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Voices #16: On privilege and activism (Part 2)

This is the second part of a long piece. You can find the first part here. Part 2 – Making us visible

Yes, we will go with you ask for our rights and for those of our children. Adrenaline started pumping into the team: we had never done anything this ambitious. We are experts at organising colouring activities, at giving out diapers and t-shirts, we can also answer questions such as “When is there next going to be a doctor in the jungle?” but we had never supported families into a political action. So I called around for advice. What should we bear in mind? How can we best support the families?

Despite my attempts to secure the action as much as possible, by doing a quick risk assessment (mainly the risk of being displaced by the police) and putting in the means to minimise those risks (by calling a few journalists and legal advisors), the rest happened very organically. A couple of Women’s Centre volunteers spent hours explaining to the families the political hierarchy in France, who was the sous-préfecture, and what the accommodation centres were. In the meantime, the rest of the team was in the warehouse, to prepare in the event that we wouldn’t be successful, and would indeed need tents and sleeping bags.

Shortly after lunch in the jungle, we started walking. We walked to the buses, through a commercial zone. You should’ve seen us. About 60 people of all ages, with prams, shopping trolleys, suitcases, in a long line, we looked like a parade. There was a sense of hope: never had the families had so much agency over access to shelter. We never accept the situation as it is, but this moment was particularly epic. We all got onto buses, which were going straight into Dunkirk. I thought about explaining to local bus users what we were doing. An elderly woman looked shocked at the sight of us. To be fair, we took a lot of space!

On the way, I started receiving messages of people who said they would come to support our action. Volunteers, journalists, friends… the initiative, which had been so sudden and somewhat risky, was gathering support. It was incredibly heart-warming.

Very quickly, we arrived in Dunkirk. And it hit me that I hadn’t called to let them know we were coming. So I quickly picked up the phone to explain. They were clearly not expecting this, but also were very reasonable: they would meet a few representatives for the whole group, including a translator. So we would be able to have a dialog between the families and the authorities directly, around a table, in the offices. Something I had never seen before!

In front of the offices, a few journalists and volunteers from other teams were already waiting for us. When the journalists asked question, it was important for me that the families could directly answer them. And they did – there was quite naturally a few people who were more outspoken then others, and who naturally took a representative role. By then, the temperature was already dropping, and we could feel the cold air. Families only had the floor to sit on, and not much to keep them warm.

We quickly formed a delegation of three dads, to represent the families, and myself to translate into French. I was thinking that another woman in the group could’ve been better for parity and representation, but it was equally important for the families to decide for themselves what they wanted, and to limit my input. Whilst all the other family members waited outside of the gates, myself and the three fathers were shown into the office of the general secretary of the sous-préfecture.

We sat across two people working for the sous-préfecture. One of them opened the meeting by inviting the dads to express themselves. “Please tell us anything you would like. We are here to listen and won’t interrupt until you are done.” Wow. That’s something I only thought I would see in Buddhist monasteries where I go for mindfulness retreats – this world class listeners attitude. I was incredibly impressed. We were received and heard with a rare attention. Our two interlocutors did exactly as they had promised: they sat, and attentively listened, as the fathers laid out their situation, their worries, their questions.

I cannot stress how impressively organised and diplomatic the meeting unfolded. The father to my right explained the general situation, how they had gotten kicked out of the accommodation centre this very morning, and how they were now stuck with nowhere to go. He described what it was like to be with a 9 months old child and not knowing where to sleep at night. The second father complemented this by explaining his situation: he was travelling with his mother who was 70 years old and was physically unable to sleep outside. The third father then concluded by thanking the authorities for their generosity thus far, and by underlining their gratitude for having been able to stay in an accommodation centre for a whole month. The three of them made it clear: they only had one question, which was “Can you please help us find a place to stay with our families for tonight?”

