Saturday 22 August 2015

Welcome to the Jungle

My alarm went off at 4:30am after a night of restless sleep. I drove to meet Juliet, Idina and Matt and we made our way to the channel crossing. We met up with the rest of our group, many of us meeting for the first time and set off for France. The train was delayed due to some technical problems but eventually we were on our way.
Pascal who volunteers for Secours Catholique
Our first stop in Calais was the Secours Catholique, run by Pascal and his fellow volunteers. We had all filled our cars and vans with aid donations and this is where we had been told to drop them off. When we arrived there were already two British girls unloading their van so we helped them first before unloading our vehicles. We took the bags through to the centre, which I assume used to be a church but has now become a warehouse for L'auberge des migrants. I was taken aback as I walked in as it was full of boxes and piles of clothes and shoes. It seems that the amount of donations is not a problem, but the donation of the right items and the manpower to organise it. Pascal explained that there were only a handful of volunteers and at 56, he was the youngest. L'auberge des migrants opens the centre every three weeks, and 500 tickets are given out in the jungle to allow the refugees access. When you imagine 500 people each taking clothes, sleeping bags and toiletries, you can see how the stocks must quickly empty. Pascal told us how last week they very quickly ran out of blankets. The centre desperately needs a team of able volunteers who can manage the donations coming in as well as handing them out, ideally enabling them to open weekly or even daily to help the people who have arrived in Calais with only the clothes on their backs. 
Here's a video recorded by Jamie, who was part of our team.
As we were sorting piles of sleeping bags, duvets and blankets, Maya arrived. If you watched the Songs of Praise episode in Calais, you will remember Maya. She arrived and greeted us all before getting very excited that we had brought along lots of sleeping bags and pots for cooking. Maya is an incredible woman who doesn't ever stop. The migrants all know her by name and she's forever running back and forth doing about 15 things at once.
Maya suggested that we go to Lidl and buy packs of biscuits to give out when the food was distributed later. We got three big trolleys and filled them with hundreds of packets, much to the delight of the lady on the checkout.
Then it was time to visit the Jungle.
We lost Maya en route so made our way to the Jungle and pulled up on the outskirts. As we arrived a white van began to reverse into the entrance of the camp and echos of 'line' traveled along a fast-growing queue, each person hoping that the bags of food would not run out before they reached the van. Word traveled fast and the line soon had around 400 people in it. This is the first time we saw the scale of the camp. We were aware that there were thousands of people in the camp but it's not until you see the extent of it for yourself that you are struck by the reality of it all. A second line was formed for women which was much shorter by comparison. The van doors were opened and volunteers from L'auberge des migrants and from our group began handing out bags of food that contained oil, rice and other essentials. Some fish had also been donated by a local shop, so that was handed out as well as the biscuits we had bought from Lidl. There were old men, young women, young children, teenagers, and lots of young men. Maya was fantastic at organising the line and telling people not to push in! She is very much respected by everyone there and she makes sure things are done fairly. 
Then the food ran out.
And the line was still there.
We reckon the line must have been 500 strong by the end of the distribution, but we only had enough for 300 people. This was a really difficult moment as we had to turn people away empty handed, hungry people.
"Come back tomorrow" was the advice.
One of the shelters in the camp
People's temporary homes
Trying to create a homely environment
Cubicles constructed by French organisations for people to wash in
After the food distribution we got chatting to those around us. I spoke to three ladies from Eritrea, they must have been in their early twenties. I asked them what kind of things they needed in the Jungle and they said deodorant and underwear. One of them told me that she had a husband in the UK but no way of contacting him. They spoke good English so I was able to ask them about themselves and their journey to the Jungle. They told me that it had taken them two months to reach Calais, by bus and by foot. If you don't know where Eritrea is, it's in North East Africa bordering Ethiopia, Djibouti and Sudan, and it's 5,215km away from Calais.
They had been in the Jungle for a month already. When I asked if they had made any attempts to cross the border, they hesitated, before admitting that they had tried to get to the Euro-tunnel a few times. But there is an emerging issue of women being left behind. "It is impossible for us, then men run ahead and leave us". Some of these women are pregnant - so what happens next? Who takes responsibility for those children? Who ensures the mother has a safe, attended labour? Who provides the baby with vaccinations? Where is the birth registered? These babies are being born into uncertainty with different governments shifting the responsibility onto someone else.
St Michael's Church, Calais
We also met an Ethiopian man called Amima. He is 26 and is a theology student. He invited us to visit the church that has been built in the camp, where he helps to run services. St Michael's church is an example of how important faith is to these people, and how the church is a place of hope and peace which is vital in these situations. Amima told us that he had to leave Ethiopia because of political persecution, and he had to leave his mother and sister behind. Since the building of the church, Amima has spent less time trying to get to the UK and more time in the church. He feels called to serve in the church there. But he misses home, he misses his family and he misses Ethiopia. He's ready to go home now, he told us.
Amima told us that the church is important for the Jungle because it's a place where people feel safe. It's a very peaceful environment and provides a sanctuary for people to escape the camp for a while.
"We suffer, but we have life, because Jesus is alive" 
Amima reached Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea in a boat. He described how he saw his friends drowning, I can't even imagine how devastating that must have been.
People seem to focus on the conditions of the camp, or the situations that caused people to leave their countries, and these are very important topics that need to be addressed. However the bit in between seems to be overlooked. On their journeys to Calais people have experienced enough trauma and hardship to last several lifetimes. We met three young men who had become friends when they trekked across the Sahara Desert together. It is unimaginable.

