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.