Three weeks ago I went to the Refugee Camp in Calais known as The Jungle.
I’m not sure who gave it that name. And I’m not sure how I ended up finding myself driving my small car stuffed to the brim with donations there.
I had been following the media coverage of the growing number of asylum seekers gathering in Calais over the last few weeks with growing sense of disbelief.
Disbelief at the way in which their plight had been used as a launch pad for so many political careers. I couldn’t shake the image of two parallel sequences where one person escapes unimaginable horrors and arrives at the camp exhausted, haunted and at their most vulnerable, while at the very same moment, another person is being paid a tidy sum of money to decide whether the collective noun for such a person is a Swarm or a Plague.
And disbelief at the concept that I just happen to be born in a country that is fairly stable and safe and I have a passport that allows me to enter pretty much any place in the world with relative ease. As far as I can recollect, I didn’t do anything to earn that privilege. I was just born in England.
And so I continued to follow the story. And then, a few days ago, something appeared on my Facebook feed about a group of people who had visited the camp. They had started collecting donations to take back there and within a few hours they had been overwhelmed. So many people had contributed so much stuff that they had to close down the three collection points.
There were still many people who had collected donations and now had no one to give it to. So I found myself volunteering to drive their bags down if they could drop them off to me.
Then I got nervous and worried I’d end up with one jumper and an old pair of my dad’s shoes, so I put a shout out with my friend Rebecca to all our friends and families and within a few hours they had all mobilised. I spent the following day driving around South London picking up blankets and tents and clothes and shoes and food and toiletries.
I got a call from a woman who asked if I could meet her at Clapham Junction station. She had got the train with her seven-month-old daughter and the buggy was stuffed with as many bags as she could fit and then more hung on the handles.
And then that evening I stayed at home as one stranger after another rang my bell to drop off even more stuff.
Those who were unable to meet me in time sent money to my bank account.
Within three days we had gathered so much stuff that my little Peugeot 206 was rammed.
On Wednesday morning I drove down to Streatham and picked Rebecca up, who was waiting with even more bags, and we shoved more stuff into the car and headed to Dover. Another friend was waiting down there. He had hoped to come with us in my car, but by I now could hardly fit in it myself. Instead he drove himself down from London, met us outside the dock, loaded even more tents and sleeping bags into my car and waved us onto the ferry.
It was when we were pulling out of the port that a few things dawned on me. I had no idea if I was insured to drive in France, I had never driven on the other side of the road before, and I was pretty sure that if I put “The Jungle, Calais” into my SatNav I wouldn’t get much love.
Luckily Rebecca had had the foresight to contact a charity that was working at the camp and they sent us the details that got us there.
And then we were there.
In a refugee camp like out of one of John Snow’s reports. Except this wasn’t Africa or Afghanistan, but France – the same place we went to on all those school trips.
We drove through in shock. People walking past on their way to get water, hundreds of people queuing to receive their one meal a day. People sitting waiting, organising, helping build a new shelter from some sticks and tarpaulin. A resident artist teaching an art lesson using chalk on the road. A football match.
We were guided to a small warehouse at the far end of the camp where all the donations are unloaded. Our contact was a young French woman called Sylvie. She was a volunteer for Salam. She was joined by another woman, both in their early twenties. They wore fluoro jackets and they were authorised to let us in to the camp and also to open the warehouse.
We didn’t know what to expect. I think we had thought we might just unload the car and hand over all the donations to a slick group of professional charity workers who would then sagely decide what went to whom. Instead we unloaded the car with the two young women, who had to dash off intermittently to attend to the few of the thousand people there, whilst Rebecca and I were left to sort through all the bags and put the donations into the right pile.
There were separate piles for men’s clothes, women’s clothes, shoes, tents, blankets, food and toiletries.
When I went back out to the car a group of men had edged close to the building and I suddenly felt quite nervous. Sylvie returned and explained to the men that they needed to stay on the other side of the gate. They asked her for shoes and a jumper for their friend who had just arrived at the camp. She took down his size and then rummaged through the piles and chose some supplies and handed them to him.
Just like that.
