"It's a first world refugee camp, worse than a third world refugee camp."
Travelling to Calais, France was one of the most surreal experiences I'd ever been apart of: It was my first time going, and even as I arrived to meet with members from ‘Stand Up To Racism’ and others who I'd be travelling with, the atmosphere between us welcomed nervousness and another awkward unexplainable feeling that just sat beneath the heart - it all felt, human.
But we were all comforted and comforting; so our journey on the minibus, driving on the motorway was a sweet soft drift into conversations about our ways of living; our choices and how they were driven by interests, passions and possibilities. We were getting to know each other for a purpose that felt like 'we have the capability to help, and we'll be doing it together - so let's get to know each other - so I can know who I am with and vice versa and we can, together, do this knowing not only each other, but our purpose; together'.
So we did - as a consequence knowledge being dropped left, right and centre: everyone was sharing food for thought besides mini-bus treats; our in house community was established, and it would later prove to be a solace.
There were 14 of us. 5 had been to Calais before.
We arrived in the Calais refugee camp (also known as The Jungle) to 6000 people humbled & displaced in mud! 6000 people (including children) coming from Eritrea, Syria, Sudan, and Afghanistan; A heartbreaking site - of older brothers/sisters, caring mothers & fathers, lone travellers, all orphaned of their home, left between cold months worsening in an ever growing French camp!
My first step in 'The Jungle’; met with a rush of people & a rush of my own emotions competing to see who would be the first to bring me to tears.
But before then, I'd learnt the benefits of travelling out on such a trip with a charity and partnered organisations such as Beatfreeks because of the connections that were already made. Before we went out to the camp we had been introduced to an on the ground charity, Care4Calais who have been blessed with a warehouse sufficient in space to collect and collate heaps of donations. All you can imagine that would be necessary in such a situation could be found here - from blankets, to jackets, jeans, sleeping bags, etc... The quantity in items was there and thankfully so were the people who could help organise the items appropriately and systematically, to make distribution efficient and effective: because "nothing can go to waste, in such a time of austerity" I overheard someone say, whilst I was in the warehouse.
We spent hours in the warehouse volunteering; contributing to a charity who on most days are on the ground giving to people; letting them know that there are people who care:
Why were we there?
* To build solidarity and the efforts of the Refugees Welcome campaign
*To build the Stand Up To Racism campaign
*To put pressure on government and councils to take in more refugees, to politically combat the rising racism and fascism of groups in Europe, including Front Nationale and Pegida.
*To provide and deliver donations and funds to charities working on the ground in Calais
* To meet, work with, assist and document the lives and experience of our refugee brothers and sisters
*To help the outreach and charity workers there in the camp and in the warehouses
* To be part of the campaign to recognise and promote Birmingham as a City of Sanctuary
An echoed sentiment: that the hate, pressure & tension spread by media, manifested in police armour and their stance when patrolling the camp - does not reflect the views of everyone back home in the UK. A voice that usually shouts for justice, heard from just outside of the West Midlands who’d joined us on the trip, I felt summarised this by saying "People care, where we're from, I wish they could see what we see"; referring to the many fundraising events for refugees that are taking place and those of us who engage with social media sharing content that reminds us we are all human & we all deserve the sentimental necessities of any home country.
Now we couldn’t do much to give every single person in ‘The Jungle’ this same insight, and unfortunately hate spreads quicker and is easily forced down people's throats: but we played our part in wanting love for all humans to be remembered above all. As some of us were walking towards a 3 day old Banksy, there was a group of young men playing football; using an old ball with a preserved tightness and bounce - even though it was clearly tired and worn out! It was good enough between 7 young men, 8 now including me. We’d all learnt quickly that we didn’t share a spoken language, so it was a necessity to be quick with eye contact, and make appropriate gestures and moves if ever we were free to receive the ball! It was getting exciting and growing in its intensity and more people joined in, until we had a great mix of Urdu and English speaking footballers playing together! We played until we could not shout “ayeee” anymore; numbers decreased, it was getting darker and just that bit colder, so some left to sit with family outside their tents around an open fire, others went to find something to eat.
'She explained Banksy to them in a way that invited hope & faith from art that spoke for them'
I played on with two skilled brothers from Afghanistan, on the outside of our playground (which is just a space on some concrete) one of the women who’d travelled from Birmingham with us was conversing with a group of grown men. They stood around her, seemingly intrigued in all she had to say: She explained Banksy to them in a way that invited hope & faith from art that spoke for them, you could see it in their eyes, listening so intently: she explained to me later that her new friends were finding it difficult to comprehend that a world renowned artist had travelled to their temporary residence to create & exhibit work inspired by and for them: that his work brings in so much attention, and that because of what he’d done a lot more people would have the opportunity to sympathise with them because of the depiction of Steve Jobs as a syrian migrant. Using a search engine and what she’d remembered of her family's language, she could translate and explain that the “drawing on the wall over there”, packed a message for the world!
Beneath the piece of art for social change, were a bundle of used tear gas cans that had been collected! We were told repeatedly whilst we were out there that this and other forms of violence were used on them by french police to keep them under control.
I’d seen a photo whilst I was out there asking 'Tear gas why'? And inspired by the people who were shared their experiences with and the work by Banksy, I responded with a freestyle spoken word poem in which I say it "ensures they don't breathe easy:"
I would definitely recommend anyone with an interest in what is really going in the refugee camp to go out there. Especially if you're asking what’s the point? Or what could I do that would make a difference? We all have unique voices, your’s might be the one to bring hope to 1 or 20 people. & hope saves lives. Hope strengthens, hope keeps us going. So whether you go or not, just be you and you’ll see what difference just one person can make.
Want to write a guest blog? The theme for February is 'Care and Compassion'. Send your blog to firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact for more information.
P.S. All proceedings raised at the Beatfreeks fundraiser that happened at Impact Hub Birmingham on 2nd November 2015, where £500 was raised was donated to Care4Calais. To support them in continuing their work on the ground everyday. The warehouse is expensive to maintain, and they don’t always have as many volunteers as they need to continue their work, so everything helps.