The End

The final day began with a game; trying to get to the warehouse. With the closure of the camp and evictions well under way, all the minor roads nearby were blocked by CRS police. I made a lengthy detour, boxing around the whole area and then doubling back.

The warehouse was as busy as I’d seen it. There was a sense of too many cooks. I went to the morning induction for new volunteers so I could be allocated a new job. There wasn’t going to be a Dunkirk distribution today. I began in the food packing area. Hundreds of bags of food had been prepared for distribution but they hadn’t gone out because these particular distributions had ended prematurely. The bags had to be opened and the food stuffs replaced on shelves. A few metres away another team was packing a different selection of foods. Priorities had shifted after the eviction. To the uninitiated it might have appeared bizarre – one group packing bags while another unpacked apparently similar ones. It was another of those times when you put your faith in the organisation and got on with it. There were too many people to fit around the tables. But everyone adapted and, if it was annoying for some, they didn’t show it. People are at their resourceful best in such a situation. So in less than half an hour the pile of food packs was gone, their components stacked neatly into crates.

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The clothes sorting table. To the right behind the boxes is the shoe team.

The day before, Helen and I had shared a different experience as we’d tried to meet the needs of residents of the Dunkirk camp. Today we set about a different challenge; a vast, chaotic pile of small bottles of oil. A pallet stacked at the base with bottles in cardboard boxes had got wet and the bottles above were pouring forth from their soggy containers. At the side, a trolley was piled even more chaotically with the bottles that couldn’t be piled on the pallet. We set to our task, stripping off the loose bottles, packing them in dry, recycled boxes and finally re stacking them on the pallet. We cleared the trolley too and stacked a half pallet with the remaining bottles, adding a separate section for the olive oil. It was one of those L’Auberge-type jobs and we enjoyed the satisfaction of just making it right. Nobody noticed and it didn’t matter. We worked quickly but there was time to talk as we did. As we were finishing off, Alexandra passed by. Solicitous as ever she wished me a safe journey home.”Bon courage!” she said, and she was gone.

My time at the warehouse was drawing to a close. There were still so many jobs to do. I sought out Lauren, the warehouse supervisor, and asked what else I could do. I counted boxes of brand new, freshly delivered, pop up tents in huge stacks. Then I found my way back to shoes, where I’d begun a week earlier. The same boots and shoes we had bagged, what seemed like weeks earlier, I now counted off. Even at the end of things, I found myself in parts of the huge, rambling building that I had never visited before.

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The food preparation and packing area.

Nicola, who’d given me apples and other donations to bring, also gave me a set of vehicle bulbs that she’d found in her van. I’d been trying to find someone to hand them to for a week. It wasn’t an option just to leave them on a shelf in the warehouse. There wasn’t a trolley marked “Vehicle spares – incoming”. I was determined to pass them to someone that day – just in case they were ever needed. I asked in the yard office and was told to look for someone who resembled “Father Christmas – only with a black beard”. I hadn’t seen anyone matching this description so I figured I’d probably end up taking them home again. I walked across the yard, enjoying the sun. At least I’d asked. I turned the corner and saw two men in conversation. The one on the right had a substantial dark beard. This couldn’t be him – that would be too easy. I interrupted their conversation, explaining what I had and why I had brought it all the way from Devon. If you go to do volunteer work you may meet, as I did, people who inspire and who make you look at yourself differently. You may get to know people quite unlike those you know today. And you may get used to people behaving differently, showing their feelings more perhaps, chipping away at the things that divide us. Even after a week at the L’Auberge warehouse, it was still a surprise, albeit a pleasant one, for another man of my sort of age who I’d never met to give me a hug. But as I handed over the vehicle bulbs this lovely man he did just that. He was so delighted to have them and told me that most of them could immediately go into vehicles that were waiting for parts. I don’t recall his name. Just the moment. For me it typifies the volunteer experience.

