Merci Mission Encore, April 2016

In the week that the national press devoted several pages to the unexpected passing of a rock musician, whilst barely mentioning the deaths-by-drowning of 500 men, women and children fleeing the war-zones of the Middle East for the relative safety of mainland Europe, I got a message from Cathy, a friend from NG Solidarity, saying she was taking a vanload of aid down to Calais in the next few days and would I like to join her? I had been out of the loop from the good works of NG Solidarity for a few months – a combination of personal issues necessitating other priorities and disquiet over what I perceived to be the ego-driven dominance of the group by a particular individual of whom I had concluded it was best to steer clear – but I had recently got back in touch with them and was delighted to be invited to help out again.

NG Solidarity is part of a network of groups set up at the end of summer 2015 to respond to the growing refugee crisis in Europe. A national group, “People to People Solidarity: Action for Calais” spawned a host of regional groups whose aims were to collect, sort and distribute essential items of aid for the refugees who were arriving, destitute and desperate, in the makeshift camps of Northern France. It was the end of summer, so, mindful of the approach of the European winter, inhospitable at best to those more used to warmer climes, we sought to collect items which would help to keep people warm, dry and fed: camping equipment, warm clothing, and non-perishable food. We were overwhelmed by the theirresponse to our public appeals. We filled pub cellars, private garages, disused school buildings and a row of farm outbuildings with donations brought from all over the East Midlands. Tents, sleeping bags, mattresses, fleeces, footwear, hats, gloves, socks, toiletries, torches, tins of food and bags of rice arrived in bin-bags and boxes, and rapidly filled the storage spaces we had begged and borrowed. And then we had to sort it all. Some of the people who were organising things had already been over to Calais, had met with volunteers, and had learned about some of the issues connected with the distribution of aid to desperate people in dire circumstances. Clothing needed careful sorting, according to type, size, gender. We needed to make sure the donations were serviceable: inevitably, some of our donors had seen in the crisis an opportunity to get rid of unwanted items from lofts and cellars, so it was down to our army of volunteers to weed out the high heeled shoes, the ballet costumes, the ballgowns (seriously!) And it was an army – or at least, a mini-battalion. Lots of people turned up to manage, move and sort donations, to get everything ready for transportation down to Calais and the camps nearby. And then the convoys started. From around here we committed to one delivery a month, taking turns to lead the trips from either Derby, (DE), Nottingham (NG), or Leicester (LE). I joined one such trip from Nottingham, though we had co-volunteers from all three areas, last October. Two days in the camp popularly known, somewhat cruelly in my view, as “The Jungle,” and in Grand Synthe, near Dunkirk. Eye-opening, shocking, humbling but, in the way that you have to marvel at the ability to survive and make relationships in the harshest of environments, uplifting as well.

Fast-forward six months. It’s not been the harshest of winters, but, for the people in the Jungle, in Grand Synthe and other, smaller camps, it’s been incredibly tough. Many more people have risked their lives trying to get across the Mediterranean in vessels unscrupulously skippered by people-smugglers, then making their painful way across mainland Europe in the face of increasing hostility, and resources have not kept pace. Those who have made it to Calais have faced evictions, the bulldozing of the makeshift dwellings they have constructed, teargas attacks from French police; all of this on top of the unimaginably challenging task of simply keeping body and soul together in a sea of mud and raw sewage. Some public attitudes towards their plight have hardened, and news-gatherers have deemed their stories less worth reporting on than they did last autumn. I wonder if a consequence of this is that it has become harder to recruit volunteers to work “on the ground” on a day-to-day basis.

Here in Nottingham, the organisers of NG Solidarity have clearly learned a lot, and refined their activities. The city council have made a warehouse space available: it’s in a good location and there is enough space to collect and sort items to take out to France. The group have organised two very successful Big Collections, where very specific items, identified by organisations on the ground in Calais as necessary, have been asked for, received in impressive quantities and sorted ready for transport. Communications have been improved: there is a website and a strong social media presence. When needed, good numbers of volunteers have turned out to help with collecting and sorting.  And some of the volunteers are themselves refugees, recently arrived in Nottingham, keen to contribute to this emerging community effort.

