Monday, 22 August 2016

AN EMOTIONAL ROLLER COASTER, by Sally Kincaid: 22nd August 2016

Yesterday was an emotional roller coaster.

As we parked the car, dozens and dozens of people were heading towards the school, clinching their precious exercise books to learn English or French, eager to get there before school started so they could make sure they got a good seat.

Walking through the camp was heartbreaking as some shops and restaurants are still functioning, but others are just an empty shell as stock has been confiscated. There are many more people in tents. The worst moment was explaining to a woman who was 8 months pregnant that it didn't matter where her baby was born - France or UK it would have no status. And urging her not to do anything that would risk her and her baby's safety.

But then there was joy:
  • the little girl who decided the best place for the NUT flag was on top of the fort, after she had put stickers on my nails.
  • the two little boys who turned up for school, even though they had been told there was no kids school today as it was Sunday. We had a 20 minute discussion with Marco and the boys about why they had come. 'He said we should...' they said in unison, pointing at each other!
  • Families grateful to be able to get a rotten old caravan because it is an improvement on the container camp.
  • The amazing folks at Care 4 Calais who are so well organised and committed.
  • Meeting the little girl I first met a few months ago in the woman's bus with her mum, growing up so quickly. She should be starting school in September in my home city, but instead is living in a rat infested chemical field, yet she still has the biggest smile that could melt the coldest hearts.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Markwin Kobus: My Days In Calais

The first day back in the warehouse in Calais, so good to be back, despite the bad news about the court ruling. We planned to go to Dunkirk to build community kitchens, but this project is postponed for a week, so we just got stuck in at the warehouse


Day 3 in Calais, we planned to go into the Jungle before the riot police  close it off. We got there at 9.00 and managed to climb the ditch but at the top of the ditch we were ordered by the riot police to stay there, not to go into the camp. It was cold, damp, mist/drizzle, and about 5 degrees colder then Ireland, so therefore no one was out to resist, just a few people watching. The cops and personnel were busy taking down shelters, working their way up systematically through the camp. There was little or no resistance, no teargas, they were steadily displacing people, for what??? READ MORE.

PLEASE, share this situation far and wide let everybody know what is going on. In Holland there is an expression, that says "living like a God in France" Now i suggest we change that into "living like a demon in France"........................ READ MORE

Yesterday the clearing of the camp continued steadily, without too many incidents between police and volunteers/refugees. It's bizarre, around the Ashram kitchen there isn't a building left standing, so it's now in the middle of the waste ground, but still in use. There is a desperation amongst volunteers mainly, as they don't know how long this will go on. READ MORE

DAYS 6 & 7

Tomorrow will be the last day for us in Calais. There after I will miss it, probably cry regularly over news in relation to the sufferings of the refugees in Europe and the Middle East.... Still, I'm getting very tired and worn out here, it feels like it's time to go home, to recharge my batteries, and spread the word and compassion in Ireland.
Yesterday I was struck by the destruction by the French authorities in the jungle, what they describe as a very humane eviction of the camp... READ MORE

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Guys to The Jungle : Salman Sheikh, Obaid Khalid, Yousuf Bashir King’s College London Dental Institute: January 30th 2016

In the second weekend of December we, three dental students from King’s College Dental Institute, drove across the channel tunnel to volunteer what services we could to the people stranded in the refugee camps of Calais and Dunkirk. We went with a group called Refugee Crisis Foundation. Set up by a group of young healthcare professionals looking to make a real difference, this group has been recognised by the French Dental Association and is doing some fantastic work and importantly they’re doing it regularly, with the next trip planned for late February.

Day 1: Dunkirk

The first day’s assignment was given to us over a guilty breakfast on the ground floor of our hotel. We were to help the dental team, comprised of three UK based dentists and four of their French colleagues, in the camp at Dunkirk. Dunkirk was the smaller of the two camps with only 2500 people (3000 at the time of writing), housing many new Syrian settlers, mainly women and children. For many of the group this was their first taste of dental aid work in these conditions and we took our lead from our experienced colleagues who filled us in on what to expect; the main message being not to expect anything and to see what we’re working with once we arrive. As you can imagine our minds were a whirlpool of emotion at the time, each surge bringing with it new excitement, fear and nerves. Reminding ourselves of the real objective of this trip, we steeled ourselves for the day ahead.

Salaam. Peace. This is how we were greeted by everyone on the morning of our arrival as our people carrier slowly trudged through the sticky mud at the entrance to the camp. Friendly, smiling yet expectant faces surrounded the car, walking it through the main passage that led to the heart of the small camp; a heart beating with the hope of thousands of people trying to make a safe home for their loved ones. We looked around and saw the muddy, torn, sodden tents pitched on any available patch of earth, lines continuing in every direction. People queued patiently outside vans and trucks desperately waiting for welfare and aid of any kind – food, blankets, tents, clothes. There were piles of superfluous donations ungraciously dumped by volunteers in heaps on the muddied ground. Well intentioned contributions (shorts, t-shirts, hundreds of loaves of bread) doing nothing but rotting and spreading infection.

After helping our medical colleagues set up their station in an unused supply tent we commandeered a vacant MSF container to house our mobile dental clinic. Outside we formed a queuing system and triage area whilst inside we organised the area into a treatment section, consisting of two mobile dental chairs courtesy of DentAid, and a clean and dirty compound. Whilst this was occurring our colleagues helped us spread the word by walking through the camp and informing people that there was an emergency dental clinic running today and tomorrow. Due to the extremely diverse nature of the people in this camp this was no easy task with Arabic, Urdu, Pashtun, Farsi, Kurdish, English and more being spoken throughout. We attempted to implement the few basic phrases we had learnt in Arabic; hopeful it would see us through the day. Fortunately, we had treated a patient who was more than capable in a few languages and as a result our team had gratefully inherited an interpreter.

For the first hour people trickled in slowly allowing us to test our systems and ensure everything was as efficient as possible. There after we were inundated with patients and had a constant queue of at least 5 - 10 people throughout the rest of the day. We saw a variety of patients with a plethora of symptoms and issues, some that were in extreme dental pain for months, many with periapical infections and several with deep carious teeth that had not been looked after for a while. Most patients were relieved to finally see a dentist as they could not eat or sleep due to the pain. Diagnosis and treatment was further complicated, not only by the language barriers and limited resources, but, by the lack of electricity or running water. This of course meant no hand pieces, radiographs and even limited light as the day waned.

There was a vastly different approach to treatment planning with these patients in comparison to dentistry in the UK. Dentists had to be even more efficient, quicker and plan treatment with the knowledge that most of these patients are extremely high caries risk patients, with a number of medical conditions and poor oral hygiene. As a result, 3 main treatments were planned and completed immediately with patient's verbal consent: hand excavation of caries and GIC restorations, simple extractions, and no treatment at all. No treatment was started if it was not urgent and could not be completed in these challenging conditions. Teamwork spans all aspects of healthcare but it was never more evident than here. As students we were mostly triaging and presenting to our qualified colleagues as well as nursing and assisting for them in simple procedures. It was remarkable to see just how educated and well informed many of these patients were, asking us about dentures and implants and requesting toothbrushes and toothpaste to look after their teeth. For us it was invaluable experience of emergency dentistry as well as general aid work within an impoverished community.

On our rounds of the camp we were greeted with the same amiable, thankful, smiling faces as on our way in. Many told us of their plight and the arduous journey that led them here. When invited into one tent we saw a mother caring for three young children, all of whom had progressive chest infections. The sheer resilience on the face of this brave woman was moving in itself but even more so it was the way she rejected the heater we gave her because “there were others more in need”.

That night none of us slept for the storm in our heads and hearts was far too great. Laid up in our comfortable and warm hotel room we couldn’t help think of the thousands of people displaced from good homes who were now shivering under wet blankets on the freezing ground.

Day 2: Calais

Galvanized by a fresh speech from team leader Kiran, we attacked our task for the day two with renewed vigour. We were now assigned to ‘The Jungle’ in Calais. Housing between 6000 – 10000 people (the numbers fluctuate) the camp in Calais has received the bulk of the media coverage and has a reputation for frequent violence. On the frosty winter morning we entered the camp next to the Banksy’s statement piece, our breath hanging in the air, we knew immediately that we were being watched very carefully. Firstly by the police outposts dotted at highpoints surrounding the camp, backed up by their vans filled with gendarmes outside, and secondly by the so called ‘mafia’ of the camp who have a full protection racket in operation. Immediately it was evident that we would need to be more careful here and not upset either party.

We knew this camp had been here for a while but we didn’t expect the level of infrastructure that had developed; shops, restaurants, Churches and Mosques (in different areas of the camp) and even a shisha cafe all set up and functioning well. This showed more than just a resilience to their situation but also a resignation to their medium to long term future here. The incredibly diverse community settling here boasted a variety of ethnicities including Sudanese, Syrian, Kurdish, Afghani, Pakistani and many more settling here in Calais. Although for the most part they all lived here in peace it was clear that certain areas of the vast camp were run by certain ethnicities and all boundaries were understood.

