Helping out in Calais September 2015

This blog.  is just intended as a ‘diary’ of my personal  experience when I went over to Calais to  help out.  I was there to primarily to help out with manual tasks therefore  the photography side did come second . The images are watermarked and low resolution. If you need to use anything feel free to ask and I will happily supply you with the full resolution unwatermarked copies

 My friend Matt  and I were  saying how we  would like to somehow help with the Refugee crisis in Calais in the North of France, knowing I could fill my car with tents and sleeping bags and having heard that this was the type of stuff that was needed we made contact with l’auberge des migrants and a man named  François. We arranged to drive over and collected over 40 tents from Izzi who had started the 1st mass collection in Norwich, Norfolk with Calais……

We did not know very much about what was going on or what to expect, and even though the weather was atrocious and the ferry crossing was the worst either of us had ever encountered we were both excited to help and looked forward to actively supporting those in need. We arrived in France, the relentless rain welcoming us to the country in a deluge of hail, strong winds and flying  debris. By 1 am we were still 3 km from our motel and almost had to crawl the car at 10 mph due to  the rain lashing onto the windscreen. As we took a battering  we chatted and hypothesised how bad the conditions were going to be the next day at the Calais camp as a result of the storm conditions.

Later that morning, after a few hours sleep in the cheapest motel we could find, we headed off into even worse weather to a remote location which we  were told belonged to a man called Christian. Upon arrival at about we spotted about 4 other vans, 2 with British number plates and within 5 mins the kettle was on and we were unloading our car of the 40 odd tents, roll mats and sleeping bags and then proceeded to sort through a pile of bags and suitcases that had arrived the previous night.

The first few bags I opened were filled with the ‘right’ type of items the refugees needed,  it was full of men’s clothes. After that we then started to discover that more and more items had been sent over –  like ladies high heels shoes and underwear,  this, although charitable and donated with good intentions are not what is currently needed. Therefore this had to be sorted and recycled for use elsewhere. So, If you are considering donating anything yourself – bear this in mind- check what’s needed and what will make little impact.  At first there was about 5 of us sorting through the donated items and then slowly more people started to arrive.

All we could hear now was the wind and rain as it was now blowing at around 30 mph,  we carried on emptying vans that were still arriving. A few hours passed until this task was complete we then walked into a small room at the back of the large farm building. It was a sight to behold, one of the  most efficient packing areas I have ever seen. People were packing food into  packages to take out to the Refugees later that afternoon. we got in line and started to help out, in total we packed up 1000 parcels and  loaded these into the back of a large transit vans  I don’t want to sound ‘corny’ but it’s true when you hear philanthropist say that charity is a universal language, as even though we did not all share the same 1st language it was not a barrier to us communicating. We seemed to manage to find something useful to do and all worked symbiotically … Cutting bread, emptying boxes, taking trays of food parcels to the van outside, putting specific items in the small bags to hand out and clearing away empty boxes. By Now it had just passed 11am and I was  asked if I could cut onions by Christian’s wife. Not my favourite job, but I  started on a 25kg sack and cut them then threw them in a large pot, not having a clue what I was making but just following instruction,  I went back to filling up the van and about 30 mins later I was surprised when  we  were all offered a bowl of stew that had just been cooked up. This was the perfect ‘pick me up’   and we ate whilst a team briefing took place on what was to happen next when we all drove to the Calais ‘Jungle’ as it is called by many.

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After the briefing we were on the road to Calais  We travelled in a convoy,  eager to get there,  to make sure people were ok after the previous nights storms.

Upon arrival at the Camp I have to admit initially I felt vulnerable, it was my  first time in a camp  like this and I am really thankful that we went though the correct way to help out, using l’auberge des migrants and reassured that this was an organised experience., unlike some reported unannounced drop off’s that have been less than successful and have been the cause of some conflict for both the Refugees and those  donating.   People were  waving to us and smiling, welcoming the convoy of volunteers .  First we stopped off at Kais’s tent with Rob and Esther (see picture below) and dropped of a few pairs of socks and shoes  this is the guy who  helps out people when they 1st arrived at the camp, to orientate them, offer support and help if they need medical attention.

