“I just don’t want to stop doing things because I will just cry if I do”
When Bronwen told me the news she was going out to Calais, I made a face like this:
because firstly, I wish I was brave enough to go myself, and secondly because I am ever-jealous of Bronwen’s borderline irritating do-gooding. It’s sickeningly incessant. Fucking stop. I hate you, Bronwen. Okay, I don’t. But I do.
Three days in, and I wake up to several messages on my phone, one reading:
“I’m fine, I’ve been moderately teargassed, but I’m fine”
Anyway, since then I’ve been desperate to get an interview with her. Turns out, it’s quite interesting. Read on if you’d like to hear more about her experience.
What’s it like out there?
It’s a bit like a sad Glastonbury, if everyone had been there for three, four, five or more months. Living conditions are appalling and everything is temporary here, but there is community and a real spirit to the place.
It’s difficult to describe what it’s like here, because it’s miserable, and everyone volunteering here is spending their time fighting against this massive, seemingly impenetrable government monolith. It’s hard, repetitive work. You might be making a thousand packs of toothbrushes and toothpastes over a few days, and it’s difficult to see immediately how that helps, but everything we do here has a massive effect. Everything we do here matters.
Why is this happening?
These are people coming from countries that they just cannot survive in. These people just want to escape countries where they’re being arrested for arson for just standing near a fire, or being hounded out of their homes for being found in possession of wine. Kurds are being slaughtered fighting against Isis. A family from Afghanistan lent their truck to British forces fighting out there. For that reason, half of them were slaughtered by the Taliban. This was simply because they had aligned themselves with the British, and now they’re on our doorstep, and we’re acting like we don’t care.
People have been extricated or have had to leave their countries because they’ve had no other choice. They come to countries like Greece or Italy. They should claim asylum in the first safe country they come to, but they want to live with their families, or they’ve seen the British and they like them or admire them, and want to live with us. Some of them have studied in the UK. So they work their way to France- they’ve made it so far- and can’t get over or under the channel.
The refugees in the camp are saying that they hope Britain is like Heaven on Earth. I say it’s what you make of it. I don’t want to say it’s not. I don’t want to crush what hope they have.
What’s the structure of the camp like?
Calais is a big camp loosely split into two- the north and south. The South is months and months old, it was the original camp. It’s got the most communal structures. It’s where the main volunteer group is, a library, a youth centre. It’s sort of got a high street with restaurants. People who live there run them. But the police are moving people northward- driving slowly through the camp and bulldozing everything from the Southernmost parts and upwards.
The French government also say that 3000 people live in The Jungle and that there are 1000 in the South. This is wrong – there are many more – but they’re basing all their plans for housing the refugees on this wildly inaccurate estimate. There are “heated containers” provided as an alternative form of shelter, and those have taken many people in, but there are few spaces left (less than 40), and it’s a prison-like environment.
Authorities are also trying to move people to immigration detention centres, but there’s only something like 1000 places across the whole of France. Refugees aren’t using the containers because they believe The Jungle is the best situation France is offering. I think that says a lot.
The Jungle has cafes and meeting spaces and first aid and even its own radio station (Jungala Radio – worth a listen!). It’s a testament to human resilience in times of crisis, and the innovation that follows necessity.
There’s also another camp at Dunkirk. Over the next few days, 1200-1800 (there’s no accurate census) people will be evicted from that camp and moved to a new camp near Grande-Synthe. These refugees are having to leave their entire livelihoods behind. We have to provide everything for them all over again. I will go there over the next few days to help.
How many people are there?
In the most recent census that I’m aware of, there were 5497 people living in the whole camp. 3455 of them were in the South to be cleared. They’re clearing the south part of the camp because its “unsuitable” for “humanitarian reasons” for the refugees. If that’s the reason, they’ve failed in their aims because the methods they are using are completely dehumanising.
I’ve seen the CRS, the Riot Police, using enough tear gas to choke everyone within several hundred metres. They’ve used bulldozers and rubber bullets and fire to destroy a hard-won place of relative safety. The school had to be moved. They burned the Pink Caravan, which used to give out tents and sleeping bags. It’s just a shell now. Large swathes of land that used to be a sheltered community are now fields of rubble and mud.
How do you get into the camp, and where is it?
It’s just sort of like this weird, sad, industrial wasteland on the outskirts of Calais, about 15 minutes from the town itself. It’s on sand dunes, which I guess is good for drainage, but not suitable for permanent living. If you took a photograph of it out of context it could be anywhere in North Africa or the Middle East.
You walk in under a bridge, a huge overpass going towards the channel tunnel, right next to the road going to the crossing. Mostly lorries go past. The idea behind living there is that you hop in a lorry and sneak across, praying you don’t get caught by the police. But that’s really difficult. They’ve even brought in a heat scanner to check for bodies. There’s a rumour going around that someone got inside a refrigerated lorry that had a polar bear inside it, though “Jungle Rumours” like that are common. Every now and then you hear that a friend has got across and everyone quietly rejoices.
It’s a community. A valued community- and there are many smaller individual communities within it as well. People are upset that their shelters are being demolished, not grateful for the opportunity to move. The refugees themselves named this place The Jungle, and they stand up for their right to peacefully inhabit the land.
How does it feel going there?
Most residents of the camp are really gentle people, quick-humoured and smart as hell. I got really angry at some girls volunteering in the camp who said the refugees are “so threatening, like a pack of wolves”. It’s not dangerous at all. I can walk through there in the dark, on my own, and not fear for my safety any more than in South London.