The dental unit here was more established and well equipped as we had a specific caravan kitted out with two dental chairs, some rudimentary tools and equipment, our own steam steriliser (a hot plate with a pressure cooker on top) and even an old autoclave, which more or less still worked. We also benefitted from a large area under a makeshift marquee propped up against one of the shacks neighbouring us that we used as a triage area and a covered supply store – something that came in very handy when attempting to protect the supplies we had brought in. After the success of the dental unit yesterday people already knew that a dental team would be attending here today and many had found us before we were even ready to begin. It was clear today would be an intense day.

With a large crowd huddling around our triage area we needed tight crowd control and an extremely efficient system. We were extremely grateful to an American of Syrian descent who provided us with extremely useful translation services from English to Arabic and Farsi also. Sami had travelled with a party from Boston handing out welfare packs and without him we could not have survived in this extremely diverse camp. Luckily our own command of Urdu had been just about adequate enough also.

There were a flood of people coming in all day. The patients presented with similar problems and similar treatments were needed but there were an extra wave who presented with post-extraction complications – persistent bleeding being the most common. Beyond the language barriers we had to deal with sparse resources, most notably instruments and antibiotics. Rationing medication became extremely tricky, not only because our colleagues in the medical caravan had finished their own supplies, but because one patient in particular took exception to this. In a hospital setting or dental clinic in the UK, there is a well thought out procedure and specific guidelines to follow when dealing with complaints. That kind of approach in this case was less successful. What followed was a 30 minute heated discussion, translated from Farsi to Urdu to English, which involved far more commotion than was necessary and attracted the attention of people nearby. We attempted to diffuse the situation and were finally successful in reaching a somewhat amiable solution when we heard of a much larger commotion nearby. A brawl had broken out down the road between some Afghani and Sudanese people. The factional nature of the camp was especially highlighted here and with the waning light we knew it was time to go.

The team, all 30 of us from different disciplines, had all collected together to make a safe exit. However due to the arguments 6 of us had become split from the rest. We made our way to the main exit which had now been completely blocked by ranks of armed unrelenting gendarmes. When we approached as unthreateningly as possible showing our aid worker badges, we finally realised the mentality of the French police towards not only the people here in the camp but also towards those who come to help. We were told that we had made our decision to be here and that we should now deal with it. The next time we would be leave the camp would the next morning and that it was nothing but our own fault. We tried in English, we tried in French but the result was still the same, nothing worked. One of the friends we had made in our time saw us and told us of an alternate exit at the other end of the camp.

With only around 30 minutes of sunlight remaining and a Eurotunnel slot to make we made a precarious move for the other exit, quick enough to get there before they closed that exit too yet slow enough so as to not attract any attention running through the camp. As we made our way through the factional nature of the camp was yet again underlined as we passed through a number of distinct areas and made it out just as the gendarmes were lining up on the road outside. Thankfully all members of the team made it out The Jungle and back home to English soil safely. We never thought we’d be that pleased to see our own boys in blue again.

Overall, this trip was an incredible experience but one that highlighted the desperate conditions of these poor people. Their sheer resilience in spite of all the adversity they have faced and continue to face is genuinely emotional and inspiring. It is made worse with the knowledge that there doesn’t seem to a political solution coming soon to help them. Despite their optimism, despite their faith, despite their goodbye wishes of “I’ll see you in the UK”, it is hard to see a way out of these camps for them. The aid that we provided, little that it may be, was honestly helpful and necessary. However unless their situation changes they will be in need of help in the near future. Everyone in this camp is in a form of welfare cycle where they start by being in need, they are then given help, whether it be medical, dental, tents, blankets etc. There is a period of acquiescence where their situation appears to be better but then they get another infection, the weather ruins more of their tents, their blankets are soaked yet again, they are hungry once more and then they back in need again.

Politically we choose our sides and fight for a way for this to end but no one can ignore the humanitarian aid that these people need just across the border. One weekend of work is not enough. One drop load of welfare is not enough. It is only through the regular and consistent provision of care that their situation will once again become bearable and we can truly help.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Return To The Jungle By Benedict O'Boyle via FB: January 16th 2016

I'd planned on taking the 4x4 over this time, but as I drove home from St Albans early on Saturday, I realised that the Horse-box I'd taken on my previous visit may have to return with me as the car wasn't going to cut it: it was already full of clothes donations and fresh fruit and veg from Al Barka grocers, 200kg of potatoes from LOTTIE, and tinned food. And there was loads more to come.
Fortunately knowing the good it would do, CHRISTINA didn't hesitate to say yes to a second loan of their vehicle.

I'd managed to partially dislocate my shoulder and fracture my collar bone playing hockey so the loading was aided by various helpers and by Sunday morning the horsebox was ready to roll.
The clothes, tools, building materials, a table saw for the workshop and a trailer took up all the horse area, with the food donations going in the back, Stacked almost to the roof with various other food crammed in, on and around were 600kg of sweet potatoes from Janey who grabbed a ride over with Marcus and I.

By the time we left the 3.5t van must have weighed about 5t and looked like it had been lowered!
Marcus drove, I rested my arm in a sling and Janey shared with us the knowledge gained from of her years of being an activist, we were enjoying each other's company so much that nobody noticed the fuel gauge until we cut out on the M20!

It started again, but after exiting the motorway we cut out again at least 7 more times in the the next 5 miles as we searched for fuel.

Cruising down the hills, using the fuel that sloshed forward in the tank, turning her over and flying up the hills before the engine would cut out and we'd pled with the van to keep rolling to the brow as Marcus weeks out every last drop. Our excitement ended with a 2 mile coast downhill that fortunately had a petrol station at its foot.

We looked at each other incredulously, amazed we had made it so far on no fuel. The "free-wheelers" laughed as we filled up and continued to Folkestone.

We arrived at the warehouse early and started by unloading the food. 25l bottles of vegetable oil from The Golden Elephant in Wheathampstead, potatoes from the Fish and chip shop, chick peas from Dildars, all the food from Al Barka and so much more.

The reaction from the chefs and volunteers was amazing, yells of,
"Sweet potatoes for days bruv."
"Fresh ginger is back in!!"
Or just grabbing some oranges excitedly shaking them at me with glee and grinning,
"Yes! Vitamin C!!!!!!!"

You'd think they were the cold and hungry ones they were so happy. It took a fair amount of time to unload the food before moving on to the clothes, most of which had been sorted beautifully (the donations volunteers really appreciate this).

After clothes were out and two kids bikes were relieved by a lovely lady fixing bikes in the corner, she beamed as she gave them the once over and knew they didn't need any work and had spare inner tubes with them!

Then it was round to the workshop to give them their stuff.  After donations and help had slowed over Christmas they were desperate for plastic sheeting, nails, screws, padlocks, tarps, hinges...everything we'd bought really. Self build teams who had be running low on everything were more excited to see a hinge than any adult I've ever met. The trailer would be handy for firewood transportation but Mido the workshop boss-lady had reservations about the table saw.  With no blade guard and various skill levels in the workshop, it was put aside for potential use only by people with experience.

After unloading we went to the Brico to buy lengths of timber and clout nails (they didn't arrive from eBay in time) and then headed to the Jungle ready for building.

There was only one topic of conversation in the Jungle, or anywhere else. "THE MOVE".

As you may be aware from the media. The French authorities had decided they wanted to clear a 100m perimeter around the camp near the road, this would allow them to protect their line and keep the refugees away from the lorries.

Unfortunately this meant moving 1500+ people and their tents, shelters and belongings across a crowded wasteland. It was also an issue finding a new location for them, space is in short supply, communities and groups are set up and politically it was a nightmare not just clearing and moving the people but finding a new place for them to go.

The atmosphere was very tense; in a few days the French would come and bulldoze everything, moving that many people over that topography looked impossible and the refugees and their community leaders were angry - unsurprisingly with their human rights being ignored again.

We were caught in the middle, not knowing what to do.

We wanted to get stuck in with the move, but we are there to support the people. Half the jungle wanted to protest, which would lead to violence from the police. If it came to this we'd stand shoulder to shoulder with our brothers and sisters.

Some residents wanted us to help them move because they didn't want trouble with the authorities, but we couldn't go against their community leaders and neither could they, in their eyes we might as well join the French as disrespect their communities wishes.

That afternoon, while we waited to see what would happen we built a new shelter in the safe zone for some teenage Afghan lads. They spoke excellent English and were into cricket a couple of them having played semi professionally, they had dreams of playing County cricket in England.

There was a young boy nearby, threading a makeshift cricket ball through the tents, shelters and shit back to a bowler who could have been his father.

The boy was maybe 8 years old and the lads helping us build their shelter told us he had lost his mother and father to bombs before making the journey here and was now alone in the jungle.

The community looked after him now, there is a lot of this in the Jungle. Shared responsibility, care for the community, sticking together to help protect the old, the young, the vulnerable.

An old man asked me to help him move his shelter, I told him I couldn't today as the community leaders had decided to protest. He said "What leaders? I want to move, I don't want trouble." And left shaking his head and wringing his hands. There was a atmosphere of tension, fear and uncertainty. The jungle was on a knife edge and you could feel it building as the impossible situation kept rearing its head.

As ever the jungle conditions weren't allowed to dampen spirits or hospitality, sweet, milky tea was frequent and a hot meal provided.

We built the shelter as a team, the afghan lads worked hard. They were going to be sleeping there and were pleased to see us giving it as much care and attention as they were to ensure it would be warm and dry.

