Sue Cooper has volunteered several times in Northern France, initially with Help Refugees and now regularly supporting the Women's Center. Her background is in nursing and she worked for many years for Macmillan Cancer Support. She currently lives between the UK & France. Here are her reflections on her most recent time with the Women's Centre Mobile Team:
Each time I come to volunteer in northern France I find the situation for the refugees has worsened considerably.
Prior to this visit in June, I imagined a few families living dotted around in tents in the woods near Grande-Synthe, but as we drove up the track to Puythouk, I realised the situation was far more serious.
Around 300 men, women, children and babies now live without shelter in the woods and grasslands. There is no running water, no toilets, no cooking, heating or washing facilities.
The CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité/riot police) had, apparently, told everyone to move aside and then cleared away tents and tarpaulin, and either taken or pepper sprayed sleeping bags and blankets, rendering them useless. Families with children and babies were left with nothing but the ground to sleep on and the trees for shelter.
“We have nothing. My children have no blankets. They have taken everything,” one man cried.
We found Dilvan (all names changed to protect identities), in the woodland glade with her husband. He looked older than her, his features chiseled with exhaustion. He was perched on a piece of cardboard.
Dilvan was smiling, but her eyes pleaded. She wanted us to get her a tent to protect her child from the elements.
“Please try, Not for me, but for my baby. I am married twenty years before my baby comes. I just want it for my baby.”
Dunkirk can be cold and windy at any time of year but that day it was mind-blastingly hot. Her request was simple enough. A tent should have been part of her basic human right to shelter. We, however, were forbidden to provide this basic human right.
Dilvan pointed to her newly constructed home. She had slung two blankets over a branch to form a V shaped shelter and laid a blanket on the ground. A toilet roll hung from a branch, a piece of soap rested on a freshly cut tree stump and a bin bag swung in the breeze from a nearby branch. A defiant grin spread across her face.
“What do you think?” she asked
I think she’s fantastic – strong, resilient, brave and loving.
“You get me flip flops! Three months, but you get them. You can get me tent for my baby.”
Dilvan had wanted the flips flops to wear as slippers in the Women’s Centre at the old Dunkirk Camp, but no one donates flip flops in winter and the shops don’t sell them out of season. She was thrilled with the brand new, leopard print Gandy’s flip-flops we found in a bag of donations the previous day.
A long term volunteer explained that if we give one we have to have for everybody, and if we do that the police would prevent us from ever returning.
“If you can, you try. That’s all I ask.” There must be hope. She gave us the warmest hugs as we left her.
We stopped to talk to two women sitting under the trees with a little boy and girl. They were sharing out a watermelon and invited us to join them and eat. They had lost many of their possessions too, but not their dignity and deep sense of hospitality.
I had wait a moment before we emerged from the bushes. I didn’t want the other people to see my tear-stained cheeks.
Each day long term volunteers, and any others volunteering with the Mobile Women’s Centre, go out to Puythouk and visit the women and their families. They jot down a list of any requests the women have for themselves or their children, and they gather up what is possible from the Salam warehouse or supermarket the next morning. After lunch they deliver the items in bin bags labelled with the family’s name the following day.
I worked with them for two days and we provided clothes, shoes, toys, hygiene items, water and some snack treats – minimal amounts to meet basic human needs. We also provided a carrycot for Keyna, who was waiting to be reunited with her husband and children in the UK. During the day she shelters alone under a bush with her baby, relying on a young boy from a neighbouring family to translate for her if she needs help.
The volunteers check each day if the women have any specific problems. They take them to hospital if they need medical attention, put them in touch with the Dunkirk Legal Team if they need advice, and with Gynae Sans Frontiers if they are pregnant or have concerns about their children or babies. A young Kurdish man, who now has asylum in France, works with Gynae Sans Frontiers, and acts as a translator in many different situations, such as the case of the “5 bambinos”.
Just as we were leaving we ame across five young unaccompanied boys of 16 resting under a tree. They had arrived that afternoon and told us they were “bambinos”. They had nothing but the clothes they arrived in. They were tired, hungry and had not been able to wash for two days. In situations such as this, where the boys spoke virtually no English, the Kurdish translator is invaluable to help explain the help on offer and their options.
Children have a right to shelter but this means presenting themselves at the police station and giving their names and ages. This, of course, provides a problem as many do not want to deal with the police who are seen as a threat.
However, we were able to provide them with a fresh set of clothes, hygiene products and some goodies to eat while they waited for Refugee Community Kitchen to arrive with a hot meal.
As we got in our car and drove back down the track, Dilvan appeared through the trees. She smiled at us and waved. I am in awe of how much these people have been through and still remain warm, friendly, hopeful and determined. But what else can they do? Going back, for many, is not an option.