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Part 6 – A bientôt

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Friday

Last night I got back to the hostel and discovered I had a really interesting new roommate. Yasmine Bouagga is a researcher with the National Centre For Scientific Research in France. She lives in Paris and teaches at a university in Lyon. She is doing ethnological research in the camp. My pre-MA mind is spinning in excited circles. I really want to talk to her but have arranged to meet the dried food team for a farewell pizza.

Fortunately, Yasmine does not believe in early nights and we both return later and sit chatting on our beds till 1 a.m. She is producing papers and a chapter for a book from her research in the camp. I try and absorb everything she is saying into my exhausted grey matter. We swop email addresses and Facebook details so I will get to hear when her work is published. I look at some of the work she has done with a cartoonist that is published in Le Monde, a national French newspaper. The cartoons portray life in the camp for the refugees. The French love a cartoon and this is a good way to convey some of her research to the public.

There is so much concern about the forthcoming demolition of the camp. The authorities are giving no details to the charities, so it is hard to help the refugees prepare for the future. The charity has put out calls for emergency supplies of tents, rucksacks, rolling suitcases and mobile phones to help people leave with dignity and stay in touch with the emergency services and their families.

Yasmine assures me that the police can’t just go into the camp without giving a certain number of weeks notice. I tell her of Libby’s fear of being there when they arrive and not knowing where to go with the children. She tells me that it is unlikely any volunteers will be let within 3kms of the Jungle when the eviction and demolition start.

I am feeling really wobbly about leaving today. I come in on a conversation between a fellow dried food volunteer and a long term volunteer. They are talking about the eviction. I offer Yasmine’s reassurances but am put down firmly by the long-term volunteer. She was present when the police demolished part of the camp in February.
She tells me that law and human rights were ignored. Shacks were knocked down with people’s belongings still inside, pregnant women were hit, children were struck with batons and tear gas was used at close range, to list just a few abuses of human rights. My friend, a strong Scottish woman, dissolves into sobs. My eyes stream and I walk away. I don’t want to believe this, or that it could happen again.

No wonder the refugees want to come to the UK. They believe we have a democratic society where human rights are respected. Yasmine told me the story, last night, of one adolescent who had tried to get to the UK five times, each time risking his life. He said when the French police catch him they spray tear gas right in his face, beat him and verbally abuse him when they pull him from a lorry. When caught at the UK border control he was spoken to politely, held in a room but offered a prayer mat, a Koran and haloumi sandwich before being sent back into the hands of the French authorities. I am so proud of the English police and so sickened by what I hear of the French CRS.

My friends want to go back to Jungle Books this evening, but Dave and Clare have gone home and no one drives. I speak French so I order them a taxi. I wish I were going with them.

My eye is on the clock as I fill bags with flour. I need to leave in time to catch the 4 o’clock bus. I am feeling strangely nervous about leaving. Turning my back on this place feels so sad. In the end I go a little early to get it over with.

I have only been here a week, but from the moment I say goodbye to the dried food team in Calais Kitchen and walk through the warehouse gates my heart turned to mush. Face dusted with flour and streaked with tears, I must have appeared a terrifying apparition to the bus driver.

Many of my friends have returned to the UK now, but the long-term volunteers remain with a new dried food team.

I receive an email from Helen, who has returned home to her little boy. She tells me the taxi never turned up to take them to the Jungle. Other taxi firms made excuses.

They went down to the beach that night, and Jean Marc told them of his day in the First Aid tent. One man had come in with a smashed kneecap. His knee had come into contact with a police boot.

Jean Marc is concerned about how the refugees will manage if they have to walk far after the eviction. Some refugees arrive at the camp without shoes and even, occasionally, without shirts. These have been taken by police who take the refugees into custody at Calais railway station before releasing them into the Jungle. Recently, refugees who have attempted to go in to Calais have had their boots and phones taken by police before being told “Allez Jungle”, and sent back to the camp. Those that still have their boots them wear them day and night for fear they will be stolen. They end up with foot problems, particularly if the boots are wet and caked with mud.