We laughed and joked, like guys on building sites do. It doesn't matter what language you speak, if I'm behind a roll of insulation holding it whist its being nailed by one of the Afghans to a wall and yell,

"Ow!" Before laughing at their worried gasp, trust me it's funny in any language.

It was dark by the time we finished and have them their padlock, maybe 8.30pm. The usual hugs and thanks were given, We wished them the best and told them I hoped to see the young lad playing cricket for England one day, they said they would keep playing cricket with him and look after him until he was allowed into the UK...there is always hope, I suppose.

Much more excitement in the jungle to come, I just wanted you all to get an idea of what an amazing effort you did with the donations. Thank you.

Together we are change.

Return To the Jungle
(Part 2) Uncertainty:

Returning to the Jungle a second time was different, not just knowing what to expect, but the reception. A large white van with horses on it, is apparently quite distinctive. I was greeted with smiles, waves and even a few cheers as the residents showed their appreciation for our return to help.

From my work alongside them I have learnt that many would thank Allah for our presence, believing it's not our choice but that we have been chosen and sent to them. I don't think I believe in a God, but I couldn't possibly be arrogant enough to discount this. I feel like I have been awakened and maybe they're are forces I am unaware of that move me to action. But I'm just here to help and my reasons are simple, I'm needed and I can.

Jungle friends come to the window as I thread my way through the people at walking pace and tell me their shelters are warm and I am a good man for coming back. The selfish warm glow of doing good comes back and I feel a little guilty. This time instead of pushing it away I embrace it and decide that it's ok to feel good and that I should use it as fuel for the work ahead. Maybe there are no unselfish acts, but they might as well be positive ones.

I keep inching along the muddy road, taking care not to splash mud from puddles on what might be someone's only clean trousers. Nasser finds me, grinning like a Cheshire Cat and we hug through the window. I agree to help him move his shelter, but we still have to wait for the OK from the community leaders. I tell him there are many meetings today, but to have their documents ready in case the bulldozers come and to pack their belongings ready to go. When it all starts its will be crazy. He tells me they will be ready and Marcus and I keep going along the road to the build site.

We were building 6 emergency shelters for women and children behind the church. With teams of 2/3 there were around 15 of us. While they unloaded the van, I kept an eye on the tools and pointed with my good arm to where the various materials need to go to keep this build organised.

There's a lot to do. If the people don't move in the next few days and the bulldozers clear the tents, after more terror, teargas and violence these people will need somewhere to go.

It's about midday by the time we start to build. The morning organiser meetings, uncertainty as what we were allowed to do, loading/unloading the van and getting to the site, meant we would only get these emergency shelters up before dark and nobody was allowed to move from their current stand until their "elected leaders" say so.

6 shelters only house 24-30 people and there were 1500 to move. There might be a few more teams in the jungle building but we were looking at a maximum of 300 shelters ready for the deadline at this rate. This task was impossible. Low materials had meant there hadn't been enough parts of shelters or transport to build many more. But the materials we brought were being turning into shelter components and more would be here soon, but how soon??

It's impossible to feel low for long with Marcus around, with his can-do attitude, he also smiles all the time; a proper smile that sets you at ease despite his size. Volunteers, refugees, hard men, women and especially children, all warm to Marcus, touching his long dreads and calling him Rastaman. Soon we're levelling and screwing together pallets as floors and joining the frames.

Unlike previous builds there wasn't any residents helping hammer the plastic on with clout nails, bringing tea or taking pride in their work, or thanking us. It was full steam ahead and with a combination of painkillers I felt little pain as we worked efficiently, a week in the jungle under our belts, a good team and the sense of being only at the beginning of a mammoth task driving us all forward.

It was dark by the time we all finished. Our shelter went up reasonably quick with Marcus taking the high bits and me working at my optimal level using my left arm for holding screws and nails and my right for everything else. Once a shelter was finished the volunteers would help get another finished off, so we could all tidy up and go home in the various shared transport.

When Marcus and I were done there was the usual quick job here and there. Collecting tools you leant and said you would return for and the promises of a 1 minute, quick fix, that due to Jungle time turns into a 5 minute trudge through the mud, a 10 minute wrestle with conditions and equipment and a slog back picking your way through guy lines, shelters and makeshift fences that turn into dead ends.

But we do it, never complaining when someone you're waiting for apologises and says "Jungle time". We understand it's hard to say no when it's a simple job. We all do it to ensure other humans sleep safe or dry tonight. A fixed lock, a tarp to waterproof the roof. There are a lot of 1 minutes in the jungle and the result is a black hole for time that leaves bewildered as to how it got so late again.

Marcus and I returned to our hotel for a shower and headed to the Family Pub for a late dinner and chat to the other volunteers and the staff while we await developments.

Important decisions made by the Jungle elders are always made at night.

Next morning we get to the workshop and tool up for the day. Hammers, crow bars...but not for violence.

There's a buzz around as the word is out. The community leaders have resolved to find the most peaceful solutions. They will peacefully protest the infraction on their human rights, but for the safety of their communities they will move. They are not happy about it and I don't blame them.

They are human beings forced by other people's bullshit wars from good jobs, now living in a muddy shithole, built on a refuse dump full of rats, disease and asbestos.

To add to that they are now being herded like livestock, forced into living quarters that would make a battery hen feel claustrophobic. All to ensure that they cannot escape the hell they are trapped in, to stop their political protests of slowing traffic to force industry and media to ignore them no longer, to make them easier targets for rubber bullets and teargas.

We hear the perimeter has grown but the deadline may be extended if we do well today. So everybody heads to the Jungle ready to dismantle and rebuild shelters for the total insanity that will be Jungle Moving.

Return To the Jungle
(Part 3) Moving:

We spend the next few days in a similar pattern. Early mornings unscrewing shelters from their pallet bases, allowing the residents to carry them to a new location, while we unscrewed more shelters. We would then build self builds when they arrived on site and then later in the day we would reassemble shelters that had been moved inside the perimeter.

There were a lovely bunch of Iraqi lads who had taken the initiative and found a site to move to, physically torn their shelters apart and moved them to the other side of the jungle with all their belongings on the first morning they were told ok.

They needed help screwing it all together and needed some new plastic for the roof etc. So we got stuck in. Before we knew it we were helping lead about 10 groups of refugees rebuild their shelters, the same guys translating for the other ones, lending out tools to anyone who needed one, but always with a look in the eye and a circular motion of the finger indicating "This comes back to me". They almost always did. I lent out as many tools as I had, handfuls of nails, staple guns, screws and drills until all the shelters around us were waterproof and warm and all our batteries were dead. Leaving hammers and nails for them to finish off. Hammers and nails are always handy and get passed around, so one hammer in the jungle is worth 10 in my hand.

There was a moment when I had take a saw back from an Afghan lad who wanted to cut a long branch that his Sudanese neighbour was using as a border fence.

Explaining to him like a jungle bound Robert Frost in Mending Wall, that, "good fences make good neighbours" and more importantly, fence or not, it's not your wood.

The Sudanese guy was very friendly and appreciated it. Boundaries need to be set and relationships here are built on mutual respect.

We would help where we could when we could, but generally tried to make best use of our skills, there were bodies for teamwork. The rally call had been sent, heard and answered from the UK and elsewhere. The Jungle was alive, it was as though all the volunteers from the past had arrived en mass to perform an anarchist miracle working with the refugees to save as many shelters as we could. The area to be cleared was emptying slowly.

One morning after taking apart a dozen shelters that were ready to go. Marcus and I were asked to lend a hand lifting an entire shelter onto a flat bed, as the 20 or so volunteers and residents heaved it upwards a rat the size of a small dog ran straight across my feet, probably disappointed his warm home and food supply was moving. The lady next to me screamed (I swear it was her) as more rats fled the next and we all staggered to the trailer with the floating house.

I get a call from Tom, a lovely guy on the build team; along with Pete, Jack and many others he keeps everything moving and deals with the build crews, the workshop, driving the vans, the residents who all want shelters and the bureaucrats. Today we are building for the Kurds.

As we unload, a 14 year old boy with poor English tells me he is in a tent on the mud, with other boys. Unable to help with heavy lifting I go and have a look. It's him another 3 boys. Aged 14,14,15 and 17. In a tent in the cold. I tell him I'll sort it and he looks sceptical. I take him back to Tom, who agrees to get me a shelter in the next run we will have to help them build it of course. I tell the boy I will be back at around 4pm to build him a shelter, lost in translation a little, he says "Tomorrow??"

"Today...later, today." I reply. I think he understands.

Another lad with excellent English and bright blue eyes comes over, clearly Persian. He is in the same position and asks for a shelter, there are components left for one in the van, ready for a build team, but all the build teams are on shelters so he will have to wait. I recognise him from my last trip when he spoke to me and his name went on the list.

"Can you build it, if we give it to you?" I ask. He looks unsure. "If I give you saw, hammer and nails, can you build it?" I ask again. "Yes, he says, I have no tools, but we can build." We unload the van and his friends ferry the materials to their new site.

As I grab my tools from the horsebox ready head off to the Kurds to build. Blue eyes grabs me and hugs me, grinning as he runs off to do the first real "self-build" I'd seen.

