I’m not really sure what first drew me to the plight of those stuck in Calais. We see disasters across the world every day. Every day we turn to those around us and speak about how horrible it is. We may give to charity, share a few articles on how awful something is on social media. But often that’s as far as my efforts go.
The plight of those in the migrant camps is well documented, both positively and negatively, by the media. I’m no political activist; I have an opinion which I rarely voice. However, even I was surprised when the slurs “marauding” and “swarms” were uttered by those who we have chosen to represent our views. I felt an urge to help. So, whilst I was still on my summer holidays, I put together a list of everything I wanted to achieve.
My friends and family reacted wonderfully, although many had reservations. The Daily Mail were quoted on several occasions, and many not-so-light-hearted debates were had. At the end of the day, I think, and hope, that people understood that I was in this to aid humanitarian crisis, not to help people get into the UK illegally. Over the following 2 weeks, I drove across London, to Berkshire, Kent, Hampshire and Wiltshire to collect supplies from what I can only describe as fantastic people.
So, on the 17th August, I left London with a car crammed full of aid, and headed for Calais (lord knows how I managed to drive my boyfriend’s 4×4 onto the Euro Tunnel without scratching his alloys!) Whilst on the shuttle, I met two young women who were heading to the camp for the day also. Their car was empty, which I thought was odd, but after chatting to them, it transpired that they were going to volunteer for the day.
When we disembarked in Calais, I was disappointed that my contact I had arranged to meet didn’t arrive. The internet on my phone wasn’t working, so I spent an hour driving around the city to find a McDonalds, to use their WiFi. Eventually, I made it to the camp. What greeted me was unlike anything I had seen.
I arrived at around 14.00 French time, as I’d wanted to avoid getting in the way whilst the volunteers were serving lunch. The police were strangely reluctant to let me into the camp, despite me explaining, in very ropey French, that I was there to deliver supplies. They had started to raid a few tents; apparently they do this every few weeks to ensure that people don’t get too comfortable there.
As soon as I arrived, people started to gather around my car, to the point at which I couldn’t see ahead. Understandably, they could see my supplies, and were keen to be first in line. I was very aware that, although they were all in need, I needed to find the distribution centre, as they could best allocate my aid. I reversed and parked on the outskirts of the camp, and walked back in.
The conditions were appalling. Many people were sleeping 6 to a 1 man tent, with many sleeping outside. Rubbish was strewn everywhere, with decomposing items smelling rancid. Many of the migrants who approached me had their hands cupped, and asked for money. I tried to explain that I had come to deliver food, clothing and shelter, but still they came.
The volunteers I saw and spoke to were split into two camps. A handful had been there for a week or more, and wanted to help on the ground; litter picking (rubbish is a huge problem in the camp), preparing and distributing food and supplies, teaching in the school etc. However, most volunteers I met were only there for the day. I was surprised that many of them didn’t seem to be doing much helping at all. Many were taking photos with the migrants, and were taking tours of the camp.
I spoke to a young couple, called Victoria and Tyler. They too had come over in an empty car, to ‘volunteer’. However, when a member of Association Sallam (one of the French charities helping to run the migrant camp) approached us with a litter picker and a bin bag, their faces turned red. They claimed that “they weren’t there to litter pick” and demanded a tour of the camp. The young volunteer tried to explain that they didn’t have anyone to take them around, but the couple were adamant that they be taken.
I was perplexed. Why would someone want to come over to this camp, for the day, and not help? Journalists need to spread the message, of course, but I couldn’t see anyone who wanted to get their hands dirty, and a majority of these people were not journalists. I spoke to several other groups of volunteers, to try and understand. Many seemed to be of the same opinion that they wanted a tour of the camp. Again, many photos were being taken; some people even bought selfie sticks. The strange thing was that they were not talking to the migrants. They seemingly had no interest in them, or their stories. I saw at least 50+ British people act in this way. These people were clearly getting in the way of the day to day running of the camp, so much so that several were asked to leave by members of staff in fluorescent jackets.
I had been on the outskirts of the camp for an hour. I felt as though I was bothering every volunteer I found, with questions about where to drop off my aid, and how I could get to the school I was due to be teaching at. I wasn’t at all interested in taking photos or going on a tour of the camp, which they presumed I was. My initial aim had been to volunteer at the camp school, to teach English. However, it was clear that their education operation was running smoothly, and that my help would actually inconvenience teachers, I was very happy to simply drop my supplies and leave.
It’s not surprising that the camp is so disorganised; it’s a credit to those in charge that it’s even running at all. In no way did I expect a red carpet entrance. But I did feel as though many of the people there were acting as tourists, and were taking up the time of charity workers with constant requests for tours and photos.
Eventually, I left the camp, with my car full of supplies, and headed to Secours de Catholique; a French Catholic church on the other side of Calais. I had been told that I could drop supplies off here, without inconveniencing those at the camp. They also had storage, which meant that I could go and buy additional food donations. These people were simply saintly. Working behind the scenes, they co-ordinate hundreds of donations every day, and ensure that it gets to those who need it most. Margaret, an elderly Catholic, explained that she was worried about the camp. She said that many British people went over every day, but that they only wanted to see the camp, and didn’t want to help.
I spoke to several young men, who had travelled from Eritrea to escape compulsory military service. One of them, Stephen, explained that he had been beaten by the police for being gay. Another, Ferguson, was blind. He told me that the government had raided his house, after his parents were killed by the government for being Jewish. He had been beaten and his brothers and sisters killed. Their stories were harrowing to say the least.
My day in Calais was not what I expected; it was better. I can’t even complain about my journey (shout out UK Customs), as it’s nothing compared to what these people have been through.
Over the past few months, an increasing number of children who have travelled through Calais have reached my classroom. That’s a whole different story, but suffice to say; none of their parents are here to claim benefits or to be a nuisance to society.I have no doubt that everyone I met during my time in the camp had good intentions, but I’m unsure how well-met their efforts were. I’m glad that I could help, even in the smallest way. These people deserve compassion and kindness.