I don’t know if the Sudanese and Afghan men I met, are still in the camp or what their futures hold. The refugees have faced so much fear, loss and trauma in their own countries, made hard and terrifying journeys and now face eviction from the Jungle. The conditions are dreadful, but there is some food, safety and shelter. There is support and a semblance of community – and there are books.

I can’t imagine how the French authorities are going to organize shelter for 10,000 people. They haven’t sorted accommodation for the unaccompanied children yet. But the demolition has to go ahead. There is a presidential election around the corner and President Hollande wants the Jungle cleared.

I am told that those who agree to get on the “mystery buses” and seek asylum in France don’t know where they are going, and nor do the charities. Those that refuse will be “hunted out of Calais” and scattered. It will be extremely difficult to reach and help them.

On the 18th October, The Lille Tribune gave the go-ahead for the camp to be closed down. Apparently, “it considered that the principle of the plan involved no intention to cause inhuman or degrading treatment”.

I watch the news, read www.calaidpedia and pray for all concerned. May all be safe and unharmed. Behind those wires are people.

Part 5 – Jungle Books – A Little Library on the Dunes

Thursday

My days in the warehouse have been brilliant, but I really want to go and work with and talk to the refugees. You have to be staying a fortnight to be involved in work at the camp through Help Refugees, but Dave has been in touch with Jungle Books, the little library and school on the dunes which is run by a separate charity. They are happy for us to come along.

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Jungle Books was the initiative of Mary Jones, who was helping refugees in the Jungle in the early days before other charities arrived to help. This hut and the school next door were built by a group of volunteers and refugees, and the idea was for people to be able to come together and read, learn and relax in a safe space. There are English classes, one to one reading sessions and people can borrow books.This is a literary oasis in the upturned world of those who have lost so much. I am so glad we can go and share it with them.

We have to prepare bags for 5250 people today and I’m fretting we won’t finish in time to leave at 5.30. We need to get to the Jungle at 6pm and can stay till 8pm. Christine, our team leader is coming too and is as motivated as us to get done. As it happens we run out of milk and some of the bags need to be left till morning.

At 5.30 Christine, Helen and I set off with Dave and Clare. We are scrunched up in the back of their wee car which is making throaty rattles of protestation. The small, penciled map we had been given proves a little less than helpful, and we drive in some interesting circles around the outskirts of Calais before finding our way off the motorway and down to the Jungle gates.

The CRS (Riot Police) are at the gates and stop us as we enter. They take our passports and check them out “to make sure we were not criminals” – all quite jokey and a bit of ‘bavarderie’, but I am glad to get my passport back in my pocket. The CRS unnerve me. They ask for papers from Helping Refugees which, of course, we haven’t got, and then poke around in the boot. I am told later that they are looking for construction materials. Building on the site is prohibited. They find Dave’s musical equipment and ask if we are going to do a concert – a security issue. They have no idea where Jungle Books is, of course, and send us to one of the big tents.

It is 6 o’clock and people are wandering around in the cold evening light. Aromatic whiffs of spicy food waft from a little makeshift restaurant and children’s voice and music fill the Kids Cafe. A gentleman redirects us back down the street of tiny makeshift shops and restaurants and out over the cleared wasteland to the little church. This land used to house 3000 refugees before their shelters were demolished back in February. We find the library, Jungle Books, tucked behind the church.

Several young men are already there and more arrive soon after us. Christine sits down on the floor in one corner with a group of three young men. A couple of Sudanese men (both 23) shake my hand and introduce themselves. They insist I take the only chair and go in a vain search for more.

Clare sits outside in the setting sunshine. There is a lip-cracking wind coming in across the dunes and she is shivering uncontrollably. The young man she is reading with tries to give her his coat, but she firmly refuses. She can’t bear to take it. She will warm up later. He won’t.