The young lads look at me again and say,


"Today." I reassure them.

Return To the Jungle
(Part 4) Kurdish resistance:

We had 3 shelters to build in the Kurdish area, which is just inside the perimeter over-looked by the road now in the distance across empty scrub. There's a mixture of clad pre-fabs, caravans for families and the usual tents and self-builds but the ground is reasonable and it should be a good build. Whenever it's time to unload my arm starts to ache and the sling I occasionally rest it in sometimes comes out. I prep the mud foundations, picking up rocks, old socks and nappies with my gloved right hand and kicking the ground level as best i can. Materials are ferried to the site from the van and I point to where I want the 3 sets of components to go for an efficient build, everyone's door and 11 lengths of timber etc might as well be as close to them as possible while being out of everyone's way.

We start to build around midday and the bases start to go down, we have about 8 people working. A lovely girl called Emma takes the one next door with a couple of others and I crack on with Marcus. The children from the caravan are bored and a 4 year old boy insists on helping me do the first 20 screws. Using an electric screwdriver is probably the most fun he's had for a while, so I take my time and we build a floor together and jump on it to make sure it's solid. He goes and joins his friends, who come back as we start to build the framework of the walls and roof. They get bored again and when we don't let them help as its not safe for so many and time is a factor they sulk and throw dirt on the floor. The Rastaman roars with a smile and chases them away as they scatter laughing. One of the mothers scolds them and smiles at us, we smile back and that is enough.

We get the framework nearly done when Marcus is asked to fix a caravan window, he looks at me and says,

"1 minute?" The window is within eyeshot and all the high work is done so I tell him to crack on. Other shelters were further ahead, with some of the plastic walls on already. We are doing well.

Timber is done and I've tided up and I'm just having a smoke break with Emma. I'm ready to start the plastic and am just waiting on Marcus to finish up when I spot 25 Kurdish men heading in our direction. I look at Marcus up a ladder and let him know we might have trouble.

But Marcus wasn't close enough to intercept them with "the smile" and they were heading straight for me.

I moved towards them away from Emma and attempted a smile. I'm not sure if my standing around pointing during the unloading process had labelled me as the boss, but right now they were surrounding me and they were not happy. Two of them had good English, one spoke  fluently.

"We want you to stop building and leave." He said. "Right now, I want you to stop building, take your tools and leave."

I introduced myself and he gave me his name. We'll call him Jon.

"Can we please finish first, so we can build more?" I asked.

"No, stop now and leave." He replied decisively. "You do not build enough for us, you build for everyone else who makes trouble and we are very angry. Stop work now."

This wasn't my call, I had no authority to stop a build in a humanitarian crisis, we could be putting a roof over people's heads tonight. But they were telling us to stop. So I made a decision and shouted for everyone to stop building and come out of the shelters. Unlike in my own home, strangely everyone listened and came out of the shelters, maybe the sling had fooled them to.

The Kurds issue ,which was delivered aggressively, was that we were only building 3 shelters for them. In their view the Afghans make more trouble and get more Shelters.

The leader looked me dead in the eye and said,

"We Kurds are a peaceful people but we can make trouble if our people need it." I believed him.

I tried to explain that the people here didn't choose where to build and were building as many as they could for as many people as possible. He said he understood and to get the Chief down here. I phoned Tom, who spoke to Nico, who would be 15 mins as she was on the other side of the Jungle.

I agreed we would tidy our tools and prepare to leave while Nico was called, but we would do no more work.

I sorted and stacked my tool boxes as everyone tidied up. I placed the insulation rolls inside the shelter frame, put the plastic cladding and roof over that in case it rained and left a hammer, Stanley knife and nails in the centre of the floor. It was everything someone needed to finish the build.

A young volunteer asked about keeping a hammer handy, just in case the Kurds had some weapons of sorts. I couldn't blame him,;it had crossed my mind for a moment. I told him I didn't want to see a single tool in hand and to do whatever the Kurds wanted. We were leaving, so there shouldn't be a problem.

I sat on my toolboxes and had another smoke with Emma, she was shaken by the whole experience and I gave her a hug. Nico still hasn't arrived, but as we smoked the Kurds were returning with greater numbers.

It didn't look great and I asked Emma if she wanted to go, she did and I told her to leave. I went to talk to Jon, Emma didn't leave but stayed along with the other volunteer, all unsure of what was going to happen next. Marcus stood next to me and we went to meet Jon.

Jon said they wanted to build with us. After they had scared the shit out of the volunteers, I wasn't keen on agreeing to that and I pointed at the shelter and said,

"No, you have everything you need to finish and plenty of people with plenty of hammers. You have scared people who are here to help you and there are others who need our help."

Jon looked at me and with a hint of apology in his voice said,

"No, please Ben, we will build together." I understood he was in a difficult position trying to manage and take care of his people with a hundred opinions and this was a reasonable compromise.

I checked for a few nods from the volunteers and Emma and announced loudly.

"Together we will build." The other two shelters were appointed Kurdish helpers and we got back to work. With the extra hands we got going and even managed to free up people for another build. In my shelter there were two builders with me and we smashed it. We quickly made friends and while alone apologised for the trouble, I sympathised and together we built the most beautifully insulated shelter I'd made.

Nico had since told me to give the padlocks to Jon once the shelters were done. It was dark by the time we had all finished, I'd locked the shelters and explained to the people that I couldn't give them the keys to the shelters they have just helped build. Then found Jon and then ensured that the keys were going to the people who built them.

Marcus came and gave me one of his bear hugs and told me I'd done great. We hadn't eaten and it was about 7pm. I went to find the young 14yr old from that morning and told him I would be back in one hour and I would build him a shelter tonight. He didn't look so sure.

We went to the Afghan flag for some Chicken, rice and beans. With sweet tea and friendly owners it's always lively and warm. We got chatting to a friendly Palestinian character with excellent English who played a game with raisins, which he strangely always won. When we ordered food he jumped up and said, "I am cooking for these gentlemen!" And busters I to the kitchen. The staff clearly familiar with our new friend happily obliged and I guessed it wasn't his first time in their kitchen.

We started chatting to a nice guy from North Africa who was trying to set up a barbers in the jungle and all laughed at our friend Kit's stories. He had been strimming the bushes with a heavy duty bit of machinery and had hit loads of nappies, poo and worst a carton of sour milk. He did have a face mask but had accidentally put it down in poo at some point, and then taken 20 minutes to work out why everywhere smelled of poo!! Sometimes my job seems easy.

We ate our meal, famished and in need of energy.

A group of Afghan lads in their teens came in while Marcus and I waited for Tom to return from a jungle meeting. We chatted to them.  They had learnt English from the movies and were happy to practice. They joked about how many people we could get in the horse-van and I said I'd go by boat if I were them. Do you have a boat they asked. Not yet I winked. They were all skilled or educated all wanting to come to work. Not one wanted handouts, just a chance, an opportunity to be human, to live, to work, to be safe. We had a smoke together and more tea. We were warm and comfortable. The people were friendly, I was tired and I wanted to stay. We said goodbye, paid and thanked our hosts and left.

It was cold outside and the idea of building another shelter wasn't inviting, but I had promised, and Tom and Marcus weren't going to let me do it on my own.

We arrived at the boys to find them huddled in their tent. They couldn't believe it when I poked my head in and said, "We build shelter now."

"Now????" They were still unsure.

"Now, tonight! Now, now." I answered.

Marcus roused them and soon we were ferrying materials, my shoulder didn't hurt, it was too late in the day for pointing. As we moved the materials in, there was a group of about 6 men, I had seen them throughout the day dismantle and move a huge board clad, solid roof shelter on their own. They were more tired than us, but still going.

As I passed I said hello and asked if they needed anything? Someone with good English asked for a drill to put in the screws that hold it together. I said we were using ours but could give them a hand in a bit. I then decided we had enough hands and drills so I went and worked with them, while Tom, Marcus and the boys carried on building the shelter i'd promised them.

These guys were from Iraq and were great, hoisting me up into the roof to screw the metal cladding on, putting the screws in the holes ready for me to screw in. We worked fast and with few words, after the roof and walls and being on various men's shoulders, I put security screws in the hinges and latches and even made them a handle for the door, funnily enough the only carving I did on site. There were exhausted hugs and words of thanks and praise before I returned to help the others finish the shelter.

We finished at around 11.30pm, glad to see the boys safe and warm, in an osb sheet clad shelter, with a lock and insulation. Barely older than my 10 year old daughter and living in fear and squalor, they were some of the happiest faces I saw in the jungle when they locked their shelter and said good night.

It had been a good days work and we were completely obviously we went to the Family Pub for a well earned drink.

Friday, 25 December 2015

Une Baguette De Merde by Gawan Mac Greigair via Facebook: December 25th 2015


It's taken some time, but I've found some words to say about our trip to the camps in Calais. If you have ever had – or given an appraisal at work, you’ll know the concept of a ‘shit sandwich’ where the manager gives positive feedback, then some critique, then more positive stuff so as not to leave the employee too downhearted about any criticism.

Here, reporting back from our Calais trip, I’m going to do pretty much the opposite. I’ll call it a ‘baguette de merde’. I don’t want anyone who reads this to feel on finishing it, good, satisfied, pleased, mollified, reassured. It wouldn’t reflect or respect the reality, which is upsetting, angering and is a foul-smelling stain on our societies and our governments. 

