Sunday October 23rd: The distributions that had been going out to the camp suddenly stopped this afternoon. Volunteers who had been distributing aid from the L’Auberge warehouse paused. There had been an incident of some kind. It appeared that the mounting tension in the Jungle, ringed every day by more and more CRS police, was reaching a peak.
The flow of donations into the warehouse didn’t stop however and nor did the arrival of fresh volunteers. The laden cars and vans still unloaded more donations. There was a different atmosphere in the warehouse. The forty-five welcome packs we had prepared were still on the trolley, waiting until the situation in the camp became safer. Before, we had struggled to keep up with demand. Now the huge containers we had laboured to fill with sleeping bags and blankets the previous day were overflowing. We had a wonderful, enthusiastic group of people. We were sorting bedding quickly. But the distribution teams weren’t coming to pick items to take. So the piles grew and people began to talk about the what we all now knew was scheduled to happen the following day. The closure of the Jungle.
We knew that all the donations were still needed and would continue to be. There was still the camp at Dunkirk. There were other, smaller communities too, dotted across norther France and Belgium. There were fresh tented encampments on the streets of Paris – perhaps enlarged by people already leaving the Jungle. There would be new miniature camps springing up because not everyone would leave the Jungle for a CAO. And there was a pressing need in Greece where huge numbers of people faced winter with inadequate shelter. All the same, the warehouse had been operating with calm, measured efficiency for a while, responding primarily to the very local and specific needs of the Jungle. We could see that this would have to change. But, for now, we just kept picking from the mountain of bedding.
The warehouse Manager came in with another long-term volunteer and a question.
“Does anyone have a van?” I offered mine and took the other volunteer, Adriano, to where it was parked. He was responsible for the team making distributions to the Dunkirk camp at Grande Synthe. Located between a busy motorway junction and a railway line, the Dunkirk camp was the first in Europe to be constructed according to international humanitarian standards. It replaced an earlier camp (pictured above) which was rife with illness, overcrowded and prone to flooding. The new camp was built by a group including Help Refugees, Utopia 56 and Medecins Sans Frontieres at the request of the Green Party Mayor of Dunkirk. The Mayor had become exasperated by the inaction of the French government with regard to the care of refugees in the earlier camp. L’Auberge des Migrants was making several trips a week to carry out distributions.
The new camp has plywood shelters with doors that can be locked, an electric socket and a heater. These are huts – they’re not what many of us would think of as comfortable – they have no rooms or furniture. But they are off the ground and the site is well-drained. There are some facilities – electric sockets in a shelter where people can charge the phones and keep in contact with family. There are around fifteen hundred residents. The make up is fluid but at the time of writing the people are mostly Kurdish; from Iraq, with a smaller number from Iran, some Bedoon or Bedouin people (a persecuted group from Kuwait where they are denied passports) and a small number of Vietnamese.
I didn’t have experience of distributions so I had no idea what to expect. I was only in the team because I had a van. After the frustration of feeling useless in the Jungle I felt clear that there was a purpose to my involvement – the team needed a vehicle after all.
In a couple of days I’d grown fond of team in bedding. They were lovely people to work with and we had really got a lot done. I had become attached to them. But I could be more use taking the team to Dunkirk.
Several people asked if they could come with me to Dunkirk. In some cases it felt like some people were dissatisfied with simply plugging away in the warehouse – as if it somehow mattered less that distributions. Obviously, it was only because of the warehouse teams sorting, packing and clearing the back log that there were items that could be distributed. Besides that, it put me in an awkward position. I had no idea who would be going to Dunkirk with me. There might not even be a spare seat. And even if there were to be, was it in my gift to offer people the option to come with us? Not really. A lovely woman who had been working with us kept asking, “Can I come…you haven’t forgotten I asked have you?” It was difficult. I explained that I couldn’t decide. In then end there were no seats spare. But it left me thinking that there are different motivations at work. I didn’t like the idea that people saw this as a goal – we weren’t supposed to be there for the experience were we? It wasn’t about our ‘needs’. For a few people it did seem to be.
The Dunkirk distribution team meant meeting more new people. They’d all been in Calais for a longer time than I had. Carl was originally from the West Midlands and had studied Philosophy. He was quiet, thoughtful, reflective and funny. I liked him a lot. When he spoke it was worth hearing what he had to say. And he worked hard. He was quietly diligent. He said the most profound thing that came out of the entire time I spent in Calais. He’d come to a similar conclusion as me. That volunteering in this way was not about individual glory or grand gestures. It was about doing something, anything, that was needed at the time. That meant realising and acknowledging that doing the mundane, pedestrian or boring was important. Without the low-level labour the whole operation couldn’t operate. We agreed that you needed to try to suppress the desire for individual fulfillment – or at least to find unorthodox ways of achieving it.
Tomorrow we would begin. I went home feeling I had nothing to complain about. The day that I’d had mixed feelings about was behind me. Today I had enjoyed being with these people and the day had been good. I’d felt on top of thing. There wasn’t any doubt. There weren’t any grey areas.