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

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