THE BLOG

Seven Months in the Calais 'Jungle'

24/04/2016 12:19
ASSOCIATED PRESS

This blog is a diary entry from Liz Clegg, who has been in the Calais jungle camp since summer, 2015. She runs the camp's women and children's centre

It's challenging having so many levels to think about. I've learnt its important to focus on daily achievements, however small, as the fails are endless and that weighs heavily.

Seven months ago I thought I'd take the leftover tents and wellies from Glastonbury and run them over to the refugee camp in Calais. It was only ever meant to be a donation drop but seven months later I'm being flown to New York City to appear on stage at the opening night of the Women in the World conference speaking on a panel entitled Refugees, They Are Us.

In those seven months I've been working day and night in the Calais camp, first carrying out distributions of tents, sleeping bags, clothes and shoes from the back of my truck to the thousands of refugees arriving, most of whom who had nothing.

Later I set up the unofficial women and children's centre creating a safe space for these more vulnerable members of the population and providing services tailored to their needs. Most of my energy goes into looking after the unaccompanied minors. There were 424 in the 'jungle' before demolition. Now there are just 294. We don't know where the other 129 went. Some of these are boys as young as eight, and I've become the closest thing they know to a mother.
I'm really not sure how I ended up here, it certainly wasn't planned.

Being away from camp is hard. I have awful pangs of guilt about things I haven't done and that I may have let someone else down. I need to get a gas regulator to an 11-year-old boy from Afghanistan who is all on his own and needs heat and food. I forgot to do it before I left and it keeps popping into my head.

My 'to do' list is scary:

1. I need to educate myself enough to be able to attend a social services review for a 12-year-old boy who made it over to the UK three weeks ago. I looked after him for many months in Calais. He is a challenging kid but we've got a bond and I can't bear to see him with a foster family who don't understand what he has been through. A child who had made it by himself from Afghanistan to France and who has survived by himself in the 'jungle', trying night after night to smuggle himself to Britain. On the phone he sobs and repeats over and over Liz 'Moor (mother in Pashtu) Liz family'. I'm ready to foster him myself and give him continuity of care and stability. I don't understand why social services are not more helpful. I've cried a lot recently as I just cannot understand why we are not being supported to be together.

2. I need to chase a different social services to see if they'll allow me to see Kareem*, another 11-year-old Afghan boy who made it to the UK just over a week ago. For five stomach-churning days we didn't know where he was. All we knew was that he was last seen hanging off the bottom of a lorry. Neither French nor British authorities would help us look for him or give us any information. It's impossible not to think the worst. The relief when I found out he was ok was overwhelming

3. I want to write a report highlighting the plight of the children in the camp, something that will convince politicians to include 'our' children in the 3,000 Britain may consider taking if the Lord Dubs amendment to the Immigration Bill is voted through.

4. I need to think of other ways to keep this in the news. We haven't had to try that hard this week what with Mohammed, a 17-year-old, dying on a lorry in the UK where he was desperatly trying to reach his uncle.

5. I must write to Afghanistan's first lady. I met her at the summit and she was understanding of my work. How can I convince her that I need more than understanding, I need her help?

6. I have to train myself not to swear, get hysterical and or confrontational.

7. I urgently must raise some money

And then today, over breakfast with my daughter Inca, before I could even begin to tackle my to do list, Inca's phone rang. It was a bad line, she couldn't hear what was being said and then one minute later she gets the first text: 'WE ARE IN THE UK AHMED'.

It's from an Afghan boy who is just six years-old. Our initial response is happiness - if he is in the UK it means he is safe from the nightly ritual of trying to smuggle himself onto a Uk bound train or a truck.

But then a minute later the next text comes: 'Trapped in lorry, driver wont stop, no oxygen'
Shortly followed by: '... no joking wallah'

We ring the team in the UK, get them to call 999 - can they trace his phone?

Then there's silence. There's nothing we can do. We text advice to Ahmed to conserve energy, telling him to stay still, lie down , relax, help is coming.

Then we find out the truck has got as far as Leicester and there's 15 stowaways on board. Shit. Fifteen sets of lungs... And no oxygen.

No news.

I know Inca really bonded with this little boy and I have a huge rush of guilt. Is my little girl about to be exposed to the terrible reality of life and death of refugees? Another one bites the dust, only this one she played with, she cared about, she sorted his caravan, gas, clothes etc and, thank God, his phone/credit/ and her contact number.

I went outside, needing a combination of nicotine and fresh air (it's powerless, just gotta wait). Just to chuck a curve ball a women approaches me, its already happened a couple of times. "I heard you speak last night, you're doing an amazing job". I didn't recognise her, but she told me she was on her way to the conference to do her bit, representing indigenous women in Canada

She proceeded to tell me in graphic detail the truly horrific story of her beautiful daughter's murder at the hands of Canada's most prolific serial killer. I've never met anyone with first-hand experience of serial killers, let alone a mother that had to hear of the terrible details of their child's murder. I was stunned and I cried and I listened on the pavement outside the hotel whilst waiting to hear if the police had got to Ahmad in time... The Leicester police located the lorry, they released the people inside. We don't know anything else.

Inca has a day of events tomorrow including a 'call to action' introduced by Meryl Streep. It's all surreal, hoping her and Josie do a load of 'networking' tonight, looking for political support and financial aid. I've got a horrible feeling we might be needed for a while longer.

Meanwhile I'm on a flight back to the UK with the lovely Katie (documentary maker), writing this down and hoping I have enough energy to carry on for a couple more hours, as I need to prepare for Akram's* review. I'm terrified I'm going to let him down.

Still, focus on the achievements. 15 people saved because my daughter sorted out a phone some credit, and cared about this little boy so much that she put her number on it.

* names have been changed to protect identity

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