(Juliet's previous trip in November 2017 is written up here.)
So John and I have just returned from working at the “Auberge Des Migrants” warehouse in Calais. John did some heroic shoe sorting while I donned kitchen togs and entered the Refugee Community Kitchen, to embark on some very physical but extremely rewarding kitchen prep, mammoth washing up sessions, and, due to van complications, driving the van up to distributions in Dunkerque . Going on distributions meant ten hour days due to having to load all the food in and out of the van twice, plus putting the empties back in the van, driving back and unloading them, sorting and labelling and storing the leftovers etc etc. One distribution takes place daily in the car park of a nature reserve, where some of the guys are sleeping in the woods, and the second daily distribution takes place at a winter shelter which is an old leisure centre. There are families sleeping in the gym hall, and the men and teenage boys are in a separate part of the building.
The distributions were photo-free zones, which I totally agree with. Both days I went, the atmosphere was calm and friendly. The weather was quite drainingly cold due to a biting icy wind. But the sun was shining. Some of the men were having a kick about on the first day, and there was an improvised cricket match going on the second day. A cardboard box for a wicket, and a broken ball. There was a MSF van giving first aid, and another NGO with generators, charging peoples phones. Many of the men and boys had injured wrists, presumably from their attempts to get to the UK via the backs of lorries. A dangerous business. And it brought it home to me that the UK has a shameful record of having an utterly closed border. This has been proved to deter people not one tiny bit! It just endangers their lives by forcing them to resort to dangerous methods. Too many people have died trying to get to the UK this way.
It was a real privilege to be able to cook for people. Its such a “painting by numbers” form of showing people support. You chop stuff (LOTS of stuff), someone clever turns it into vast vats of hot deliciousness, then you give it to someone who, within seconds, gets warm and fed. Being on distribution also allowed me a bit of interaction with the people we had come to help and show solidarity with. So nice to joke around with people, and to find huge vats of rice etc lifted from my arms by guys just eager to help.
At the leisure centre, the kids were lively and cheeky. They thought a massive tub of sumac was just fantastic! Best. Treat. Ever! There seemed to be a lot of humour and care and tenderness between people. Some of those children were unaccompanied. On the face of it, it did seem like people were looking out for them. There was one teenie tiny boy. Perhaps he was two years old. Different people were amusing him, comforting him when he cried, steering him back into the relative safety of the family area. His story is worth sharing. Two families of 6 were making a break for it via the lorries. The youngest in each family was a two year old boy. One of the families made it to the UK and the other one didn’t. In the rush, the two little boys ended up swapped by accident........ this little feller was left behind. So there is a family in the UK with the wrong boy. And of course, the mirror image family situation in Dunkerque. That made me pause a bit....
The heavy lifting and extremely clunky gear-changing started some tennis elbow type pain off in my left arm so I bowed out on day three and did some gentle jumper sorting instead. We got through quite a lot! Mostly by sending vast loads of unsuitable stuff to various other places. The needs in northern France are highly specific. So there’s a sense of panning for gold! The utter joy of coming across more than one small or medium, dark coloured, remotely stylish warm jacket from amongst bags and bags of donations. And that is the other advantage of meeting the guys face to face. You get much more of a feel of what is and isn’t suitable stuff to be sending.
I would strongly urge anybody who takes part in donating and sorting in the UK to get themselves if they possibly can to northern France. It is a sobering experience. But, especially if you can hook up with an organisation that takes you out on distribution, you will come back much more aware of the situation on the ground.