And so to the trip. One vanload of aid from the Big Collection of April 16th had already been dispatched, but there was enough to fill another, slightly smaller van. Cathy, who had co-ordinated the Big Collection, got in touch with a view to doing the 450-mile round trip in a day. Straight to the distribution centre, L’Auberge des Migrants, in Calais, drop the stuff off, pick up any items which might be more suitable for refugees/homeless people in the UK, and drive back. No frills. Bish, bash, bosh. No need, on this occasion, to enter the camps and attempt direct distribution (always a contentious issue – why go “cold” into the camps and attempt the almost impossible feat of distributing aid fairly amongst desperate people when you don’t know what’s going on, when you can, much more usefully, support the work of a distribution centre which has volunteers working daily on the ground, who know local conditions and have the trust of refugees’ representatives? Of course, there is a strong, human desire amongst people who do these aid runs to make contact with refugees, to let them know we are on their side, and to say “I’ve been there, I know what it’s like.” But that approach is fraught with danger. The desire to be useful starts to compete with the ego’s need to be fed, to be recognised, to be stroked. Last time out some of our experiences left me feeling very uncomfortable. And I’m not trying to take the moral high ground here, either. I just feel much more comfortable when I know I am doing something useful with people who know what they are doing.)

We make good time down the motorway network to Folkestone’s Eurotunnel terminal, but are slightly taken aback to be pulled over by the Border Police for a closer check of our passports and a look, albeit fairly cursory, at what’s inside the van. It’s only a ten-minute hold-up, and, letting us drive on, the Border Police Officer seems slightly embarrassed, and has to re-assure us it was just so they could give us the best advice, but it’s slightly unsettling nonetheless. And we miss our train and have to wait half an hour or so for the next one.

L’Auberge des Migrants proves very easy to find. It’s basically a large warehouse, divided into sections, and when we arrive a small team of volunteers are steadily and purposefully doing what I imagine they do every day: some are checking stock, some are stacking shelves, there’s some finance-related paperwork going on in the small shed that is their office, and in one section of the warehouse a group of about five are preparing food. The atmosphere is chilled, friendly, and it’s quieter than I expected. Cathy comments that it was busier the last time she visited, and one of the volunteers we speak to says it’s become a pattern where it gets really busy at weekends, when more deliveries are made, and more volunteers show up to help, but during the week it does get a lot quieter. I feel some disquiet at this. Does it mean that the volunteer effort is tailing off?

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The car park at the back of L’Auberge des Migrants, where the volunteers stay. Some have been there for months, others come and go, staying only a few days.

There’s not a lot of time for discussion. Even in this quite chilled atmosphere, everyone has things to do. We unload the van, helping to bring the items to the right parts of the warehouse, pose for a few photographs for the NG Solidarity Facebook page, and get ready to turn around. We are approached by a young man who wants a lift back to the UK. He’s coughing a lot, and clearly not well. He tells us he’s been travelling a bit, ended up here after time in Spain and Portugal, and he has run out of money. He’s been volunteering in the “Jungle” for three weeks, but has picked up a chest infection. He’s been feeling really ill for about a week, had gone to hospital in Calais yesterday but couldn’t afford to pay for a prescription. We hesitate for a bit, and I feel a stirring of middle-class panic (what if he’s carrying illegal drugs… what if it’s some tropical disease and I catch something…..) but the guy is clearly in a bad way, the other volunteers vouch for him so we tell him to get his stuff and hop in. If we get held up by the Border Police, well, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

As it turns out, there are no difficult bridges to cross. We get back into the UK without incident, and find ourselves warming to our passenger as he tells us his story. He’s from a small town in North Wales, he left behind a troubled personal and family situation a few months ago, got himself down to Barcelona, then to Portugal. He heard about the growing refugee crisis and decided he wanted to help, so he got himself to Calais, camped out in the “Jungle” and has been doing what he can to help out in return for some communal food and shelter. Then he got ill, didn’t seem to be recovering so made the decision to return home, so he can get better. It’s clear that he wants to return as soon as he is well enough; he wants to help, he’s found some purpose, having struggled with some personal issues before that. We decide we can put him on a train from Birmingham back to North Wales, we let him make a couple of calls so he can get picked up by some mates, we reassure ourselves that he’s likely to be OK and eventually we drop him off. We made a new friend for a few hours and now we go our separate ways. He’s a good guy, and getting to know him on this day adds a bit to the sum total of the experience. It’s like a tiny bit of payback for the thousands of miles of hitch-hiking I did in the 70s.

