Leah Robson – member of St John’s church, Egham
Recently I embarked upon a trip to the Grande-Synthe Refugee camp in Dunkirk with five friends, mainly from St John’s, Egham. I wanted to visit to see first-hand the situation of the refugees in this camp and to see how we might help. With me was Jörg Haustein, St John’s parish mission link, Victoria Mcharo, Cathie Watson, Aidan Watson and Laura Whitmarsh (both Laura and Aidan are trainee Ordinands at Trinity College Bristol).
The camp consists of gravel and puddles with one tarmac road through the centre. Cramped wooden shelters the size of a double bed, with only paraffin heaters and fire for heat, serve as homes for the refugees.
"There was never any soap available in the toilets and any sickness can spread like wildfire."
The camp is run by dedicated volunteers, with a French firm cleaning the sanitation areas and providing security for the site. There was some input from the French Red Cross and French voluntary groups came in and provided some meals while we were there. Facilities include four kitchens distributing food, a women’s centre, language centre teaching English and French, school, playground, a house with some legal help available, a children’s centre, cooking fires, laundry, phone charging and sanitation. There was never any soap available in the toilets and any sickness can spread like wildfire. All cooking is done over wood fires apart from in one community kitchen where there were some gas rings. The food provided was healthy and plentiful.
After arriving at the camp we were assigned tasks to help with the most pressing concerns of the volunteers. Four of us helped out in the women’s centre, providing a safe place for women and children in a camp which may otherwise be frightening for them. For the rest of the trip we were helping with food distribution, sorting out clothes and getting to know the refugees.
The others were set to chop wood, making it available for the refugees to use as one of the two possible sources of heat. We heard repeated concerns that the wood which the French Government provided the camp was not going to last, leaving volunteers without enough resources to provide for the refugees through the winter, leaving them even colder and hungrier.
Refugees frequently had really poor footwear, with lots tramping through the cold and wet wearing flip flops or holey shoes with no socks. The clothes are all donations, mainly from the warehouses in Calais. The camp is populated by around 1,000 residents, mainly Iraqi Kurds, but also some Iranians, with around 120 families living there.
We met a man with a UK passport who had been there for a year with his family. He had been in Britain after the second Gulf War and had obtained asylum, then when there seemed to be a viable Kurdish State in Northern Iraq, he had travelled home, married and had children. As conditions worsened with the fight against ISIS, they had travelled as far as Grande-Synthe to try to get to England.
Several volunteers told us that the camp was not a very safe place at night and many of the women are frightened to be in the camp on their own, so he remains with his family despite having a UK passport.
"It was a truly eye opening experience living with the refugees and experiencing the awful reality that they live every day."
It was a truly eye opening experience living with the refugees and experiencing the awful reality that they live every day. It is especially galling when we live such nice lives while they are living here.
The needs of the Dunkirk camp often change, to keep up to date with their needs go to the women’s centre Facebook page.
Currently there is a great need for long term volunteers, particularly for the Women's Centre, and for short term volunteers on the weekends to relieve those who are there all week. They also require volunteers to teach at the Language Centre, particularly in December. To learn more about volunteering go to their website.
More resources to help refugees are available here.