On 26th October 2016, the Calais “Jungle” was officially cleared. Yet this didn’t mark the end of the “crisis”. The site may have been shut down but the problems haven’t gone away. Whilst the UK government transferred some young refugees to the UK, many remain cut off from their families in the UK. Other refugees were at the time taken to reception centres across France. Weeks later reports emerged of refugee children who had been taken to reception centres being forced to work on fruit farms and share accommodation with adults. This may seem shocking but the tragic conditions and neglect these children face is an ongoing nightmare following the days and months spent in the squalid jungle by adult and child refugees alike from across the world subsequent to the tragic journeys they took to reach French soil. Here, the only help these vulnerable refugees received was from small scale volunteer groups. No government body or international aid agency was present. Here is the account of Chris Plant – one member of the group Stafford Welcome Refugees (UK) – who along with Paul and Mohamed drove down to Calais themselves in September 2016 to deliver crucial aid gathered by members of the Stafford community prior to the closure of the camp.
When the current refugee crisis flared up, a group of locals in Stafford decided to organise a shipment of aid to the refugees living in squalid conditions in unregulated camps outside the port of Calais. After several weeks of careful preparation, we were finally ready. Three of us shared the driving and had a fairly uneventful drive to Dover. Once you reach Dover though, you become aware that things aren’t as they used to be. Agencies who are normally quite uninterested in your activities were keeping a close eye on those wishing to travel across the Channel. Although all the officials were polite and courteous, it was clear that they were taking note of all traffic in connection to refugees.
On arrival at Calais, the first visual impact was made by literally miles of high fencing topped by razor wire. It was bleak and rather surreal. I couldn’t help but imagine that somehow I had strayed into a 1984 Orwellian world – it was all very depressing… My spirits were lifted considerably on our arrival at a large warehouse manned by a truly inspiring group of young volunteers. They represented just about the best of humanity. They were a multinational group of volunteers from diverse cultures and ethnicities all driven by a shared need to alleviate the suffering of our fellow humans and to demonstrate through real action that decency had not destroyed by the obscenity of corrupt power politics. We proceeded to unload all of the tried and tinned foodstuffs, keeping the rather large quantity of fresh fruit and vegetables for another rather extraordinary enterprise right in the heart of The Jungle. After leaving the warehouse where everything was fairly organised, a few short miles later we came to a very different world. If you didn’t know that you were on the coast of one of the wealthiest most developed presumably “civilised lands” in the world, you could easily imagine that we’d strayed into a shanty town in a developing country. This is not the France that people normally imagine!
Having reached the warehouse just outside the camp, we headed onwards towards The Jungle itself. Upon arrival we were stopped at the entrance by the French CRS police who questioned us about our reasons for coming. After carefully checking the contents of our van they allowed us to proceed. They were coldly efficient throughout our brief encounter. We drove on through… The Jungle was huge. We had to wait for a guide to direct us to our final destination and after a while a cheerful young man or Middle Eastern origin joined us and escorted us through a maze of muddy garbage strewn alleys to our destination – which was truly remarkable.
We were then taken to meet Sofinee in the heart of the Jungle. Now, Sofinee is one of those rare individuals whom fate throws your way at time of genuine crisis. A small little Malaysian lady wearing a niqab with only her expressive eyes visible, she radiated personality, energy and unquenchable optimism. She was the life force around which her world revolved. That world was the Kitchen in Calais – a truly inspiring enterprise which she and her husband had created here in the midst of squalor and degradation. Sofinee and her husband had originally journeyed from their home in Durham in the north of England to see the conditions in the Jungle for themselves. Being utterly appalled by the what they found, they decided there and then that they were going to make a difference. From literally nothing, they constructed a kitchen producing hundreds of hot properly cooked meals for those living in the camp. They relied entirely on voluntary donations for supplies, which had never yet let them down.
Fresh fruit and vegetables in toe, alongside scarves and clothes for Muslim women who wanted to retain their sense of modesty, we were chuffed that Sofinee was delighted with our donations, especially with our van load of fresh fruit and vegetables which we had brought the previous night. So, it was with some satisfaction that we bade farewell to our many new friends in Calais, leaving with renewed commitment to be active members of the world wide movement to counter the tidal wave of bigotry, racism and oppression which currently afflicts our world.
Christopher Plant (Stafford Van Aid – Stafford Welcomes Refugees)
Stay tuned for part two when Staffordians later return to Calais after the “closure” of the camp and later head over to Dunkirk – another tragic but less well known site where aid groups are working hard to give these vulnerable people a helping hand in their struggle to survive and find hope, security and peace.
Credits and acknowledgements:
Text written by Christopher Plant (Stafford Van Aid – Stafford Welcomes Refugees) (additions and edits: Elizabeth Arif-Fear)
Photography: Paul Jacks, Christopher Plant and Elizabeth Arif-Fear (Stafford Van Aid, Stafford Welcomes Refugees)
Huge thanks to Chris, Paul, Mohamed, members of Stafford Welcomes Refugees and the people of Stafford for all their generous donations, time and efforts which helped to make the trip such a success. To Sofinee, her husband and all the volunteers at Kitchen in Calais, the warehouse and inside The Jungle: fabulous work! God bless!