So, we’ve done another little bit, made a tiny contribution, helped deliver some food and shelter that will help a small number of people keep body and soul together for a few more days. It’s not much, in the grand scheme of things, but all those not-much-es, all those tiny contributions do add up, and they make a difference. They are part of an effort to say that things do not have to be the way they are, we don’t have to accept that innocent people have to drown, or starve while governments, and the corporations which bankroll them fight it out to establish the order of things in this world. And that’s worth saying, as many times, and in as many ways, as is necessary.

Many thanks to the good people of Nottingham, for the aid they donated and the time they gave to help get things in shape. Cheers to the members of NG Solidarity to put so much time, energy and love into making another project happen. Hats off to Nottingham City Council, for supporting the efforts of NG Solidarity by making warehouse space available and enabling workplace collections to take place. Thanks to Unison for being part of that. And particular thanks to Cathy for heading up the organisation of this project, for inviting me to join her on the trip, and for being damned good company while we did it.

Footnote. You can find out more about the work of Nottingham Solidarity by visiting their facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1679337492296689/

Or you can explore the facebook page of the National group: People to People Solidarity, Action from UK: https://www.facebook.com/groups/882751941799554/

There are lots of other ways you can contribute, wherever you are. You can donate time, items of aid or money. You can even be part of a scheme which buys mobile phone credit for refugees in Calais, to enable them to make contact with family and other loved ones. Or, if you are so disposed, you can even donate your old caravan! It all comes in handy.

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Diary – Aid to Calais, October 2015

Monday: At 5.20 a.m. my alarm rings and I roll out of bed, bleary and unused to getting up this early, but I’m soon gripped by a mixture of excitement and apprehension. In just over an hour’s time I am due to join a convoy of three vans and two cars, all packed with tents, sleeping bags, sleeping mats, warm jackets, sturdy footwear and long-life food, items which we intend to distribute amongst some of the 6,000 inhabitants of a place that has come to be known, rather disparagingly and, I am later to conclude, unfairly, as “The Jungle.” This, in the unlikely event that you don’t know what or where it is, is the area of sand dunes and scrubland just outside the French port of Calais which has become “home” to thousands of people, from Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Iran, people who have fled war zones and risked their lives to travel hundreds and in some cases thousands of miles to get to somewhere safe, somewhere where they might have a chance to build a new life. I’ve seen some footage, I’ve read some articles, I’ve had some arguments and I want to help. I want to do something.

So I asked around and was told about a meeting, where people could bring donations of items required, and the following evening I went along. By the end of that evening I had put two bin bags full of clothes into the back of a pick-up, and helped fill the cellar of the White Lion pub with bags of clothes, boxes of food, tents, sleeping bags, even mattresses which a host of local people had brought along. And I had signed up to get involved with Calais: People to People Solidarity – Action from East Midlands, the regional arm of a UK-wide expression of outrage at the treatment by governments of refugees/migrants/asylum-seekers and of sympathy and solidarity with the thousands of people who had lost everything and risked their lives to find somewhere safe. Over the next six or seven weeks I got involved with some fundraising, a lot of loading and unloading of vans, a fair amount of sorting, classifying and re-packing of donated items, a few meetings, some face-to-face, some “virtual,” a bunch of phone calls, and a lot of facebooking. And I’ve met a lot of great people.

