'Can you take me to Ireland in the back of your car, please teacher?' This was the request I received from a 16 year old Sudanese boy as I was leaving the Calais refugee camp on 2 September. We had spent time together over the previous few days speaking English. During our lessons he shared with me that in his previous life he had been a farmer in Sudan, that he herded cows, and that he loves sunflowers. His pop icon is Rhianna and he is a fan of Chris Brown, Eminem and Snoop Dog. In many ways he is just like any other teenager but of course in one crucial way he is very different, because he is an asylum seeker.This gentle boy travelled alone from Sudan to Calais without even a phone to keep in contact with his family. Luckily for him one of the older men (a 25 year old!) in the camp has taken him under his wing. Every night he leaves the camp to try and stow away on a lorry to the UK. Last week a 14 year old boy from the camp was killed when attempting to do the same thing and neither the lorry he was on nor the car that hit him stopped. Currently, there are over 1,000 unaccompanied minors in the camp, the youngest are eight years old.
This is my story in photos...
The photo above is of the main street through the camp called 'Theresa May Street'!
Along with Mary Kate O'Flanagan and Jean Rice I spent the last week in August in the Calais 'Jungle'. Our aim was to raise awareness of the dwindling resources in the camp, to raise funds, and to volunteer. We worked with Utopia 56 a French volunteer organisation that focuses on keeping the camp clean and vermin and disease free. This is a huge task, as there are approximately 8-10,000 people in the camp with limited access to proper sanitation facilities. You can tell so much about people by what they throw away. While there was a lot of rubbish it was all the same sort of thing, mainly different types of paper and plastics coming from essential living items. It is crucial for people's dignity that they can live in a clean environment and that is once less thing they have to worry about!
Here I am with the Utopia volunteers getting stuck in!
The routine for many of the refugees is to spend all night trying to find ways to get to the UK and then when they have been unsuccessful (99.9% of the time) they return to the camp in the early hours of the morning exhausted, and head to bed. The afternoons are spent queuing for food, blankets, clothes and other supplies. Later in the day, many attend French or English language classes.
The photo below is of the school's 'resource centre', containing donated books, pens and other materials.
After the big clean up in the mornings we head over to the 'Jungle Books' school where we spend the afternoons teaching English. French is the more popular language as most people have come to accept that they are going to be in France for a long time. While there are people in the camp from Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia and Eritrea, all of the men I taught were Sudanese.
The photo below shows the white shipment containers housing those seeking asylum in France
There is a two-tiered system within the camp. Those who are applying for asylum in France live in the white shipment containers you can see in the background of the photo above. They are protected by a wire perimeter fence. Those who are not applying for refugee status in France remain outside in their tents and huts. A mobile phone van enters the camp every afternoon and is quickly surrounded by a swarm of men who want to charge their phones and make contact with the outside world.
The graffiti on the wall in the photograph below was painted by children in the camp
I was never in the camp at night, but I was told by several men that they find it scary, as tensions rise due to the stress of the situation and violence can erupt. To provide protection and community most people group together in national clusters such as the Afghani section or the Eritrean area of the camp, etc. One of these groups is made up of 150 Sudanese men who have set out strict rules for living peacefully together: no fighting, no littering, and communal living. Most of the men I met were very young (teens/early 20's) but I also met some older men who told me they have been on an asylum seeking 'conveyer belt' between the UK and Afghanistan for several years.
The pictures below are of the Eritrean church, donated tents and the hummingbird medical centre.
The camp was tear-gassed by the police when we were there. Two men had tried to stowaway in a lorry and refused to get out, other refugees went to their aid and a violent clash between the police and refugees broke out. On another occasion somebody let a tear gas cannister off as we were heading to the school, we were blinded, coughing and wheezing, it was a very scary few minutes!
The picture below is of a plastic ship I found stuck to one of the walls in the camp made out of empty tear-gas cannisters!
We met so many people seeking asylum who have lost loved ones, homes, livelihoods, in fact just about everything. The pain of what they are going through is unimaginable. We were advised not to discuss specific personal stories as the trauma is still so present and there are few resources to help. We were also advised not to take photographs of individuals as it could effect their asylum process that's why these photos are of the place rather than the people!
The photo below is of a makeshift cafe in the camp.
We Raised over €7,500 for the camp!
During our week in Calais we raised over €7,500 and the money is being used to provide food, medical supplies, clothes and bedding. We prioritised children and unaccompanied minors and their specific care needs. Thanks so much to everyone who supported this cause, it will make a huge difference to the lives of people in the camp.
Some of the team having lunch in the 'New Kabul Cafe' in the Calais 'jungle: (L to R: Jean Rice, Audrey O'Reilly, Shirley Graham and Mary Kate O'Flanagan (not pictured).
If you have been thinking about volunteering in Calais I would urge you to go ahead and do it! It means so much to the people there that we show up in solidarity with them and help in any way we can. Everywhere I went I was met by smiling faces and greetings of 'bonjour' and 'hello sister'. It was one of the most rewarding decisions I have ever made.
Ireland's response to the refugee situation
On September 7th 2016 a coalition of NGOs working on refugee rights released the following statement 'On September 10th 2015, the Government pledged to take up to 4,000 refugees through the Irish Refugee Protection Programme as part of the European response to the crisis, but since then just 311 refugees have arrived'. Clearly, not enough is being done and speed is of the utmost importance, especially in relation to providing safety to the vulnerable children in the camp. The full article is available here: http://www.irishrefugeecouncil.ie/news/one-year-on-government-needs-to-act-fast-to-keep-its-promise-on-refugees/5144
If you would like to donate or volunteer with any of the organisations working directly with the refugees in the camp, below is a list of excellent NGOs.
To support the kitchens supplying food to all the refugees: http://refugeecommunitykitchen.com/ and http://www.calaiskitchens.net/donate.html
To support the Women’s and Children’s bus: https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/junglewomenscentre
To support 'Jungle Books' school: https://www.facebook.com/junglebookslibrarycalais/
Volunteer to help clean up the camp: http://www.utopia56.com/en/contact
'Life isn't about finding yourself, life is about creating yourself' - Buddha
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Report from Calais 'jungle' Refugee Camp Fundraiser