I’ll get to the chinks of light, including the end-use of your very welcome donations, in a bit. 


The Jungle – named that by the migrant residents of the camp themselves – is a place of horrific squalor. It is the sprawling ‘home’ to around 7000 humans, perhaps more, and more arrive every day;men, women and children, including unaccompanied young teenagers.

The Jungle lies to the east of the port of Calais, and on one side is bounded by a motorway leading to the port. It sits on a former landfill site of mud, scrub and dunes.

Most people are living in flimsy, uninsulated tents, some in shantytown-style shacks, many with tarpaulins tied down across them for a little extra protection from the weather. Some have timber-framed and plywood-and-tarp-clad huts, which I’ll come back to. A small few – who must have been in the camp for a long time – have constructed impressive (in context) architecture from salvaged wood, pallets and tarps.

The site is filthy. Rubbish is strewn everywhere. There are large pools of water and deep, sucking mud which in places smells foul and suspect. In parts of the camp there is a moonscape of steep craters, where the ground looks as if it has given way, full of rubble and still more waste. Everywhere you go as you walk through the camp you pick your way through this cesspit, except for a few short stretches where a truckload of large gravel has, mercifully, been dumped and spread out along a roadway. All around is flapping, ripped plastic, discarded inappropriate clothes, half-collapsed tents. Find a rise in the ground and you can look out over an area the size of a small town composed of ridge, hollow, ridge and hollow of this scene, over and over. Traffic roars over the nearby flyover, where high fences and barbed wire have been erected (partly funded by the UK government). Police bristle in riot gear at the entrances, roads and boundaries, and now and then strut in groups through the camp, for no reason that is apparent unless it is to intimidate.

There are occasional rows of portaloos in the kind of condition you can probably imagine but would rather not – venture behind some of them and you will find deposits of human excrement every couple of feet, which gives you an idea of how bad the portaloos must be. The portaloos are only sited along the main ‘streets’ – I don’t know what people do if their shelters are far from these, but I’m sure you can travel there in your imagination.

There are a number of water stations for washing, brushing teeth and so on. At each, a low horizontal pipe carries a number of taps in a row, and people come to bend over to scrub their faces and clean up in a rudimentary way, balancing on loose platforms of sometimes rotting pallets to lift themselves a few inches above the mud that inevitably forms around the water stations. Like the portaloos, these stations are all located along the main streets, so washing is done in full view of everyone who passes by. There is no roof to protect people from the elements, no walls to protect them from view.

As you look out over all of this, it is impossible not to imagine how much worse and degrading this will become if and when heavy rain, snow and freezing temperatures arrive this winter.

There is a dire lack of firewood for cooking and keeping warm. Some people are so desperate that they burn plastic instead. The smell of it will hit your nose and throat.


Dunkirk, also known as Grande-Synthe, is a smaller, more recently formed camp about 30 minutes’ drive east of Calais. It is these days peopled overwhelmingly by Kurds. It is, inconceivably, in a worse state than the Jungle. The mud is deeper, and services almost non-existent. A kitchen has recently gone up but often runs critically low on supplies. The local government has supplied a few toilet facilities in portacabin-style structures, as well as a self-congratulatory sign telling residents – in many languages but not Kurdish – that they have done this and the facilities are free of charge.

Police have been very obstructive at Dunkirk, forbidding any vehicles from entering or leaving, and they forbid the entry of any building materials. Any supplies have to be carried in on foot from a nearby car park, where people gather waiting hopefully for vans to arrive with donations.


Because France refuses to recognise the Jungle and the smaller camps as official refugee camps, there is no UNHCR presence here, no Red Cross, no central overseeing authority, no hierarchy, no lines of responsibility, negligible government contribution and no accountability. (The British government, who refuses to provide any safe route into the UK so that people’s asylum claims can be made, is equally at fault.)

What there is is anarchy, in both its negative and positive meanings. In the negative sense this can mean mafia, exploitation, abuse, occasional scuffles as tensions boil over; duplication of, inefficiencies in or gaps in the attempt to meet needs. In the positive sense it can mean not a politically conscious anarchism of people sitting around discussing Bakunin but an anarchism of doing and action that hasn’t had the time or the slightest interest in stopping for a minute to think of itself or label itself as anarchism. (That said, Calais Migrant Solidarity – No Borders is a loose group of activists who take an explicitly political stance) I have heard someone at one of the warehouses say that “We’re not political, we’re humanitarian,” which is an attitude that troubles and disappoints me: how can you possibly not be politicised and political in a horrorscape that has been created by colonialism, capitalism and racism?

[Added later: Tom Tomski made an important response to this in a comment, and it’s worth including here: “If I could talk about where you mentioned "we're not political, we're humanitarian". I have used those words to describe the efforts of the group from Guildford with whom I work. We say this because we believe that there is a place for political discussion and a place for humanitarian discussion. Occasionally the two inevitably collide. I feel this is necessary but when political argument spill over and distracts from the work we are all trying to do then our already fragile aid procedures break down. I think we all would like to see a resolution to the issues faced by those we are trying to help but there is a time and a place for that kind of discussion. Through my efforts over the last year I have learned the importance of choosing that time, place and audience.”

I agree with Tom, and I see the logic of making the separation in the particular context of the warehouse and other donor operations. I was trying to describe what I felt in that moment, but I think what Tom expresses is probably what the person in the warehouse was trying to say. I’ve got huge respect for those who have been giving of themselves for so long under great pressure, and we tried to be mindful that we were newbies who were there to learn from their systems and outlooks and swallow any frustrations we would inevitably encounter, as these might spring from our own ignorance and inexperience.]

Where there are projects, organisations and collective or individual efforts to meet the basic needs of the camp residents, they are run entirely either by volunteers or by camp residents themselves, or by the two in collaboration with each other.

Volunteering and ‘aid’

The warehouses
There are two main warehouses, run by different organisations, in locations that are kept relatively secret and which are a 10-20 minute drive from the Jungle. One is l’Auberge Des Migrants, the other is Care4Calais. They have slightly different systems, but each accepts donations: of food, clothing, boots, tents, sleeping bags, blankets, building materials and other items. Before going for the first time it can be easy to get confused, and perhaps even turn up to the wrong warehouse. Their communications and online presences are often not clearly branded.

We delivered our vanload of donations to l’Auberge and spent much of the four days either working in the warehouse on sorting clothes or food, or putting our van to use by taking food or firewood from the warehouse to the Jungle and the Dunkirk camp.

The warehouse is swarming with volunteers in yellow hi-vis, beavering away, sorting donations into some kind of order that can allow them to be collated and distributed to the camps. This is a Sisyphean task – the mountain of clothes tripled in size during our time there – and is not helped by the large number of donations that are unsorted by gender, type or size, or utterly inappropriate (evening wear, high heels, large sizes – almost everyone in the camps is slim). It doesn’t take long working in the warehouse to lose your admiration for people’s generosity and to start to curse the thoughtlessness of those organising donations without checking the camp needs or considering the warehouse logistics. The fact is, inappropriate or unsorted donations DELAY the distribution of donations to people in desperate need.

The Auberge warehouse, nevertheless, is utterly remarkable, an extraordinary real-time experiment. Volunteers may be there for a day, a weekend, a week or several months – an unpredictable turnover with people constantly learning on the job and faces changing. Organisers wear orange hi-vis, but an orange vest has been known to be handed to someone with just a day’s experience if they seem to have their head screwed on.

Around the back of the warehouse is the building workshop. Here, the parts for timber framed and ply-and-insulation-clad shelters are constructed, then taken to the camp, where camp residents help to raise and finish them. They are very rudimentary, but far better than tents. There are now around 650 on site.

‘Independent’ Volunteers

There is a whole ecosystem of voluntary groups or individuals in the Jungle, many independent of the two warehouse operations. Anyone can turn up, try to identify an unmet need and then try to meet it. So there are other building groups, other distributors. Distribution is a tricky business, and the inexperienced can get into and cause considerable stress, so it is worth learning the tricks of the trade. ‘Line distributions’, where people queue up to the back of a van being unloaded, for example, can go badly wrong – if the line is not managed (or self-managed by assertive people in the queue) there can be a bit of a scrum, or people left empty-handed, disappointed and angry – and everyone left with their dignity lessened.

The mish mash of initiatives include a basic youth centre, supposed to give a place for teens (many unaccompanied minors) and younger kids a place to hang out safely and play. It’s not in a very safe neighbourhood, so the guys running it are fundraising to move it to a better spot, and to make a building three times the size to accommodate demand. We’ve spent some of your monetary donations on helping to ensure that this can happen.

Medecins Sans Frontiers have a presence on site (the first time ever on French soil), and there are other medically-oriented caravans and structures, including a vaccination centre, but all of this is pretty poor in relation to the need. Scabies and influenza are rife, and you will see many people with injuries: from barbed wire, falls, police beatings, accidents on the road or railway tracks, tear gas inhalation and pepper-sprayed eyes (the police again).

Foodwise, there are kitchens offering free food: One Ashram kitchen twice a day, Alice’s Kitchen on a seemingly rolling basis as and when supplies are available. A Belgian kitchen we didn't see but heard of.

