...And Dunkirk, and thousands of other worldwide locations.
The view from the motorway, overlooking an area in Dunkirk
This past weekend, I spent two days volunteering with the refugees in Northern France. Prior to my trip, I did as much research as possible to try and give myself an insight into what I should expect. I doubt it will surprise you to learn that the ‘research’ I discovered was a handful of articles, most over a year old. It seemed as though, once the official Migrant ‘jungle’ was dismantled, that the Western World turned their backs on those who lived there, believing they too must have disappeared as if by magic.
This is not the case. Calais and the surrounding areas are now home to hundreds, if not thousands of refugees. It is hard to know exactly how many of them there are, but on Saturday we contributed to the mass production of around 2,500 hot meals for that day alone. I don’t have any words to describe how it feels to spend time with people who live this bitter reality.
How can we be so blissfully unaware and totally ignorant? When questioned about my time in Calais by the Channel Tunnel’s border control, my explanation was met with the response ‘Oh, is that still happening?’
Why is nobody talking about this?
We spent time volunteering with both the Refugee Community Kitchen and Care4Calais. We volunteered alongside people who have dedicated their lives to helping others keep theirs. As the temperatures dropped, we donned extra layers and warm gloves, necessary for us to continue our work. I cannot comprehend how the men, women and children in these areas survive in such conditions. Some don’t.
The Authorities are getting more and more brutal and relentless. Around every three days, the shelters and safe places these people have created are raided, the inhabitants sprayed with tear gas and their belongings stolen and destroyed whilst they are unable to see. As a result of these vicious attacks, the refugees constantly move deeper and further into wooded areas, desperate for shelter and safety. This, in turn, makes it even harder for charities to find them in order to distribute basic necessities, like tinned food and blankets. In the week leading up to the time we spent there, 76% of all refugees had their bedding stolen by the police. This includes the elderly, women, families and young children.
I was fortunate enough to spend some time with a handful of young male refugees on Sunday afternoon. They were obviously freezing and desperate, but what I found the most heartbreaking? How gentle and selfless they were. Standing in our multiple warm layers and comfortable shoes, still full from lunch, they offered us biscuits and nuts whilst we talked and laughed with them. They grouped together with some of our other volunteers, and played games of football and cricket in the wasteland. As we turned to head back to the Care4Calais warehouse, one of them begged me to take him with us, to try and hide him in our rented minibus. He told me that they try and make the crossing to England every single night, and had been practising squeezing into small spaces for 5-6 hours at a time. They also explained to us how painful it is to be pepper sprayed in the eyes, but mentioned that they are starting to get used to it.
We had the opportunity to venture into Calais town itself. It was completely normal. The town was glistening with Christmas lights, and locals were celebrating Saturday night with warm food and wine. Without prior knowledge, you wouldn’t know that less than a mile away, thousands of people are suffering. Nobody blinks an eye. Having come home and processed all that I witnessed and experienced, my life has changed significantly. I cannot justify unnecessary spending and, even with something as trivial as Christmas presents, I am already wracked with guilt, knowing that I will get so much when so many others have so little.
Ahmad. He lived in London for 7 years, and his family in Birmingham. He left to go back to Afghanistan to care for his father through illness. He was not allowed to return to the UK.
It is vital to understand that these people are not here by choice. They have been forced to flee their country as a result of war, violence, famine and disease that they did not cause or request. They make a dangerous and life threatening journey, only to be greeted with intolerance. They sleep in a strange new country where people shame and despise them. No one would choose this life unless it was their absolute last resort.
No one deserves luxury before others deserve their life. We should not feel entitled to more than anyone else, simply because our parents shagged within imagined borders, created by brutes of the past and maintained by brutes of the present.
I can no longer pretend that we are civilized species when people are allowed to suffer in this way. When children sleep outside in the freezing cold, and young men turn down an offering of walking boots, in case they hinder his trying to run from the police. When, to try and maintain some dignity, men stand at the side of the road and wash in ice cold water and freezing temperatures. When you lie down tonight, in your warm bed and safe home, think of all of those who can’t even imagine such luxury and who have to fight every day for life sustaining aid.
We must support short-term aid and campaign for long term change.
Thank you to the Oxfordshire Refugee Solidarity for introducing me to this cause, opening my eyes and being generally inspirational and incredible human beings. Thank you to Nicola, for allowing me to use her words as part of this post. Thank you to all of my friends and family who so generously donated, and to Freda (the most incredible ecological Sanitary products brand) who donated three boxes of product for the female refugees in Calais. Thank you to everyone I met over the weekend; volunteer and refugee alike. You make me want to be a better person. You are all exceptional.
Please get in contact if you are interested in volunteering or donating (you can also do this via our JustGiving page).