This week five boys arrived with us (Care4Calais) from Eritrea. Three of them are 16 years old, one is 15 and one is 17.
I try hard not to get personally attached to individual refugees. It's a lesson hard learned. To be effective, we must help large numbers of people and making personal attachments slows you down. But there is something about these boys. They have such open honest smiles. They are so full of hope. It breaks my heart. And the clincher comes when we ask them what they need.
It is absolutely freezing here right now, and we are outside all day. The boys are outside all night too. One of them has plastic shopping bags inside his shoes to keep out water. So we ask what they need - clothes, warmer coats, shoes? They talk amongst themselves then, the only one who speaks some English comes back to say they are embarrassed to ask but if we could just give them one euro each to get the bus they would be so grateful. I am won over.
So we learn their stories. They left because in Eritrea teenage conscripts are held in slavery-like conditions for over ten years. Arbitrary detention and torture are widespread. To provide a better life for their young children, families save for years to pay for passage with smugglers. But still Eritrean refugees run enormous risks; border guards have a shoot-to-kill policy. The children travelled alone through Sudan and Libya, such dangerous countries, before undertaking the Mediterranean crossing that so many have perished attempting. It really does not bear thinking about.
One of the boys has a cousin in the UK and one an uncle. And they all want to know when and how they get to the UK. Innocent hope, still alive after all they have been through.
The problem is that a cousin or an uncle are not close enough family members to guarantee them getting to to the UK under the "Dublin" family reunification rules. And now the home office have stopped transferring children from Calais, their chances of being taken are slim to nil. They really have no chance. There has been a lot of attention on unaccompanied minors in Calais but no one has made any provision for new arrivals.
Once we tell them this, it takes a long time for them to believe us. They have come so far. This is the end to all their hopes. It simply cannot be true.
After us spending some time with the boys they each come to their decisions. Three decide to stay sleeping rough in the area in the hope of getting to the UK illegally on a lorry. It is extremely dangerous, but I understand why they have made this decision. They are thousands of miles from home on a different continent with a very foreign culture. They want to get to something familiar and safe. These three include the two with the cousin and uncle in the UK, and they all have friends there. This is a clear sign that whilst the camp has been demolished, the crisis has not gone away.
We insist they take better shoes, thermal underwear, hats and gloves. We feed them, top up their phones and save our phone numbers in them for emergencies. That is all we can do.
The other two agree to try making a claim for asylum in France. I tell them we can take them to a home for children where they will be safe. They will be under the care of the French state. They are very nervous as we take them the hours' drive to the French state run home for children. The staff are nice and welcoming, and so are the other boys which is reassuring. However, the place is pretty drab and the staff explain that the budget is tight and the children have few clothes or things to do.
There are two boys standing outside in very thin clothes. When I ask about this the staff tell me that all clothes are donated and the coats and jeans are often too big as they are meant for men. The boys don't want to wear them. I think back to being 16 years old and, yes, it was definitely preferable to freeze to death rather than risk looking uncool. It serves as a reminder that these children are not so dissimilar to young people in the UK.
Back at the warehouse we thoroughly search for smaller clothing, appropriate for young men and women. Due to the ever amazing kindness and generosity of our donors we come up with a haul of 25 coats (one of the hardest items to find) a couple of boxes of t shirts and quite a few hoodies, but this is still not really enough. The one thing we really struggle with is jeans. The refugees tend to be smaller than the average donor and tend to look swamped in anything other than skinny jeans.
So that's my Christmas shopping decided for this year. Instead of presents I go to Primark and buy 30 pairs of skinny jeans in sizes 26, 28 and age 13/14. All my family and friends will get to donate jeans to refugees. It's not just about clothing these young people. Sometimes we want to make them happy too. Teenagers that age love fashion, so we want to let them feel good for once.
We are making an appeal to anyone who knows kids of that age who will be throwing out clothes, second hand tablets, smartphones, or anything suitable for teenagers after Christmas, to think about donating these to refugees in Calais.
These children will keep arriving and provisions are lacking, both from the French state and charities such as ours who are struggling to plug these gaps. We want to keep these young people safe and warm and, maybe just once, bring a little Christmas cheer.
Find out how to support Care4Calais by visiting care4calais.orgSuggest a correction