A crinkly smile, a steaming brew, a stream of tears, a flying boot, children’s laughter, an enveloping hug, a dry, chapped hand held tight to a heart – sights, sounds, scents, emotions. How do I reduce this experience to words? And who’s reality am I trying to portray? For me, it was the most joyful volunteering experience with the Refugee Women’s Centre (RWC) so far. But for them – the displaced men, women and children – how were they feeling? Did they realise the little warmth and comfort they were experiencing now was soon to end?
This was the fourth time I had volunteered with the RWC, who offer support and solidarity to the refugee women and their families in the North of France, and each experience has been so different – first a refugee camp, then working in woodland and wasteland and now a gymnasium.
I watched the men hovering close to their wives and children. What induced them to bring their families on this difficult, dangerous journey, risking their lives and leading them into uncertain futures? So many have left lives that had once been good – beautiful homes, professional jobs, loving family and friends. But all that has gone due to war, conflict, torture, persecution or lack of freedom. No one leaves home for a journey like this unless they absolutely have to. These men and women love their children and believe they are leading them to peace, safety and a better life.
The refugees in Dunkirk are luckier than those in Calais. The mayor genuinely cares what happens to those living in and around Dunkirk. When winter took its grip, about 200 people were given temporary shelter in a local gymnasium – one room for families, one for the single men. They were given camp beds to sleep on, but arranged them on their sides to create private spaces, the bed legs turned into shelves for their few belongings. There, at least it was safe and warm, and there were no riot police ripping and tearing down their tents and confiscating all their belongings.
As a volunteer, the situation felt much easier to manage compared to supporting people scattered around in woods and wasteland. Having everyone living under one roof meant we were able to spend more time with each family, getting to know them better so we could ascertain their needs (bedding, clothing, hygiene) and distribute items far more efficiently. We could pick up on other issues such as medical problems, the need for legal information or sociological problems, such as depression or abuse, and refer people to the right organisations, sometimes accompanying them where necessary.
I always love working with the RWC team, seeing old friends and meeting new bright, compassionate, “kick ass” women.
Whether we are searching through donations for the perfect pair of little boots, lunching on the floor of the warehouse kitchen or cosying down in the caravan, being with these girls is always fun, inspiring and heart-warming.
While, the team spread out to support families living in two CAO’s (Centres d’Accueil et Orientation), women and children in Calais and families sheltering at the gymnasium in Grande-Synthe, my week with the team was spent mainly in the gym. After seeing people struggle to exist in the old camp and then the woods, it was so lovely to see people more relaxed, warm, dry and comfortable.
I remember back in the last days of the camp, La Linière, the women huddled around the fire and showed little interest in activities. But the vibe of the gym was different – so much more peaceful and relaxed. The minute we unpacked things for an activity women and children gathered to join in.
The first day we bought pasta (penne) to create and paint necklaces. The children loved sewing the pasta onto lengths of string and painting or dipping their necklaces into the paint, water or anything else they could find! All went well until one little girl knocked another’s onto the floor and it got trodden on. All children react similarly to the stress of a special item being broken, but a child who has been through so much has many more stresses piled up behind this minor one. The child (11) had told me she spoke Kurdish, Farsi, Arabic and German, all but Kurdish learnt on her two-year journey. She told me about the 40 dogs at the border and their terrifying teeth and barking as her family attempted to cross. No wonder her anger erupted when her soggy little pasta necklace was destroyed.
A mother came alongside and picked up a paintbrush and began to paint her child’s face with beautiful cat’s eyes and whiskers. She was a theatre artist back in Iraq and taught art. Soon all the children were showing off their colourfully painted faces and the pasta, pools of paint and crushed necklace were forgotten.
The next day I met a new family who had just arrived at the gym. Sara (15) tells me the howling wind had whipped their tent up into a tree in. I remembered them from last year. The mother, 20 years younger than me but who appeared older, her face blemished by harsh living conditions and grief, cannot speak English, but her eyes say enough. There is no man. She is travelling with her adolescent son and two daughters - but there is somebody missing. Her 10 year-old son had somehow made it to the UK and is now living with his uncle. He rings each day crying. He wants his mother. I put my arm around her shoulders, partially to hide my own tears, as she cries. She is not alone. Many families end up separated. Her daughter does all the talking for them but does not want to join in the activities. She will when she reaches the UK, she says. I offer my granddaughter’s beautiful warm ski coat to her 11 year-old sister. She is bewildered. She has not asked for anything.
That afternoon we massage hands with cream and essential oils and paint nails – women and children’s. It transpires that we have two beauticians amongst us – an Iraqi Kurd and an Iranian lady. My nails are professionally painted for the first time ever.