So here I am, on a dark Monday morning in late October, one of a group of ten people travelling to Calais to deliver aid. We plan to drive down there, meet some local people who have first-hand knowledge of the camps and the conditions there and, with their help and guidance, deliver what we have collected directly to the people living in the camps. We’re a mixed bunch – a fireman coming straight off his night shift, a teacher, a community worker, a student, a pub landlord, himself a former refugee from Angola, a “man with a van,” a musician, a project manager, a woman who gave birth to the first child to be born in a women’s Peace Camp in the early 80s, and me, retired but still anxious to be useful.

The journey down south is uneventful. After touching base at Leicester Forest East services to fuel up, we arrange our next meeting point to be the final service station on the M20 before the Eurotunnel terminal near Folkestone, where we will be joined by an old mate of one of our group, who is now a musician. He comes laden with guitars and, to much amusement, a four-foot long didgeridoo. We proceed to the terminal, to discover that “intruder activity” on the French side has disrupted services. To pass the time, we have a briefing from our team leader on the procedure we will need to adopt to distribute food. He warns us that we will have to exercise a bit of crowd control to prevent the refugees from storming the van, or falling out with one another. Though what he says makes sense, it makes me a tad uneasy. Some of us become distracted by a seagull landing on the van just behind TL’s head. I try a sneaky photo to make it look as if the gull is actually on his head, but the gull is having none of it, and turns away disdainfully.

Luckily, we are only delayed by about 40 minutes, and very soon we are in France, heading for our first stop, where we will meet a local woman who has been working as part of the team of volunteers with whom we have been in touch. We are to drop off some tents, sleeping bags, and children’s toys. When we arrive, at a disconcertingly pretty, farmhouse-style French village home, we are greeted like long-lost family and, after unloading our donations, we are ushered into the family kitchen for coffee and cake. We sit around the big farmhouse table, express our delight at the welcome we have received, take a few photos for the record, drink our coffee, eat some cake and then declare that we are anxious to get going. It’s been a rainy day, the late-afternoon clouds are quite dark overhead, and we have lots to do. Our host, who has a hip and back injury, so can’t help out in the camp any more, insists on driving at the head of our convoy to make sure we get to the camp safely. We say we have satnav and will find it anyway, but she insists. We’re all very touched by her kindness and generosity.

And then, about twenty minutes later, we arrive at “Le (or is it la?) Jungle.” A long, muddy road stretches in front of us, to our left are 20-foot-high banks of mud, gorse, sand and stones which I presume are the sand-dunes I’ve read about, and behind them, though a gap in the dunes, I see the first tents, and improvised huts. A lot seems to be going on: some young men are riding up and down the muddy road on bicycles, there are vans parked and groups of young men jostle to receive the contents. Some other young men gather around the entrance to the camp, some talking to each other, others are on their mobiles. I’m reminded of “Outraged of Tunbridge Wells’” complaint in the Daily Mail that these people have mobile phones! How dare they! And I want to grab hold of that person and tell him/her that of course they have mobile phones, it’s how they keep in touch with friends and family to make sure they are safe, and besides, they’re not here because they are poor, they’re here because their lives were in danger, but before my flight of angry fancy carries me away, we are off to meet our contact, who will help us distribute the aid we have brought.  A hundred metres down the road, we are met by two young  men who lead us over some makeshift boards into a narrow alleyway of sand, on each side of which are small, lean-to huts, about six foot high, with about ten-by-six-foot floor space. These are the young men’s homes, for the present. They look impressively sturdy, but it is only mid-October and I’ve no idea how they will cope with winter.  We’re invited into one of them and immediately offered tea, a delightful, cinnamon-flavoured brew which they serve to us in beautiful little cups. We learn that they are from Sudan, where civil war has been raging, on and off, since 1955. We are told a bit about the different nationalities in this camp, which has swollen to nearly 6,000 in number (only a few months ago, numbers were estimated at 4,000.) There are Syrians, Somalis, Afghans, Iraqis, Eritreans, and they are mostly (but not exclusively) young men, who have fled war zones or political persecution. And they arrive with little more than the clothes on their backs, their families are, in many cases in refugee camps nearer home, and they all hope to find safe haven in France, or in the UK. We don’t have time to get into the whys and wherefores, we are here to offer a bit of help to some very needy people.

