Tuesday October 25th: Each morning grisly stories about the evisceration of the Jungle circulated. Fifteen hundred children left behind as the camp burned, some sleeping out in the open, watched over by…Police? Social Services? No. Just some kind souls who taken time out from work or study and traveled to Calais. Volunteers.
There were so many people who’d been in Calais for months and months. They were immersed in the Jungle’s cultures. They knew it and understood it. Sure, they had homes to go to afterwards. They were fortunate. But, even so, the destruction of the camp was still shattering. There were a lot of exhausted faces at the warehouse that morning.
I only had a couple of days left and then I’d be going home too. It would be lovely to get back to my little family. At the same time I felt drawn to stay. There was obviously still so much to do. There were lots of people about. But those with a degree of experience were bogged down in the insurmountable task. And there didn’t seem to be enough people who had been, or who would be there long enough to be developed into new roles so that some of the exhausted volunteers could recuperate.
Some people, perhaps unfairly, make a distinction between long-term volunteers and others, like me, there for a week or a few days. Clearly, if you’ve been living in the Jungle for six months, or working within the warehouse’s systems for a year, you’re equipped far better than someone on a weekend trip – the so-called “Weekend Warriors”. In the end people do the best that they’re able.
I didn’t know anyone in the Jungle. I hadn’t spent months fostering partnerships and establishing trust with representatives of different communities. Had I been there earlier, and for a longer time I might have had a different experience. But for me the goal was to be as useful as possible in the short time I had. And people were always needed in the warehouse.
In an ideal world the organisation would know exactly who was available at any time. But that is difficult when people came and went freely. The organisation asked that you treat your stay a little like a job; don’t disappear at 2.00pm, don’t take two-hour breaks and so on. Most people adhered to that. But it was still difficult to keep track of so many people.
Another distribution to Dunkirk meant more picking and packing. Four hours leaning into clothing bins. Jumpers and tops in a range of sizes, all logged and accounted for. It was important for the organisation to have records. To know what had been distributed when. Why? These were donations, after all. The organisations involved in Dunkirk needed to know the quantity of aid they were distributing. There were several organisations involved and some appeared to do more than others.
The administration of the Dunkirk camp was complicated. The camp was run by Utopia 56. I’d imagined they might be similar to L’Auberge des Migrants – a well established, experienced organisation used to working with refugees and displaced people. I learned that they had a different history. They were the people who organised a huge annual music festival called Les Vieilles Charrues, in Carhaix, Brittany. Accustomed to dealing with large numbers of people (over two hundred thousand attend) and dealing with vast, festival sized amounts of waste plus being able to call upon a sizeable number of fairly local volunteers. These were three of the criteria which were used to determine their suitability for the role. As the camp’s management, it fell to Utopia 56 to arrange the large quantities of aid that were required to feed and clothe residents. That task was shared out between several partners. Each organisation had its own identity and style. And, perhaps inevitably, there were tensions. It seemed that L’Auberge des Migrants was doing more than had been asked of it originally, because other organisations had fallen short on their undertakings.
By the second day our little team was already a smooth operation. Gathering the clothing, bagging, labeling and loading it was calm and efficient. Even picking and packing two hundred sleeping bags and the same number of blankets was a model of resourcefulness – the work more or less shared.
We loaded the van and enjoyed the reward of being allowed to get our lunch before everyone else. Adriano was struggling. He and another volunteer had been pepper sprayed by police in Calais centre the previous night, for no particular reason. He was in a lot of pain. I remembered how he’d looked after me the day before. I went and got him a chair and made him sit down. He was a compassionate, gentle man. He’d given up a successful and lucrative job making TV commercials in London to come to Calais and sleep in a warehouse so he could help refugees. He didn’t deserve to be attacked by people whose job is supposed to be protecting the public.
Carl and Adriano traveled with me. A relaxed conversation about volunteering with a soundtrack of 1980’s Britpop as we drove back up the motorway. At Grande Synthe the same grumpy blockade as the previous day. But today they remembered us a little. The same rudimentary check inside the vehicle, the same lengthy scrutiny of passports. And again, when eventually we were waved through, the same bottleneck at the security barrier. Here too a flicker of familiarity as the guard took our details. I tried to joke about the design of the form he was filling in but that was going too far.
Inside the camp, an international human chain of volunteers saw the hundreds of sleeping bags and blankets swiftly stashed away. Volunteers loved human chains. The bedding wouldn’t be distributed today.
