Sophie Moran - Cranleigh Baptist Church
In mid-February, myself and three other members of Cranleigh Baptist Church volunteered with Care4Calais to distribute Amharic and Arabic bibles to the Christians in 'the Jungle' refugee camp in Calais, and donate 41 sleeping bags. We also wanted to try to get a better understanding of the situation in the camp, in order to support the projects based there in the future.
We reported to the warehouse at 9am on Saturday morning for briefing, along with roughly 100 other volunteers all eager to get to work, as it was half term and many people had had the same idea as us to head over to Calais, to try to help. Some of the volunteers had been there for several months and others a day, all were committed to giving it their all while they were there.
The Care4Calais team were incredibly welcoming and organised, splitting us into teams to sort donations in the warehouse or go into the camp to distribute. When we were on distribution of donations we headed into the camp via the main entrance.
"We instantly saw the terrible living conditions - people living in small, cold tarpaulin-covered shelters."
We instantly saw the terrible living conditions - people living in small, cold tarpaulin-covered shelters. The refugees, with help from volunteers and using donated materials, have built their shelters in close proximity to others of the same nationality, mainly from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Eritrea and other war-torn or persecuted countries.
Calais is the last stop before the English Channel. All those in Calais want to cross to England for a number of reasons, either having family living there or because they speak the language and therefore feel it would be easier to find work, but none of them want to be living in the Jungle.
We were struck by how quiet it was, with very few people walking around, even at noon, and were told that it was quiet until early afternoon because many of the residents spend their nights making dangerous and often futile attempts trying to get to the United Kingdom by truck or boat and therefore sleep late into the day only to wait to try all over again the next night.
Winter in the camps is extremely cold, with biting winds and driving rain. The whole week we were there it was bitterly cold. Nevertheless, many migrants have tried to make life as bearable as possible and have set up makeshift cafes and shops. There are also churches, schools, mosques, a youth centre, a woman’s centre, a library, several kitchens serving hot meals, a first aid caravan and even a theatre. These are all run by volunteers, aid organisations are not permitted to operate in the camp as it is an illegal settlement.
The women’s centre is a safe haven, a refuge from the mud of the camp. Open strictly to women and young children, the centre distributes female and infant supplies twice a week and holds a “beauty day” each weekend, during which residents and volunteers exchange massages, haircuts, threading and makeovers, to help them feel slightly normal. The refugees are mentally and physically scarred from what they have had to endure so far - and the suffering continues here.
"The refugees are mentally and physically scarred from what they have had to endure so far - and the suffering continues here."
A few minutes’ walk from the women’s centre is 'Jungle Books', a free lending library, and nearby is a children’s library and art centre. Next door is an all-age classroom where French and English classes are offered, and several yards away is Jungala Radio's studio, where a refugee-made radio broadcasts are produced.
These sanctuaries in the Jungle help create a sense of community for refugees fleeing violence and uncertainty, but security is fragile and elusive. No one is officially running the camp, and it can seem anarchic and volatile, with clashes with police or attacks on residents by right-wing extremists. That the Jungle operates as well as it does, with the presence of cultural, religious and social organisations, commerce and schools, is a testament to the hard work of volunteers and the resilience and initiative of residents.
On our third day we met up with an amazing, inspirational French couple, known to many of the refugees as 'Mum and Dad', who spend every day of the week trying to help the families in the camp, doing their washing, replacing gas canisters and generally befriending those in need, offering advice and support.
Whilst we were there we heard the terrible news of the plans for demolition of the southern part of the Jungle, which officials say now houses too many people. Buildings in the bulldozers’ path include temporary homes, a church and three mosques, two other volunteer-run schools, legal aid and vaccination centres, three food distribution centres, cafés, shops, restaurants, women’s centre, children’s centre and a theatre.
"Perhaps most worrying to potential occupants is that they are required to have their palm prints taken to live here."
The government has said there are two options for Jungle residents: either relocate to one of the 102 reception and orientation centres across France, or move into the nearby block of housing made from converted shipping containers that was opened by the government last month. While the container housing is sturdier than tents, it lacks kitchens and running water. Surrounded by fences, the container settlement is reminiscent of a POW camp.
Perhaps most worrying to potential occupants is that they are required to have their palm prints taken to live here. For many residents, leaving biometric data in France is the last thing they want, because someone who passes through a country where he or she could have sought asylum can be forced to return there to make a claim, dashing their hopes of ever applying for asylum in UK.
There are many people who have given up their time and sometimes even their jobs to help the refugees, but there will still be thousands of men, women and children living in terrible conditions with the threat of eviction hanging over them for the foreseeable future on our doorstep.
"I sadly didn’t come away with any magic wand to make everything ok, or any answers to even give these people hope of what we take for granted."
I sadly didn’t come away with any magic wand to make everything ok, or any answers to even give these people hope of what we take for granted, to have somewhere safe they can call home and a way to be able to support their family. I did learn that we need to be involved with PEACE and it does concern us.
"He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing
." Deuteronomy 10:18