The afternoon’s warm sunshine saw a large team of people working on pop up tents out in the open at the back of the warehouse. At this time there were still people and kids left behind in the charred ruin of the Jungle. These pop up tents had to be opened, checked for holes, damage or other problems, and then repacked. If you’ve used a pop up tent you’ll appreciate how quick they are to put up. There are different types but they all pop up in less than a second. They’re slower to re-pack though and, frustratingly, each brand has its own way of being folded. Initially, it was one of the worst experiences of my stay. I wrestled with these unpredictable, disobedient and independent-minded structures. The tents were for an emergency distribution and we were trying to process them quickly. But they wouldn’t comply. And an hour later, we were experts. That was the way of it at L’Auberge. A team of around a dozen, French, Scots, English, Italian and Spanish, we counted the tents onto trolleys near the end of the afternoon. One hundred and fifty-five tents, checked, folded and labelled and ready to be offered to people in desperate need that night. It was a good way to finish. But it wasn’t quite the end. The lovely Kes, who ran the tent team, showed us a handful of recently arrived tents to be checked and sorted. And then that was it. I’d only met Kes that afternoon. She wished me a safe trip and gave me a hug. I said goodbye to the people on the team. I’d known them for a day and I was already sorry I wouldn’t see them again. They’d be there again in the morning but I’d be waking up at home.

 

 

Undesirable

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.

“Can I have a pink hat for the missus, if you don’t mind?”

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.
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Huts and families either side of the road through the camp.
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?
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The camp with motorway embankment to the right, railway lines in the distance.
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,
“French?”
“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?

Grey Areas

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 RefugeesUtopia 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.

The Jungle

Saturday October 22nd: On the first day at the L’Auberge warehouse  it was made clear that, due to the imminent closure of the camp recently arrived volunteers would not be able to take part in distributions. There were a large number of new arrivals at the warehouse. Some had come for the weekend and teachers on half term were among those fresher faces. We were told that if we went to the camp independently, sightseeing so to speak, L’Auberge would ask us to leave the organisation. The point was made that we were needed in the warehouse, sorting, packing and cooking.

There was a little more tension about as the last distributions before the closure of the camp were planned and delivered. The atmosphere was just the same; positive and good-natured. And some of the smiles had given way to faces lined with stress and tiredness.

I got a text from a long-term volunteer. I’d met her when I gave her a lift from London to the Jungle. She asked me to help her prepare and deliver a presentation to minors at the camp. Spain was offering to take a small number of young, unaccompanied refugees and the opportunity to make a new start in Cadiz had to be explained. I found the work in the warehouse hard but rewarding. I was feeling that I could get through to the end of my stay. So I had mixed emotions about going to the camp. If I couldn’t justify going on the basis of there being a real purpose, why go? And I didn’t want to add to the burden that people living there were already facing. But, having weighed the choice, I decided to help her. We began in the city, doing laundry for the friends she stayed with in the camp – Syrian refugees who no longer had access to any means of washing clothes on site. That done, we worked on the presentation. It was basic information about Spain, its festivals, culture and history. The presentation prepared, we drove the van to the camp.

The Jungle was established following the enforced closure of an earlier camp nearby at Sangatte. In early 2016 the authorities had carried out a partial closure already, moving people from one part of the camp and installing the re-purposed shipping containers in a fenced enclosure – which would become the setting for almost the last, desperate days of the camp. There were areas which were dirty and strewn with rubbish. But there were also elements which stood as a tribute to the combined efforts of refugees themselves, volunteers, and aid agencies to bring a measure of humanity to bear. A library, school, safe spaces for women, a kids cafe, a church and mosques had all been fabricated from a mad variety of scrap materials and some old vehicles.  There was even a beauty to it, to parts of it. The squalor may have been just as hard for residents but humans are resourceful. You read in the papers about knife fights, assaults, petty crime and disease. In any group of ten thousand people there’s always the chance of such things. But the ingenuity and spirit that had flourished was largely unacknowledged in the mainstream media.