So we unload the food bags and “comfort” bags (toiletries, maybe a scarf or a pair of gloves) from the van and follow our hosts into the camp. We are to deliver to some of the many “kitchens” which have been created: essentially these are improvised scrap-metal stoves, or even simply open fires, which typically feed 20 or more people. Our hosts lead us to the kitchens deemed to be most in need, though we are approached by several young men as we move around the camp. Negotiations ensue, sometimes they are conducted calmly, sometimes they seem quite heated. All around us are groups of tents, some sturdy, others very much the opposite. Some are lashed together, some look as if a gust of wind would blow them over. There are some old caravans, which mostly seem to be used for community purposes: one has medical supplies, another seems to be a food store, another an information point. I notice a queue of about 50 people outside a marquee distributing hot food and, about thirty yards from there a crowd has gathered and at the centre it would seem that two men had squared up to each other, while others were trying to calm them down. The atmosphere around us seems to change very quickly, from impressively calm to quite tense, and back again. There seems to be a lot of activity, some clearly purposeful, some, well, you can almost feel the despair.

Night falls, and we carry on distributing until we can barely see where we are going, despite having agreed earlier that we wouldn’t stay after dark. Nothing untoward happens, and the area we are distributing in actually feels very friendly, but I am a bit uncomfortable that we are going against what we had agreed before. The reason, of course, is that we had arrived later than planned and had a set amount to give out, but we have plenty of time next day and, on difficult terrain an accident could easily have happened…..

We go back to our Sudanese hosts for more of that wonderful cinnamon tea. It’s a warm evening, and we sit around for a while, chatting and singing a few songs together. For a while it feels like a very convivial camping trip, singing songs by the fire, and it’s easy to forget for a few moments where we are. Eventually we make our way back to the vehicles to head for our accommodation and some food. Our new friends were clearly delighted that we had been to help them, and we leave with a sense of having done something really worthwhile. Enough food given out to provide 400 meals, someone estimates, which is undoubtedly something to be really proud of. Pretty soon, though, it starts to feel to me like a tiny drop in a huge ocean.

Tuesday: The next day doesn’t start well. One of the vans has a flat tyre, and it takes a while to get the wheel off and put the spare on. Then, because we are running late, some of the vans head off before others have got the route sorted and satnavs set, with the inevitable result that we set off in different directions. Five minutes down the road we get a call from an irritated TL. We get it sorted eventually, and the convoy gets back together about ten miles down the road. I’m put in mind of the final line from that song “Right Said Fred:” – You never get nowhere when you’re too ‘asty!

Today, we’re heading down the coast, to a much smaller camp, one where we’ve heard the need is even more desperate. We’ve heard stories about it being a target for hostile police activity, of chaotic and more volatile conditions in camp, so we’re naturally a bit apprehensive. First we have to meet our hosts for the day: two young Muslim women, who are students at the local university, plus a young man who tells us he speaks five languages, so will be a very useful interpreter for us. They are thrilled to see us, and one of them is even more thrilled when our musician hands her a ukulele. Soon another couple of people arrive, and discussion ensues, which I can’t quite follow with my tourist French, but it sounds like a disagreement about how we are meant to be doing things. I’m a bit disconcerted but no matter, our hosts are clearly very enthusiastic and the atmosphere is very warm and convivial. We do a drop off of camping gear at someone’s garage, and then head for the camp.

