This weekend, Oxfordshire Refugee Solidarity took 32 volunteers to Calais and Dunkirk to work with organisations caring for Refugees and Migrants in and around Northern France. The volunteers had spent the previous 2 months collecting aid, including approximately 300 children’s rucksacks, filled with crayons, paper, books, bubbles, hats, gloves and scarves. Most were collected by schools, replacing shoeboxes traditionally collected at this time of year, and many had personal messages from the schoolchildren tucked inside. This aid was enough to completely fill a very large transit van.
We travelled down on Friday evening, via Eurotunnel, staying overnight in the local Youth Hostel which is excellent – if basic- and provides a free, all you can eat, breakfast. Our group includes a variety of experience, abilities, ages, and backgrounds. Inexplicably, it also includes an inordinately large percentage of Vegans. The big difference to this trip was that it will be my last, for the time being. I start Chemotherapy on December 14th, and will not be able to participate again until my immune system has recovered, and will be dependant on side effects and future health. This fact precipitated my sister, Sally, and 3 children, Abbie, Hattie and Jacob to join our venture. One minibus came with volunteers from Thame, the second with those from Didcot and Oxford.
On Saturday morning we split into 2 groups, with half going to work with the Refugee Community Kitchen, which provides approximately 2700 hot meals a day in and around Calais and Dunkirk. Our group went to work with Clare Mosley and her team at Care4Calais. The situation on the ground changes on an almost daily basis, and though these organisations try to plan food and aid distributions, these often have to be reactive. After offloading our aid into the warehouse, Clare gave us the daily briefing. Today Help Refugees, Utopia 56 and C4C would be working together to distribute new walking boots and socks to every migrant on a single day; something that had never been done before, and which would be logistically challenging. Alongside this we would be working alongside FAST (First Aid Support Team), a group of 6 healthcare professionals from London, who would be inspecting and treating feet before the new boots were worn. We could expect to see bacterial and fungal infections, ulcers, wounds and possibly conditions like Trench Foot, because of sodden, inadequate footwear. The medics would need a volunteer to work alongside each of them, washing feet. Several of us proffered our help. The remaining volunteers would be involved in the boot distribution, which would also include taking mobile phones and battery boosters for any migrants that already had decent walking boots. We would also make up some cake parcels from donations made the day before, and would be giving everyone a can of Coke.
The morning was taken up getting vehicles loaded and collecting and preparing items for distribution. Sally went off into Calais with my girls to collect and prepare lunch.
After eating very well, we split into our teams, which were covering 3 separate sites. Our team went across Calais to an area just to the side a roundabout. A large group of about 40 Eritrean young men and a few Afghan boys had gathered. We drew up our vehicles, and set up a tarpaulin, bench and medical kit at one end. We filled 2 flat bottomed containers with water, adding detergent to one and Dettol to the other.
After the young men received their new boots, they wandered over out of curiosity. We explained, verbally and using our hands, what we wanted to do. Those that spoke English then explained to the others. We soon had a makeshift conveyor belt of clients. The boys would remove their rotten, decaying trainers and sodden socks, then sit in the camping chair we’d set up next to the bench. One of the medics, Simon, would then inspect their feet, especially between the toes; explaining what he found, deciding if I could then wash them in the tray, or if they needed their foot wash separately, if it was something that might be easily passed on to others. I would then greet the smiling client, get them to sit on the bench and wash their feet, especially their toes. Whilst I was in the process I would then ask them questions such as ‘where have you travelled from?’, ‘where are you hoping to travel to?’ and ‘do you have family in the UK?’, or some other small talk. I would then hand them on to Dorothy, who would soak their feet in disinfectant, then hand them on to Vicky, who would dry their feet. A second medic, Tariq, would apply an appropriate, spray/ointment/dressing as required. Talc would be liberally applied, and socks and boots pulled on.