Somehow, tiny shops and several cafes had been established and were doing what they do. People had tried to make the best of things – sometimes decorating or embellishing their shelters. The camp existed largely because people fleeing war and persecution were seeking what they felt would be a better life in the UK. The Jungle was a stop-gap for them rather than an end in itself. I didn’t want the camp to be closed – but because even I could see that the timetable for closure was unrealistic and inhumane. It would be incredibly disruptive and difficult for the thousands of already troubled people – especially the children and the vulnerable groups. At the same time I didn’t want these people to have stay here, in these conditions, in Western Europe in 2016. It was clear that the UK would be unlikely to take more than the young, unaccompanied people with family ties to Britain and a number covered by the Dubs amendment. France, and other EU countries, have a better record of accepting those seeking asylum. But all the EU states involved, including Britain, share the blame for allowing this humanitarian crisis to proliferate on their doorsteps. Why had there been no attempt to process asylum requests more quickly? Volunteers, with scant resources, had provided the amazing Refugee Info Bus – a mobile resource that offered free wi-fi to refugees so they could contact family, free legal advice and a means for the voices of the camp residents to be heard. If such a valuable resource could be created from nothing by people donating their time, expertise and money imagine what a tiny amount of state support could have offered. Just one per cent of the millions of euros spent on miles of razor wire topped fencing, on the CRS policing budget, or on the huge concrete wall that is being installed, as I write, courtesy of HM Government at a cost of millions of pounds. Instead it was left to NGOs, charities and groups of volunteers to struggle on.

The situation in the camp was confused. We walked back and forth and spoke to different groups. After a time it became apparent that there would be no presentation. The minors we had hoped to bring the information to were not able to attend. It was a confusing and complicated time and, ultimately we had to leave with the aim of the day unfulfilled. A frustrating missed opportunity.

We left and trudged across the bleak landscape. A group of refugees played cricket, watched by a small crowd. The was a sombre atmosphere in parts as people waited for the unknown, for the closure, to begin in a matter of days. It would be the end of something extraordinary. And hopefully, for most if not all, it would be the beginning of something better. I hadn’t achieved much. It would have been difficult to foresee the way things became so chaotic. It had taken a whole day and it was frustrating not to have been able to do more. There was one thing which redeemed the feeling of a missed opportunity. I met a young, unaccompanied minor who knew the woman volunteer I was helping. He spoke to her for a few minutes, chatting about the situation. Unexpectedly he then turned to me and began to speak. I’d been told not to ask about people’s experiences because of the trauma. I sat and listened and he talked. Probably for half an hour. He spoke about his life in Afghanistan, his father’s business, the journey he’d embarked upon, of being in the back of a fridge lorry with everyone smoking, feeling he was going to suffocate. He spoke about how surprising and confusing it was that in Europe women hugged him and how they didn’t in Afghanistan. He talked about how nice the police in Afghanistan were compared to those in Belgrade and in Germany. Someone said to me that people in the camp sometimes felt they were talked to a lot but not listened to. I hope that he is being well looked after wherever he has gone to. He deserved to have his story heard.

Surely it’s easy work sorting clothes and blankets?

