Monday, 26 October 2015
Sophie Baggott Shares Her Experiences of Volunteering in The Jungle in September 2015
In early August, a friend added me to a solidarity group for those stranded at Calais. It soon dawned on me how appalling it is that I’ve made hundreds of journeys through this port with no idea of the long-standing situation. I decided to collect supplies to deliver on my next visit to France, so I posted a status and handed out leaflets. Within days, my Welsh neighbours had been so generous that I was overwhelmed by blankets, clothes, shoes, toiletries. I had to redirect countless more donations.
Then Aylan Kurdi’s image was shared across the world, and these homeless people finally caught mainstream attention. The waves that brought this dead boy to the shore spiralled waves of aid for refugees. The French camp is now overrun with clothes dropped off by weekend-trippers, but lacks volunteers to sort, distribute, and develop from these deliveries.
Following is a two-day diary of my time there – nowhere near an ideal length of stay, but enough to have given me a strong incentive to return as soon as I have a freer window to travel again.
Friday, Sept. 11
At midday I made a few phonecalls to Calais contacts then repacked the donations into my car. Travelling the hour-long journey to Rue des Dunes in the blazing sunshine didn’t feel remotely scary and I was (perhaps oddly) unfazed when left in the lurch on arrival, clueless as to whether to drive straight into the camp or whether any volunteers were even around to guide me. Signal was scarce and I was struggling to reach anyone. The occasional bar of 3G let me post a plea on the UK-wide solidarity group, and help was soon at hand. I was greeted by Riaz Ahmad, Maya Konforti, and Clare Mosely – three figures who are nearing celebrity status on the volunteering scene. I was thrown into unloading a Battley van of clothing into L’Auberge des Migrants’ warehouse, before Riaz directed me down a bumpy, narrow dirt-track into the heart of the camp.
Immediately there Riaz was approached by a Daily Telegraph journalist and, minutes later, by two more reporters. He had little time for the media though; top of the agenda was the delivery of donations. Riaz then showed me the makeshift library, piled high with an array of paperbacks from Death of a Salesman to The Hungry Caterpillar.
The 'jungle' church
Next-door was a church of canvas and wood, where an Eritrean boy invited me to sit while a circle of ladies sang and swayed to a drumbeat. When I rejoined Riaz we wandered with a longtime volunteer, Toby, over to his camping area. We hopped across rocks up a short, sandy route flooded by a leaking pipe, from which men were washing their bodies. Here I met a small Sudanese child called Abba, dressed in a blue ‘Paradise Surfers’ top with a hole in it. I flew Abba’s paper plane as he trailed a paper boat by string along the watery path. It floated for just thirty seconds before sinking into a sodden mess – a paper shipwreck which struck painful chords with the troubled waters of late. We played a while longer, then called on an Iraqi family with a baby. Riaz explained that these shy parents rarely sought help, but the father’s eyes creased with gratefulness when handed a bag of food. He clasped Riaz’s hand and whispered a series of thanks.
We moved on to a small hut serving rice and chai to punters on carpeted benches under blanket ceilings. I sat beside a Syrian man with the twinkliest of eyes, who had hidden in a lorry to escape his war-torn country. He quizzed me as to why I take my coffee unsugared, and we laughed at my vain aims to stay in shape by running. He used to enjoy exercise, he said, but now he’s just tired. The chef offered me a huge, delicious meal of rice and ladies’ fingers which I ate in the kitchen – VIP hospitality, according to the others. Toby sat with me and told me lots about the camp, such as how one hears only the motorway’s roar in the mornings. No birdsong. I realised I hadn’t seen a single animal all afternoon: a ‘jungle’ abandoned by wildlife.
Graffiti in the camp's Sudanese neighbourhood
Back outside some boys were kicking a ball around in the dust. The stench of sewage was potent, and nearby six or seven volunteers were clearing a channel to disperse flooding. A man tentatively asked whether we might have any spare batteries for his empty torch, and a Médecins du Monde worker whipped out some from her own torch to hand to him – a selflessness absolutely typical of those who volunteer there. The gift lit up not just his torch but also his face, and he actually skipped with joy to catch up with his friends. It was in this Sudanese corner of the camp that I saw how much havoc rainfall could wreak. Many shelters had been submerged in recent days, and I passed groups of men struggling to rebuild their families’ tents.