Back inside the familiar gloom of the container we quickly arranged the items and made ready.Up went the hatches at 3.00pm precisely. What you don’t want to do is keep hundreds of people waiting beyond the time you’d told them the distribution would begin . I began to recognise faces from the day before. People had come back for another razor or another miniature bar of soap. We’d brought a few more bottles of shampoo. Several men pointed out that of what we had was actually shower gel. It suited some people and not others. I felt it had to be a positive thing that, after the battering that many of these people had faced to get here, they were still able to be discerning. They had pride. They had dignity. If it meant waiting until we next had actual shampoo – so be it. But wash my hair with shower gel? No way.
One man asked for ‘Shorts’ – meaning underwear. But we didn’t have any. People don’t donate much underwear. And since few organisations will distribute worn underwear it has to be new. So it is in short supply. I made a mental note to buy some and donate it or to give money to a charity when I got back home. .
Most people were friendly and smiling. I had a comedy stand-off with one man who wanted two pairs of socks and wouldn’t take no for an answer. In most cases, and at most times, the rule was one item per person. It sounds harsh and most people didn’t question it. This man was adamant, in the most friendly and charming way, that he should get two pairs of socks. Given that we had done two distributions on consecutive days, one could always go back for more the next day. But he did it all with smiles, and it struck me how difficult it is to argue when you can’t speak someone’s language. I could have given him the two pairs. But, the argument goes, then others may expect two pairs of socks – or two bottles of shampoo. In the end none of it is an exact science. And eventually we shook hands and he was just as funny and good-natured as he departed with a single pair of socks. Was I being mean and petty? The distributions were heartwarming, and wretched, wonderful and hand wringingly awful – all in one intense, customer-focussed session. I went through a full range of emotions in that shipping container.
A man came with his wife and she had a beautiful, tiny child. Its dark eyes were bright and lively. It spotted a large, bright blue, woollen man’s hat and pointed this out to its mother, shouting at the top of its voice. It was startlingly loud and the mother chided it gently. But the child knew what it wanted. The mother seemed partly oblivious. She didn’t turn to it proudly as so many parents do and admire its spirited charm. She looked weary and more than a little defeated. I wanted to make her a cup of tea. The father stood behind them complaining about the hats I’d offered him.
“These are for women!” he told me. Helen, who was working beside me, offered him another assortment. I had a mock argument with the child, showing it that the hat was too big. Completely undeterred, it put out a tiny gloved hand, reaching for the thing. I took the hat and pulled it over the child’s head. It looked wonderful. The child was delighted, clasping its hands to its head and exclaiming proudly. Its mother smiled a little. The father was still complaining that the hats he had been given were for women. They were, he said, also too small. The child was like a tiny point of light amongst the sea of shattered faces.
There were other children. A small girl and a boy ran into the container through the door we’d left ajar to provide a little light. They went straight to the box of tiny soap bars shrieking with nervous laughter. Before we could stop them they’d grabbed handfuls of soap and stuffed their pockets full. We tried to stop them but they were too quick and agile – like slippery little fish. The ran off laughing and just minutes later, when two more ran in, we weren’t sure if they were the same kids. Possibly the parents know that children can do this. The men got one bar of soap each – tiny travel soaps – so it’s hard if you’ve a family. But the children could get in a moment what it took the men several days to do. It’s a possibility. But so is the fact that they were children and maybe they were just having fun.
After the queue had dispersed, the debrief: We’d run out of some things but others we still had in quantity. Someone, who’d been absent from both the clothes picking and packing sessions back in the warehouse, complained that the trousers were wrongly sorted by size. Adriano said everyone had to help pick what they would distribute so each person was responsible for their own items. It was a good idea.
Towards the end, as we packed up, I saw Alexandra from L’Auberge who had traveled with us the previous day. She had come to the camp for a meeting. She asked how I was and remembered I had told her I was leaving the following day. She asked if I would leave first thing and I said I would be at the warehouse all day. She said she would see me there. I thought she probably wouldn’t – but she is just a very genuine and compassionate person who has helped to build this extraordinary organisation. I realised for the first time that it would be hard to leave. It was hard to explain how it made me feel. It’s why some people keep going back and some can’t seem to leave.
There was little talk and no music on the journey back to Calais. Tiredness was a factor. We reflected on the different mood. Whether it was wrong or inappropriate there was a sense of anticlimax. You felt you’d done something. But you’d run out of this, or that. It was incomplete and imperfect. But it was something.