More people came and she tried to accommodate as many as she could. We helped by making small piles of tents and sleeping bags. A jumper or a blanket. But we left Sylvie to discern what to give to whom. I think because she had the fluoro jacket.
We asked her if there were more volunteers who helped her. She said sometimes Charlie comes.
A few more people had come over from England that day. They joined us as we sorted through the donations. One woman was wearing high-heeled boots, short shorts and lots of jewellery. After a while she invited us to go for a wander around the camp. We said we didn’t have much time here and were hoping to help out at the school.
And so we got back into the now empty car and drove to the entrance of the camp. As I parked up a man approached us walking with crutches. He had flip flops on and a T-shirt. His friend who spoke a bit of English explained that he had just arrived and needed a jumper and shoes. One of the volunteers made a call and then told us that there were some supplies near the school and could I give this man a lift. So we all piled into my car. We put the man on crutches in the front next to me and the other volunteers in the back. We drove to where the make shift school is where there was a small pile of supplies gathered. They sorted through it and gave him a jumper and a pair of trainers. Rebecca realised that they were her old trainers.
She was chuffed to see to whom they were going.
He was chuffed they were Converse.
We went into the school. It’s a building the size of a small living room made of bits of wood and tarpaulin. Inside the walls are covered with colourful pictures and maps. An old-skool chalkboard has French words written in elegant cursive. There are odd-matching chairs and desks and the floor is dusty.
We met a man there called Zee from Sudan who is a qualified engineer. He helped build the school. He speaks French, English, Italian and Spanish. He also speaks his local language, but didn’t include it in the list as it’s not international.
We met Virginie and Sylvie – the two volunteer teachers who run the school and they talked animatedly about all the things they need. Textbooks and shelves and a generator. I made a list and asked her who we should send the money to. She said no money. It gets too complicated. Raise the money and then buy the stuff yourselves and bring it over to us.
She talked about the new class they were starting for women to come and learn with their children. At first, they said, people were nervous, fearing it was a religious school that would contradict their own beliefs. But a handful of women had ventured in and that was enough to cause the “Arab Internet”, or word-of-mouth, to kick into action and now more people were braving class.
They were also encouraging men to come to separate men’s classes too.
As we spoke, an Eritrean man in his fifties shyly approached one of the teachers and quietly asked when the next class would be. She enthusiastically told him to come back tomorrow morning.
“Ok! Tell the others!”
They were all warm and friendly and inclusive and grateful. The volunteers and the residents.
We helped clean the school and tidy away the equipment.
On the outside of the school someone had painted a picture of a smiling child with his hands in the air. They told us it was the resident artist who was also an architect and had built the blue house with the thatched roof that towered over the other tarpaulin homes.
This artist wandered over grinning and shaking hands with everyone. He had a T-shirt that said “My friend went to the UK and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”
We talked to him for a while and he told us about the art class he had given earlier using chalk to draw on the road.
Then we met another man called Awad and his friend Nasser. Awad invited us to his home for a cup of tea. We said we had come to help and didn’t want to take anything from him but he said we were missing the point.
“It’s important you come and talk to us. Get to know us. That’s the only way things will change. We know what they’re saying about us and it’s not true. You have to go and tell them that. See for yourself. Plus you have come to my home. You are my guests.”
He had been in the camp for two years. He remembered the early days when there was a lot of fighting between nationalities. People distrusting each other. Sticking to their own. Police intervention. Brutality.
“Now there is more cooperation. People helping each other out. We know we need to do this if we are going to survive here.”
A woman walked by. She was about six months pregnant. Apparently there is a small makeshift hospital here but it might close soon because they don’t have enough volunteers.
And so the time came to leave. We shook hands and said we’d be back. He told us to come to this area near the school and ask for Awad.
As it started to get dark, we asked Awad what they would do once we had left.
“What we do every night. We will put on dark clothes and head for the tunnel.”
Then we got back into the car and drove back to the port. There was a queue at the border control. Sniffer dogs eagerly pulled at their leashes, checking every van, lorry, boot.
When we finally arrived at the post the man asked our names and we handed our British passports over for his approval.
“Just the two of you is it?”
The gate opened and we drove onto the ferry and headed back to England.
Just like that.