Voices #7 DIGNITY AND DESPERATION
Sue Cooper is a regular volunteer in Northern France, initially with Help Refugees and now regularly supporting the Women's Centre. 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 touching reflections on her most recent time with the Women's Centre Mobile Team:
I’m sitting in my comfy home by a warm fire watching the sun set and thinking of the men, women and children I was with this time last week - people like me, but whose lives have been destroyed by war, conflict, persecution and poverty, and who are now living, or rather existing, in Calais and Dunkirk.
Faven drifts through my mind, again and again. She is a 17-yer-old Eritrean girl, smaller and frailer than my 14-yr-old granddaughter. Faven stood by the Refugee Women’s Centre van choosing a scarf to keep her neck warm. She told me the CRS (French riot police) had woken her that morning with the hard toe of their boot and sprayed tear gas in her face. She mimed the streaming tears, the running nose, the coughing and the vomiting. Faven has nothing but the clothes she stands in. She is tired and exhausted after only a few hours sleep.
It was cold last night, below freezing, and I can’t stop thinking of Faven and the hundreds of other young ones sleeping out under bushes in the biting wind, with no tent, no tarpaulin, no blankets and no sleeping bags. This isn’t the stuff of a dystopian novel. This is Northern France – just 20 miles across the Channel from my own home. Hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan gather in the hope of gaining asylum in France or of reaching the UK. Life for these people is a living hell - cold, wet, hassled and hounded.
The police constantly patrol the wastelands and parks in Calais waking anyone they find, sometimes with a foot, a baton or a canister of tear gas, and moving them on ‘Allez, allez!’ ‘Degagez!’ They take any blankets or sleeping bags they find or spray them with pepper spray to render them useless.
The aim of this cruelty? Dispersal. To drive the ‘migrants’ away and prevent them gathering at any fixed point – ultimately, to prevent the formation of another Calais Jungle camp. Of course it’s futile. There is no static camp but there about 700 refugees living rough in Calais, most of them between 15 and 25 years-old and several hundred men, women and children in Dunkirk. Destroying the camp did not stop people coming. The police mission is apparently to protect the British border, and our government is financially helping to support their work.
I gather from a French volunteer that these tactics are not acceptable to all the police, but if they don’t carry out orders they are reported, and often by an officer of a lower rank. Have we heard that somewhere before back in history?
I am spending two days with the Refugee Women’s Centre team (RWC), who were based in the Dunkirk refugee camp before it burned down in April and who now operate an outreach project from a van in and around Dunkirk and Calais. I met Faven (name changed to protect identity) at the Secours Catholique day centre in Calais where the RWC come twice a week to bring clothes, blankets and hygiene products to women and child refugees in Calais.
The volunteers I met at the centre, several French women and an Iranian lady who was given asylum in France ten years ago, were all warm, friendly and dedicated to helping the local refugee population. One lady told me she lets boys and girls under 18 stay in her home to protect them from the dangers of harsh weather, police and traffickers. It is heart-warming to see there are local people who do care - many do not.
What struck me was the warmth and resilience of the refugee women and girls I met there. They smiled, hugged and kissed us like old friends. I am not sure if this was culture, gratitude or just women being women. I watched one Ethiopian lady, dressed in 3 layers of trousers and with a chubby baby on her back, set off with a smile and a wave for the station. She was determined to get to Belgium, and from there, to the UK. Her husband is in Scotland and she is desperate to reach him. She has no legal way of achieving this.
Back in our caravan at the campsite, the RWC team catch up on the day’s events, cook dinner, share a beer and carve pumpkins. There are eight of us, two of whom do regular long-term stints and others staying a couple of months, weeks or days. It’s a warm, cosy, chaotic atmosphere that reminds me of a student house. There is little room, with food, boxes of children’s activities and personal paraphernalia littering every surface. The shower is broken and the girls are using bottles of hot water from the kettle to wash as they wait for Monsieur to come and sort the problem. Everyone is good-humoured despite the stresses of the day.
The police have carried out another major eviction in the Dunkirk Jungle. Most, but not all the families had been bussed out to reception centres. No one knows where they’ve gone. The families had no idea where they were going. The single men remain. This is a regular occurrence now - weekly or twice weekly evictions. The State wants these people gone, but many return. While some will claim asylum in France many wish to reach family or friends in the UK.