Dave and Helen also brave the evening chill, and I wonder whether for some, the open space helps them feel freer to unburden and share their stories. Helen hears of threat and loss and fear.

Both young men I am with are well-educated, and one graduated with a degree in history. We search for a suitable book and end up with a French encyclopaedia. They are not particularly interested in learning French but the pictures lead to conversation about the invasion of the Vikings, wildlife and the sinking of the Titanic! I desperately trying to avoid subject matter that might be sensitive but they lead the conversation with their questions.

These men know the camp is closing but have not made a decision whether to apply for French asylum. They are still holding out hope of coming to the UK. I find myself talking about France as I have experienced it, trying to portray the more positive aspects. Their experience of France has been The Jungle, hostile locals and the batons, tear gas and water canons of the French National Police. This is not the France I have experienced. They want to know the differences between the two countries – cost of living, health, education, work opportunities. This is all hypothetical really. Their chances of reaching the UK are minimal.

If they are taken to one of the French “reception centres” they will wait possibly months for their asylum claims to be heard, and the outcome will be uncertain and depend on their individual circumstances. They have fled war and conflict but we do not talk about their personal experiences and loss. For once, I do not ask questions and they choose to keep the conversation light. Maybe my earlier question about whether they saw the scenery as they travelled through France was enough to show my naivety. Oh my God…they were hardly sitting in the front of a car drinking a can of Coke. One hesitates, unwraps a brightly coloured scarf from his head, and tells me quietyly that a man drove him, but no more. I feel foolish and tactless, and realise I am desperately ignorant of what is going on in these people’s countries and what they have gone through.

They talk of Africa being a beautiful continent and ask why I haven’t been there. We talk of wildlife, scenery, food, and education comparing Sudan, the UK and France. It is light conversation and good practise for their English which they speak quite well having learnt the language in school. The problem is that while they speak English, Arabic and their individual tribal languages, they cannot read or write easily using the alphabet. They write in Arabic script. They show me a children’s book written in Arabic script and write my name for me.

Eventually we read. They choose Horrid Henry and a children’s book about a mouse making a shelter in a cold, windy wood. It feels awful to be reading these with intelligent young men. It occurs to me later, over the spice bags, that the library needs books for the so-called “reluctant reader”. Simple English words and grammar to aid learning but with subject matter that is suitable for the culture and age group. It is too late now. Jungle Books will be torn down in a couple of weeks. I read on www.calaid ipedia today that the CRS kicked the door of the bookstore in a few days after I left.

The two men leave shaking my hand warmly and asking if I am coming back tomorrow. I feel dreadful saying ‘No’, that I am going home, but they ask me to tell the people back in the UK that they love us. Their only experience of the British is the volunteers they have met and the British police, who have treated them with human kindness and dignity.

Two young Afghan men arrive just as we are leaving. The sun is sinking and the only light bulb in the wooden shack does not work. We stop to chat for a few minutes. One talks of the Jungle being finished. He is going to stay in France and go to Paris. I have heard that there are thousands sheltering under bridges in Paris. They have less shelter than the refugees in the Jungle. The other man stares into his lap and fiddles with his fingernails. He cannot do that, he says. He must go to England. His uncle is there. His brother is there. He must reach them. He only speaks English, he doesn’t speak French. His agitation is raw and my heart is in knots. I want to reach out and ruffle his hair like a child, to tell him it will be ok – but I can’t and it probably won’t.

I wait until all the men have left and our only company is a few rats scuttling about in search of an evening snack, and then I take a photo of the little library on the dunes at dusk. In a couple of weeks, this little building that has offered shelter and learning and literature, will probably be gone.
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Part 4 – Flour, Fun and Fridges

Tuesday

Up bright and early for a shower. Clamber around in the dark to avoid waking Gloria and succeed in knocking all the shampoo bottles off the shelf.