An Information Centre is run on a shoestring offering guidance on rights and asylum in European countries, printed in as many camp languages as they can manage. They need lawyers to volunteer. They have none.

Community Initiatives and Enterprise

Before I left, one friend asked me why the job of meeting needs is done by volunteers rather than by camp residents themselves. I didn’t know then enough to give an answer. I thought perhaps some answers to this might be: ‘Their movements are restricted.’ ‘With what money?’ ‘They are traumatised after fleeing wars.’ ‘Their primary goal is to pass through, not to live long-term in the Jungle.’

Now that I’ve been, I know that while much of that is true, the most relevant answer is: “But they ARE doing it for themselves!”

Zimako Jones runs l’Ecole Laique du Chemin des Dunes, a school made of timber and tarp just inside one of the camp entrances  On the weekend we were there he was hosting a remarkable art exhibition in the school featuring migrants’ stories and casts of their heads and shoulders.

Another man (I don't know if it's ok to use his name) – resident in the Jungle – runs a shack from which he organises distributions – of boots, food, etc. He is – and has to be – a formidable character, but has a gentle demeanour when he’s not berating some people for selfish or unco-operative behaviour. He is very active in working to support existing community kitchens and set up new ones, often run by national groups in the camp.

The advantages of these are ease of food distribution, culturally appropriate cuisine that people actually want to eat, and of course hubs for people to gather. These need a steady supply of gas, which is in very short supply, so we are spending some of your monetary donations on paying for a three-month supply to help this project.

There are of course, many many more resident-led – and volunteer-led – initiatives going on than we could become aware of in a brief four-day visit, and of course there are national / linguistic / subnational groups in which the job of community leadership and co-operation must be going on in countless ways, overt and subtle.

There is also enterprise – humans are gathered here, after all. So the main drags are lined with shops selling foodstuffs, top up cards and more. There are cafes (I recommend Kabul Café), barbers, hamams. For those with money, of course.

There are too many other resident-run or independent volunteer-run initiatives to mention here. However, even this remarkable effort and energy and commitment and co-operation is not meeting people’s basic needs. People continue to go hungry and cold, inadequately clothed and shod, ill and in danger. This is why there is no place for congratulation or self-congratulation. Even those working hard and selflessly to clothe and ‘house’ people in the camp will tell you that They Should Not Be Here. That no one should be abandoned in this dead-end, stomach-turning mire. Donating is not the end. Volunteering is not the end. They solve nothing, they only salve for a short time.


With that in mind, the five of us had much more money in donations than we ever expected – more than £8000. A huge thank you to those who donated, as well as to those who were unable to donate but spread the word, and those who donated things like clothes, boots and sleeping bags. Here is how we are spending the money:


- Fresh food bought and taken to Calais: £120.50
- Dried food, oil, etc, bought and taken to Calais: £863.77
- Individual food parcels: £313.33
- More food bought in Calais: £206.08
- Kitchen equipment: £16.98
- Donation of £750 so gas canisters can be bought for community kitchens run by camp residents. 

This the first instalment of at least three. This will help get a large number of community kitchens up and running, run by and for camp residents. This will mean more self-reliance is possible, more culturally appropriate food, easier food distribution from warehouse to camp and a number of hubs where communities there will gather and share.

- Two more instalments of £750 to fund the gas supply for community kitchens

- £500 towards the resiting and expansion of a youth centre that is one of the few places where underserved and vulnerable teenagers can go, have fun and be looked out for, as well as younger children. Demand has outgrown the facilities there, and it is not in a safe spot, so the people running it want to have a building made in the UK that is three times bigger, then brought to the site, as well as proper fencing to make it safer. The £500 is being match-funded and allows the move and rebuild go ahead.


- Support one or more of the self-build shelter projects, which work with camp residents to build simple timber and ply dwellings (much better than flimsy, weatherbeaten tents). We are currently researching how best to do this.
- Donate towards the re-siting of the Dunkirk camp to an MSF-run camp


As well as some of those already mentioned above, we met some people in the Jungle and Dunkirk who just won’t leave our heads.

One of our group was approached by a young boy who asked for a blanket for his friend. Luckily we had one spare in the van, so we gave it to him and asked him to take us to his tent, which meant picking a way through a labyrinth of mud, craters, tents and detritus to a spot not far from the flyover, from where French police randomly fire tear gas into the camp each night. He showed us his tent and introduced us to the four friends and cousins he was sharing it with. All were from Afghanistan, aged between 11 or 12 and 15.

One spoke pretty good English. They had taken 50 days to travel from Afghanistan – fleeing the Taliban – to Calais, dodging wolves, wild dogs and violent adults. They were alone, now parentless, one had a painful persistent earache. They lacked boots, and they were cold at night in their tent, which was immaculately clean and tidy inside. They had arrived the day before, hungry, friendly, polite, open, sweet. They were children who had seen more than you and I will ever see, but so resilient and unbroken.

We showed them were they could get free food, found some information from them on asylum and rights in Pashtu, took them to the youth centre – who, incredibly, managed to get the timber and ply shelter they craved raised for them by the end of the same day.Later in the weekend we revisited; they told us how they had been scared the night before as they listened to tear gas being fired. Three of the five had ventured out, they told us. We worry every night now about where they are, what situation they are in. They are desperate to get to the UK, and they may do desperate things to get there.

On the day we were to leave we met another Afghan boy, Bader, 15 years old and arrived that very day, with no tent, no sleeping bag, utterly unprepared for the filth and chaos of the Jungle. He queued for half an hour for a tent, which turned out to be a beach windbreak instead, so we took him to Kabul Café for a meal while we sought him a proper tent.

Bader had fled Kunduz when the Taliban arrived, destroying schools and other buildings. His parents told him and his brother to flee. He doesn’t know where his brother is. He lost a friend who was arrested by Iranian police and had to continue without him. He came via a more official ‘Freedom Camp’ in Germany, but spurred by the myth that Calais is the stepping stone to the UK, he pressed on. Eyes wide and with a disbelieving smile and shake of the head, he said he had no idea that the Jungle was – well, as it is. We spent much of the last day looking in vain for a safe-seeming spot for him to pitch his tent, and eventually left him in remarkably cosy Alice’s Kitchen, where he would be allowed to doss for a couple of nights. We seemed more concerned about getting a roof over his head than he did: his priority was to find Afghan men to ask about ways of reaching the UK. Left to himself for 20 minutes he was already waiting for a call from an unknown man: a people smuggler? A trafficker? Someone who would charge thousands? Who would come through or not?

We went to Dunkirk to distribute firewood. Not allowed to drive in, we parked in the nearby car park and when we opened the van doors a crowd quickly formed. Firewood was gold dust, both here and in the Jungle. As we handed out sacks of wood, three or four tiny boys swarmed into the van. They were aged between four and six, perhaps, and they were determined to secure sacks of wood for their families. The sacks were heavier than themselves, and when the distribution had ended and the adults dispersed, these small boys were still with us, vainly trying to lift the bags. We locked up the van, took up the sacks ourselves and told them to take us to their families, wanting to make sure they were delivered. I have never seen such determination in anyone, child or adult, from one of the boys in particular – I can’t forget his eyes. There was no way in the world that he was not going to get that sack to his family in their pathetic, muddy encampment. He was serious and fiercely resolute. He looked five years old. I was ashamed in his presence.

The Jungle, Dunkirk and other, smaller camp are gatherings of human beings. That sounds obvious, and perhaps it sounds like it’s directed at your right-wingers and fearmongers. It’s also a reminder, though – for those sympathetic to their predicament - that the people in the Jungle must not be reduced to – and dehumanised as – victims. Some of the people we met are the last people you would want to reduce to that label. They are survivors and they are resisters. Some are good people, some are 'bad'. Some are peaceful, some rancorous, angry and lashing out. Some depressed, some irrepressible. Some wary and suspicious, some open, welcoming, friendly, at times inexplicably finding something to be glad of. None of them are only those things all the time. They have all travelled a long, long way. Many have faced the wrenching experience of leaving family and friends with the knowledge that the chance of ever seeing them again is very small.

I didn’t want to talk about how I, the privileged visitor, felt about the experience. I didn’t feel that this was important, and that it would be self-indulgent to navel-gaze. Others have said it’s important and helpful, and reaches some people in a way that facts might not. So:

The day after arriving home I felt flat, dull. As we went about our business, I felt I was seeing double in a way, but not seeing two of the same image; instead I saw what was in front of me, but overlaid with images of the camps. To cook a meal at home is to see people burning plastic because there is no wood, or queuing for food. To lie in bed under the duvet is to meet again the strangers who would wish you good morning (after a night of being gassed) and then politely ask if you could find them a blanket. To shower is to see the pallets and water stations. To hear the rain on the roof here in Kent is to hope to God and Allah and Vishnu and Pacha Mama and the isobars that it is not raining on the swamps that are the camps. To turn out the light at night is to wonder whether the boys we met are venturing out at night, risking their lives on motorways and railway tracks and being gassed by police.

