The first time I set foot in a refugee camp was in the autumn of 2015. It was a dismal and rainy day and we were in the port of Calais with NUT members (the former National Union of Teachers, now the NEU, National Education Union), and some refugees, protesting the disgusting treatment and neglect of the refugees that had arrived in France.
At the end of the protest, we packed up and started our preparation for the crossing of the channel, back home. However before we left, we saw the refugees that had joined us, all leaving, and all walking in the same direction. I remember my dad saying, “they’re going ‘home'”. We followed them, knowing we would, in a couple of minutes, end up in the Calais Jungle. But what we experienced was far from what any media outlet had ever covered.
It was like stepping into an under developed country, despite the fact that we were in modern day France. We were ankle deep in mud, and we had good walking boots on. A lot of people who had to live in these conditions were in sandals. The tents in which the refugees lived, were half sunken into the ground and the portaloos were unhygienic and unsuitable for any human being. Its impossible to describe the emotions and the physical appearance that came along with seeing the camps in real life. It was like nothing I had ever experienced. After this first visit, we joined a newly formed charity called Side By Side With Refugees, and started working with them to do our bit and help in any way possible.
After several visits and convoys to these awful places, we realised that, despite the horrific conditions, there was a certain charm to these camps. There was a sense of community amongst despair. There were beautifully decorated restaurants (that served the most amazing fried chicken and rice I have ever had), a church, and several communal spaces for the refugees to gather, talk, drink tea and keep each other company. Every time I went, I felt complete hopelessness but their beautiful and beaming smiles instilled a hope in me that I didn’t think possible after seeing these horrible conditions.
The camps “improved” over time. The local governments did some work to make the conditions less awful for the inhabitants. This meant instead of tents, wooden shelters were constructed. Caravans were also brought in by charities who had beautifully decorated them. But of course, the camps were no where near habitable. The wooden sheds were often prone to fires and wooden structures, or structures of any kind, were quickly banned by the police. The sense of community that had once dominated these areas was quickly taken away as the majority of restaurants were demolished.
The Dunkirk refugee camp was the last camp I went to, after the demolition of the Calais Jungle in October 2016. This time we went with a charity called Help4Refugee Children. Our focus was generated around children and families, which came with a whole new set of emotions. We worked with the children and volunteer teachers, who had given up everything they had to dedicate all their time and efforts in teaching the children in the camp. We had several art workshops in which the children painted banners and whatever they desired. We bought large amounts of fruit, biscuits, cakes and fruit juices, as treats for the children as well as a huge amount of baby milk, beakers and baby bottles for Gynécologie Sans Frontières. We made bracelets with the children and other volunteers braided their hair. It was a new and refreshing take on the charity work in these camps but knowing that these children had experienced things that no human should ever have to experience, let alone small kids, was devastating.
Two days after our visit to Dunkirk, the camp burnt down and hundreds of refugees went missing. It was news that made me sick to my stomach. Now, both the main refugee camps in France were gone. But the refugee crisis didn’t disappear with them. The refugees are now scattered all across France in makeshift camps. Any tents that are put up are just as quickly taken down by the French police and authorities. With winter coming, it is a crucial time to remind everyone that there are refugees who are sleeping outside, with very little or nothing with them and need our help.
Below you can find links to some of the charities mentioned. Please donate what you can, whether that’s money, phone credit, clothes, shoes, food, sleeping bags and blankets, coats…anything.