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Voices #15: Just Across the Channel

It’s 6 o’clock and the Refugee Women’s Centre (RWC) has almost finished distributions for the day. A twelve-year-old girl walks with Emma and I to the edge of the ”Jungle”. She has her arms wrapped around a cooking pot piled high with a woolly hat, gloves, baby wipes and hair conditioner. She chats away about the spaghetti she is going to cook for her sick mother and other members of the family tonight.

“I put too much salt in it last time,” Sara says with a giggle. “I love salt but it was terrible. We couldn’t eat it.”

Her family are Iraqi Kurds, refugees fleeing from conflict and persecution, and now sheltering in woodland near Dunkirk.

(Photo courtesy of Roots)

Photo courtesy of Roots

I‘ve volunteered with the RWC several times, and each time the situation ‘on the ground’ has been different. On my first visit, hundreds of refugees were living in a humanitarian refugee camp – families, single men and unaccompanied minors. The second, the people were sheltering under the trees in the woods, the third, housed in a gym during winter and, now, living rough while the authorities juggle what to do with so many homeless people over the fast-approaching winter.

The situation ‘on the ground’ is fluid and numbers fluctuate daily, but I’m not prepared for the sheer number of refugees in Grande-Synthe, Dunkirk. Approximately 1,200 to 1,700 refugees are living in woods around a lake – men, women and about 100 children, many between 6 and 9 years-old. Some people have tents, but many have only a blanket and sleeping bag. Some people have nothing.

I’m staying at the youth hostel in Calais, L’Auberge de Jeunesse, so I meet the other volunteers at the warehouse around 9.30 a.m. They have drawn up a work plan for the day and circulate it via WhatsApp. This team are super-organised and everyone knows their jobs for the day. Victoria stuffs the emergency car full of sleeping bags and blankets for new families, while Michelle and Tiph fill boxes for the “Free Shop” that we operate from the back of the van. Fiona is on admin, Caro is at a meeting and Emma has a day off. I’m gathering bits together for orders.

This involves working through a list of families with individual needs e.g. a pair of shoes for a child, a torch, a rucksack, a baby’s dummy – items we don’t stock in the “Free Shop”. I scramble around the shoe section of the warehouse, list in hand and glasses on nose. Our warehouse burnt out in Dunkirk and we now occupy a space in the Help Refugees/L’Auberge de Migrant’s warehouse in Calais. People were so generous with donations after the fire and there are still lots of bags and boxes of items for the women and children to be sorted.

I clamber over them to reach the women’s trainers and children’s shoes and bend to peer into the dark corner housing the children’s shoes. My glasses slide off my nose into a box of socks. Dodgy back, short sight and memory loss are a hamper when you are trying to be a 60 year-old kickass woman! Some boxes are stacked high, some almost empty. If this is your only pair of shoes they have to fit well and be dry. Tastes vary and I can’t imagine having to wear what someone else has chosen for me. I pick the best on offer and hope they will be okay. Our Free Shop offers choice, but shoes are in high demand and resources have to be shared out carefully.

We eat lunch at the warehouse, eating the same food prepared for the refugees by Refugee Community Kitchen. It is delicious, nutritious and we make an offering to help cover costs. I have to say, a week of beans and curry alarms my digestive system and I pray all gas stays where it should!

By 2.30 we are bouncing along in the van towards Dunkirk, laden with bags for distribution and a bulging Free Shop. Unfortunately, the tea urn, lent to us by Utopia 56, and filled with sweet black tea, does not appreciate the bends and there is a crash and a sticky black flood. Awesome what can be achieved with a few Tenna lady pads and some wet wipes. Minutes later we have a clean, dry, shiny floor in our shop – sadly no tea.

Today we take the Women’s Centre van to a small car park by the lake where a crowd of women are waiting for us. Two other volunteers have arrived earlier and are playing with the children. Each day a new activity – drawing, colouring, craft making etc. Our van is loaded with boxes of tee shirts jumpers and winter jackets. This is the first time I have done the Free Shop. The other volunteers are handing out hygiene products, taking emergency orders from new families and talking to women who have come with specific problems e.g. health or legal questions.

Welcoming the ladies into the Free Shop is the nearest I have come to working in a clothes shop and despite the circumstances it is fun. The women form a queue, of sorts, and are incredibly patient, considering the whole process takes an hour or more. One by one they climb into the van and choose one top, a jumper and a coat if they wish. Inviting just one at a time gives the women privacy and time to choose, although friends are giving plenty of advice through the doorway and children sneak in to watch saying it is their mama. Some children seem to have several mamas.

I sit on the step and chat to those who speak a little English or try to pick up a few Kurdish phrases. Sadly my brain synapses can’t cope with new languages it seems, and words go in one ear and out into the ethers. I feel envious of the younger girls who have picked up so much more of the language and can communicate in a more meaningful manner; also of the Kurdish ladies who are repeating, “Excuse me, ladies. Excuse me, ladies,” as I attempt to retain an orderly queue and not get squashed in the van door.

Mariam is wearing a beautiful floral scarf – quite Cath Kidston.

“Jwah-nah. That‘s so pretty,” I say. Mariam smiles, unwraps the scarf from her shoulders and offers it to me. People have so little here, but their generosity and desire to share is humbling.

The next day I’m hidden away in the central section of the van, and as the ladies come in to choose a scarf and gloves. I hand out cooking pots and cutlery and hair conditioner to those who need it. There’s a little square cut out of the partition wall between the middle and back sections, which allows women to see me as they wait, and many smile and wave to me.

Cut a hole in a wall and children will appear to peer through and play hand-clapping games, or to “Ali Baba” a spoon or anything else intriguing. I discover chatting to a child about the clothes its mother is trying on which can provide an opportunity for a little English lesson – “black jumper”, “white scarf”, “pretty” – so much vocabulary can present in five minutes of mime and fun through a hole in a wall.

Emma and I are heading back to the car where Victoria is waiting with emergency sleeping bags and blankets for new families. They have arrived with nothing to protect them from the cold night wind. Our twelve-year-old companion is telling us about how she learned English in Greece and helped translate, as she does now. As she chatters to us, an elderly Frenchman leans on his hoe and watches us pass his farm. The child pulls us across to the fence and points to the donkey grazing in the field and geese in the yard. She is full of childlike delight but matured beyond her twelve years. Not many children speak five languages and have travelled so far in search of peace and hope. She holds up her hair conditioner and smiles.

“My hair is not too good at the moment,” she says. That is the nearest to a complaint I hear from this child. She asks us to come and see her tent when we can. She gives us a smile and a wave and makes her way across the bridge, through the undergrowth and back to her mother. I think of my grandchildren back home, their safe, comfortable lives and feel my throat tighten.

People living near me have no idea what is going on just 20km across the Channel. How can they? The silence from the French state, UK government and media is deafening.

Sara is so close to my home just across the Channel. On a clear day I can see the French coastline. She is just beyond. I hope that child finds a safe, peaceful, comfortable home one day, where she is welcomed, valued and treated like the beautiful being she is – “a human being”.

(All refugee names changed to protect privacy)

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