It’s called ‘The Jungle’: there is no electricity, no running water, no rivers or wild animals and it is but five minutes from the ‘normal’ world in Calais, France.
Conventional laws of modern society are pretty much abandoned here, although the Gendarmerie patrol its perimeter regularly to offer some semblance of control. Yet, here the residents do not run wild, but work on a social system built on a shared hopelessness and respect for others and their meagre belongings. They actually help each other without expectation of reward but with a genuine sense of making life for your fellow human being that little bit easier.
Be under no illusion this is not utopia in the 21st century; it is a dangerous place and if you are hungry, cold and wet, desperation can kick in with the resultant loss of order, and this can be witnessed in the minor chaos that can break out when distributing the absolute necessities of life – be it clothing, shoes or a tin of soup.
But somehow, with a little guidance, these people retain a dignity and acceptance of their lot which is rarely seen in the western world. At night in the darkness of the natural world it could be a different story where your only comfort and company may be the close proximity of friends (if you have them) and the continuous background noise of movement around the camp, with darkness concealing the intent of the perpetrators. It is a frightening world.Eight of us went to distribute aid, and thanks to the past experience of our mentor, Rebecca Goodall, we were well prepared. Food had been divided into 100 shopping bags, provided free for the purpose, and they contained the very basics of what we would call 3 or 4 ‘square meals’ but which desperate people who had no idea where their next meal was coming from would probably make last for a week for several of them. They are resourceful, and 1 poor meal a day is better than no meal at all. Indeed the group that helped us only ate once a day if their luck was in and had no supplies at all until we arrived.
a kitchen for 10 people - Calais 2015
The camp divides itself into ‘kitchens’, where groups of individuals band together to pool any resources they acquire during the day from scavenging and reliance on donations from generous people all over Europe who arrive to distribute what they can. We saw people from Belgium, Germany, France and the UK.
Before we arrived we had contacted a lady who regularly visits the camp, knows many of the long term residents reasonably well and lives close by. She had arranged for a local working party to be with us who could speak a range of languages, French, Somali, & Arabic variations, and who could interpret our instructions and help to keep the crowds in some form of order. As soon as anyone pulls up at the camp their vehicles are surrounded by expectant and desperate people who are grateful for any new possession they are given, and without preparation this can turn into a ‘frenzy of need’.
Although we initially had the same response our camp guides and interpreters soon made it clear that we were not distributing to individuals from the back of the vehicle, this was to avoid both the indignity and chaos that can ensue with hundreds of people striving to benefit from the donations.
The way we operated was for our volunteers to identify ‘kitchens’ and carry a bag of food and a bag of toiletries to individual kitchens, in that way we believed we could reach the maximum number of people in the fairest way. We tried to distribute as widely as possible, but inevitably there is never enough to go round and many were disappointed. The heartbreak of turning away starving people because quite simply you have nothing left cannot be described by this writer.
The anger can – an anger at modern governments for their failure to react in any meaningful way over such a prolonged period and in the full knowledge of the suffering that past actions have caused fills me with contempt for those so called ‘leaders of the developed world’. To cry that we can’t afford, or we have no room rings hollow when you have witnessed the huge variation in living conditions between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. The answer to this humanitarian disaster will never lie in more barbed wire and fencing, or more physical deterrents; it requires empathy, understanding and a willingness to share resources on a scale previously never seen in this global village we call Earth.
I would like to thank all of those who donated to our cause and those who may do so in the future, (believe me every penny really does count) for as well as the food and hygiene products we were able to distribute directly on this trip we took 60 tents, 100 sleeping bags, 50 ground rolls, 8 suitcases of shoes, 10 water containers, numerous cooking utensils and pots and pans, all of which are desperately needed. Much of this is now being distributed by those on the spot who can much better identify those in greatest need, and who have a little more time that we had. Our next trip will contain warm clothing for the coming winter, and of course more food and other vital survival items.
Please donate, if you can.