Monday October 24th: There was a meeting each morning at the warehouse which gave a summary of the situation in the Jungle. It was dynamic, unfolding and complicated. It was clear from the messages from family and friends that the awful, apocalyptic ending of the Jungle was every bit as bad as people had hoped it wouldn’t be. Strangely, I had little idea what was going. In my chilly attic the TV had stopped working so I didn’t follow the news. I had no wi-fi and it was only when a friend texted me to ask if I was all right that I had a sense of how the volatile the situation was. People at home knew a lot more than I did. And that was fine, because however much I wanted to do something, the most useful thing seemed to be to just get on with doing whatever I could.
I went in first thing and spent an hour or so back in bedding. Most of the people I had grown so fond of the day before had left. The turnover was rapid. Juana, the Portuguese team leader, seemed pleased that I was back. I had to explain that I’d only come in for a short time. New faces began to pick at the colourful mountain of sleeping bags and blankets. I had no time to learn who they were. I had to begin packing the aid we would take to Dunkirk.
Carl and I began bagging up trousers and joggers. Each in three or four sizes. We had to take twenty, sometimes forty pairs. But only if there were plenty. We were not to empty the bins of any particular size. We weren’t to leave the warehouse with nothing. Three of us did all the packing up; trousers, socks, scarves, hats and toiletries. It took a long time. Each pair of trousers, though taken from a size specific bin, had to be rechecked against a measure. Some pairs were wrongly sorted. It took the whole morning, working without a break – slow, repetitive work. Adriano, managing the task, was needed in meetings. He would disappear for long periods. You had to remember that while you might feel you were doing something really important, there was a lot more happening, there was a bigger picture.
Lunch time came and we finished what we were doing. I loaded the last bags onto a trolley and came back to find the lunch queue was huge – two lines with maybe forty people in each – all hungry and waiting to be fed. I waited and, arriving at the front of the queue, found there were no plates. As soon as someone returned a plate to wash, eager hands grabbed it. I had some fruit in my pocket. That would suffice. We had to arrive in Dunkirk at a set time and I was concerned that I might delay the departure. I went to find the team. Adriano asked if I’d eaten. I said I had an apple.
“Ok…you go get your van!” he said. I returned to find him holding a plate of food.
“Eat this! We will load the van – if that’s ok?”. How could I complain? He was tired and stressed but he looked after us.
One of the founders of L’Auberge des Migrants had come to the warehouse. She wanted to see the distribution at Dunkirk amongst other things. There had been problems with an earlier distribution when Police had delayed access to the camp. Alexandra had been able to smooth the process.
A sudden hitch – the Calais Wood Yard truck, laden with miniaturised firewood to take to Dunkirk, was stuck in a pothole. I went for diesel while the wood truck was extricated. Alexandra was travelling in the van. It was odd, driving around Calais while she gave me directions to the petrol station. People in senior roles can be distant, aloof, preoccupied. This woman was anything but. She wasn’t. She radiated calm. She was lovely, interested, asking questions. What did I feel about the experience of volunteering? Why had I come? She seemed genuinely concerned to understand. There was no angle or arrogance.
We returned to the warehouse and picked up Adriano and, together with the truck from the wood yard, we set off for Dunkirk.
The CRS had our details already. The road into the camp was partly blocked by their vans and we were forced to stop and switch off the engines. Our passports and ID cards were taken. They asked to see inside the van. It was stuffed with bags of clothing which had rolled against the doors. As I opened them the bags began to fall out. The police finally smiled and then helped me to close the doors again. And then we waited. The CRS were intimidating but one, at least, was civil and polite. The vehicle registrations were checked. We waited some more. They seemed to be checking our details against some central database. Eventually, unsmiling, they waved us through. Now we only had to get past the security guards. Barrier down. Engines off. Stay in the vehicle. Identities checked. More serious looks. Finally, our details logged on yet another form, the barrier was raised. It felt like a triumph just getting inside the camp.
The Dunkirk camp is more regimented than the Jungle was. People I’d spoken to had been critical of it, unfavourably comparing its structured order to the Jungle’s sprawling, colourful variety. There are uniform plywood huts in rows, like tiny barrios, arranged either side of a tarmac road. The huts stand on a bed of crushed concrete which means an absence of puddles and mud. There are not the tiny food stalls, fruit shops and the other enterprises that made the Jungle distinctive and human. But this camp is different and to criticise it on the basis of its layout is to miss the point of it.
