Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Day 1 - The Jungle

We arrive a day late.  Thats a long story!  We get emotional from the first sighting of ‘that’ fence – the one that makes the “Jungle” look like a concentration camp. Three fences that stretch forever with razor wire at the top. The fence that cost an obscene amount of money. Money that could have been poured into helping rather than controlling the people who reside in the Jungle. 

The main road in to the Jungle is blocked off by French police in full riot gear.  Then a text comes through from a trusted volunteer advising of trouble in the camp this morning.  We’re not quite sure what has happened but there are lots of police.  This could be normal, we’re not sure.  The camp from the main road looks just awful and we’re all visibly shaken. We spend ages driving around trying to find the only access left to the Jungle. Eventually we get there.

We are picked up almost immediately by a volunteer who drives us over the sandy banks into the hub of the camp. My initial impressions are that it looks just like the settlements I’d previously seen in Ghana and Tanzania except this is tents and wooden structures with tarpaulin over them, not mud huts.  But this is France in 2015. Just 23 miles away from the UK. It just blows my mind.

Three of us are sent out to look for women.  Its clothing distribution day for women so we need to let them know where to go.  We start to walk through the Jungle looking for women and immediately get caught up in other things.  

We meet a 27 year old Syrian man. He is in shock.  He tells us, in perfect English, that his mother sent him away from Damascas because she was frightened for his safety. His sister, her husband and his two nieces had already been killed. He tells us that his mother still remains in Syria. She isn’t capable of making the journey to “safety” and her only option is to go to neighbouring Lebanon where the camps are described as much worse than the Jungle as they are overcrowded and cramped with few resources. Conditions there are apparently awful and her health issues mean that its very unlikely she would survive.

As we speak to the man, he tells us that his eyes are sore. He tells us he was camped on the fringes of the Jungle and at 6 a.m. this morning, he was woken by the French police firing tear gas canisters amongst the tents.  He was then hauled out of the tent and marched, by the police, into the perimeter of the Jungle.  A bulldozer then came and destroyed all his possessions and he only had the clothing he stood in.  I am close to tears as I ask him why the French police did this. He says ‘we’re animals – its fine’. I tell him its not fine – its anything but fine.  I have to turn away because I can feel the tears of outrage that an articulate and intelligent young man, who would be an absolute asset to any country which he settles in, feels that he is subhuman.

It became apparent it isn’t just a few people that had been woken up in such a manner.  There are nearly 300 individuals, mainly from Syria and fleeing the devastation of war, all left with only the clothing they stand in. Some had even lost their documentation – everything they possessed was gone. The French police wouldn’t allow them to return to collect any of their belongings. They had no shelter. We quickly set to work trying to source things for them.

We have brought a huge army marquee. Problem is that we don’t know how to put this up – its massive. It will provide much needed shelter.  We meet more volunteers and they come to help us. Some of the guys who live in camp help too.  

I use the term ‘live’ but I really want to say ‘exist’.  The solidarity within communities is quite amazing and lots of the displaced-by-the-French-police Syrians have already found some shelter with other people in the camp. Others are lucky enough to get donations.  Our tent will provide shelter for a few nights.

We have a van full of items brought from home deemed to be necessary items such as waterproof coats. We learn quickly that if you spend time in the camp before you attempt distribution, recruit your own ‘security team’ (all of which are rewarded by giving them other items that we don’t have a lot of such as torches and gloves), ensure the lines are kept in order and take your time, you can distribute easily.  What doesn’t sit right with me is the dehumanising aspect of queues.  We discuss options for this but there is no solution that we can think of at this stage.  We know we have items which are needed – we just aren’t quite sure how to get them to the people who need them.

Unfortunately there are lots of people who come to the Jungle with ‘aid’ and are overwhelmed or bring the wrong items.  Then there are piles of discarded items. Some people simply dump the goods they’ve brought and run. This results in an increasing problem with litter in the jungle.  Facilities to discard waste, such as black bags, are in short supply.  Since we left Calais, a team came in from Sheffield and cleared the site with rubbish and handed out bin bags.  Amazing work!

