This is a diary of a week of volunteering at the refugee camp in Calais.
I wake up in London rather excited, contemplating a week of solace and hard work. The words "refugee camp" evoke many different feelings in me. The most overriding are those of excitement and fear. Excited that I can help in some small way and a gnawing fear that no amount of volunteer help can overcome collective political apathy and callousness. I can scarcely believe I am going to see a refugee camp in France, the home of Liberte, Egalite and Fraternite. On a personal front, it's a week to disconnect.
Arrival into Calais has been really smooth.
The hostel I'm staying at is buzzing with young volunteers, who all flash ready smiles. The average age seems to be about 21. The response to the largest humanitarian crisis in Europe since WWII is being led by us, much maligned millennials. There is a hint of young romance at the hostel. It jars to see for some reason but I shouldn't be surprised. The anti-dote to despair is love and human connection.
News filters in of a violent anti-refugee protest scheduled for tomorrow. I'm wary of French gendarmes. Their reputation precedes them. I have never heard of people protesting against refugees. However, I must not lose a sense of perspective. The people of Calais have every right to protest given the impact on their town. The mood in the hostel turns a little sour. I still plan on venturing out, protest or no protest.
Eagerly shared breakfast with other volunteers at the hostel. The basic motivation for being here, for everyone I talk to, is one of genuine concern and anger at the inaction from the political class. All the chatter is about the proposed protests against the refugees. Some volunteers are worried about being targeted by violent far-right extremists. An American volunteer went as far as getting a wet t-shirt to filter out tear gas.
I went into the main warehouse (3 miles from the refugee camp) that acts as the logistical base for distributing essential aid into the camp including food, clothing and tents every single day. I'm astonished to learn there are over 4000 hot meals prepared here every single day. I'm told that I could help out at the main refugee camp by teaching because I can speak Hindi and Urdu. This would help out most of the Afghan refugees looking to learn English.
First order of the day however, was chopping wood. This would later be distributed into the camp for helping keep refugees warm and also as a cooking aid. The work was hard but fun. The mood had relaxed significantly and there was no sign of protesters anywhere.
We hear that the protesters are using #escargot on twitter to co-ordinate protests across Calais. We respond by using that # to post images of snails.
Back at the wood yard again to do chopping and collecting of wood. I opportunistically volunteered to collect wood from various parts of Calais. I was just desperate to see the actual refugee camp and get my hands dirty teaching or translating.
I get my just reward by spending 2 hours at a faraway rubbish tip foraging for wood that could be used by the refugees. Anything containing paint or glue was no good. It was bloody hard work. I even volunteered to drive a small lorry to pick up wood from a manufacturing company on the outskirts of Calais. The proprietor is a Christian lady who spoke kindly of refugees and our volunteer effort to help. It was a wonderful reminder of the power of kindness in such a desperately dark time.
I randomly bump into a Spanish girl during dinner at the hostel who is teaching at the refugee camp. She is delighted to hear that I can speak Hindi and Urdu because some of the Afghans need an English teacher who can translate key words for them. I'm invited to join her in the morning to spend the day teaching at the camp. I'm incredibly excited and sleep in anticipation of the day ahead.
Walking into the refugee camp, the "Calais Jungle", is a surreal experience. As far as the eye can see, there are tents and shanties. The outside of the camp is watched by French gendarmes who look like they are auditioning for a role in a remake of Robocop. Each of them is armed with a tear gas launcher, taser, automatic rifle and grenades. Am I still in France? What am I getting myself into?
All my anxieties dissipate as soon as I enter the school in the camp. Its naughtily called "Jungle Books". I am immediately surrounded by Afghani refugees who can recognise my Indian ancestry. They are all eager to regale me with stories of their journey to France. I promise to listen after I teach my first lesson of English. They all picked up the concepts of what I was teaching rather quickly but more than anything else, they just wanted to tell their story, in their language.
One of the refugees, Shapoor*, invites me back to his tent for tea. I have been warned against going into the camp alone. Looking Shapoor squarely in the eye, I don't see danger but rather fear. Perhaps it's the reflection of my own. We head to his tent and as we walk I learn about his story. He is an ex-Afghan soldier, whose family was targeted by the Taliban because of his involvement with the NATO forces there. He had to go into hiding in his own country. Eventually, the Taliban caught up with him and shot him. The wounds are there for anyone to see. It is nothing short of a miracle that he is alive and has made it to France. I could scarcely try and conceal my astonishment when he tells me that he walked to France !
The camp itself is a ramshackle of misery. Tents and shanties are weakly propped up in sand. It is obvious even to my untrained eye that the slightest hint of rain will flood the tents and none of them are designed to insulate against the cold. Women and children are separated into a different part of the camp for their safety. Rape and murder are a sadly recurrent occurrence at the camp. What else can we expect from a place that has no governance or accountability? This place is not fit for humans, let alone children. What future are we condemning them to with our cowardly silence?
Sharing tea with Shapoor is such a humbling experience. His hospitality is overwhelming despite having nothing. He keeps offering me every last bit of food he has. In his culture, the guest is looked after first and foremost. What does that say about us as a society, where we have everything but aren't prepared to share anything?
One of the main teachers was absent today, so I ended up teaching classes continuously between 11am and 7pm. It was an unequivocally satisfying experience because every single refugee there wanted to learn. They were full of questions that were probing and challenging. I had to marvel at their resilience, fueled by a solitary hot meal every day.