We drove slowly past the rows of huts and people walking, men mainly and some with wives, some with children. There were small groups of children playing. We passed the huge barn-like structure, filled with electrical points and people using mobile phones. Others, usually men in twos or threes, sat around open fires. We unloaded our bagged items onto shelving in a gloomy, unlit shipping container. We had a few minutes before the queues would form – there had been problems when earlier distributions had been late. This was a men’s distribution. Women had separate ones. The distinction was to avoid problems with mixed distributions. Hurriedly we emptied the bags and tried to arrange the clothing into piles in size order; trousers, joggers, jackets, scarves, hats and socks. It was so dark and difficult to see. Outside the expectant chatter of the first arrivals increased in volume. As we sorted, Adriano and Freddy, another volunteer, did their best to marshal people into two lines outside each of the two hatches.
At three o’clock, we opened both the hatches to a large cheer. Two lines, roughly speaking, stretched away from our hatch. The hatch was small enough that it was difficult to make out the end of the queue. Such a variety of faces and expressions. Just like any other group of humans pretty much anywhere who’ve got to queue for something but probably would rather not. Some were smiling, with a friendly, “Hello my friend!”. Some were tense, anxious or just irritated. Most were pleased to get something of what they needed. Others were frustrated by the quality or choice of the items we offered, and critical. Rationally, they are a kind of cross-section of a particular group of humanity. Yes, they are seeking asylum, fleeing war, persecution – troubles beyond our comprehension. But that didn’t mean they were passive, meekly grateful or incapable of being discerning. I thought back to the discussions we had while sorting bedding the previous week as a blanket or sleeping bag would be rejected (and sent for a second line use) because of a hole, tear or stain. “Surely”, someone had theorised, “if people are desperate…they’ll take ANTHING?” In a process which has seen people dehumanised beyond the point that many of us can understand, isn’t it better to give them the best we can give?
I grabbed a range of hats – different styles, colours and sizes. The man at the front of the queue didn’t speak a word of my language nor I his. Miming ‘hat’ with his hands to his head, I’d mistakenly offered him shampoo. His look was telling. I clearly had no skill at interpreting mime. He picked through the hats. None was what he wanted. I dug through the pile and found some more. I looked at him, pressed against the sharp, steel edge of the shipping container, the lengthy queue behind him. With great dignity, he remained calm, as some of those behind him called out. He looked through the latest selection. Would something be right? As he weighed the choice I produced another assortment. This time, it seemed, there was something. He grabbed a hat and tried it for size. A smile flashed across his face, and he was gone.
Many people wanted socks, which is difficult to mime when you feet are well below the sight-line of the person you’re explaining to. Sometimes a neighbour in the queue knew the word. Some people left happy – or satisfied. Others, with reason, didn’t enjoy queuing for an hour to find we could only give them a tiny, hotel sized bar of soap, or a single ‘Gillette’ (razor). Shampoo – one of those words that seems to be the same in every language, ran out first of all. The lucky ones at the front of the queue, as always, got the best. One man would queue for an age, ask for one razor, say thank you and leave. Another would ask for one of everything, socks, hat, scarf, razor, toothbrush, toothpaste, soap and shampoo. Occasionally, as the queue subsided and there was less pressure, a brief conversation might take place. An elderly man, beaming and clutching the hat he’d chosen, asked,
“English”. I replied. He seemed disproportionately pleased, smiling and giving me a thumbs up.
One man, politely and in perfect English, asked for a hat adding,
“And can I have a pink one for my missus, if you don’t mind”. Some had lived and worked in England. They had a passport identical to mine, had worked in Britain and paid taxes there. Then they’d returned to bring wives and children – who hadn’t been able to get back in to the UK. Sometimes immigration law is like a game – it seems to defy reason.
Outside the container, groups of small children played. It was poignant and beautiful to watch them, lost in imaginary worlds, laughing, shouting, running around. Like any children anywhere. The tension and the hardship around them forgotten in an instant. There is good evidence that the dehumanising nature of migration (let alone the horror that they may have witnessed and which drove them) has a lasting, detrimental effect on a child’s development. It was also sad to reflect on that truth, underpinning these simple moments of happiness.
The queue eventually dwindled. Near to the back, a handful of Vietnamese men. They were so much less numerous than the Kurdish people. Did that mean they had to wait till until the end? It’s an imperfect system and there is awareness of these issues. NGOs also use other methods of distribution to counter balance unfairness.
Just before we left, we took some bags and unloaded them from the van into another container. As I went to drive away I pulled the van keys from my pocket. Unnoticed, a pen fell to the floor. A man’s voice called out from behind me. I looked around and a Kurdish man was pointing at the pen on the ground.
“Your pen dropped!” he said. I picked up the biro. I thanked him and turned to go. But he spoke again,
“Hey!…Your money?” He pointed again. Near to where the pen had fallen I had not seen the five euro note. It was a most poignant memory, one that’ll stay with me for a long, long time. If refugees….if people were at all like the caricatures in the sordid titles of the British press – would he have done that?