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?
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.