An article on Bradley Wiggins!
In the middle of the camp there is a caravan covered in posters and information. It has details of how to claim asylum in the UK and organisations that can help people once they reach Britain. It was interesting to see that this information has been provided, and good for the refugees to understand how the process of asylum works in the UK. The caravan also featured an article about Bradley Wiggins, maybe there are a few cycling enthusiasts about?!

Riaz, a volunteer for L'auberge des migrants, took us to visit an artist in the camp. Alpha was very happy to show us some of the work that he has created. He had a piece of artwork for David Cameron that quoted him calling the refugees a "swarm", so Alpha wrote that Cameron was the swarm who only cared about himself and his friends getting rich.

We visited the school, which has both child and adult education going on. Some of the refugees are learning French so they can claim asylum there. English lessons are also taught. The school is mainly run by French and British volunteers. Outside the school we met a man from Kosovo. He had a broken foot and the medical charity in the camp, Medecins du Monde, had given him some crutches and a cast. This injury was not uncommon, and we saw many men walking round the camp with broken ankles and legs where they have fallen whilst trying to climb the many fences that surround the camp and the tunnel to Britain.
The school building
Medecins du Monde are doing a fantastic job of looking after the people in the Jungle. As we were there we saw them ferrying minibuses of people to and from their base, with bandages and crutches and medicines. We visited their newly opened art tent, run by two British volunteers. One of them is an art therapist and is trying to encourage the refugees to create art that helps them deal with the trauma they have experienced. A volunteer for Medecins du Monde told us that the camp is experiencing an outbreak of scabies, which is near impossible to treat in such a situation.

Walking through the Jungle we met people from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kosovo, Syria, Iran and Libya. Think of a country that is currently facing war or unrest and it was probably represented in the camp. Their stories all varied in detail but followed a similar line of having to flee because of threat to their lives or their families. Travelling to Europe in a desperate attempt to escape the tragedies happening in their homelands. 
They arrive in Calais and have to find shelter in tents, or build structures out of whatever they can get their hands on. We saw true examples of human resilience and ingenuity. People live in very close proximity, vulnerable to the rain and cold weather and at risk from getting ill. They are exhausted. They want safety, they want security and they don't want to fear for their lives, is that so hard to provide for them? When people ask, I say it was like being in a third world country. It is shameful that we are allowing this to happen so close to our borders and not taking action.
It's time for us to speak out for these people. Stop treating them like statistics and start treating them as humans. The British government spent £12 million on fencing in Calais alone, but claim we 'cannot afford' to take in any more refugees. Matt, who I traveled to Calais with has started this petition to ask David Cameron to take in our fair share of refugees. Please take the time to sign it if you agree.

Wouldn't you flee war and violence?
Wouldn't you escape political or religious persecution?
Wouldn't you search for a better life for you and your family?
Wouldn't you head for a prosperous, first world country?
Wouldn't you?

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