip to the Jungle’