One month and two weeks ago, I set off to volunteer for 2 days in Calais to help sort donations for refugees (or some may prefer to use the terms asylum seekers or migrants). Little did I know that within an hour of arriving in Calais, I would join five others from the UK to Dunkirk to volunteer with the German soup kitchen in a refugee camp.
La Linière – Grande-Synthe, suburb of Dunkirk
La Linière had been set up in March this year to house many of the migrants hoping to cross over to Britain. In this camp, there were many small cabins (or garden sheds as I call them) built by MSF, a women’s and children’s centre, a library, communal kitchens, communal showers (I heard it’s cold showers even though Daily Mail mentions hot showers), and communal toilets for women and men. There was also a large shed at the entrance where residents could charge their mobile phones (some people think that anyone who has a mobile phone does not deserve their assistance, which I find rather extreme. We have not had to flee persecution or war but if we did, we could easily pack our small mobile phones).
Seeing the garden sheds somewhat shocked me. It was certainly better than tents but I have no idea how a family could fit inside. I’m quite certain that there are garden sheds in Canada that are twice if not triple the size of the cabins I saw. As for heating, I saw some of the men carrying petrol cans which I believe they would top up from one of the volunteers so they could keep their
sheds cabins warm. Each shed was marked with numbers. Some were painted and others had messages.
A fellow volunteer and I went over to the small children’s centre to offer a hand but it was already full of children with at least three volunteers. Although there were lights in the centre, we understood that the lights would sometimes go off and money was needed to keep the electricity going.
Outside the children’s centre, I noticed that the UK, France, Germany, and Canada were painted on the walls. I did not get a chance to ask anyone why those four nations were chosen but I imagine each represented refuge, a safe place, a new beginning.
It was interesting to see Canada, UK, France, and Germany written on the exterior of the children’s centre in Dunkirk today. #Canada, we can do a lot more to help the #refugees. We are so blessed. I’m very thankful for today’s voluntary experience, filled with challenges but great company. #DiamondChallenge #canadianabroad #mural #Dunkirkcamp #refugeecamp #twitter #GrandSynthe #Dunkerque #childrenscentre #volunteer #school #children #enfants
My fellow volunteer and I then helped in the women’s centre and did whatever was asked of us – painting the walls, sorting clothing donations, minding the children, etc. There were no lights in the centre, at least none that I could see.
My first task was to sort clothing donations. Although there appeared to be more than enough clothing donations for all, I don’t think I saw a laundry centre so it was completely understandable that donations are always needed, especially for winter. I also can’t tell you how many donations were not good enough for the refugees or charity shops. The narrow donation room I was in was very drafty and I was quite thankful to mind the children next.
When it came to the children, however, it was chaos. The children ran around the room, climbed and leapt from wherever, kicked boxes, and threw whatever was on the tables. But where else could they be free when it was so cold and muddy out (albeit it was no better indoors)? Who knows how long they’ve had to be caged up in these temporary camps. Who knows what they’ve seen these last few years if not their entire lives.
My biggest challenge when trying to prevent children from going into the donation room was hearing their screams of “Noooo! Noooo! Nooo!” as if I were going to murder them. It sent a chill down my spine for I had never heard children scream like that before. I imagined that they had been traumatised by guards, police, or crooks from their home countries or even in Europe. In the end, another volunteer had to help me bring out the children with a very stern, “NO. Get out!” followed by a warm hug. Well, I was never good at being strict first, which is why I failed.
Order was practically impossible but I couldn’t blame their mothers who must have been so exhausted and only relieved that they were somewhere safe…temporarily. But it wasn’t all bad. I pretended to chase after an adorable smiley toddler so his mother could chat with her friend and rest. I helped two boys make paper planes that would fly further. I also befriended a young girl who taught me a new hairstyle. Her English was the best out of all the children in the room and it was clear she enjoyed speaking it. When I asked her if she liked learning French or France, the answer was a definite ‘No.’
What a shame. Such a beautiful country, a beautiful language, beautiful people… But her negative experiences made her dislike the language and country. It was far better for her, her friends, and family to be in England or Canada. I was sorry that I couldn’t beam her over to my homeland where there is plenty of room.
I recently read that La Liniere will also be closing down early next year. Where to for those who can’t make it to England?
Winter is coming
I came to northern France warmly dressed: I had only my long-sleeve thermal turtle neck top, a DofE Diamond Challenge shirt over it, and my down feather winter jacket. I also wore boots with thermal insoles. Yet there were many times when I realised that I was cold. And if I was cold (when I don’t feel cold as easily), then how much worse was it for those living in the camp? They must have been chilled to the bone!
