A Student Nurses First Experience of Volunteering First Aid to the Refugees of Calais.
Part 3: Humanity
Please note, the names that appear in this text have been changed to protect the identity of those individuals.
The next morning, we took much fuller advantage of the free breakfast in the hostel than we had the day before. We piled our plates high with French bread, pancakes, jam and weird custard cake things in preparation for the day ahead.
We had arranged to pick up a few of the other volunteers so left the hostel to find them. Whilst we were waiting, we popped to the chemist to grab some Gaviscon. We had heard that there had been some trouble in the camp the night before with police, so we were expecting lots of people to present with tear gas related issues. We were advised that half a Gaviscon sachet with water is very soothing to people's eyes post-tear gas. Sure enough, when we all got to camp, there was still a high police presence and we were even questioned as to why we were there and which organisation we were with. We later found out that 27 vans of police had turned up unprovoked to the camp late the night before and as you would expect, the refugees felt very threatened by this and chaos ensued. Judging by the injuries that presented to us that day, tear gas, batons and rubber bullets seemed to be the CRS's weapons of choice.
Me and Gemma shared a caravan again and spent some time organising the cupboards, prior to opening, so we could locate things in a more efficient way for when we had an influx of people. It was basically chaos the day before and neither of us really wanted to muddle through again. Today we were more prepared and we felt much more confident in our knowledge and processes and unlike the day before we made full use of the translators whenever we could. They were absolute life savers. In the morning, there were four translators because there were two extra from the UK and they were just brilliant. In the afternoon we were back to just the two usual volunteers, Musharraf (who was about 35) and Abdul (who was about 20) that were refugees themselves. They were incredible and just lovely people.
In the make-shift restaurant over lunch we finally got to taste the amazing food and it only cost five euros! We also got to talk a bit more to the refugee translators. One of them - Abdul, who was intelligent and very funny - told us that he had been in the camp for eight months and for the first six weeks, he tried "jumping" (onto the back of lorries) but he recalled the last day he did. He watched his friend fall off, get hit by a lorry and then watched him die in the road, choking on his own blood, while the police tear-gassed them. It was overwhelming and I think everyone had a lump in their throat. He also told us about how beautiful his country (Afghanistan) used to be and you could tell how proud he was of his heritage. He has an uncle in the UK and we got the impression that was all the family he has left. If anyone has queries about why people choose the UK as their destination - have no doubt - they would much rather be at home. Certainly for the people I spoke to, the UK was their last and only option because it was home to the only relatives or friends they had left. That's a really cold and hard fact to absorb when those people are in front of you, helping you to help others, for the equivalent of fifteen euros a day and a free lunch.
As it got busier in the afternoon, we could hear banging on the side of the caravan. I checked with Musharraf what was going on, he reassured me not to worry but I couldn't help but feel on edge. After what we had seen the day before, it was clear that things could escalate very quickly if things went south.
Sometime later, there was a huge thud and some shouting. I dropped what I was doing and went to the door of the caravan. On the other side of the caravan in front of us, there was a fight. The thud was one of the guys being chucked into the side of one of the make-shift buildings. I jumped out of the caravan to grab one of the refugee translators. They were great in tension situations because they were so calm and they could talk to people. They really looked after us. But I couldn't find them.
It wasn't until later that I realised it was a prayer time and that why there were times that they disappeared. There was a mosque opposite the caravan and you could hear the prayer calls. I really enjoyed experiencing the culture on camp and a lot of the time, things like this, and the sand, made it feel like we could have been in the middle east, not just 50 miles away from my house, across the channel. Anyway, one of the UK guys who was an Arabic translator came out with me and said "I'm not sure what I can do but I will stand here" (between the fight and us). I was grateful for his attempt to make us feel safer. In the kerfuffle, Beatrice, a French nurse, who was maybe about 50 years old, came out of the caravan opposite us and rushed in between the two men fighting. My heart sank. I thought to myself "oh my god, she's crazy!". I watched as she shouted at them both and stood there wiggling her index finger at both men, like an angry parent. I couldn't believe my eyes when they both looked at her, and walked away with their tails between their legs. I felt like I should slow clap but I just stood there with my mouth open, in total shock.