I have only ever been welcomed in The Jungle. Working there, I spend all day being plied with cups of coffee and chai. The guys in the Kabul Café banter about my inability to eat neatly with a flatbread, and jokingly supply me with kitchen roll for my lentil-covered face. I spend much of my time hand-shaking, cheek-kissing, and being laughed at or with.
Is there any racial tension?
90% of the population are young men, wasting the prime of their lives trapped in a desperate situation. If this was British people, I think we’d be at each other’s throats. There are skirmishes. There’s no sort of gang warfare though. Everyone shuffles along. They don’t want to make it any worse for each other.
What sort of things have you been doing to help?
Warehouse operating for L’Auberge de Migrants- that’s the charity I work for. I get there at about 9. Then we split into people who run the Calais kitchen- prepare the food that’s distributed- a hot meal, and also cold food packages. It’s important to make sure that people feel like that can feed themselves if they want to- and give them some independence.
We receive donations of food and clothes, which we sort and put into boxes. We also get some medical supplies, which I was organising last week.
More recently, though, I’ve been in charge of sorting out the clothes. This might sound menial, but if you don’t thoroughly sort it, it can be the difference between someone getting a thin jumper and a fleece- so someone will be cold because of your mistake. When you’re working in the warehouse and not the camp you can’t see anyone, but it’s important to feel the urgency of the situation even when there isn’t a visible need before you.
After being here for a week, you start to feel desperately responsible. Two nations, Britain and France, don’t want anything to do with these people and have abandoned them. Everyone there has already been mistreated by his or her nation of origin, and are fleeing war. The only ones on their side are us volunteers. We are students, retired people and weird hippies. We’re not lawyers, doctors, or politicians, we’re just people that feel like we can’t do what our governments have done and let human beings down in this way- it feels like a huge responsibility.
How do you feel?
I feel motivated. It’s motivation like you’ve never known it before. I have over 5000 people counting on me and my friends. I don’t know what would happen if the volunteers packed up and left.
I sat on the toilet the other day – this was the first rest I’d had in hours – and I just started crying. It’s very hard to process, and it comes out for me in random bursts. It was just real frustration at the situation. It’s a deep, innate knowledge that everything that’s happening is unfair. It seems like this is the worst place on Earth.
Emotionally, you’re inspired, motivated, proactive, protective, fulfilled and engaged. But it’s also incredibly sad. I feel so angry all the time. I want to buy a lorry and put 5000 people in it and run over the border police and only then will it feel fair. They’re complex people. We just can’t leave them there in a pile of rubbish and sand and human waste.
Some of them have even gone back to their own countries. They would rather go back to a war-torn Syria than stay in France. Not a lot of them, but some of them. Isn’t that disgusting?
What’s the hardest thing about being out there?
Managing to act in a way that is sensitive to the situation. It’s very hard to make sure you’re not being a tourist. A lot of people want to see the camp, take pictures or just stare. People notice that stuff. It’s not right to go and take a picture of a refugee washing. You don’t go into someone’s bathroom and take pictures. It’s hard to know what’s going to be the most sensitive and respectful way of doing things.
Everything we do as volunteers is approved by community leaders inside the Jungle. We don’t do anything unless they want us to. But it’s hard to make sure everyone’s represented and isn’t left feeling worthless. How do you provide everything for someone and not make them feel completely useless? The means they have of providing for themselves are taken away over and over again. It’s not hard to see them as people, but its hard to figure out how they want you to treat them- how do you ask someone how to best make them feel happy and safe?
You get undercover journalists, and a lot of misery tourists- people who show up and take sad pictures of teddy bears in rubble. They see how awful it is, spend the day milling around, and satisfy their curiosity. I’m glad people are curious, but treating it as though it’s a spectacle, a historical event that just happens to be happening now, is not necessarily helpful.
Another hard thing is how much love you find you have for everyone in the camps. The empathy is overwhelming. I would do anything for these people. It’s humbling and amazing.
What’s the most rewarding this about it?
The Afghan rice- it’s delicious! [laughs].
The most rewarding thing hasn’t happened yet. It will be ten years down the line when we look back on this, and view the people who were anti-immigration as backward and unfeeling. When we know that we were on the right side of history. When, hopefully, some of these young men have families, and there’s a whole new wave of second-generation immigrant people who are contributing to society in Britain and our lives there.
Everything that we’ve done here probably won’t be remembered, but I hope someday I’ll be a footnote in a man’s story to his children – the lady who woefully failed at traditional Syrian dancing, or helped clean out some tents.
What do you want people back home to know?
We need men’s pants! New ones, please! And warm men’s clothes in sizes small and medium, and most importantly we need volunteers!
We received two massive boxes full of men’s underwear the other day. We hadn’t had any donations of pants in weeks. We were screaming and laughing and crying and wearing them on our heads – the brand new volunteers thought we’d gone mental. We were so excited to give them out. It was the best thing. It mattered so, so much to us.
I want people to know that it’s not scary here. People in the camp are gentle, but stressed. And the only thing keeping them there is hope that Britain will be amazing – and we should prove it to them. Let’s all be humanitarian and pro-immigration and prove that the UK can be the haven that these people think it will be.
I’ve been working nine days straight and tomorrow will be my tenth. It’s hard to stop once you start. It’s going to be so weird coming back to England. I can’t not come back to the people of The Jungle. There’s a reason people stay here for months on end. It feels like we live at the end of the World, but there’s no place I’d rather be, because it’s the place that needs me the most.