I slink off down to breakfast. Libby grins at me over her knitting needles and greets me like a long lost friend. I adore her. Pancakes this morning!!!! Love brekkie.

Today we walk to Theatre through a bone chilling sea mist. I’m less tired today although my back is dodgy and I am rattling with Ibuprofen and Paracetemol.

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We skip the briefing and start bagging up flour and sugar. This can be a meditative sort of job, but we talk and I learn more about my fellow volunteers. Christine works with a children’s charity in London, Harriet has left school and is working, but she has plenty to say and would be fabulous on the CPW degree at CCCU. Gill did a degree at 45 and now has a PhD… Bagging flour is never boring.

After a break we sort and tidy carrier bags into piles for families of 2, 5s and 10s ready for a session on the conveyor belt. We are packing food for Wednesday to send out for 2695 people.

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Somehow Helen and I end up offering to help a couple of lads with the metal recycling. Helen clambers up onto the truck and I sift through a mountain of tins, saucepans, nails, and fridges. Actually the boys lift the fridges, one leaping into the razor sharp rusty tin lids to do this. I have a health and safety meltdown, picturing an amputated foot. An enthusiastic young man gives me a hand and poor Helen ends up showered with stagnant water and strewn with fermenting chickpeas. Nice to be outside though.

We take a break and watch the volunteers in the wood yard. Volunteers go out in vans each day to gather up wood from wherever they can find it and bring it back to be chopped up in the wood yard – pallets, beams and anything else that will burn. The wood is piled into bags and delivered to families to use for warmth and cooking. When I think of the wood we get through on our fire in winter, what the refugees receive could never be enough, but it is something. Work in the wood yard is exhausting, blistering and backbreaking, and I am amazed to see young girls out there whacking away at pallets. One showed me her blisters as we queued for lunch.

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I head out into the sunshine with my beany feast and pass a girl with a tiny kitten curled up in a shoebox. Its eyes are barely open. She had been woken by its cries in the night and found it, abandoned, in the grass outside her caravan. The girl is feeding it on kitten milk from a doll’s bottle.

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We pop into Carrefour on the way home and buy a few small supplies. I buy apricot jam, rice pudding and a lemon. Helen buys wine. We head down to the beach and watch the sun set with Mary, Linda and Jean-Marc.

Linda and Jean-Marc have been in the camp teaching English and French. People were being given three sets of papers. Apparently, if the CRS (French National Police) stop a refugee, there is a risk they will tear up their papers. This sounds unbelievable but it happens. With three sets, they will have a second to produce at the police station, and if that is destroyed they have a third to produce in court. While many travel under assumed names, they were advised to put their correct name on the papers.

Linda tells us there was a legal team in camp today, advising people they must apply for asylum in France in next couple of weeks or face eviction. Apparently people were chattering quietly amongst themselves while the lawyer spoke, but when the translators spoke their faces fell and there was silence. The reality of the situation was hitting home. Linda said she had to walk out. She thought she would cry.

Wednesday
We have a good productive day on the line today. We pack bags to feed 2900 people. Really tired this evening, but I am determined not to miss out on life.

Tonight Linda, Helen and I venture out into Calais and go to the Family Bar, a bustling cheery restaurant where volunteers and locals gather. Something goes askew with our order and we offer the overflow of chips to Allen the Hair and his friends. Somehow we don’t end up paying for the muddled order, so that is a bonus.

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We have heard that our dried food comrade, Dave, is playing his guitar in a local bar, so despite feeling deceased on our feet, we decide to go and support him. It turns out to be a fabulous evening. We meet Claire, his partner and the mad, bubbly Harriet for drink beforehand and then head for the bar where Dave is playing.