The afternoon flew by but we were running low on supplies. We ran out of gloves - so we were having to unwrap a pack of sterile gloves every time we needed them. Anyone who is in the medical world will know how painfully slow this task is. We ran out of Vaseline, cotton wool, gauze, Strepsils, medicine pots, toothbrushes, socks - basically all of the things we were using the most. We even ran out of referral forms so we were having to write in English on post-it notes, so that the patients could go to Salaam and get the help they needed without the language barrier challenge all over again. It was hard but we muddled through.
As we ran out of stuff, the stream of patients slowed down and as we were about to shut the caravans, Musharraf (one of our translators) brought in a 10 year old boy. He had a graze to his knee -a usual injury for a 10 year old - but I wasn't really sure why Musharraf had bought him in and not his dad. Or his brother. Or uncle. Or anyone. I cleaned his wound with Saline and I could see it was hurting him and he was scared. Usually in this situation I would talk to the patient and reassure them but there was a language barrier and Musharraf had disappeared. So I talked to him in English anyway - silence is never reassuring - and I thought I would be silly so he felt less scared. I blew up a glove so it looked like a chicken, which gladly he found funny. By the time I'd cleaned the wound, Musharraf had returned so I asked him to let the little boy know that the iodine I was about to put on his leg was going to sting. I proceeded with the wound dressing as gently as I could and then I asked one of the paediatric Dr's to check him out for a suspected chest infection (I didn't think he had one but I'd rather be double sure). That little boy will never leave my memory. The reason that Musharraf bought him in, instead of anyone else, is because he didn't have anyone else. He had no one. That boy was, by far, the bravest person I have ever treated and probably ever will.
As we walked through the camp to leave, we walked past something that summed up the camp perfectly. In the middle of the sea of sand, tents, containers, and make-shift buildings, there was a group of refugees in a raised gravelled area sitting on camp chairs. Around the border of the gravel were flowers. They were beautiful and had clearly been very well tended. This group had made a community garden in the midst of the horrendous conditions of the camp. A little slice of normal. A little slice of happiness. On the other side of the border was razor wire. A stark reminder of where they were. It was very poetic.
After saying our thankyous and goodbyes to the amazing people we had met at our time in the camp, we headed off to the Eurotunnel. There were organised protests the next day which was going to mean traffic was a nightmare to get anywhere in the town. In addition to this, the French far right wing groups were descending on Calais to use the opportunity to spread their message of hate and intolerance. Unfortunately for us, this meant that it was going to be quite dangerous to stick around, as these groups have been known to target volunteers as well as the refugees themselves.
During our time in The Jungle; the patients we treated and the people we met were lovely. They were all polite. They were all grateful. They were all refugees fleeing from devastating experiences that I can't even begin to comprehend. Displaced from the countries they loved to call home - now living in a strange, dirty place, with strangers who they would never otherwise would have met. Their lives completely dependent on the kindness of others. I was really touched each and every time someone took the time to shake my hand or say "thank you little sister" just for giving them some Strepsils. The whole experience for me was far greater than I could ever have anticipated and I will be forever humbled by the way that humanity and civilisation can prosper in such a difficult environment, despite the adversity these people had faced. For anyone that thinks these people are migrants on a meal ticket, waiting to get £30 a week in benefits, all I can say is this; if you gave me a million pounds to live in one of these people's shoes, and stay in this place indefinitely, waiting for asylum or risking my life for an opportunity to get here, I wouldn't. Make no mistake, this is not the life they have chosen. Nobody wants to live this way. And nobody deserves to live this way.
On returning to the UK, I found it emotionally difficult to try and process what I had seen and heard over the short time we were in camp, which is why I started to write this. It's difficult to have faith in humanity when there is such injustice in the world but as Fred Rogers' mum once said: "Look for the helpers, you will always find people helping".
I have been overwhelmed by the support and love that we received before, during and after our trip - but what we did was just a drop in the ocean. The camp's heart is powered by teams of volunteers, who do an incredible job; selflessly providing food, water, sanitation, aid and clothes each day. Strangers looking after strangers whilst the rest of the world turns its back - in the camp you are defined, only by being human. For me, the most important message I will take from this experience is that kindness and compassion takes no courage and costs nothing, but it shows humanity and gives hope to people who need it the most.