I can’t remember a weekend with such a lot of starkly contrasting experiences.
I had been pleased to accept the invitation from the Swindon-Calais Solidarity group to visit the Calais Refugee camp, or ‘Jungle’ as it is sometimes known, and support their impressive attempts to help feed, clothe and provide shelter to the ever-increasing numbers of refugees, but was already apprehensive about what I would find in the days leading up to the weekend.
On Friday night, I watched the Children in Need show like so many others, but became aware that something terrible was happening in Paris. It felt bizarre to be watching a TV show celebrating some amazing efforts to help people and raise much needed funds, whilst following reports of a terrorist attack in the French capital. The best and worst of humanity at the same time. I received a flurry of messages and calls asking if I was still off to France on Sunday morning, and was pleased to learn from the Swindon-Calais Solidarity group that the trip was still on and needed more than ever.
On Saturday, my wife and I hosted a party to celebrate my 3-year old daughter’s birthday. A fairly typical affair, we booked a school hall and a bouncy castle and made sure no toddler left without being full of birthday cake and sweets, and took a bootload of gifts home for my daughter.
So it was a shock to find myself on Sunday morning, ankle-deep in thick mud and cold, looking out over a view of broken tents and tarpaulins straining in the wind, seeing children of my daughter’s age trying to play, whilst all around them is desperation and destruction.
We had set off from Swindon at 5.45am, and I was struck by the happy, excited chatter of the dedicated team of volunteers at that early hour, whilst I was still trying to wake up. Conversation soon turned to Paris, and the team shared some of the truly terrible and offensive messages sent to them over Facebook following the attacks. It was clear that not everyone shared their view that the refugees were genuine.
We cleared border control quickly and easily, despite some rumours that it would be tougher after the terrorist attacks, and headed to the large L’Auberge du Migrants warehouse. The team there were hugely concerned about conditions in the camp following a fire on Friday night and the very windy conditions into Sunday morning, and were trying to organise the donations and volunteers to be able to ensure that tents were repaired and rebuilt or replaced if needed, and that food and blankets were being effectively distributed. I was pleasantly surprised to see a number of volunteers wearing Swindon Town FC stewards jackets which had clearly been donated by the club. We received our passes and drove down to the camp and entered to see a scene of desolation.
The camp is built on a piece of scrubland at the edge of one of the motorways leading to the port, and is a sea of tents, ramshackle buildings and tarpaulins, many torn and blowing in the strong wind. There were many people about, clearly trying to mend the broken areas, but with lots turning to smile and warmly greet us. The volunteers who had been before were telling us that the camp was in a much worse state, and had grown visibly since their last visit just two weeks ago. Gaps between tents were being filled, and the edges were creeping outwards as new refugees arrived.
Once we had unloaded the tents, sleeping bags and blankets that we had brought into a shipping container where volunteers were ensuring that those who had lost tents and the new arrivals were prioritised to ensure that everyone had a chance at staying warm overnight, we headed further into the camp. The camp is loosely divided into areas where refugees from different countries had congregated. Some semi-permanent buildings have been built, such as shops, a few basic restaurants and churches, as well as the distribution caravans and shipping containers. We headed for a part called Afghan Square where we tried to pass out some much needed shoes, and then headed further into the camp to distribute food and essential supplies to the family areas.
I met a number of families who had met the Swindon-Calais Solidarity team before and who had asked for specific items such as maternity clothes, folic acid tablets and food suitable for babies. We gave this out, and listened to their shocking tales of what had brought them to the camp.
For example, we met a man from Afghanistan who had been working with American companies during the war there. He spoke with an American twang, picked up as he learnt English from them. He talked about how his wife and children had been killed and his attempt to get an American visa has failed. He had fled after his family was killed, so decided to aim for Britain as he has some uncles living here. He had recently arrived at the camp, and was keen to make for the UK to apply for asylum. He could stay in France and apply there, but he would have to live in the terrible conditions of the camp for two years until his application was heard. I could understand why he wanted to get to the UK to claim asylum, and was struck by his quiet determination and thoughtful nature.
I also met a young mother with two small children, the youngest the same age as my daughter, who spoke of how hard it had been to walk across Europe with them, and how tough it was to keep them clean and healthy in the mud. She said she was trying to give them lessons herself but it was difficult to get them focus on learning when they were hungry. I felt guilty about how much I had spent on my daughter’s party, and left them with my coat, some money and some basic food supplies.
Wherever I walked in the camp, despite the dirt and mud, I always felt safe and welcome despite the overwhelming poverty, desperation and lack of basic supplies. Despite the obvious desperation in the camp, the people I met were trying to be cheerful, were looking out for each other and sharing what little they had. Children were being prioritised by both their parents and the rest of the camp. I saw a number of parents who had inadequate clothing for the conditions, but all of the children had more appropriate clothes and blankets, and the refugees were trying hard to ensure that the children got enough food.
As we left the camp as it got dark, I felt enormous guilt as we queued at the Tunnel entrance and waited for hours at Border Control. Once we were finally cleared, we entered the terminal with it’s Starbucks, Burger King and Duty Free shops. It’s probably less than a mile from the camp as the crow flies, but a million miles away for those refugees.
The journey home was a lot more quiet as the volunteers started to process and try to understand some of the sights and stories they had experienced. I was trying to work out what I could do my role as a Councillor to try to help more.
I’ll certainly be volunteering on another trip, and today at the Cenotaph, after the minutes silence for those killed in Paris, asked Cllr. David Renard, the leader of the Council, to host a donations box for Swindon-Calais Solidarity at the Council Offices. I’m delighted that he accepted, and will be calling on the people of Swindon to leave donations, especially of food (tinned fish and chocolate are particularly requested) as soon as the box is in place.
I was totally humbled by my experience, and by the other volunteers that I met. I am in awe of Anna-Maria Edwards and her husband, Darryl, who have effectively put their lives on hold to ensure that they can keep visiting the camp and making such a huge difference to the lives of people who were complete strangers to themselves. I’m pleased that the majority of Swindon residents have been great and supportive, but very saddened by those who choose to denigrate and abuse the team and their work. I think that the Swindon-Calais Solidarity team are totally demonstrating the ideals of the Pride of Swindon programme, and I’m going to be nominating them for that award as soon as this years awards process opens.