We walked onwards to Salam – the Jules Ferry Centre, which is off-limits without a pass. Along this pathway we bumped into other volunteers, sparking a spontaneous meeting about an expansion of medical assistance. One English (and fiercely vegan) couple had just spoken with a Pakistani nurse who was keen to use his skills, as well as a similarly eager aromatherapist refugee. It was heartening to hear all the enthusiasm bounce around as plans were made.
An artier area of the camp
We continued, and after having passed the arty area (jazzed up by a man called Alpha) we reached the camp’s classroom. In this hut were three or four rows of desks and a blackboard, along with the French alphabet stuck up on the walls. A Sudanese man of roughly the same age as me was helping the Belgian teacher carry boxes to her car. He introduced himself as Howard, and the two of us began discussing his love of learning languages. A while later, talk turned to what he had undergone for the relative stability in France. His eyes visibly darkened when he swore that enduring the horrors of travelling through Libya was better than his inevitable fate amid Sudan’s bloodshed. Long after I’d waved goodbye I couldn’t shake the marked contrast of our youths from my mind; Howard’s had been so indelibly blackened.
Sunset over the campThe sun was setting at this point, and I knew I’d have to head home fairly soon. My chatter with a filmmaker broke off when I overheard a passing comment about a death in the camp the previous night – a Sudanese man had been kicked to death after a fight had broken out. It took this stark parting news to remind me that I was, in all seriousness, stood at the centre of a lawless refugee camp. Twice during the afternoon, I’d been told by different individuals that this place posed no danger to me so long as the ‘red mist’ didn’t come down. The warning didn’t really register til now, and the following day it became all the more glaring.
I offered Riaz a lift back to his accommodation, and just as he opened the car door to leave I discovered why he so often referred to other volunteers as brothers or – in Maya’s case – his mother. Aged eighteen, he had lost all his family in Pakistan and dedicated himself to helping others in his grief. Now Riaz spends seven days a week at the camp, and every single person whom I met sang his praises for all the help he had given. He told me that he now thinks of the whole world as his family, and wished me goodbye as his sister. I was near speechless with admiration for my new friend’s strength.
A flooded pathway near the heart of the camp
Saturday, Sept. 12
I set off early this morning to help at Secours Catholique’s food packaging and distribution, but managed to lose myself in northern France’s winding lanes. I found the warehouse purely by accident after collaboration with a spectacled, bald man whom I met in a crêperie while requesting an espresso and directions. I arrived in time to be marginally useful in tying food parcels at the end of a long assembly line, before carrying bread into one of the food vans. We drove into the camp just after midday, and the queue for the distribution went back farther than the eye could see. Each person was given a small bag along with a banana and bread. I stood at the point just after people had collected their portion, trying to ensure that no one skipped the queue (but, in reality, I was totally distracted by conversations with the people gathered there). Food distribution
I spent a long time with a Sudanese teenager in a vibrant purple coat, who was acting as a peacekeeper whenever tensions rose among men queuing for food. The most poignant exchange of my day, however, was with a thirty-five year-old Syrian man named Amar. He spoke lovingly about his beautiful wife from whom he was now estranged, and he told me of the stitches down his side from where he tried to leap aboard a train in desperation. In more lighthearted moments Amar enthused about recipe ideas and seasoning tips, describing his perfect mixture of spices for chicken. Only when he turned to beg an extra banana for his brother did it truly hit me that these meals were so utterly buried in the past for him.
Today was a bleak, drizzly day – pathetic fallacy, it’d seem, for my experience of the camp was a far cry from yesterday’s warm welcome. When the vans predictably ran out of food, those who had queued for hours grew frantic in their desperate desire to take anything back to their families. A Welsh pair with a van of assorted food donations tried to open their doors to share the contents, but the crowds were too heavy to manage and I was advised to leave after having been shoved aside by an oblivious group of men.
Mother and childAgain, I drove away from the camp on a melancholy note but today that massively outweighed any optimism. Five minutes into my journey I had to swing into a lay-by, overcome by tears at remembering the expressions of the boys begging me to sneak them more of the food packages. I defy anyone to remain unmoved on an afternoon when they had to say no to homeless children pleading for a loaf of bread.
I don’t really know how to end this post, because I feel like this is just a mere iceberg tip of what I’ll see and learn here over the coming months. More than anything, I want the camp itself to melt away as people gain the lives they deserve in societies outside these sand dunes. In the meantime, however, I want to say how in awe I am of the sunny resilience of both refugees and volunteers in this strange limbo.