I don’t have the strongest bladder in the world (too much information?!) so the only option is for me to use one of the few make-shift toilets that are in the camp.  They’re just awful.  My work in Ghana was all about toilets and health and these toilets were worse than anything I ever saw in rural Ghana.  They’re just awful.  Its a cholera outbreak waiting to happen. Raw sewerage is running into the streets. Some portaloos are there but these are also just awful. There is no other words – its just awful.  There are some taps in the Jungle but most appear to leak.  The amazing team of volunteers try to stay on top of the leaks to repair them and its these leaks that create a lot of puddles which in turn, make the roads around the camp very muddy.

I should explain more about the Jungle because sure as hell that the mainstream UK media won’t show you the reality.  Its a piece of land reclaimed from the sea on the Eastern outskirts of the port of Calais.  Its basically sand and dirt.  The authorities put up an embankment on the only road into the Jungle. It now has a couple of entrances in these embankments where you can drive into the actual camp. The Jungle is an unofficial or illegal camp. This is why the mainstream charities can’t work there.  Some tents and structures are better than others.  Some will last the winter. Others won’t.  When it rains, the roads turn to sludge. There are ‘lakes’ in the camp. A few are really just large puddles which never drain.  The camp is divided loosely into sections according to nationality. People tend to live communally.  

It should be noted that the camp changes constantly with new arrivals and departures.  Estimates are that a year ago there were just 1.300 in the camp. That is thought to have risen to between 3,000 and 4,000 as of September 2015.  As you can imagine, the population of a makeshift camp increasing as fast as this has led to real crisis in the camp due to the lack of resources.

Against general thought, there are people in the camp who don’t want to come to the UK.  Some have claimed asylum in France and are awaiting the outcome.  Some are employed in Calais.  The reasons why they are there is irrelevant because they are there because its safer than home, they’ve all got stories to tell and they all want a life and a future. No one wants to be there. No one would choose to live there. Not one person I spoke to appeared aware of our welfare state or our social housing.  When talking about the future, the priorities were finding their families, having dreams and aspirations and finding a job.  What is wrong in that?  All that I asked said they would return to their home country if they could in the future.  Many still had family who hadn’t escaped.  Some didn’t know if they were alive or dead. 

The only important thing is that they are human beings in need living in conditions which are so far beyond unacceptable. And this is happening. In Western Europe. 23 miles from our shores.

I see people living in the Jungle and think that if my birth country was destroyed by bombs and my family, friends and community were being slaughtered, you are damn right I’d be out of here with my family to get them to safety. Somewhere they could live with no fear.  This is what I fail to understand about people who lack compassion and empathy towards the crisis.  What would they do in a similar situation? 

I digress. 

There are lots of helicopters overhead.  As night falls, we hear banging.  I’m told to ignore this as its the police.  I’m warned the internet and mobile phone signal in the camp is frequently turned off.   Syrian sim cards don’t work.  So many people are desperate to contact their families to let them know they are safe.

I meet a group of men from Afghanistan, it becomes apparent that they blame the Taliban and ISIS as the reason they have to flee their country rather than ‘our’ meddling in things. I will try to keep this non-political but there is a clue on where I stand on this issue.

A man hands one of our girls a bracelet for giving him a coat. It turns out these are Syrian Prayer Beads. She will treasure that gift from someone who had so little to give, yet wanted to say thank you. 

There is something that feels wrong about heading to a hotel tonight. I think that we have felt every emotion possible today.  We have some food at the hotel and although we should have been winding down, our discussion very much focuses on what we can do to help.  I go to bed feeling guilty that I have a comfy bed and running water to shower in the morning.  It just feels wrong.

1 comment:

  1. Hi! we're 5 students from a Spanish school in Catalonia. We are amazed of your voluntary job in the jungle. we're wondering if we could ask you some questions about your experience. keep it strong.