The two representatives of the sous-préfecture, who had been sat listening, responded to their question. They wanted to be able to shelter the families but simply did not know of any accommodation centre that had enough space. “Can we not return to the bedrooms that we left this morning?” asked one of the fathers. The sous-préfecture did not have the information that those beds were available. On their computer system, it showed that all the accommodation centres were full. They explained: accommodation centres have to count the number of beds available, and then transfer the information to their structure, who then passes it on to the prefecture (Lille), who in turns communicates it back down to the sous-préfectures. Needless to say, this takes a while.

The two representatives decided to directly call the accommodation centre the families had left that very morning to double check the number of available spaces they had.

In the meantime, the fathers had some time to talk to the representatives about asylum. You see, the French state wishes for people in France to ask for asylum where they are, to prevent (illegal) movements of people across borders. However, people all have a plethora of reasons for which they want to go to England – the most common being to join family members who live there. For people who have left everything behind by leaving their country, being close again to family is incredibly important. And that day, the authorities and the families had a chance to talk about it, and to explain their respective positions. I had never seen this before. They talked about Dublin, about family, about the winter, the cold, and the rain, about the difficulties in French bureaucracy, and about the systems in other European countries in comparison with the French one.

I was sat, in the middle of all this, appreciating the exchanges, and enabling them through translation. I was careful to translate what the fathers and the sous-préfecture representatives were saying in the most objective possible way. But I was also thinking about my privilege: my passport, my nationality, my language skills, my communication skills, all those things that means that the authorities accepted to receive and meet us. I genuinely don’t think that the authorities would’ve received a delegation of three dads from the camp of Grande Synthe, had I (or any other French person who could explain the situation) not been there. And this is what I mean by using my privilege. Having enabled this conversation is exactly what I want my role to be.

Eventually, one of the representatives, who was aided by her assistant who was making the phone calls in the room next door, told us they found 60 available beds. It was such a relief ! We started looking at the trains and public transports to see how the families could get there. The sous-préfecture representatives called around to find a coach, even though it was already 5.30pm, the evening before all saints day. We must’ve been blessed, because they found a coach, who would be arriving at 6.30 in front of the sous-préfecture to take 60 people.

The two representatives and the three fathers estimated there to be about 50 people in front of the sous-préfecture. In addition, however, there were other family members who had stayed behind in “the jungle”. A few families had too many bags, and decided to split the group: some would go to Dunkirk, to see what might come out of it, and others would stay in the camp to keep an eye on the belongings. The problem is that the sous-préfecture representatives were worried we would start getting a lot more people from the camp to the centre of Dunkirk, for them to get on the buses. But also, we couldn’t deliberately split families.

We agreed on four people, that I would personally pick up from the jungle: one daughter and her father (the mother and the son were in front of the sous-préfecture) and two parents whose teenage children were also outside of the building. The fathers and the sous-préfecture representatives agreed on that, and we walked out of the building, relieved and hopeful. The fathers were very happy to have had that meeting, and to have good news for their families. “We should have those meetings more often!” said one of the dads to one of the sous-préfecture representatives. “Well, maybe, but next time don’t bring all the families to be sitting outside of our gates, that’s not really necessary”, they replied.

We had an hour before the bus.

Outside, the temperature had dropped and the sun had started setting. In contrast with the warmth and the energy from our meeting inside, the families outside were incredibly calm and idle. It looked as though everyone had been immobilised by the cold. Some volunteers had been going around to provide some hot tea and blankets. That was crucial because the conversation inside had been going on for a while, and many had wanted to leave in the meantime. The blankets and the tea, and the support from volunteers is what made them stay. We announced the good news, and quickly organised vehicles to pick up the four extra people. But others were missing family members: one father was missing a son, one mother was missing her husband and daughters, everyone all of a sudden started asking about their family members.

We couldn’t make too many exceptions, and I wanted to stick to the agreement of four people that we had made with the sous-préfecture. But how to explain to a father that his 7 year old son would have to stay alone in the jungle or no one in the family would be sheltered? For some others, I did say no; there was simply not enough space for everyone. Having extended the list slightly from 4 to 7 people, myself and another volunteer got into our cars to pick up the missing family members.