Friday October 21st: It was partly the mild sleep deprivation but also advancing years, aching hands, back and knees from picking, sorting, rolling, tying, packing every kind of bedding all day. People work longer days and do harder things but, after the novelty of the first day the second one did feel trying. Could I stick at this for seven days?
When you arrive with a van laden with donations you are welcomed (eventually) like a hero. Once you don the hi-vis you become another warehouse minion.
I arrived on the bedding section and was the only person there. This team was struggling to deal with the incoming donations. A pile around three or four metres high, six or seven metres wide and a similar length. Probably longer. It’s hard to imagine. A snowy white mountain of duvets, its steep slopes dotted with cheerfully coloured sleeping bags, blankets, foam sleeping mats and odd things that were in the wrong pile. A vast increase in donations because of media coverage of the Jungle as the evictions drew closer. Everything was thrown together because it’s so difficult to manage such huge quantities — even with dozens of volunteers about. A small minority of donations are dirty, damaged or worn out. After a few hours your hands are grimy. Occasionally something turns your stomach. Yesterday, I did shoes and some people wear leave their own distinctive signature in their shoes…..
sarah-shoes
Sarah – superstar sorter of shoes.
We ran short of sleeping bags in the morning. And then found boxes full of brand new bags in the afternoon, hidden beneath blankets and duvets that had, literally avalanched over them. If there was a sudden need for specific items we would end up diving into the snowy flanks of the pile and fishing them out. We sorted blankets into ‘Super Warm’, ‘Warm’ and ‘Not So Warm’. Sometimes it wasn’t an exact science and, after all, we were amateur blanket sorters – not professional. It was sometimes down to personal interpretation. Meaning that a thick, fleece blanket which could be nearly as warm as wool would end up in the not so warm pile. And a throw, with almost no warmth at all, ended up on the same pile.
The atmosphere in the warehouse remained calm, friendly and helpful as the world’s media closed in on the nearby Jungle, lenses pointed, sensing the story.
People still smiled at you as you passed in the walkways. People you’d never met and often never saw again. On day one you saw people and recognised them on day two. By day three they were gone, replaced by fresh faces. The turnover of volunteers was remarkable in itself. Days began with a meeting, largely friendly and informal, with new volunteers standing together in stiff hi vis, waiting to be assigned to whichever teams needed people.
Back to bedding and the same questions: new volunteers baffled by sorting criteria that deemed certain items not fit for distribution. Patiently explaining the policy drove them crazy with puzzlement. On the first day, I had initially found it hard to appreciate when we were slowly checking every item. It took time. It limited the amount you could do. So you got less done and…. fewer people got helped? Maybe. Perhaps. But there is a plan here. People have thought about the best way to do something difficult. Otherwise why not grab some sleeping bags and run to the camp to dish them out? How many of the ten thousand people would that help?
There’s something about volunteering which is about suppressing your individual will a little. We were all little cogs in a big machine. You may have felt you knew what the greatest need is. And you might have felt frustrated because, after experiencing the warehouse for one day, that you had a better way of delivering vast quantities of aid to thousands of vulnerable people. But in the end the organisation is well run by extremely dedicated and hard-working people. There is that bigger picture and so the bedding you had sorted may not go out to the Jungle today.
In two days I learned more about bedding and some types of camping equipment than in the whole of my life up to that point. How sleeping bags are rated, why blankets have zips on, why inflatable camping mattresses are unsuitable for the Jungle. Now I am home, when I see my partner’s rolled up yoga mat at the bottom of the stairs near the shoes I have to suppress the urge to say “Wrong pile!” and take it somewhere else.
welcome-packs
Welcome packs for new arrivals at the Jungle are loaded into vans for distribution. Photo: Nicola Renovich
Each day, at the beginning, we made up forty-five welcome packs – each one containing a sleeping bag, a thin and a thick blanket, a foam mattress roll and bag of basic toiletries. Because, at that stage, with the date of the evictions still not confirmed people were still arriving. Up to forty five each day. And at the time of writing, a week after the falsehood that eviction was complete, people will still be coming to Calais. People who’ve been on the road for months – a year even. People may not have had the news that their intended destination has been ground into the dirt.
When you drove near the camp there were places where people congregated. They sat in the cold wind in thin anoraks. They looked steadily at you – almost expectantly. Some smiled and waved as you passed. They retained great dignity despite the chaos around them.
Vans are used to distribute aid. I was warned not to take packages or bags out of the van in plain sight in case we were mistaken for a distribution run.
I got back to my tiny, cold attic room on the edge of Calais, dirty, dusty and tired. But I wasn’t sleeping outside or in a drafty shelter and I could go home after a week.

What happens to our donations?