Dave had been chatting about music with the owner the previous evening and had shown him a Utube video of him busking in Edinburgh (DaveBeMac). The owner was impressed and keen for Dave to play his venue. When he asks why we are all in Calais, Dave tells him we are staying at the hostel.
“Why?” asks the owner. Dave tells him he is travelling France playing his guitar and we are with him?!?! Groupies or something? The man probes a little more without success.

Many locals are hostile to the refugees, for whom going out into the town has become increasingly dangerous. Head injuries and broken ribs are not uncommon. Now, if they leave the camp they are likely to return without shoes or mobile phones having been told to “Go Jungle” by the CRS (French National Police).

Most refugees would not leave the camp except to tried and board lorries to the UK. Then, of course, they face batons, tear gas and water canons from the police. Some, I am told have made multiple attempts, many very dangerous.

One teenager died recently after falling from a lorry and being hit by a car. The car did not stop. Tragically, the boy had relatives in the UK and a legal right to join them, but had become desperate waiting and had died in his attempt to reach them.

Part 3 – Working in the Warehouse

Monday
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Up at 7 o’clock. I don’t need the alarm. Gloria is sneezing after going for a swim in the sea. She must be mad – this is not the warm Mediterranean Sea off Malta.

Breakfast is unimpressive. Hot milk needs a rev in the microwave and pancakes appear just as I am finishing a large slice of baguette. I’d been there too early. Met some nice people though.

Libby turns round from another table and offers me some peanut butter. She says she needs the protein. My thing is apricot jam, but Libby has such a sweet friendly smile I move across to sit with her. She finishes her bread and picks up her knitting needles. The small green square of wool is destined to be a blanket for her boyfriend’s bed. Libby doesn’t worry about holes, she just keeps going.
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Libby works in the Yellow Children’s Caravan – the school bus project. She is studying some child-related degree in USA but is working in the camp for several weeks. She says some of the kids are quite affected by the threat of the camp closure and are displaying behaviour problems. One boy set fire to a pile of loo rolls behind the caravan the previous day. She tells me the volunteers use distraction rather than discipline, and she read to him till he calmed down and fell asleep.

There is talk of the UK taking some of the unaccompanied children, but because the camp is not recognized, some say the U.K. won’t take them until they have been individually assessed by a social worker. No one has visited yet and the camp is to be demolished within the next few weeks. Libby is really anxious about the children in her care and how to help them. The authorities are not giving any dates and there are no plans concerning the children. Two lawyers are visiting the charity to discuss the situation.

Five of us gather in the hall and decide to get a taxi to the warehouse. Taxis, I discover, are not supportive of the refugees or our work. He over-charges us and we decide to sort a bus route for tomorrow.

The Help Refugees warehouse is on the outskirts of town and when we walk through the gap in the hedge it feels like entering another world. It is music festival, Camden market, Uni, home counties all thrown into one, a gathering of such diversity it is awesome – people from all over the world, aged eighteen to eighty, from every walk of life. We are a mélange of people with one common aim – to bring some comfort, support and dignity to the residents of the Jungle.

People are milling everywhere with mugs of tea and bowls of cereal. Some long-term volunteers live onsite in caravans. With blankets hung over doors to keep out the sea wind, a Heath Robinson shower and Portaloos, this is their home for several weeks or months. This is dedication.
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Andrea leads us in a warm up and then gives us a briefing about the charity rules and guidelines, and the different jobs we can choose from. Mary, Helen and I opt for Calais Kitchens and dried foods.

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This turns out to be a great choice. The atmosphere is so vibrant and friendly with Helena and Christina leading, encouraging, and supporting the team with stretches, sweets and hugs.