When we stopped for lunch, I decided to walk towards the main camp to see if Shapoor was still around because he hadn't come to class today. What a mistake that was to prove. Out of nowhere, French gendarmes started tear gassing everyone in their sight. I was choking and gasping for breath and my throat burned for about 15 minutes. There was no threat to anyone, no dangerous gathering that I could see but the tear gas rained down for the next 10 minutes. I spoke to a few refugees nearby and got told this was a common occurrence. I was to later find out that several hundred refugees were trying to break out onto the motorway leading to England. The tear-gassing of the motorway was then perhaps justified but what about everyone else who were peacefully standing around?
It is a terrible sight to observe poor, hungry and confused refugees being pelted with tear gas. Is this state enforced disruption of life in the "jungle"?
I carried on teaching again because the refugees seemed relatively unperturbed, so I had no reason to be. Their gratitude for the learning in the midst of all their trouble was remarkable. I can now understand why teaching is rated as a rewarding job.
I'm not especially religious but as I left the camp for the day, I prayed that one of these students randomly stops me in a street somewhere in Europe and says hello. It would complete a miracle that began with them walking to Calais from far flung corners of Asia and Africa.
At breakfast, I speak to a volunteer who leads the census at the camp. They are estimating that over 10000 individuals live at the camp, with close to 1000 of the, unaccompanied children including orphans. I am shocked and worried, 1000 unaccompanied children here in the "jungle"? What horrors have they seen? What remains of their childhood?
I am reminded of the words of JP Flintoff. We are all making a difference, whether we know it or not. The volunteers at the camp and warehouse are desperately trying to provide a semblance of normalcy to the refugees but until I volunteered I had chosen to ignore this issue too. So some of us have unconsciously made a difference to this crisis too but by doing nothing.
The highlight of teaching today was being told by a Sudanese student that he will remember my teaching for the rest of his life. I was almost moved to tears. I cannot believe that I have affected a life in such a short space of time. I am becoming increasingly spiritual/religious here. I will pray for each and every person I have met here.
I also had the opportunity to spend time with a gifted student from Eritrea. I have yet to meet someone with his ability to grasp language so quickly. It is such a waste to have a person as talented as him being educated by an unqualified teacher like me. I wonder about the vast amount of talent hidden in this "jungle". Today is a reminder that the best of humanity can be found even in the worst of it.
I began my last day of teaching with a sense of foreboding. How difficult would the goodbyes be? It seems ridiculous but the bonds formed with those I taught are real.
I tried a different approach towards teaching English by focusing on history. I thought it was important for the refugees to know a little about the country they were in. They listened in rapt attention about the founding principles of the French Republic; Liberte, Egalite and Fraternite. A lot of them were surprised to know that they had freedom of speech and expression. I even explained what a refugee was and told them not to confuse themselves as migrants. Each of them then took turns describing why they were a refugee and not a migrant. I wish Theresa May, Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande or Barrack Obama could listen to these people first hand. They aren't a threat. Imagine how grateful they would be towards a nation that would give them safe harbour. Moreover, imagine some of these kids growing up in Europe. They would be our finest ambassadors and proponents of humanity.
Towards the end of the day, with the greatest difficulty, I told them I had to go back to London. I had formed a lasting bond with these refugees. They all came up and hugged me spontaneously. I had to choke back tears. I think I learned more than I taught this week. Resilience in the face of repression, humour in response to humiliation and generosity when confronted with grievance. What a people!
I decided to say a separate goodbye to Shapoor, the Afghan solider I met on my first day in camp. He thanked me for just listening to him. The man stood before me had fought in war, been shot, walked from Afghanistan and yet he still had time to be grateful. Any country would be lucky to have an upstanding man like him as it's citizen.
I ended the day by playing in a cricket game between a team of Afghan refugees and us volunteers. Our shambles of a team were comprehensively thrashed by the Afghan team. The natural talent in their team was astonishing. Athletic and fast bowling coupled with strong batting were too good for us. They had a 12-year-old boy, Ismail*, playing in their team. He was the best player in either team! The mind boggles about what he could do with the right coaching and mentoring. The tragedy is that he lives in the "jungle", where he faces the risk of violence, abuse, hunger and disease.
I did my goodbyes with my fellow teachers and volunteers later on. One of them, Alicia, said something that has hauntingly stuck with me many days on. "You are definitely not the same person that came here a week ago"
I feel I have a moral duty to speak out about what I've experienced in the "jungle". I'm pragmatic enough to know that solving the entire refugee crisis at Calais will need collective political and social action in Europe. However, it is in our gift to do something about the unaccompanied children and orphans in the camp.
I am committed to making this journal public. I will start by writing to the CEO of Salesforce (where I work). He is a good man with a strong social conscience. I will also write to the ambassador of New Zealand to urge him to visit Calais and facilitate the immediate acceptance of children. I grew up in New Zealand and cannot think of a better country for these kids to live in. I will also write to the Member of Parliament in my local area in London. I have a moral duty to exhaust the options I have.
I visited the holocaust memorial at the Imperial War Museum in London. In it read a quote
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing
Edward Burke 1770
If you are interested in helping with the crisis in Calais, please visit www.helprefugees.org.uk
* All the names of refugees have been changed to protect their anonymity
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