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We jumped back into our vehicles and drove a little further along the track, said ‘hello’ to a few Sudanese people who were in their camp, Rob was telling us the day before they (the Sudanese people)  had cooked him some Food and insisted that he stayed to eat as a thank you for helping them out. To be honest this caught me a little off guard as it was the last thing I was expecting to hear happening due to the stories I had heard from the press over the last few months which I truly now know to  is propaganda and I can only assume is written to create fear in the UK of our fellow humans in need  . After a chat we jumped back into our motors and drove into the centre of the camp to start handing out  food parcels.

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what shocked me the most was the mess that had been left from the previous nights storms, also from when people are arriving independently and unannounced and dropping of aid – As nice a gesture as this sounds, what normally happens is that the items in bags have not been sorted or checked so the wrong type of items are dropped off such as  woman’s and children’s clothes and underwear, but as there are not very many women and children on this site the stuff just gets left.  The women and children  stay somewhere else and I have  been invited to go help out there on my next visit.

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 François and his organisation   are structured and professional, this became evident whilst we were  preparing to distribute a van full to the roof with food to 1000 people. A long line was quickly forming  and the throws of people disappearing out of sight, even though there was a lot of people there, François ran a tight ship and the food was distributed without a hitch and without any problems.   I noticed a TV crew filming it on the ground and also up in the sand dunes – apparently my car was on French News! .Every single person wanted to shake François’ hand,  he made sure people stood in line and we all got ready to help. I was asked to stand and make part of a wall so people could not squeeze into the line and get food and not have to que up like everybody else, luckily there was only 4-5 people who tried this and they just went and joined the line. Another van with members of a Paris group Called Muslims Hands (from memory) arrived and also started to distribute food alongside us.

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After all the food was handed out people soon started to come back to say thank you again and wanted to shake our hand,  we stood and chatted for a bit. Walking and driving through the camp it was great to notice that the community was strong and everybody helped everybody. Prior to arriving I did have some pre-judged fears, I was worried  about something happening to my car. I was told to keep the car locked at all time’s while not in it, Obviously this is sound advice but upon reflection, when you hear these people’s stories, of their lives and challenges and hardships they have faced it feels a little silly and inconsequential of me to be concerned about a physical possession. I felt welcomed, valued and had a sense of doing the right thing and as a result I have learnt a lot about people, community and kindness after spending time here, I have felt more intimidated walking home  at night after photo shoots carrying my camera equipment, than I did while I was there. Again I feel this is all due to the bad press that in distributed and thrown down our necks. and also that our trip was supported by l’auberge des migrants

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We followed Rob and Esther through the camp, passed the shops selling essential items, and again we could see how difficult the living conditions were, floods everywhere and bad sanitation just 2 of the things I noticed. The nicest thing we saw was the Afghanistan people playing cricket . Eventually we got to the community on the other side of camp an popped our head into a makeshift kitchen with a fire in the middle.  We were offered a beverage,  a cup of steaming hot Tea leaf Tea and it tasted mighty damn fine too. Seconds after finishing our cups of Tea were invited by Jacub to come into his makeshift house and offered a cup of hot milk and cinnamon. There were a few volunteers and  refugees sat in the makeshift house made, recently, out of tarpaulins, pallets and blankets to insulate it. The temperature outside was around 15c but with the rain and wind it felt a lot colder, as soon as we took of our shoes and stepped we noticed how wind-proof and warmer it was.

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A soon as we had finished our drinks were were asked if we would break bread with them and have food with them, even though we all said no , they insisted. So there was now 8-9 of us in the house eating meal. 4 volunteers and 5 Sudanese who were asking as many questions about us, as we were asking about them. After an hour we then said we had to start getting ready to go as we had to catch a ferry. Rob asked them if they needed anything and he said the best thing he could get would be a mobile phone so he and his brother could call what was left of their family also stuck in another country, so rob decided to take it upon himself to go find a Mobile phone knowing how happy it would make them feel.

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As I got out of the room one of the Sudanese asked if I could take a photo of everybody, this was a first as it had normally been me asking everybody to be polite. So I happily obliged to that request.

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Then just as we were leaving yet another car arrives announced and the inevitable happens as everybody wants a bit of what is inside 🙁

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And just as we are walking a little further up the track and as the rain very quickly stops I look to my left and spot the most amazing rainbow popping out of the trees. To me that just summed up the day. Even thought I set of wanting to help and made sure I did exactly that and then some more food good measure I know that I will be coming back to help out more as soon as time will allow, or more like I sort out time so it can happen sooner.

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