I have just returned from a weekend in Calais. The conditions were atrocious – fierce winds and thunderstorms. The intention was to gather a large group for a ‘big cleanup’ but the weather made that almost impossible, which made many volunteers disconsolate after they tried to battle on through.
Many of the flimsy tents in which multiple refugees were living were made uninhabitable – whipped away by the gale force winds, such that the very little security or privacy that they had had had been demolished.
Given the forecast, I’d directed my carload of people to work in the backup site. We sorted clothing, and made a lot of headway building new frames for prefabricated housing on the site – there are well set out schemes for this. You cannot understand how desperate these people are without being with them yourself.
When the storm subsided there was a call for volunteers to try and sort out refugee’s tents. “Is anyone a scout? Can you fix a tent?” my 12 year old responded enthusiastically, so I was basically roped in (with my wife) – at least this would give us an opportunity to deliver the two bags of children’s books we’d discarded from our shelves which we thought would still be useful to the younger children on the site.
Of course it was mayhem. The lorry we followed had essential aid to distribute (blankets and tents), and we followed up close behind. We wanted to offload our heavy bags of books – it took us a couple of ‘information points’ to take us through the fluid mud before we reached the ‘Mother’s and Children’s Center’, a destination where they seemed to be usefully absorbed.
Trudging back through the camp was a depressing experience as we were constantly asked for things we didn’t have on us, or the ability to magic up, and the weather was getting heavier.
We returned to the large van we had followed on site, and then Majid turned up wanting help for his tent. We ignored him at first amongst the hoards of others, but for some reason his attitude was reasonable, and one of the volunteers suggested to him that he ‘second hand’ some tarpaulins from some flat tents nearby. Since our mission was to ‘help fix tents’ we helped him. We got a couple of tarps from what looked like departed homes, although it’s hard to tell since you may not have let your tent flatten itself in your absence on purpose.
Amy then got distracted by a man who seemed to be suffering from hypothermia (he was very cold and completely sodden), which was frustrating since I needed her to help. She managed to find a blanket for him, but no dry clothes. I guess he just sat around shivering for a while.
Meanwhile Majid took us back to his ‘tent’, which clearly had been a four or more person family tent at some point, but looked more like a flat layer of nylon on the floor right now. I pretty much convinced myself at this point that Majid had just entered the camp last night, and this was the most rigid structure he’d found right now and had decided to live in it. However, that view slowly was eroded after the discovery of plates of food with furry mould on it and shoes totally soaked in fluid mud. I finally concluded that Majid had been ‘living’ here.
The topsheet was shot and after discarding that we spent a long time untying the guy ropes, and hammering in other bits of foregone tent pole using some bits of brick and concrete (probably when I received a rough cut to the heel of my hand). We got them deep enough into the ground to convince ourselves that the sleet that had started to come down would maybe, possibly not drench his tent once we eventually got the tarps to cover it.
As conditions got worse, we desperately hurried to cover the inner tent of his former dwelling which had acquired a degree of structural stability by now after much work. We left him with a couple of tarps roughly covering where he may have hoped to sleep.
We returned to the youth hostel, most of us had got to sleep when at 2am we heard a fire had broken out at the Jungle – we rushed out but it was largely under control. 40-50 homes were destroyed. More work for the next day.
These are humans. They deserve a human response.