As if the wind were not bad enough, it then rained around mid-day. And when it rains in Dunkirk (and Calais as I experienced the next day), the shower is left on for hours. The already muddy and rocky ground that reminded me of my visit to Auschwitz seven years ago became muddier with large puddles throughout the camp. Some of the children had wellies on to keep their feet dry but most of the adults wore trainers. We all know that awful feeling of walking in wet socks and shoes.
Whilst my fellow volunteers and I helped wash dishes and cutlery under a tarp, the rest of the male residents (please note that the women and children dined in the women’s centre) queued outside, battered by the rain and wind, for the hot and scrumptious meal of mixed vegetables and salad. As soon as they received their food, they rushed into the communal tea tent to eat quickly before returning the plates and cutlery to us. I did not know how long we stood there but it felt like an hour or more. My fingers and nose were frozen but I could not complain. At least I wasn’t drenched. One of the diners asked us if we knew the TV series, Game of Thrones.
“Winter is coming!” he said, half jokingly.
How right he was. Officially, winter would be another month away but weather-wise, it was already winter.
I was not a fan of the way we washed the dishes (it’s the only chore I enjoy doing because I like to make sure dishes & cutlery are clean) but given the circumstances, there was no other way but to dip dirty plates in the ‘dirty water’, swirl it in ‘clean water’, before drying them with a soggy towel. (I would have preferred pouring clean water over dishes but that would have been wasting water.) No one complained and by the time it was the volunteers’ turn to eat, one could hardly think of how sanitary this was. It was: ‘I’m hungry and I’m going to be fine!’
One week later, I holidayed in Paris with my Mum. We noticed quite a few families on the streets in the posh 1st Arrondissement: a mother and father sitting on blankets with their 2-3 young children between then; a mother with her sleeping baby in her arms; a father and his young son wrapped in a small blanket. It was not the first time I had noticed refugee families on the streets of Paris. Earlier in April, I had spotted a family on my way to the Gare du Nord. This time, however, it was obvious that there were more. I did not know if they had formerly stayed in the now-dismantled Calais jungle camp. I did not know where they were from nor where they would spend the night after sitting for hours late at night on the dirty streets.
We gave spare change to a couple of families and blessed them. On one occasion, after giving some coins to a young mother with her sleeping babe, we heard someone say, “Stupid!”
My Mum and I turned around to see a well-dressed older man berate us for giving money to the woman. He told us that these were professionals who drugged their babies to trick tourists into giving them money.
It seems that was the general sentiment. Refugees or Romani, many Parisians had enough of beggars (for centuries) in their picturesque city. I suppose many thought that it was best not to give anything and to be apathetic then the poor would leave and stop being a nuisance to society.
Whilst it may be easy to judge France, I think it’s also important to ask ourselves what we and, therefore, our countries, have done to alleviate the refugee crisis. So the refugees have landed on France’s doorstep. What are our governments choosing to do?
Land of Hope and Glory
Back in London, I was reminded how blessed I was to be able to travel freely without being treated as a possible criminal. Here I was in the ‘land of hope and glory’ with a job and a roof over my head. In the eyes of many of those at the camp, I was living in paradise, even if I have a small room and often eat microwaveable meals. They were so close to being in the land of their dreams and being reunited with their families yet forbidden to do so. Even whilst I was in Dunkirk, I kept telling myself that the misery would soon be over. I was going to be back in London soon, I could take a nice hot shower, and I would sleep in my cosy little room. I knew when I would be back in London. For them, the wait is indefinite yet the dream keeps them going.
I thought about how ‘easy’ it would be to let in those who had families in the UK. At the same time, I was not naive enough to think that opening the doors would be the solution to everyone’s problems. I was overwhelmed with the ongoing problems in our Western countries: the number of homeless people on the streets, the number of low-income households struggling to make ends meet, the number of people made redundant…
I suppose that’s how many people feel: overwhelmed.
But then, we carry on, pray for strength and courage, and do the best we can.
If this post has moved you, here are some things that you can do to help:
- Donate financially to NGOs that assist refugees in France – see below – or in your country.
- Donate waterproof and thermal clothing and shoes (I’m told many adults don’t like wellies possibly due to lack of proper socks or the discomfort it can cause). Check urgently needed donations here.
- If you’re in the UK / France, volunteer with Care 4 Calais, L’Auberge des Migrants, Help Refugees, etc. to help sort donations, help prepare food, or mind the children.
Lastly, I would like to commend all the volunteers I’d met in Calais and Dunkirk who gave up their comforts to spend days, weeks, months, and even longer to help those who needed protection, love, and hope. They were a true inspiration and I hope I can learn to sacrifice myself more.