As French enforcement continue to dismantle the ‘Calais Jungle’, Walthamstow resident Lucie Brown shares her thoughts following her visit this year
Like most people I know, I have felt a deep anguish about the seeming hopelessness of the refugee crisis in Europe, the role our country has played in creating it, and our extremely limited ability as individuals to affect change.
A recent short trip to the ‘Calais Jungle’ has further cemented the tragic nature of this crisis for me, but it has also given me great hope regarding the kindness and power that we have to organise as a community.
I travelled by car with two friends in January. I spent four days building shelters in the workshop, making and serving tea in ‘the jungle’ and speaking to residents and volunteers. We have all seen the images of the camp, I felt informed before I went and I have experience of volunteering abroad in emergency situations.
However, the gravity of the situation is almost beyond comprehension. The first day I spent inside the camp I asked my colleague why it was so quiet at 10am. He replied: “People are sleeping. They have had a busy night attempting to get on to lorries.” The reality hit me.
Less than an hour later we started hearing knocks at the door of the tea hut. Joking, kind-eyed and full of energy – you could almost forget the dire predicament of these young men were it not for the visible injuries sustained during their night on the roads or, allegedly, at the hands of French police.
I asked why they needed to get to Britain specifically. The answer was often the same; they had family in England and they spoke the language. How could they find work in France?
Later I encountered three young Iranians in high spirits, excited to have reached the camp and believing they were almost at the end of their gruelling journey. On discovering I was British they asked for my help. My friend showed them where to get blankets, food and clothes. I fought back tears, knowing their journey was far from finished, that life in the jungle was grim and the warmth and organisation they were witnessing at the camp was not reflective of our government’s response.
On our final cold morning we distributed firewood in the Sudanese part of the camp. We were invited to drink tea around the fire. It was a moment to reflect on the humanity inside the camp. There is suffering everywhere and hidden conflict between cultures but there is a great sense of solidarity. There is art and beauty among the makeshift schools and religious centres.
The volunteer response in Calais has been overwhelming, with skilled, intelligent long-term workers making a real difference. This, combined with the generous response of Waltham Forest residents who filled our car with tents and sleeping bags at a few days’ notice, has been heartwarming.
It’s so easy to think that the unkind voices in the mainstream media reflect the majority. But there are better people here. We can do better.