On our way to the ferry I simply didn’t want to leave. I felt we were abandoning people who had already been abandoned so many times. On being home for 24 hours I almost – almost - wished I hadn’t gone at all, because the feelings of inadequacy are so strong. But we will be back, despite the doubts, because we’ve seen things that can’t be unseen, and so it’s too late to do otherwise. We’ll be back because the humans in Calais have been our best teachers. We’ll be back because there’s no excuse not to. And we’ll be back because in this country our comforts and riches have been built on the robbery and murder of people like those in the camps in Calais.

(At least I think, for now, that we'll be back. One thing we learned in the camps is to not make promises if you don't know for sure you can follow through.)

To see the shifting mass of people there is to see the personification of the consequences of so many of the world’s war zones – most of which our government or its closest allies have had a hand in creating or worsening.

There are Kurds, Sudanese, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Syrians, Iranians and a host of others. Perhaps you, like me, stopped reading the reports of explosions in Baghdad market places some time ago, feeling increasingly detached, helpless and ignorant. To go to the Jungle and Dunkirk is to be whacked around the head with the reality of the human consequences. Here are those consequences, on our doorstep, in the form of people like us, and if they must be anywhere we should at least in some way be grateful that they are here, so close, where it is increasingly difficult for us to look away, because we have no right to look away.

They are there because of centuries of colonialism, which continues today in the form of capitalism and its associated resource extraction and labour exploitation, because of historic European robbery and genocide, because of imperial game-playing and the catastrophic carving up of other people’s lands with random borders (everyone in the Middle East knows what Sykes-Picot is, why don’t we?). The comfort we have here is not random good fortune or the result of our hard work and industriousness, it is the result of a long-term zero-sum game with the odds stacked in *our* favour. The results of that injustice are now personified in their thousands just 22 miles from the English coast.


Even before we left for Calais, while gathering donations and making preparations, we were often thanked by people making those donations. Phrases were used like “Thank you so much for doing this”, “Thank you for going because I couldn’t”, "It's so good of you".

I have no wish to be ungracious about those words, and I take them at face value and I am grateful for them. It is hard, though, to express just how awkward it felt to hear them – not out of modesty or false modesty, but for a reason I couldn’t quite put into coherent thoughts and words they made me squirm with discomfort and unease. Part of it was the knowledge of the inadequacy of whatever we might do, but that wasn't what was bugging me. On talking to my mum when we returned to Kent, she was the one who was able to vocalise the discomfort.

It’s as if, she said, it expresses a belief that you have no obligations to anyone beyond yourself or your immediate family. It says something about where as a culture, as a society, we have set the boundaries of what constitutes the community to which we have duties. I think she’s right. And I repeat that it is not a criticism of any individual who might have expressed ‘thanks’, nor a questioning of their personal values. But that impulse to thank does say something rather dark about where we have collectively set the boundaries of what we think of as our community, our obligations and our brotherhood and sisterhood.

(I’d also add that, especially if you live in the south east of England, yes, you can go to Calais – unless you are in poor health or perhaps have two babies on your hands, you can do it. There is a useful role for anyone, there were elderly people volunteering in the warehouse, there were people who had left their families to go and some who had brought their families with them. And the ferries are cheap.)

On the subject of charity, as I said above, the people in the Calais camps should not be seen as victims needing our help. They are the most resourceful and resilient people currently residing in Europe. Their journeys have been acts of resistance against systems of oppression and against borders which block (and kill) humans but allow and celebrate destructive flows of capital, weapons and stolen natural resources. Their repeated and continued nightly attempts to cross to the UK are admirable and brave acts of resistance against a monstrous injustice and a moral outrage in which Britain and France have abandoned thousands of human beings in a squalid, purgatorial dead end. If and when we go to Calais again we won’t go as volunteers bringing ‘aid’ to victims, we will go to work alongside our new neighbours.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Benedict O'Boyle Recounts His Experience of Volunteering in Calais: December 23rd 2015


Albert and I left at 2am collected some donations en route and chunneled to Calais for the 9am briefing. We arrived at an abandoned industrial estate and were shown a warehouse with a kitchen that provided volunteers a hot lunch and organised food donations and distribution. A mountain of bin bags full of stupid donations at the front sold by the ton and recycled. At the back was sorting area, bustling with people sorting everything from medicines, tents, tarps, clothes, toys and more.

We unloaded our donations the tools in the back gave away our skill set, so despite being knackered we headed straight to the workshop and started making shelter frames from 2 x 2 pine. We got set up and cracked on. We worked until 9pm and with various teams making various parts like wrapping doors in tarps, cutting timber to length or whatever needed doing. Anyone who can use a saw and a drill could do this work. We made a lot of frames and talked to a few people about the situation. Van drivers would come in and collect the shelter components and nails/screws required to build them and ferry them back and forth to the build crews in the Jungle.

We spoke to a few people, but mainly worked, we listened to accounts of "The Jungle" as it's is known by refugees and volunteers alike. There was a lot of positivity but obvious pain, fighting a losing battle against weather, funding, volunteers and materials. While more refugees arrived every day and 6000+ people were living in sodden tents in a filthy hell hole.

We set up the pop up tent in the back of the van, had a few beers and went to bed. Exhausted but feeling positive...


I arrived in the workshop ready to make more frames, but overhead a build crew saying they could do with another pair of hands building shelters on site, before I knew it i was driving to the camp with Tom and Glen and a load of tools.

As I pulled off the motorway, passing the flashing blue lights and angry looking French police. I could see across the sprawl of The Jungle and finally appreciated the size of the problem.

Thousands of tired tents, tarpaulin shelters and make shift buildings peppered the muddy field and interspersed with litter. It was a horrendous mess.

I parked at the entrance, as we unloaded the van, inquisitive refugees keeping an eye on the motorway trucks, gathered in an orderly queue and asked,

"Line? Line?"

"No line my friends, we are here to build shelters." Tom informed them. They understood and appreciated that we were there to help and returned to their business of watching and waiting.

We lugged our tools in to the camp, past the toilets, the stench of human waste stinging your nose and eyes.

Ignoring the wet mud we walked through the Afghan area, past little shanty town shops selling food and drink from makeshift shelters, small restaurants serving, great looking food.

People were singing, smiling and laughing, holding onto their dignity as their world disintegrates into fear and filth.

A few had their faces covered by scarves and their angry eyes burned with fury as we passed, their dislike for the westerners whose government destroyed their lives and killed their loved ones was clear and I couldn't blame them.

We trudged on past water points, distribution centres, the brothel and the church.

Eventually we made it to the Women's and children's area, a safe haven created to protect from the horrors that have befallen most of the vulnerable, fenced off and locked up at night. We delivered and installed a projector and then headed back out to see who we could help.

There were no shortage of people who needed us. I had brought some Tarps which we used to waterproof a few tents and shelters, the mud and conditions generally making progress slow. Everywhere we went people would ask for help,

"Hello, 1 minute please Sir, you help?"
Five minutes later, they had a fixed door latch, or some nails to hang clothes from or a verbal agreement that we would try and get them a shelter.
Nothing takes a minute in the jungle and everyone needs help.

Every time we fixed something, another person would come over and ask for help. We were shown small leaky tents that housed 8 people, whether it was a waterproof roof, a repaired lock, or just giving them some nails, they were always grateful and often invited us for tea. But at this point I felt that there was too much to do for a tea break. So we worked on.

It had been dark for a
while by the time we headed back to the van at 8pm with the tools. Covered in mud from the knees down and still trying to process the humanity along side the inhumane conditions.

The Jungle was beginning to wake up for the night. The atmosphere changing as music came blaring out of a large, black plastic covered building. The Sudanese Bar/night club. The hustle and bustle of people emerging from their tents to eat or socialise.

We didn't see any trouble, but you can feel the potential bubbling under the surface, only a spark would be needed for an explosion of anger or frustration. The suffering these people had endured to get this far had left many irreparably damaged.

They try to get along, despite the conditions, their journey and being such a wide demographic of people, Afghani, Eritreans, Kurdish, Pakistani, Iranian and Iraqi, Syrian and Sudanese and many more.
Previously nations that disliked each other are now forced together in abhorrent conditions, while they strive for a peaceful life in a living hell, they ran from bombs and death hoping for a safer life, almost all have lost loved ones and now all they have is hope.


"The Jungle" which is an amazingly diverse community of refugees from various countries trying to coexist and survive as best as humanly possible. There is laughter and music and song, the mud is like December. There are broken tents and plastic clad pine shelters everywhere, shops and shanty restaurants, mud more mud and then mud. But the people on the whole are lovely, they appreciate the help and regularly ask,
"What will the British government do to help us? Is there hope?" I don't know the answer, I don't believe our government will do enough to help the displaced citizens of the countries they are destroying. But I have to look them in the eye and say,
"There is always hope."

Today we made some bunk beds and installed them, did running repairs on shelters and agreed to find a base for 9 people who are on a tent on the ground. We will take them a base tomorrow. Then spoke to people who needed a new roof, which we will fit tomorrow, they have lashed tree branches together and the water pools in the plastic sheeting and it leaks, they have to keep pushing the roof up during the night to stop it leaking and if it snows it will collapse.
Ate dinner in the Afghan Flag restaurant. Amazing food, lovely people, fighting to create a community and keep going despite the abhorrent conditions.

The volunteers are amazing, doing so much with so little. Some have been here months and just can't bring themselves to leave. I know how they feel.