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People come and go each day, but our team forms and stays together for most of the week. I work alongside an English corporate lawyer, three retired French ladies, a Belgian male nurse, three young Portuguese sisters – a lawyer, economist and student, a flirtatious French town planner, English charity workers from a variety of ethnicities, students, graduates, those with doctorates and school leavers. I have never worked with such a variety of people in one small space for a week, and felt like part of such a cohesive group.
During the morning we bag up flour and potatoes and then line up by the conveyor belt to fill 780 carrier bags with tinned tomatoes, red kidney beans, oil, milk, onions, spices, tea and flour. I perch on some tins of tomatoes and pop packs of spices into the bags.
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Some contain notes with drawings and well-wishes from children. I tell my comrades the paprika is making my eyes water. These bags are for groups of 2, 5 and 10 people and will be delivered out to the camp the next day. The vans go to a different section of the camp each day, and the bag of food has to last a week. Today, some of the bags are to go to the camp at Dunkirk.

It is exhausting work for an old bird (and the younger ones), but it is genuinely fun. Maybe the music pouring from the kitchen helps – a hotchpotch of music found on a donated iPad – rock, gangster rap, Mexican folk, Paul Simon and much more. Amazing how energetic music keeps you going from 9 to 6. Relaxing blues is a definitely a ‘no no’ for 3 o’clock when wills sag, feet hurt and backs seize up. We take several breaks for tea or an intrepid journey to the Portaloos and stop at 1ish for lunch.

The dried foods are stored next to the kitchen and the aromatic whiffs coming from behind the partition at midday are seriously uplifting. The kitchen creates something different and delicious each day to feed residents of the camp and the volunteers working back at the warehouse. Rice is a staple with a bean, lentil or chickpea stew and a salady affair. Food is free for the refugees but we are encouraged to offer a donation of whatever we can afford.
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There are a couple of tables outside the offices, but for most pallets work as seats or the tarmac is fine. As some finish and wash up their hotchpot of plates and cutlery, they are passed on to the next in the long line queuing up. I used a cake fork and baby spoon – perfect.

At afternoon tea break I have a little rummage in the warehouse charity shop. I buy a fabulous baggy jumper and cape, both deemed unsuitable for the camp residents. Everything they are provided with has to be in good, clean condition, warm and culturally appropriate Apparently, my jumper would have been far too big for any resident of the Jungle – not sure how to take that. The rest of the donations end up worn by volunteers who are permanently covered with flour, dust, wood shavings etc. For those going into the camp, clothes must be loose and cover shoulders, so tight jeans or leggings are no good. However, there is always something that will do in the shop that will provide an element of warmth and modesty – and I consider my jumper, while not the height of fashion, fabulous. I live in it for the week.

At six o’clock we stagger through the gates and head for the bus back to the Theatre bus stop and, thankfully, a connecting bus to Pluviose, which is great as we are all exhausted. Because the two trips fall within an hour, our one-euro ticket covers the two journeys. Sadly they don’t connect in the morning, so will have to walk half an hour into the centre of town each morning.

The hostel bar is still unmanned so Mary, Helen and I buy a panini and chips from a little place by the beach and eat outside on a picnic bench as dusk falls.

Back in my corner of the room I sink onto the bed with my phone only to discover I have binned my Wi-Fi code by mistake. Too exhausted to go downstairs for another so no contact with home tonight.

Part 2 – Confident in Calais?!?

 Sunday 2nd October 2016


Morning

I’m sitting up in bed listening to the sea wind whipping up the street and wondering what it must be like in the Jungle this morning. Autumn is here and I’m reaching for an extra eiderdown.

I’m feeling a stomach-gnawing nervousness. I’m going to France today to volunteer, alone, and am not sure what the hostel will be like. I’m not sure how I’ll get there from the boat or how I’ll get to work and back from the hostel. All is slightly uncertain and I’m not comfortable with uncertainty of this kind. People, I’m normally at ease with. It’s finding my way around that worries me. I’ve got a terrible sense of direction. But if I feel like this, how infinitely more dreadful must it be for the refugees, particularly the young and the elderly?