By the time we arrived to the jungle, it was completely dark. The headlights from the police vans on either side of the path were helpful in seeing the entrance to the natural reserve, which serves as a camp. A few people were already waiting with a huge pile of luggage. There was only one extra person, so 8 in total. But would we have enough space on the bus? It was hard to start picking and choosing. One man who was meant to be just with two girls, had three in total, one of whom was disabled. Could I seriously look in this man’s eyes and say “there’s one girl too many”? He was clearly already worried of having everyone fit in the car, and the girls were between 3 and 8 years old.

We managed to get all the eight people and their many, many bags into the cars. But it took us longer than planned. By the time we arrived back in front of the sous-préfecture, it was 7pm. The bus was still there, and the road had been blocked by the police to stop the traffic from arriving into the street while people were loading into the bus. But there was distress and the mood had seriously changed.

Volunteers were upset, the sous-préfet himself had arrived in the meantime, an ambulance had arrived, some families were still on the sidewalk. What was happening? I asked one of the sous-préfecture representatives with whom we had spoken that afternoon. “The bus is full, there are 61 people on board. I told you this would be messy if more people arrived.” We must’ve miscounted: there couldn’t have been 50 people earlier if there were now well over 60 with just the 8 extra we had brought.

The ambulance had been called for a Kurdish woman who had fainted. She had been ready to get on the bus, with her children and husband, when she started feeling unwell. According to her husband that happens regularly, and he knew how to handle it. But as she was being seen by the doctors in the ambulance, the bus was filled and quickly reached 61 people. The sous-préfet asked for her to be taken to the hospital, despite the opposition from the woman and her husband. So the ambulance drove them to the Dunkirk hospital, and they didn’t get to leave with the bus.

The 7 year old son, who had been alone in the jungle, got a space in the bus, and joined his father. For others that we had picked up however, there was not enough space. On the pavement, there were 19 people left without a shelter, plus the parents and their two children who had been sent to the hospital. As the volunteers asked the authorities what could be done for them, the sous-préfet and his team walked away, and the bus drove off. It was 7.30pm.

A mother burst into tears and hit the bus as it left. “France no good. France no good. What we do now?” she shouted, crying. Another woman with her daughter who is disabled sat in the street, on a mat, crying, holding her child in her arms. Slowly, the police started leaving too. The street became empty. It looked like nothing had happened. And only the volunteers were left behind, with the families who had nowhere to go.

The sight was saddening. We understand the limits of the authorities in finding shelter. And having wrongly estimated the number of people was our common mistake. But this silent abandonment was what fuelled the anger and the frustration. Still, that bus represented 61 people who were going to be sheltered, who otherwise would’ve slept outside that night.

Sylvie, the manager from Emmaus Dunkirk, a charity that provides shelter and reintegration programmes for homeless people, offered a bed all those who were left behind. Quickly, we gathered everyone and the luggage, and organised vehicles. We drove to the Emmaus community, which is a renovated farm, where 32 “companions” now live – they are 32 people who used to live on the streets and are now living and working in the community. There, the families quickly felt at ease. The children were playing, some of the parents started cooking, and several of the companions stayed up until late to welcome their new guests.

In the meantime, the Women’s Centre volunteers checked to make sure there were no more families in the jungle whom we had missed. There weren’t. We went to pick up the family that had been taken to the hospital – who in the meantime was finished. And all 84 people who had, that very morning, been outside, were now indoors.

Buses were meant to arrive on the Friday, for all those who had been sheltered in Emmaus. It would’ve been a happy ending, and there would our action have been successful and finished. But nothing really ever happens the way you expect them to. Especially not in Northern France, in refugee camps.

This is the second part out of three, of a long piece. The third part will be published on November the 12th.

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