This task, this washing of feet, should be a simple and straightforward one for a nurse. I cannot think of how many patient’s feet I have scrubbed over 35 years. But this was very different; I was on my knees, literally at the feet of people who are treated, by our Government, like insects, cockroaches and described as a ‘swarm’. Their lives have no value to many, yet here we were, doing something essential, yet so symbolic and intimate. Doing something to remind them of their humanity and dignity. It was quite an emotional experience.
However, as often happens we were quickly reminded of the reality and danger that is always present, bubbling just under the surface. The atmosphere changed in a second; in an instant a fight broke out between the Afghanis, then it was 2 fights, with several young men chasing, punching and kicking. Then we saw a knife, a long 12 inch Chef’s knife; flashing in the weak sunlight as a man charged after another, weaving in and out of volunteers and other migrants. Men intervened and just as quickly as it started, it was over. The men involved left, passing the knife between them. There was a man on the ground; we discovered he’d been pepper sprayed. The medics were attending him.
At no point did I feel vulnerable. I was angry, but this dissipated and we carried on. Our clientele started drifting away. We discovered that there were a good proportion of boys who were not prepared to swap their trainers for new, dry boots. The trainers were better for running from the Police.
The CRS are paid by us, as British Taxpayers, to maintain the border on this side of the Channel. To harass, dehumanise and humiliate men, women and children on a daily basis. To mentally and physically break their morale, to pepper spray and teargas their belongings, sleeping bags and food so that it is inedible, and unusable. To confiscate any personal belongings, and destroy any shelter. We treat our animals more humanely.
On Sunday, we decided to take all 32 volunteers to work with Care4Calais; to distribute the children’s rucksacks in Dunkirk, where we knew there to be families. Again, the morning was spent preparing food packages, and sorting aid. After lunch we loaded the vans with a generator and phone charger board, plus the rucksacks, footballs, frisbee and other toys.
I drove the van to Dunkirk with our Care4Calais group leader Isis, who told us she was from Chile. She and her mother had left when she was 5, moving first to Ecuador, then to Spain. She remembered being dragged across the city to various lawyers and solicitors, whilst they applied for Asylum. Once they got their passports they moved on to London. She would be working in France for the next year, 6 days a week. She wasn’t sure what she would do after that, but that it would be something helping refugees and migrants, like herself.
When we got to our destination, we were informed by Isis, that the families were not where they had been on our previous visit. Less than 24 hours after we had left the site in September, the CRS had moved in, destroyed the camp, rounded everyone up, and taken them away to deportation centres in buses. Since then the families that had escaped detection, or had arrived subsequently, had moved further into the scrubland, and become more disparate. This meant, that once parked, we had to walk a lot further to find any encampment. We met lots of men walking around the parkland, but no women or children; after visiting our third empty shelter, we were told that the families had been taken to a hotel for the night, paid for by a local charity; but that they would be returning soon.
We’d left some of the food parcels in the empty tents, and were about to give up waiting, when we started seeing women and children walking toward us with suitcases. When the first reached us they confirmed that because the previous night had been so cold they had been taken to stay in a hotel. Even though we were all feeling very cold, despite our winter coats, gloves, hats and scarves, these refugees were not so well clothed; they would have to spend tonight out in the open. We gave them food parcels, and took the children to the van to receive the donated rucksacks.
Whilst most were taken with smiles, the children were also very particular about the style or type of backpack they wanted. This was to some more important than what was inside. In this they are no different to any other child; despite the desperate circumstances they find themselves in. We didn’t have much time to play with them, the parents were desperate to get them into shelter.
We left once we had distributed all we could and the sun began to dip. On the journey home everyone talked about what they had experienced and what they would take back to family, friends and work colleagues. It does not take a hero to work here, it takes someone who refuses to walk by, someone who refuses to close their eyes to injustice. It changes you. It doesn’t make you feel good, it makes you feel worse; it makes you feel inadequate and very angry.
There is only one way to change the situation for refugees and migrants wanting to come to the UK, and that will be to change our Government for one which has an ethical foreign policy and an ethical policy on migration.
#ToriesOut #refugeeswelcome #openborders #closecampsfield