We’ve agreed to park most of the vehicles away from the entrance, so as not to draw too much attention to ourselves. Driving in, we notice there’s something of a police presence, which adds to my slight apprehension, and then, after parking up, two of us are immediately approached by a woman who warns us against doing things our own way, saying that we should work through proper organisations, such as Salam, the charity she works for. Well, we’re here now, and we have a plan, so we may as well give it a shot, but that nagging feeling in my gut grows a bit more. On the way in, I’m immediately struck by the difference from last night. These people clearly have next to nothing, and the atmosphere is decidedly edgy. We’re a large group, and people immediately approach our guides. I’m feeling like a tourist but trying to put that thought to one side, we have a job to do. Then TL talks to me about taking photographs, but being very careful not to photograph refugees without their permission. I’m uncomfortable, but, thinking about the need to take some pictures so we can publicise our work for fundraising purposes, I take a few long-distance snaps of rows of tents, and mud, trying to capture the sense of desolation that this place evokes. Even that is too much, and one of the refugees gets upset and remonstrates with one of our guides. I feel horribly embarrassed and keep my distance. Apparently he is under the impression that I have been photographing his family. I haven’t actually taken a picture of any people at all, but I decide it might be too inflammatory if I approached him, and leave the negotiating to our guide. I feel horribly exposed and uncomfortable as our guides go round distributing tickets to the refugees who, in their view, should get the tents, sleeping bags, shoes or coats we have brought for them. We trudge back to the van and try to organise distribution to people with tickets, but a queue builds up really quickly, people are pressing closer to the van, too close, in fact, and we decide to stop, re-group, and try again a bit later. The woman from Salam has watched this melee by the van and I wish we had taken her advice. A tense hour or so later, during which time I am upset to discover that TL has jumped to the conclusion that earlier on I did take photos of refugee children, and hasn’t bothered to check with me whether it’s true or not, we try again, modifying the plan a little, parking further away from the camp and carrying stuff onto site in small groups, under the direction of our guides. It still feels uncomfortable as we give sleeping bags and tents to some families and ignore others, because our guides say they were given stuff yesterday. It seems to me that no-one has much of anything and what little people have will be rendered useless once the winter sets in, if it even lasts that long. Eventually, we give up and decide to take what we have left to another garage for storage, for the volunteers on the ground to distribute appropriately, when they can. We’ve given a number of items out, which will, no doubt, make life a tiny bit more bearable for a few people, but I really don’t feel good about this.

I come away from this place drawing two conclusions. Firstly, when you are dealing with a situation as desperate as this, where things are so chaotic, you have to distribute what you have in a way that is both fair and seen to be fair. I don’t think that is possible if you just turn up in a small group with a vanload of camping equipment and a host of good intentions. You have to work with people who are local, who know the terrain and have some kind of relationship with the people in the camp. At Calais, things worked for us because we worked with people in the camp who had worked with some of our people before, and it seemed that they commanded a degree of respect among their fellow refugees. They had links with local people who are experienced in working in that situation, and know how to determine the refugees’ needs. Further down the coast the situation was very different, and it seemed to me that the only possibility of linking up with the right kind of people would be to work with established organisations, which would have the infrastructure and expertise to work strategically. There are, of course, some problems with this, as organisations have structures which sometimes cost (and waste) money best spent more directly, and in my experience they have particular ways of doing things, they have agendas, and there are usually some tricky politics involved. You probably have to do a lot of research to work out which organisations to trust.

Ultimately, though, you have to ask yourself how on earth a situation like this can be allowed to persist. People are living in unimaginable squalor. It’s a field of mud and tents and misery. Scores of people arrive every day, with nothing but the ragged clothes on their backs, often without coats or proper footwear, and all they can do is try to survive, somehow. It’s a miracle that they do, but you can’t see them doing it indefinitely, particularly not if the coming winter is harsh. And they are living in this squalor in one of the richest countries in the world. It cannot be allowed to continue. The French government, all EU governments, international humanitarian organisations have to DO SOMETHING.

I’ve come away from this trip with a range of contradictory thoughts and feelings. I’ve met some incredibly brave people, and been truly humbled by their kindness, their generosity, their bravery, their spirit. And I’ve been a part of something really positive, helping to turn the good intentions of the hundreds of people from Notts and Derbyshire who want to help, into something real, helping aid go to where it’s needed. I’ve learned a lot, as well, all sorts of things about people, their motivations, their ability to deal with appalling hardship. And I’ve learned some very harsh lessons as well.

So, what next? Once involved, you can’t turn your back on all this misery. I will stay involved, and will almost certainly give my time and energy to another convoy. I hope we can apply what we’ve learned from this trip to future ventures, so that we can be more effective. For now, I’m grateful to have been able to contribute, and I take my metaphorical hat off to everyone else who has helped in any way to mitigate this appalling human crisis.