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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.