After the eviction, the police returned several times that morning to clear the area of the refugees’ possessions. Tents, tarpaulin, sleeping bags, blankets, even coats were taken and thrown onto an open lorry. The families left behind were not spared. No one was left with anything that could provide warmth or shelter.
The police parked two vans and a lorry in the small parking area the RWC use for distributions. When asked by a volunteer to return the bedding and other possessions, they declared that it was “garbage”.
Another police van met ours head on as we drove to an alternative parking area by the lake. They drove up to within a couple of inches of our bumper and stopped, forcing Ciara to reverse back from the narrow lane almost into the ditch to let them through. They could have reversed a couple of feet into a flat passing space, but no. This bullish behaviour is subtle, or not so subtle intimidation that is worthy of no respect. Fortunately, a group of smiling, encouraging Kurdish chaps guided us back safely and waved us on our way after the police had passed.
The next morning three of us practised our van driving skills in the campsite car park, reversing, parking and generally having a giggle - the more people confident to drive the van the better. But, in reality, the threat of the police jamming you into a tight spot and watching you squirm is not funny. My reversing skills in a miniscule Fiat are not fab, so they’d have a field day with me.
But all is not bleak. The Refugee Women’s Centre are not dissuaded, even if the police check ID’s multiple times a day, block their distribution spot and generally intimidate.
“If I can keep a family warm for just 4 days I will,” said Ciara, a long term volunteer. I find this 23 year-old-girl awesome.
The girls park the van up by the lake and Ciara starts the distribution while Sarah and Hanna set up activities for the children and Sarah offers an impromptu English lesson to a lady and her husband.
It is Halloween tomorrow and I have driven over from the UK with my little beast of a Fiat 500 laden with pumpkins. The children draw faces onto the pumpkins for us to carve later that night. They dress up, draw, colour and skip. Two toddlers play with balloons. The rope is heavy and has no handles and the balloons grubby and nearly flat. I don’t know where they came from, but children with so little are able to amuse themselves with anything to hand. I love their smiling faces and indomitable spirit.
I don’t get to play with the children myself. After the eviction people are desperate for sleeping bags, tarpaulin or anything to keep warm. An unaccompanied boy of 17 arrived three days ago with nothing. He doesn’t know anyone, speaks no English and seems particularly vulnerable. He turns repeatedly to a cheeky ten-year-old on a battered bike to translate for him. A middle-aged man with three children is desperate for something to shelter his little ones. Indi and I head back to the warehouse to find the boy some fresh clothes, a blanket and a sleeping bag, and some blankets and tarpaulin for the man and his family.
People are desperate for blankets and sleeping bags but there are not enough. Men gather round the car asking for help. Salam Warehouse used to do regular distributions themselves, but now they just act as a warehouse for other NGOs to collect and distribute from. Emmaus apparently does twice weekly distributions, but this is not enough, particularly with the regular evictions and confiscation of belongings. I cannot get my head around how this police behaviour is legal. Surely someone’s personal possessions are theirs and can only be taken if a danger to others – a gun, a knife or something. Blankets, sleeping bags...I am sickened and ashamed this is happening in Europe.
In the two days I was with the RWC, the girls went in many directions to help people – taking a sick lady to hospital, distributing in Calais and Dunkirk, distributing in a reception centre to encourage the families to stay sheltered – one sanitary towel per woman and one nappy per baby a day is not enough!
They provide what they can to meet basic human needs, ensure people get medical attention if necessary and put them in touch with those who can provide information and the legal advice they need. They entertain the children with activities so the mothers can have some rest and offer tea, respite and a safe space for the women to gather and socialise a little. I love this awesome team and have returned several times.
But the Refugee Women’s Centre needs donations - financial help and material items from our regularly updated list, and they need volunteers. -----> List of Needs
The refugees in Northern France are in desperate need of support as winter approaches. They need our help. If you can, please help.
As one Iraqi man said to me, “We are human.” And they absolutely are. Just like you and me - but they have lost or left everything behind – family, friends, home, possessions. They need our help. Human to human solidarity.