Evening
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Arrive in Calais after a fascinating ferry journey with Mary, who I met in the departure lounge. She is interested in Buddhism and has travelled widely, volunteering in India and Tibet, where she met the Dalai Lama. She is tired from her journey from Cardiff and I suggest she has a doze, but my questions keep flowing and the doze doesn’t happen. Mary keeps saying how relieved she is to have met me. This is puzzling but leaves me feeling brave and confident.

We leave the shuttle bus in Calais and make our first mistake. The foot passenger exit is tucked behind an information caravan and, therefore, not visible from where the bus stops. I suggest a taxi but Mary is up for a walk. Fine. I can drag a case a kilometer or two – no problem.

The new confident me decides to use my initiative, and rather than ask for directions we follow the arrows for the car park exit. Half an hour later we have looped back on ourselves and struggle past the foot passenger entrance. Oh joy!

We stop and I ask two policemen whether we are actually heading for the centre of Calais, or not. Either they aren’t local or they are just unhelpful in a polite kind of way. English women/hostel = volunteers/Jungle.

I remain upbeat and lead the way chuntering on about the beautiful sunset and scenery. Mary is dragging behind me. By the time we reach the hostel it is dark and we discover they have not received Mary’s booking. They are fully booked. Mary is exhausted and nearly in tears. I ask the receptionist where else she might stay. He googles and says there is a room in a nearby hotel along the seafront. I walk her there but don’t feel so intrepid hurrying back along the sea front alone in the dark.

So, up to my room – a small box with two beds. My roommate is missing but there is a fascinating pile of belongings on the floor by her bed – clothes, boots, toiletries, food packets and books. I poke my nose in the wardrobe and discover a few slices of white bread, a salami sausage and a black Fedora hat.Two hangars hang from the radiator. A young adolescent on tour maybe? No.

A young Maltese girl knocks and enters. She has just walked her friend and previous roommate to the train station. She slumps down on the pile of blankets and rubs at her neck. She has been working for Care4Calais, another small charity, for three weeks and is exhausted. She has been in charge of their distribution trailer in camp.

She tells me a left wing political group led a peaceful protest yesterday against Hollande’s intention to close the camp, and the riot police, who hold fort at the entrance to the camp, showered the protesters with tear gas and water canons. It appears there was no media presence and I saw nothing on the news.

I have heard the hostel serves hot snacks till 10pm and go downstairs in search of food. A large group of German adolescents have arrived and the hall is filled with loud, ebullient voices. The bar is dark and quiet. A man lolling by the desk admits to working at the hostel, but tells me all the soup has gone. He does agree to sell me a Mars bar and a bottle of water. Gloria is horrified and rummages in the wardrobe for the bread and salami. I stick with the Mars bar.

The bed is surprisingly comfy but Gloria was right to suggest closing the window. The Channel wind is cold and seeps around the window frames. I wake early and search for bed socks and a jumper.

Upside – three o’clock is a good time to use the hostel Wi-Fi. At any other time it is impossible with everyone ringing home or fiddling with Facebook. It is harder for the refugees, of course. There is no WiFi on the dunes, and the refugees have to climb the highest dunes for any chance of a signal to phone family and loved ones.

Behind the Wires are People – a blog from the Calais Jungle

Introduction

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This time last week, I arrived home from Calais after one of the most inspiring, exhausting, fun, fearful and emotionally turbulent weeks of my life. I had been working with Help Refugees (www.helprefugees.org.uk), a small charity set up in 2015 to provide aid and help uphold the dignity of the growing numbers of refugees gathering on the outskirts of Calais.

None of the major charities, except Médecin Sans Frontière, are present because the camp does not have official status. But now, even the support of small individual charities is under threat. President Hollande has given the order to tear down the Jungle within the month, and for many the future is desperately uncertain – among them hundreds of unaccompanied children.

I love France and lived there for ten year and I still return regularly for holidays. Over the last couple of years,  we have passed the growing number of makeshift shelters reaching out across the landfill site and chemical wasteland that border the autoroute into Calais. This was the area the French authorities designated as acceptable for the refugees to make their temporary home.