Our ‘piéce de resistence’ turned out to be Beautifying Face Masks, although that was nearly scuppered by the handle on the gymnasium office door jamming - so much for being organised and security conscious. A variety of beefy French men in overalls took it in turns to attempt to break through until eventually the door had to be smashed open. By the time we retrieved our ‘bits’ the women had disappeared to a ‘distribution’ but the children always have an eye out for some fun.
We laid out a Persian patterned cloth with little bowls and spoons and an immense leaf of aloe vera, yoghurt, honey, coconut milk, veg oil, lemon and some handwritten, illustrated recipes and began to explain the activity. Children do not need detail. They loved squeezing the aloe vera gel from the leaf. A splosh of this, a squidge of that, a splot of that and mix it all up. Even the boys joined in – one gentle giant with the cheekiest smile but who needed encouragement to join in children’s activities, and one tattooed with a sharp haircut who was usually found hanging out with the men. The boys perfected the best exfoliating sugar scrub my cheeks have ever experienced. Clean, soft and illuminatingly red till the next morning!
The children loved smearing their gooey facemasks over themselves and willing volunteers.
My dimly remembered massage skills came in useful, and several women and a tired, cold-ridden Gynae Sans Frontier volunteer appreciated a gentle, cool, soothing face massage with the relaxing face potion whipped up by 9 year-old Savin.
As I finished and wiped my hands, a lady waved to me from her space, beckoning me over. She had a tray with three cups of chocolate for the volunteers. She and her husband had insisted we join them the evening before to share the food provided by Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK). We tried to care for and support them. They cared for and supported us.
Thursday was the ‘Crème de la Crème” for me - International Women’s Day. The RWC booked a large kitchen at the Atrium (community centre) in Grande-Synthe and took the women there to cook and share a celebratory meal together. Many of the women had not cooked in months, and for most it is a special and important part of their culture. The previous day the women decided on a few of their favourite recipes and were taken shopping to buy all the ingredients. On Thursday we all drove over to the Atrium and watched, tasted and learned as the kitchen filled with the most fabulous aromatic delights. We provided the utensils including chopping boards and tablecloths. However, I discovered how to deftly chop without a board, and that tablecloths are better used to prepare spinach on, or to pop down in a corner when you wish to kneel and pray. Glad I’d found a beautiful one.
The afternoon was filled with music, dancing, chatter and delicious aromas from their homes back in Kurdistan and Iran. The table looked wonderful filled with dishes, such as kharesht sabzi and a variety of other chicken and lamb recipes, rice and colourful salads. The women insisted on serving the volunteers first, and with my plate piled like Vesuvius, I definitely didn’t need dinner or breakfast the next morning. Could have given lunch a miss. It was so lovely to be part of something life affirming and joyful with these brave, warm resilient women.
On my last day, we played outside with the children behind the gym. Earlier in the week, the awesome Flying Seagull Project www.theflyingseagullproject.com who take smiles, laughter and play to children in refugee camps and other challenging situations, had visited the Help Refugees warehouse and held a workshop for us before visiting two CAOs and coming over to play with the children in Dunkirk. We had great fun playing Quack Quack Mieouw, Zombies, Tag and other games, my joints screaming in panic as I tried to keep up with the kids as they hurtled around letting off steam. Cooped up in a gymnasium, where there is never silence, where no one is ever able to sleep properly with the crying babies and snoring adults, and there is no possibility for raucous children’s games, the opportunity to go outside and play these fabulous energising and self-expressive games was wonderful. A few tumbles, a grazed knee, a furious little girl, an anxious little boy trying to mime what had happened and that he didn’t mean any harm – just like a normal children’s playground – although it was not.
The children came in to settle down quietly and make “I Love You” cards. A rug, a heap of white cards, stickers, crayons and glue and the children were peaceful and content for over an hour making cards for their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. Children have the wonderful gift of being able to live in the moment.
I was able to do this much of the time. It is almost necessary for emotional sanity - playing with the children, seeing the smiles, sharing the tea, and feeling the hugs. But the truth is, these displaced people have experienced immense levels of distress and fear that drove them from homes, friends and all that they knew, and their futures are extremely uncertain. The only thing they can hold on to is hope. And hope is everywhere – in their words, their smiles, their songs and their dance. But in truth, their situation is appalling. If they seek asylum in France or even make it to the UK, the possibility of asylum is slim. The West may be embracing globalisation, but welcoming people to our shores?
I met such warmth and generosity in that gym – a seat from an old man, shared meals with women and their families, sweets and fruit thrust into my hand by children. I would welcome so many I met as neighbours. But the reality is that, for them, there is no legal way to cross European borders. As March draws to a close, the doors to the gym will close too. Men, women and children will return to the woods and wastelands around Dunkirk.
The Refugee Women’s Centre team will continue to support the families the best they can with warm clothes, nappies, blankets, sleeping bags, tents and more. Whipping up facemask potions may prove a little difficult under the trees, but anything is possible for these brave little souls and their brave, warm, resilient mothers.
In love and solidarity.
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