Reflections on Calais

Anita Mansell provides a heart-wrenching account of her experiences volunteering at Calais.

tents in mud

What I don’t have are answers and most people including myself want to find solutions to problems. To have an experience so profound and harrowing as the week I spent in Calais over new year and to only come up with more questions is unsettling to say the least. But perhaps, I hope, by talking about the people, the conditions, the utter inhumanity of it all will in a small way be part of a different way of looking at this crisis.

As I write the main camp in Calais is home to about 6,500 people, mainly men but some families. There are also a number of unaccompanied children mainly male teenagers. This is no place for anyone let alone children on their own, they are so vulnerable. There is a smaller camp near Dunkerque home to about 2,500 mainly families. When I visited the conditions there according to the Medicins sans Frontiers man I spoke to were “disastrous”.

Like all the volunteers I arrived at a huge warehouse about 1.5km from the camp which acts as the HQ for all volunteers, donations and the central kitchen. Unlike officially recognised “refugee camps“ these camps are completely run by volunteers. Amazing long term volunteers who have put their furniture into storage, left jobs etc to “make a difference “. They oversee the unknown number of volunteers and donations arriving on a daily basis and the distribution of food to the camps. Your donations really do go to people who are in desperate need. The sheer scale of the operation is massive, the logistics involved to feed and clothe and provide shelter in a safe environment to a shifting group of people from all over the world with no secure budget or staff is a daunting feat.

Many volunteers spend all their time in the warehouse sorting, bagging , packing the donations. I did a fair amount of this too. However just by chance I spent most of my week working is a 40 day soup/tea kitchen set up by two elderly men from Exmouth. The kitchen situated in the Afghan/Iraqi area of the camp served up hot sugary tea, biscuits soup and bread and lunch. There was always a queue. I hope I will never forget the shock and sadness of seeing people having to survive in such squalid surroundings. I cannot comprehend how after such traumatic experiences, both in their home countries and in their journeys the majority still want to survive, that despite finding themselves ”trapped “ in this open “prison “ they hold on to their hope for a safer, better life for themselves and their families. Within this makeshift camp of tarps, tents, wooden framed shelters and a few small caravans (reserved for the families) the refugees had tried to create some oasis of calm. They had built a beautiful Eritrean church, a mosque and an evangelical church. A few weeks ago the French police bulldozed these in a brutal act of terrorism. I assume they want no sign of any permanent structures.

My life felt as if I was in two parallel universes, one where I could go to sleep in a warm bed, feel safe, wash in warm water, dry clothes, make a cup of tea and eat when I wanted, and the other where I was with people where even the most basic elements of decent living were not guaranteed. They were dependent on others for most things, clothes, food, shelter, even hope to some extent.

Which makes me remember one day near the kitchen I was “litter picking “. I was attempting to try and tell a man who was  holding his beautiful baby what a gorgeous child he had. In broken English he turned to me and then his wife who he was standing next to and said it was because he had a beautiful wife. I found this utterly humbling and moving that in the midst of such hopelessness he was able to show such love.

However I am not romanticising the people who live in the camps. Effectively this camp is a lawless state within a state. People who have witnessed brutal acts often become brutalised and go on to do some brutal things.  This only confirms to me the need for a comprehensive plan that covers people’s physical, emotional and spiritual needs both in the camps and wherever they find themselves settled. The photos I took were on my last day as I was walking from the kitchen back out of the camp. 

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