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What it feels like to be in Calais right now

Four women tell us about their experience of travelling to Calais to help with the the refugee crisis

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By Isabelle O'Carroll on

The plight of refugees arriving in Calais, and further afield in Kos, Macedonia or Budapest, has finally caught the attention of the world. 

While this week David Cameron made a promise to take in 4,000 refugees a year for the next five years – a small number next to the 12,000 that France has pledged over the next two – British people are travelling to Calais with clothing donations and money. We spoke to four women who made the trip across the Channel. 

Emma Davey, who works in TV, is in Calais this week
 

Normally, you hear things in the news happening hundreds of miles away, but this is just a few hours from London, so why not help? We told a few friends, but we haven’t asked anyone for money directly at all – people just offered. We’ve got donations of £1,200, which we spent on new things like hoodies and raincoats.

It’s quite a shock to see first-hand how much more horrific it is in real life – it’s massive. People are almost in a wind tunnel; it’s very cold and exposed where they are. It’s five minutes from the ferry port, but there’s smoke, fires, rubbish and all the tents are crammed next to each other. How can anyone be expected to live here?

A group from Sudan invited us to their area to have drinks and told us their stories. A lot of the elders are respected – they’re given chairs, they’re given first pick on things; women are also given priority. They introduced us to a young man who has been through hellish things: he has been tortured and has impaired mobility because of it. Every night, they go on the run: they go to the border two or three times a night and some people are getting through, some people don’t come back. 

I think they were touched that people were coming from the UK; people were praying for us and saying it was amazing we were there. One of the most helpful things, having seen what the refugees really want, is raising money to buy new things – a pair of trainers can cost just £20. Sending whatever you can is good, but those are the kinds of things that are going to really help.

People’s attitudes in the UK need to change. There needs to be education – they’re not coming for a laugh; they’re fleeing from horrible situations. We need to take these refugees; we need to do the right thing. 

Full-time mum Laura Hughes was moved to collect donations after seeing the refugees on a trip back from France
 

Driving through Calais in early August, we saw the refugee camp. We’d heard about it on the news and it’s just different in real life. We had the kids with us, so it was a bit overwhelming. I decided then and there that, when we didn’t have the kids, we’d go back and help. It’s a three- to six-mile walk to the tunnel entrance. You see people walking in groups, or alone, and you just think are they going to die tonight – you just know they’re gambling with their life. It’s heartbreaking.

Police at Calais
 

We booked a ferry the next day – a friend of a friend on Facebook had gone over, so I felt like it was doable. Within five days, we had enough to fill the car and a roof rack, and even on the way there we got another call to pick up more stuff. That person put us in touch with a French organisation – L’Auberge des Migrants – who helped us distribute the clothing. We also picked up a man from the hospital; he had been beaten up with an iron bar and left for dead. We took him to the police to try and identify his attacker.  

All the camps were set out by country. We met a guy called Ali – he was lovely. I let him use our phone to phone his daughter in Sudan; he hadn’t spoken to her in a month. He walked for two weeks in the Sahara to get here, with a little bottle of water to last him a few days. 

We went to the Jules Ferry centre where the kids and the women spend their days, with some craft supplies for the children. It’s like an old WW2 bunker; they have a security on the gates. There was a big demo there last week; thousands of refugees got together and protested about the way they’re being treated. They’ve made it illegal for people bringing them hot food. 

All these people who have come from wartorn countries, they just need help. Over 250,000 Belgian refugees came over by boat during WW1, landing in Folkestone and we welcomed them. What we’ve done to Syria is bomb the hell out of them, then we wonder why they want to come over? London is one of the most multicultural cities in the world – that’s the beauty of it. 

PhD student Helen McDonald made the trip in early August
 

I set up a crowd-funding page to cover our travel costs, but we had no idea how generous people would be. The physical donations were either collected or brought to our houses. My friend's house was so full, her sons were climbing the bags of clothes to touch the ceiling! Another friend had also spent a very wet day collecting tents and sleeping bags after the V Festival, so we had a lot of stuff to fit into the van. 

What's missed out in the media reporting isn't so much the desperation of the residents' existence, but what is going on behind the scenes. We'd arranged to drop off our donations with Association Salam; the organisations who are taking in donations are under stress, as there are not enough volunteers to sort donations or distribute them. They are working in really difficult conditions, trying to get necessary items to people in the main camp. We went to Calais before the mainstream press had decided to refer to residents as refugees – they were still "migrants" then, so there were fewer people going to the camp to take donations, but even then they were really stretched. 

The thing I have thought about most since returning was seeing a heavily pregnant woman walking through the camp. We didn't speak – I was travelling in the back of a van so only drove past her – but I often wonder what will happen to her and her child. There are none of the facilities we would take for granted and I cannot imagine how difficult it could be for her in the future.

This isn't a new issue in Calais – it's just currently a popular one in the newspapers. In many ways, donations and goodwill are only the tip of the iceberg. What needs to happen is longterm policy-planning between countries across Europe and non-military intervention in the Middle East. People at Association Salam are grateful, but you can't help but feel the pointlessness of leaving some sleeping bags. We were told they really need volunteers who will go to the camp and stay for a weekend or a week to help with litter-picking and sorting donations but, of course, that can be hard for people to do.

Helen and her volunteers in Calais
 

Activist and writer Alison Playford joined as part of a Critical Mass bike ride
 

We were going to join the Critical Mass to Calais, cycling with people to France to donate their bikes, but we’ve got a van, so it was more useful to go down with that. I’m quite an experienced activist and, once we said we had a van, people started spontaneously donating. The most interesting part of it, for me, was to meet people personally, make human connections.

It’s extremely friendly in the camps – people were waving, giving us the thumbs-up and coming up to us to shake our hands. You’re coming face-to-face with people who have travelled thousands of miles to get there and they’re still smiling. We were taking audio and this guy was explaining to us his brother had been shot; he told us how hungry he was and then he sat down on the ground and started crying – that's not unusual. We were there when half the the camp was washed away by a big thunder and lightning storm – the refugees looked after us and cared for us; they formed really strong emotional bonds.

The misunderstanding is that we’re doing the hard work – these are people who have been kicked out by our wars, so anything we do is a small gesture. It’s very easy for us to go to Calais and give someone a jumper; what is hard is having your home bombed and taken away, having to go overseas and not knowing whether your family is going to drown on the way. 

This isn’t a one-off migrant crisis – what will happen is these population movements will get larger and larger. Until we change those structures around wealth and power, you will keep getting these global catastrophes and that's what needs to change. It's also massively to do with race and that’s why people of colour are fundamentally suffering in times of crisis and we need to change it.

@IsabelleOC

Picture: Getty
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Refugee crisis

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