For the first time in a long time, I cried tonight.


We loaded our van with supplies to fix a roof and and headed to the jungle, refugees now recognising us as familiar faces. A teenager approaches and asks,"I help you brother?"

We tell him where we are going (it may take him out of his territory and place him a danger), he shrugs so I hand him some timber to carry and we trudge in through the mud loaded with tools and materials.

We arrive at the shelter and are greeted like old friends, the eldest Mohammed, an economics professor puts a pot of water for tea straight onto the small gas hob.
They clear their 3.5m2 shelter, piling all their belongings into the corner. We put down plastic to protect their home from the mud and start cutting the string that lashed together the branches.

Nasser a teenager, who speaks excellent English and studied mathematics, passes the branches out as we remove and support the roof. The branches are cut up for firewood, which is always needed in the jungle.

We stop for tea and have a chat with our hosts, familiar sad stories of loss and pain are mixed with jokes and laughing. Mohammed tells me all he has is hope and Nasser asks if I can help him get to England.
"I will be your servant forever my brother." He pleads.
"If I can get you to England my brother then you will be my friend forever." I reply. We talk about our governments, i apologise for our countries role in their tragedy.
Mohammed smiles and says,
"We have a government too. They don't listen to their people."

The roof takes a few hours, but by the time we are done has 2x2 timber rafters, with 50mm Celotex insulation I brought over with me. It's sloped and study and won't collapse if it snows. Glen hangs from the roof to show its strength and jokes about his weight, we all laugh.

We have a coffee as we tidy up, ready for the next job and I take Nasser' number and give him mine.
"I will do what I can." I promise him.

Knowing they will be warm, dry and safe now, they are all in high spirits. I'm invited back for dinner, but have to decline as I'm the driver.

"Tomorrow night my brother, please let us cook for you."

I explain that there are so many brothers that need our help I may not be able to, but agree to try and promise to at least return for tea before I leave. There are warm hugs for all as we leave and Mohammed kisses my cheek with tears in his eyes and thanks me again. I tell him to keep looking after the lads he's with and to keep hope.

We load up and hike on to the next site with mixed emotions, knowing we have made a difference, but barely.

Before we left France, I kept my promise and returned to see my friends for tea and biscuits.

The next site is a medium sized teepee style tent. It's right on the edge of the "road".
There are 8 people sleeping in it and the floor is always wet as it is sat on mud. They have been living like that for months. I put my head in the shower block, set up run by Amir, he is from Afghanistan and speaks 8 languages. He's living between the Sudanese and the Pakistani's having moved out of the Afghan area to avoid the trouble making. I used his skills numerous times in the jungle and he was always happy to help his brothers of any nationality. Amir organises the lads in the tent and we lay a tarp out on the floor for there damp belongings.

I've managed to scavenge two bases left over from heavier duty shelters they used to make. With difficulty we unload them from the lorry, one gets caught and then gives suddenly sliding and smashing me in the face. We remove the tent and flatten the ground with a shovel, before screwing the bases together. There are smiles all round as we re-erect the tent and they know they will be dry tonight.

Our next job is to put up a shelter with some teenagers who have been on the list for a month, but as we prepare to leave an angry Iranian man in his 60's is shouting at me, gesticulating with tears running down his face.

I fetch Amir and he translates. The man is next to the road, which is a mud track with huge puddles. Every time a vehicle passes filthy water washes into his tent. I look inside and there is 2" of muddy water in there. It's smells of sewage.
The man is distressed because he knows they will die if they sleep there and there is nowhere else to go. But they are only 4 adult men and have no hope of getting a shelter.

I tell Amir I will be back shortly, the angry man shouts at me believing that I won't return, but Amir tells him I am a good man and to have faith.

I track down Pete the van driver and ask about a shelter, I explain the situation and Pete tells us to take the last two shelters in the van, he'll head back and get some more, we split our build team and Glen and I return to Amir with the lorry after dropping the others to build elsewhere. It's late afternoon and the temperature is dropping. It's been an hour since I left, but getting around and finding people in the Jungle is difficult and you have to surrender to "Jungle time".

Amir scolds the angry man and enjoys his moment of being right. The angry man bows his head and touches his chest, I smile and give him a hug and tell him he will be dry tonight.

The shelters take a few hours to unload, assemble, clad with plastic and insulate, the ground is rarely level or flat.
It's dark by the time we finish and our drill batteries are almost as tired as us. The guys helped where they could holding timber or stapling plastic sheeting down. They are very careful and know this may be their home for a while.

It's about 8pm by the time we say our goodbyes, meet up with the others and head to the van. Someone runs past us splashing through the mud, and then another and another. This is unusual, people don't run in the jungle, it's slippery and messy and nobody wants to get injured.

Within a few seconds there are hundreds of people running and cheering excitedly towards the entrance of the camp and the van. We hear that there is a traffic jam on the highway and the trucks have stopped! Everyone is running to try and jump on one before they move again.

Glen and I agree this is a desperate side of the situation and we don't want to see people potentially risking their lives to escape. We are not here for entertainment. We head back into the jungle and go to the Sudanese pub for a beer. Glad to sit down. As we drink our beer we hear the "pop, pop" of a grenade launcher and people running and shouting. The police have started firing teargas into the camp. We can smell and taste it, and even inside the tent our eyes were stinging. Outside people near the chemical weapons being used would be blinded temporarily and in a lot of pain.

We finish our beers, thank and pay our hosts. It's returned to normal again outside, people eating and laughing. Singing and smiling.

We get back to the van which would have had a prime view of the earlier melee. But it's calm now and we finally head off.

Day 5- you could do it too...

We met Josh and Marcus at the workshop, they'd been making shelter components for days and were ready to go into The Jungle and help assembly. We jumped in the van and headed in, the more the merrier.

I watched their expressions of horror and sadness as they took in the sight of the Jungle sprawl, a canvas of tents and mud, as we made our way past the overflowing toilets near the entrance. As we walked past the shops and restaurants and made our way deeper in, I tried to answer the same questions I myself had asked only days ago. I had learned so much and most of my fears and queries had been satiated, but to think I was now considered informed was a worry. The Jungle is a complex and dangerous place, beautiful and terrible all at once.

Marcus, a big guy, with long dreads and always a smile, quickly found himself at ease, with lots of nods and 'hello brothers' from the passing refugees.
I saw his eyes start to change from sadness, as the singing and smiling sparked back the glimmer of hope and the initial horror subsided, if you can sing in a place like this then there is hope.

Marcus and I paired off and got cracking on a shelters.
The group we were assembling the shelter for were pretty helpful, holding timbers for sawing and helping wrap the plastic sheeting as taught as possible.
Despite the usual difficulty of "where is my shelter" and "please, 1 minute you fix." from other groups nearby makes Jungle time slip by.

But we work hard and have a couple of shelters up in time for a late lunch. We meet up with the others and head to eat. The first restaurant is out of food, we came too late, the next gives us the thumbs up and we sit and eat. It's good to rest and talk to like minded people, plus the food is excellent.

After feeding body and soul, we all make more shelters in the afternoon. I pop into the women's and children's area, to deliver a snowsuit and call in at the kids centre as I pass to confirm a rumour.

The cot bed I made has been smashed up by a young boy, it can't be repaired, but the mattress is at least still useable. I ask about the boy; he is 7 and is here alone, he doesn't know if his parents are alive and after his harrowing journey he had been abused since his arrival.

Although systems are now in place to protect the vulnerable, the jungle is still dangerous for a child. I didn't blame him for his rage, if I had been through his experiences I'd be smashing things up too. There are trained volunteers helping people but never enough.

I returned to Marcus "the lionheart" and his warm "hello brother" and a big grin cheered me up. We cracked on finishing the last shelter in the dark. We leave the cutting of the underlay (used to insulate walls, roof and floor) to the guys living there, and I give them my torch to keep and my knife and hammer to finish off the interior.

"Will you get that back do you reckon?" Marcus asks as we have a quick beer in the Sudanese bar.
I've lent a few tools out and people are good at returning them if you go back and ask...and they're in. Apart from a staple gun that was lent to a massive guy to fix his tarp, i asked him for it back and he just shook his head and said
"I keep." I wasn't going argue, he needed it more than me.

Marcus and I went out for food and drinks to a friendly pub in Calais. The volunteers are not welcome in most of the bars as the refugees are not appreciated by the locals. But the Family Pub always looks after us.

Later we tried another bar on the way home, just because fuck em why not, we received a much colder welcome, we kept calm, talked of peace and our experiences of the people we met there, we didn't raise our voices and we didn't find trouble. We had to calmly agree to disagree a few times, but had managed to evolve a few minds by the time we left...

The highlight of ignorance was the Irish lads, who moved to Calais, to open a wine warehouse...and had the nerve to complain about immigrants...

That night I crashed with Marcus and had a shower and slept in a room for the first time that week. Nothing compared to some in the Jungle, but I definitely needed and appreciated it!

As adults, we all get to choose what we want to believe, how we want to behave and the effect of our actions, is our responsibility good and bad. We can help those who need it or you can ignore their desperate plight and make excuses based on race, religion, money, time, or any number of reasons....but trust me, if you want to make a difference, you can