I have watched this appalling situation grow season by season, knowing that I have the right to go more or less where I wish when I wish, and that the increasing number of refugees and migrants who gather among the scrub and windswept dunes beside the motorway, do not. Every time I board the ferry I feel gratitude for my freedom to travel, and deep sadness that there are others who do not have the same rights and are trapped in the Calais Jungle. For this reasons and because I wanted to understand more about this shameful situation 20 miles from our shore, I went to volunteer.

Family and friends were concerned for my welfare and safety. Some thought I had gone completely mad. They had watched the news, read the papers – some of them tabloid and right wing. “The Jungle is a dangerous place”. It certainly is…for the refugees.

It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but at the pre-fossil age of 59, this was the first time I’d been away alone. I stashed my bag with Imodium in case my gut went into panic mode and acted cool as I waved goodbye at Dover.

I needn’t have worried. I was never alone. From the moment I walked into the departure lounge I had company. I have never worked and talked with such a diverse mélange of interesting, well-meaning, funny, inspiring, brave people (volunteers and refugees), in the short space of a week – a week that has left me with more questions than answers.

Back home, I’ve been walking an emotional tightrope – smiling, stead and functioning one moment and leaking throat-tightening tears the next. All is fine while the adrenaline is running, but when it stops emotions surface, cold sores burst through my lips, mouth ulcers ruin my curry and I have invested heavily in the Kleenex Balsam tissue factory.

My computer desktop is littered with blog attempts. Each day I hear fresh concerns about the camp closure and what the French authorities intend for the 10,000 adults and children sheltering there. Stories of tension and unrest, and escalating abuse of refugees by the police are reported on the news, by friends or through the website www.calaidpedia.com. My blog gets harder and more complicated to write each day, but I want to get a few words out there before the evictions and demolition of the camp starts.

Finally, I have decided I should write this like a diary from my original notes and let my own voice and feelings come through. No more drafts and excuses. Simply speak it how it was for me. There are a few words, so I have divided it up into several posts so you don’t give up on me.

Welcome to my website!

DSCF0830 copy2 copy 2Welcome to my website!

If you have looked at this site more than once over the past few days, you could think you are going quite mad. The template is changing like a terrified chameleon, and new header photos slide in and out in a teeth-gnashing frenzy. I am a techno-dinosaur on an assignment mission. Welcome to my nightmare.

Reflections of a Vintage Student … Reflections – well, that’s fine. These blogs will be reflections on life over the past three years as a Creative and Professional Writing student at Canterbury Christchurch University. Vintage – ahh. I checked out ‘vintage’ in the Oxford Dictionary and I might need to pin that one down with the jolly ol’ ‘critical sandwich’.

At fifty-eight, I could be considered mature. High-quality – well as students go, I don’t render the tutors in need of counselling. I turn up, I listen, I make eye contact and concentrate with all the grey matter I can summon. I don’t gossip while the tutor is talking, check out my Facebook, take pouting selfies for Snapchat or arrive with large boxes of chicken and chips. I do, however, have a brain cloaked in cobwebs that frequently seeps information like my neighbour’s overflow, have deaf and dreamy moments, sneak bananas in for a quick nosh despite a food ban and lose my temper with table-thumping ferocity under extreme duress.

I am friend, mother figure and confidante in varying degrees to my bunch of student comrades – an upwardly mobile 5C, as I described us after a new tutor declared she had never come across a class like ours in all her years as a university lecturer. OMG shame! Mrs Kelly, my headmistress had risen from the grave and taken me back fifty years!

But, hey, onward and upward. I love learning, and every time life becomes too settled I appear to add another layer, refreshing and renewing life with new adventures. “Is that wise?” my grandmother used to ask. No, not always. But I feel alive, if not always peaceful.

I am a mother, grandmother, writer, pacifist, nature-lover, adventurer and spiritual seeker. I am Sue.