Thursday October 20th: The warehouse was piled high with food. Palettes of boxes full of tinned tomatoes and kidney beans. Stacks of 25 kilo sacks of lentils leaking tiny red flecks onto the wet concrete. Huge bags of basmati rice. Food on an industrial scale.
The kitchens  were a hive of activity. Music blasting from somewhere, it was like a massive festival operation. Teams of very busy people danced between their stations – often literally. They’d been operating since much earlier. You couldn’t help but smile at it all. And most people smiled at you. Look what we can do. Look what people can do. It was moving and beautiful to watch. Huge pans of food steamed on rows of gas rings.  Everywhere was food being chopped, boiled, steamed, stacked, sorted. Food was used both to prepare meals in the kitchens, to feed volunteers at lunch time, and packed in small bags send to people in the camp. Oil, flour, milk, potatoes, onions, tinned tomatoes, kidney beans, biscuits, tinned sardines and tiny packs of spices so that camp residents could prepare their own meals – to cook for their families.
calais-woodyard
Calais Wood Yard. Preparing firewood for heating and cooking. Photo: Nicola Renovich
Behind the kitchens was a wood yard where volunteers scavenged discarded timber from the neighbourhood and cut it into tiny pieces (anything larger than a playing card was deemed an offensive weapon by police and would not be allowed into the Jungle). With this miniaturized firewood that wouldn’t look out-of-place in a doll’s house, the people of the Jungle could at least have fuel for cooking and heating.
It took your breath away to see the resources available – the sheer collected power of all those small, individual kindnesses – donations of money and food that enabled the organisation to tick over. It was unlike anything you’d seen before. It functioned because it was almost entirely run by volunteers. People who, far from being paid to do their jobs, had paid the car ferry, the Shuttle or even a transatlantic flight to come and work to try to make things a little better for people in the Jungle. The chaos and crazy piles of provisions didn’t belong to modern, just-in-time Europe. Because L’Auberge des Migrants is a bespoke, local, humanitarian organisation. It was founded in response to the needs of the refugees in Calais. The warehouse now also provides support to the camp at Grande Synthe, Dunkirk and to migrants sleeping on the streets of Paris. Many of the volunteers come to Calais via Help Refugees.
There is no computerised stock management system. Just a lot of human beings and a very battered fork lift. No business would run this way. But this business is about all the tins of beans from the primary school harvest festivals, donations carefully conserved by people like you and I, given with love, carried hundreds of miles in cars and vans to make a tiny difference. A drop in an ocean of need. There are more experienced people leading the teams. But it all relies upon amateurs – finding a way.
At 9.00 am the locked doors to the main warehouse rolled open. Small piles of donations on labelled racks “Tents Incoming”, “Clothes Men’s Incoming”  were lifted directly from vans and cars that arrived at irregular intervals. From there on trolleys or in handfuls to join the vast piles of donations in the main warehouse, waiting to be sorted.
L’Auberge has a policy of checking everything. This allows the organisation to hold an accurate picture of what it has in stock. If there’s a need, an emergency, it knows what it can do. Items which were dirty, damaged or worn out are not suitable to give to people in need. For some this lead to a lot of heartbreak. But rejected items were normally re-purposed, recycled or sold for re processing – thus providing a valuable source of income. Shoes, for example, which were unsuitable (golden, strappy numbers, riding boots) would be sold in the charity shop. It was surprising to see just how worn and broken some of the shoes were. For migrants, for people in desperate need at the onset of winter, we might assume they’ll take anything. But giving them filthy trainers with holes in the soles contributes to the dehumanizing experience. We can’t take the approach that says,
they’re refugees so we can give them things we wouldn’t think of using. So scuffed shoes got cleaned and polished. Broken laces were replaced. Mouldy sleeping bags, stained and torn blankets were re-purposed as insulation – to provide a warmer lining to shelters in the camp. Even brand new sleeping bags in retail packaging were unpacked and one from each carton was unrolled to check it was what the label said it was. It’s easy to pass judgement when you’ve just arrived. So there were mutterings of “Why bother doing that?”. Giving aid to traumatised people battered by their experiences, living in filthy hostile conditions is not straightforward – I am still learning. So for one person to receive a new sleeping bag with its labels still attached while another gets a used item, could potentially be a source of conflict between camp residents. And they have had enough conflict.
There is also debate about different methods of distribution; line, static, mobile etc. It is a complex business. Sometimes we were told what to do, sometimes why, sometimes not. And you’d assume the person guiding you through the task had months of experience, only to find they’d arrived the day before you. For short-term volunteers ‘short term’ is just that. Once you’d been there two days you sort of became an expert.
According to one long-term volunteer the warehouse had been almost empty two months earlier. The unprecedented grass-roots movement of donations had turned the trickle of aid into an unceasing flood. Volunteer numbers had increased exponentially with the donations. And with both, the problem of managing such huge quantities.
Tonight the roads were lined with flashing blue again. But now it’s just normal. Routine. You adjust quickly.