Planning our return
On the 23rd June members of the Oxford Convoy2Calais met above a pub in St Aldates to discuss the events on the 18th June, The Convoy to Calais. We discussed the success and failure of our attempt to take aid to refugees and migrants in camps around Sangatte.
All of us were adamant that this wasn’t going to be the end of our involvement, ensuring aid and monetary donations get to these displaced people, via the charity Care4Calais.
This Charity was formed in September 2015 by 2 individuals, Clare Mosley and John Sloan, who left their jobs and families to set up a collection point to provide food, clothing and other necessary items required by those living in these temporary camps. They provide updated, weekly lists of what is required. ‘It isn’t about accepting whatever people want to donate, or get rid of when they have a clear out.’ They work closely with 2 local French charities CalAid and L’auberge des Migrants.
In Oxford we decided to redouble our efforts to collect aid, reopen our justgiving site, to advertise by reprinting and distributing leaflets, and to work towards a return to Calais on the 6th August. However, there were four of us eager, and able to go sooner. Norman Wood, John G Walker, John Comino-James and I determined to go again on the 4th July. I explained that I understood the aid that had not made it to France on the 18th June was still in storage in London, but that The People’s Assembly had to remove everything before the 7th July. In conversation with Tom Griffiths earlier in the week I had discovered that they aimed to load all the aid on another articulated lorry, the weekend of 2nd/3rd July. If we travelled down on the Monday we could pick up any remaining aid, then travel on to Calais.
As it turned out, the lorry arrived and was loaded on the 1st July, taking, amongst all the donations, those made by the people of Oxford, to the depot in France. It was now a complete success. We determined to carry on, and Steve Sweeney (People’s Assembly) confirmed there was still a collection of donated items at their offices in Stratford to be delivered.
Over the following days I contacted Clare to inform them of our journey and to ensure that we would be expected, booked our cars onto a Euro Tunnel train and worked out a route with rough estimations on travel times.
Having realised that all four of us in the Oxford group on this adventure were sporting various lengths and styles of facial hair, I decided we should name ourselves after the affectionate sobriquet given to the Cuban revolutionaries after their success and return to the capital, Havana, Los Barbudos (the beards). We were joined at the Thornhill Park and Ride early, on the Monday morning, by a clean shaven photojournalist called Greg, who had asked permission to travel with us.
Norman, John GW, John C-J, Greg and I.
We travelled in two cars, and all was well until the Sat-Nav decided to take us to the People’s Assembly offices via central London…
Anyway, after much delay we arrived in Hackney Wick, at The People’s Assembly office (situated within those of the Morning Star) at 11 am, to be greeted by Steve hanging out of the upstairs window shouting a greeting. We parked up, and those with smaller bladders/prostatism relived themselves, before we loaded both cars, cramming them full of tinned foods and labelled bags packed with trainers, hoodies and sleeping bags etc. There was no time for coffee, or breakfast. We had a train to catch in Folkstone.
Sam Fairbairn, Tom Griffiths and Steve Sweeney (People’s Assembly)
Our passage to the Euro Tunnel terminal was uneventful, apart from some of my more interesting and unique driving skills. By now I was beginning to enjoy the experience and feeling exited about completing our mission. We even managed to book ourselves onto an earlier train and replenish our now very depleted nutritional and fluid levels.
Norman and John W were slightly delayed due to a search of their vehicle at the French Passport Control…
Never having used the Tunnel before made this trip all the more ‘exotic’, though at times it wasn’t very clear where we were to go, having at one point to drive onto and out of a platform due to a ‘technical fault’ on one train.
The journey to Calais was then a very quick 35 minutes. We were rapidly out and into the quite beautiful town; only to discover the Sat Nav is only set up for the UK and Ireland.
A quick attempt was then made to use the MAPS app on an iPhone which Greg had never used, added to the fact that the address given to us, when programmed in, took us to the centre of town, not to an industrial estate as expected. To top this, the contact phone number I had been given just went to answerphone and my text remained unanswered. We had also lost Norman and John W.
However, after lots of swearing, and frequent disgust at the internet dropping off every few minutes we found that if we put in second line of the address alone it would take us to the correct destination. We arrived at the Care4Calais depot at about 5pm.
It was very busy with aid arriving continually and the volunteers rushing hither and thither unloading vans and lorries, then loading their van to distribute aid at the local camp.
It took a few minutes to discover who was in charge to introduce ourselves, and at first I doubted we were expected. But once introductions were made, we were welcomed. We unloaded the vehicles within a few minutes thanks to all the young people working at the depot; then signed in and were given bibs to identify us, ensuring we were covered by their insurance.
Our group was then assimilated with theirs as we were taken aside, given specific roles and instructed how to behave during aid distribution, to ensure that it was done efficiently and safely. As soon as the van returned from the camp it was replenished, this time with individual care packages. The previous drop had been of gas cylinders, in preparation for Eid.
We were told to leave our cameras behind. Those in the camp do not want their photos taken because if these are seen and identified by the authorities it will affect their place of asylum.
We then followed the van in convoy, taking two of the volunteers. Tara (19) a student studying Politics in Liverpool, and Sophia (20) also a student. Tara had previously volunteered with her Mum, and had decided to return on her own. She was going to stay for a month. She explained that she loved being able to help, but that at times it could be quite challenging. She told me of a recent attack on a migrant she knew. A young lad, he’d just been walking back to the camp a couple of weeks before when the Police had stopped him and arrested him, taking him to a nearby woods, where they had abandoned him to a group of men dressed in black who had spent an hour beating him with sticks…
Tara (Left) Sophia
After a short journey across to the other side of town we drove down a small road, across some rail tracks and into scrubland near a beach. There were just 2 CRS (Companies Republicans de Securite) Officers at the entrance.
A short walk and we were in the camp. A lot of the young men knew the volunteers and came over to greet them. The camp looked clean and organised; there were shacks made of plywood and covered in Tarpaulin, metal containers and even some caravans. We were going into the end of the camp for men; there is another for families. As we walked along men and boys, as young as 14, either smiled and shouted ‘Salaam!’ or looked suspiciously at our strange band. The van arrived and we took up our places. In a blur of activity the van was emptied in about 30 minutes. The men queued patiently, silently, giving little eye contact. As I stood there, I tried to imagine the vocations and backgrounds of these men; they were mostly young, in their 20s and 30s, and ethnically muslim. There were a few middle aged men, and some Africans, but they were a minority. They are almost all middle class and well educated, brought to this place and this humiliation because of War or circumstance. These are Teachers, Engineers, Doctors and Lawyers. It would be better to take the 6000 of them, and to let them live decent lives, contributing to our society, rather than spending £millions trying to keep them out.
All too quickly it was over and we were on our way back to camp; too many questions swimming around my head. Emotions and thoughts to process.
We said our goodbyes as they loaded the van for another run, and thanked them for their hospitality.
On our journey home John C-J and I discussed the day. I am so pleased to have gone… and more determined to get back.