Found it pretty difficult to write up our visit to Calais. I've tried to take the emotion out of it and just present a sort of report on what went on. It was a shocking, rewarding, infuriating, inspiring experience. I've probably forgotten as much as I've remembered, but here goes:
How did we help?
• Delivered a donated caravan for “Caravans for Calais” so that a family of 8 could move the women and children out of timber/plastic shack the size of a family-tent and under a hard roof.
• Handed over a donated bicycle to a brilliant long-term volunteer who had a resident lined up to receive it.
• Brought blankets for the “new arrivals” store, so that people have at leas something to help them keep warm on their first night in Calais.
• Picked up litter (in a camp with one toilet per 600 residents, this is a more challenging job than you might think. Credit to Jess and Alex for diving into this task!), and help organise the Medecins Sans Frontieres rubbish-collection points with a team from North Wales.
• Helped sort donations in the warehouse
• Helped transfer goods from the old warehouse, and tidy it up before it was handed back to the landlord.
• Helped distribute shoes to residents in the camp.
• Spent a day using tarpaulins to repair/reinforce tents and communal cooking-areas, aided by two volunteers from France and Denmark.
• Listened to refugees’ stories of where they came from, what they’ve been through and their hopes for the future.
• Helped seek out families and individuals who struggle to get to the official distribution-queues by fetching them the basic items they need just tosurvive in the camp.
What did we see?
• Heartbreaking living conditions – People ridiculously grateful to trade their flip-flops for a pair of second-hand shoes, or to have a bit of plastic sheeting pegged over the leaking festival-tent thatis their only home.
• Gorgeous children, tragically hardened by all they have seen and experienced on a journey no-one of any age should have to make.
• Deliberate ignorance – Imagine a community of 6000 people in the UK where unaccompanied children as young as 12 were left to fend for themselves for food and shelter, without any interest from the authorities. The authorities can’t NOT know about life in the camp (they only need ask the riot police who march around the place all day with their cellophane-wrapped boots, rubber suits and tear-gas launchers - reminiscent of something from a low-budget sci-fi film).
• Pain – Residents nursing terrible injuries from their attempts to complete their journeys (often trying to return to their families who already live in the UK. We met Dads who haven’t seen their own children for years due to the cold, arbitrary nature of immigration laws. A whole different kind of pain) who are too afraid to go to hospital out of fear of the French authorites.
• Shock – walking through the camp with a French volunteer (a social worker who helps troubled teens, so not easily shocked!) who simply could not believe that she was still in France.
• Hope – undimmed by the desperate situation they are in.
• Generosity – while fixing tents, a group of Iraqi Kurds made us cups of tea and later insisted on feeding us as they prepared a communal meal for a bout 20 of them. There was never even a hint of wanting anything in return other than company.
• Love – Well over a hundred volunteers giving their time, energy and attention to help however they can, be it sorting shoes, seeking out people in need to provide them with what they need, building timber shelters, cooking for a thousand people, living on site so that night-time arrivals to the camp have a contact who can find them shelter, a blanket and a tin of rice-pudding to see them through their first night. An incredible effort that simply should not be needed.
• Friendship – So many unforgettable new friends, both volunteers and residents of the camp.