Anna with Judy, Flor and Stella

Anna with Judy, Flor and Stella

Written by Anna Chapman
On Wednesday 2nd September the body of Aylan Kurdi washed up on the shores of Bodrum, Turkey. That evening, as I watched the news, I cried. I could no longer sit and do nothing. I linked up with my friends in Dorset at a church called Father’s House and agreed to collect as many donations as I could for their pending trip to ‘the jungle’ in Calais. When they asked me to join their trip I didn’t hesitate. On 1st October we travelled to Calais with donations, open hearts and a willingness to do whatever we could to help. We wanted to meet people, shake their hands, hear their stories, pray for them and see what practical help we could offer in the short time we were there.

We had made contact with a few people on the ground and went straight to Françoise’s warehouse on arrival at Calais. At the warehouse we met a volunteer from Halifax called Kate. She had intended to help for a few days and was still there a few weeks later – a familiar story amongst the volunteers, many of whom were completely worn out. Holly from Harrogate was another. Simon, Silvan, Margy, Nico, Theeka, Sarah, Layla, Toby, Claire…the list goes on. Heroes, all of them.

We helped at the warehouse for a short while before going into the jungle. Kate kindly took us in so that we knew where to park. Whether my team would admit it I am not sure, but I think we were all pleased to have an escort for those first few minutes! She introduced us to a family of 11 from Afghanistan who had arrived the night before. The youngest was a beautiful 5 year old girl called Maria. My heart broke when I saw her; she didn’t look much older than my daughter. Barely an hour has gone past since our first meeting that I haven’t thought of her. One of her elder brothers spoke excellent English and seemed to be the main communicator for the family. He was probably no more than 10 years old.

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Although we had all agreed to stay together in our group of 6, within minutes we had separated into smaller groups chatting with people. Paul and I sat with a group of men from Iran. They had spent thousands of pounds each to reach Calais. Their faces went from smiles and enthusiasm to quite reflection when they told us that they lost friends on the way. As with so many people that we met, they had left family back at home and had family in England. Lost. Separated. They don’t know if they will ever see their loved ones again, and they may die trying. I went back to their tent two days later with some gloves that I had promised to get for them. They weren’t there, and it was only later that I feared they were some of those who attempted to get through the tunnel on Friday night and didn’t succeed. Word in the jungle was that 10 refugees died. The media reported that many were arrested.

I find it hard to believe media reports now. I saw one news report that filmed a fight between some of the refugees, describing how trouble had started between the different ‘gangs’. Having been there I saw no evidence of ‘gangs’ or violence – most likely what was filmed was a short outburst when tensions were high. This is understandable when you consider the conditions that these people are living in and how hopeless, desperate and traumatised they are. People naturally settle with others from their home country (who wouldn’t) but that hasn’t made them gangs. Quite the opposite; we witnessed countless examples of refugees helping one another regardless of their nationality, religion, sex, age …

Whilst walking through the camp a Sudanese man approached us. ‘I need milk, can you get me any milk?’ We said we didn’t have any food, and stood to talk with him for a while. He explained that Toby was his best friend who provided for him and his 23 family members most days. Toby was one of the volunteers whose approach was more ‘personal shopping’ than mass distribution. He was a saviour to many. We had cash, so we decided to go to one of the local ‘shops’ in the camp, mainly run by Pakistanis (one of the shop owners was well aware of the stereotype and had some very humorous exchanges with us about it). We bought 20 milk cartons and walked with our new friend to his ‘home’. He had no money so without charitable giving was lost. They had built a shelter and had beds on pallets to keep from getting wet. They were as established as they could have been in the circumstances. He showed us where they cooked, pointing out that he had no washing up liquid to clean their pots. We came away realising the need for items like cooking stoves, gas, charcoal, cleaning equipment (all the things you’d take on a camping trip, really). I went back the next day with some sponges and washing up liquid. He wasn’t there so I left it all on his bed.

It didn’t feel unsafe at all. Without exception, everybody that we met in the jungle was kind and friendly. The most hostility that we received was from the French Police. We asked them their opinion and they made it very clear that they didn’t want these people here and that they held the British people responsible! Regardless of how safe we felt, we tried to be sensible and follow the guidance given about distributing aid. If you opened a bag and gave one item away you would be surrounded by a large group within seconds, and this inevitably involved some pushing and shoving. These people are desperate. However, the lads had cheeky grins on their faces; they knew they should have lined up! They didn’t want to hurt anyone and for the most part whenever they saw someone with things to donate they shouted ‘Line! Line!’ and sure enough people made a line in record speed and waited patiently for whatever the donation was. It was fascinating and impressive to watch. Looking back to Boxing Day sales in our country I can only imagine the carnage that would ensue if we were in their shoes.

On Friday I joined Flor, Judy and Stella to help in the warehouse while Paul and Louis joined the building team in the jungle (more about that later). The mountains of donations to go through was overwhelming. It was also utterly disheartening. Unfortunately the majority of donations that we spent all day sorting had to be given to ‘cash for clothes’ as they were completely inappropriate. Soiled underpants (yes, you read that correctly), used tights with holes in, stiletto shoes, tatty teddy bears, dirty, smelly and ripped clothes. Someone had to deal with all the bags, so we were happy to help, but the volunteers’ time is precious and could have been used much more wisely.

Paul and Louis helped build wooden shelters in the camp. They are cheap and don’t take long to build. The majority of refugees are living in flimsy tents that will not be suitable for the winter. More shelters are desperately needed. We spent the £2000 that we’d collected in donations on wood so that 35 more could be built in our absence, housing 4-6 people each. Louis will return with a ‘building team’ to help make more, and we will raise as much money as we can for this purpose.

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On Friday night we had the opportunity to help at Jules Ferry which is where the one meal each day that the French Government provides is served. There were plenty of smiles and people asking for more than their allocated portion size. We wanted to give them all they wanted but with so many people needing to be fed we respected the rules we’d been given. Some of the men couldn’t look us in the eye. They held their heads down, too ashamed to look at us whilst accepting their measly hand out. I could only imagine how they must have felt. Others, though, were open to a few giggles and cheeky exchanges. All were polite. It was so humbling. Every one of them had a story. Every one of them a trauma. A lost relative. A dream.

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The condition of the camp itself was disgusting. There was litter everywhere. The toilets were filthy and had faeces on the seats and around the toilet. This will only get worse as more people arrive and the weather gets colder and wetter. This is no place for people to live.

We will return. We must return. These wonderful people are in dire need, on our doorstep. If you want to come with us, you would be welcome – jobs can include helping at the warehouse, litter picking, distributing aid, building the shelters, talking with the refugees and praying for them, serving food with Jules Ferry…..There is so much we can do!