Sahra was a long term volunteer with the Refugee Women's Centre from June to September, and continues to be a valuable part of the RWC team from the UK, helping to coordinate new volunteers. She lives/studies in London and is in her last year of an English Literature degree. Sahra took time out from her studies to give a personal and moving account of her time on the ground.
Two months after my time on the ground had come to an end, I still struggled to reflect on and write about my experiences. I felt it was important to convey what I had seen but didn’t know where to begin…
The women and children we worked with, in both Calais and Dunkirk, were undoubtedly some of the strongest and most resilient individuals I have ever met. Everyday the women would greet us with hugs, kisses and tea. They were able to maintain such high spirits despite the circumstances. These individuals are beacons of light in an exceedingly dark place and are the reason why RWC is able to carry out their work everyday. I found many commonalities between my own family and the women RWC serve, re-iterating the fact that there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, and this could happen to anyone.
The psychosocial support provided by RWC holds the same importance as the materials we distributed. The activities we provided for the women and their families gave them a chance to break an endless routine and connect with others. The range of activities would include arts and crafts, English lessons and sports. Particular favourites of mine would be doing the ‘hokey-cokey’ with the children at the end of an English lesson, or blasting Kurdish music from the car speakers whilst being taught to dance Kurdish dabke. Children of all ages absolutely loved it and everyone would join in. I’d see the parents smile at how much their children were enjoying themselves. These were times when I truly felt both the children and parents could momentarily escape from everyday life. During my time in France we also celebrated Eid al-Adha with families in Grande-Synthe and Ethiopian New Year with the women in Calais. Even though these were very modest celebrations it was a chance for residents to observe traditions as they would back home.
Sometimes I really did not believe I was in Europe! Police violence, both verbal and physical, towards residents was shocking and unnecessary. Sadly, it has become so normalised that even those who are victims have accepted it to be part of life in Calais or Dunkirk. I heard countless stories of people being pepper sprayed in the face, attacked by police dogs or beaten by police - and, we often found that no distinction was being made between adults and children.
The living conditions are extremely difficult, especially for women and their families. When I first arrived in Grande-Synthe there was no access to water. Then, eventually, a small outside tap was installed. This small tap provided water to hundreds of residents. Unfortunately, some mothers could not allow their young children to drink this water as it made them ill. There were also many reports of trench foot, scabies and other conditions you would not expect in 2017 France. Many had not showered for weeks, sometimes more than a month. The lake was the only option. Understandably, women did not feel particularly comfortable to use it in an environment dominated by men.
Despite the few resources available to them, residents in Grande-Synthe were very creative. One family built a shed-like structure made entirely of tarpaulin supported by ropes that were tied to the surrounding trees. There were tables and chairs made from old pallets and impressive fires that would keep residents warm, enable them to cook and heat up water. The conditions were not great, considering, but they were survivable. As September drew to an end, I couldn’t help but imagine the harsh winter that lay ahead for some of the residents.
Police often came to evict residents from the woodland area where they lived. They confiscated and destroyed shelters and bedding (i.e. sleeping bags and blankets). Often, people weren’t given enough time to collect their belongings, which would result in them losing their documents, wallets and phones. After evictions residents are transported to ‘welcome centres’ around France, yet when they arrived, families were often not provided with bedding, clothing or hygiene products and were given very limited funds for food, leading them to quickly return to the ‘jungle’.
The women and girls in Calais are usually alone with no family network. The police presence in Calais is much more prominent and migrants are hassled to move on by police at least three times a week. For that reason the women do not have tents, meaning they sleep in open spaces making them more vulnerable during the night. Most of these women were younger than me and still held so much hope for their future. One of the residents in Calais told me she wanted to become a beautician, and when the opportunity arises she will continue her studies. She was very talented and would often beautifully braid the hair of her friends. I just hope this courageous young woman goes on to fulfill her dream in a country where she feels safe and can call it home.
During my time on the ground we worked closely with volunteer Maddie Harris, founder of Humans for Rights Network. She was in the midst of creating a vitally important project that allows refugees and migrants to speak out about the human rights violations they are experiencing. Many violations still remain unrecorded and this was a new way that we could hold people accountable. It allows refugees and migrant’s voices to be heard and a way to show the world what is really happening. A project like this really has the potential to shape the future of migrant rights and to break the cycle of silence.
I met some other really amazing individuals who kept operations running smoothly. Everyday they went above and beyond to ensure they could provide the best service they could. And without them there would be no, or very limited, access to food, clothing, shelter, phones, legal advice, medical care and many other services.
Volunteering on the ground will not suit everyone. It is mentally and physically challenging and you often find yourself working long days. However, there is a multitude of ways to help from home. When I left in September, I wanted to carry on supporting RWC whilst I completed my studies, so I’m now volunteering remotely. I encourage those who have a spare hour or two in their week to contact an organisation whose cause you support to see if you can offer to fill in any gaps for them. I’m sure it would be much appreciated, especially by smaller organisations.
RWC is such a distinct and necessary organisation and it gave me the opportunity to work alongside some
amazing women. The co-founders of the organisation are nothing short of inspirational. They are such positive role models and I have learnt a lot from them. There were many times when I genuinely thought that if RWC were not on the ground there really would be no one providing the same support to these women or children. We build strong relationships of trust with the residents and are often the first point of call when they need help. RWC, like many other organisations, receives no official funding and relies solely on volunteers and individual donations. I learnt first hand that once we had run out of donations there was not much else we could do for residents, and although it was through no fault of our own, you really did feel as if you had let them down that day. This really highlighted the lack of support outside of NGOs.
Volunteers are often given a hard time by the authorities, but this does not change the fact that migrants are fleeing their homes from conflict or socio-economic issues every single day. The presence of volunteers on the ground draws attention to the fact there is still a big problem in Northern France, even if it is no longer given attention in the media or widely spoken about. Authorities continue to tackle this ‘crisis’ with short-term solutions, attempting to sweep the problem under the carpet. It is in no one’s interest for any human being to be living in the conditions of the Calais or Grande-Synthe ‘jungle’; however, it is understandable why individuals are reluctant to stay in France when they have been made to feel so unwelcome. RWC and other organisations alike are a lifeline to residents. They provide basic humanitarian care that otherwise would not be available. RWC will carry on supporting individuals in a dignified manner, and will continue to show humanity for as long as governments and their authorities fail to do so.
HOW CAN I HELP?
For information on how to volunteer click here. For other ways to support us read here!
You can donate securely through our MyBTDonate page. Click here.
You can follow us on Instagram and like us on Facebook!
Thank you for reading. Please share and please spread the word.