It is now four months to the day since I arrived in Calais to help out in the camp. Originally my plan was to come for 10 days to help out in a small way as an independent volunteer. After spending a short time in the camp I quickly realised that I would not be able to walk away from the conditions I was faced with and the sheer magnitude of trauma many people were experiencing.
The story of how I initially ended up in the camp is a strange one but also one that reminds me that sometimes, as humans we are inspired to do something simply because it is the right thing to do.
It was a Wednesday evening and I was in my apartment in the Southside of Glasgow, which I had been living in for almost a year, after I left my home in Northern Ireland to create a new life for myself away from the experiences I had grown up with as a child. I remember the anxiousness I was experiencing, as the realisation that my current work contract was ending and I was struggling to find a permanent employment solution. The dread that I was feeling was a direct result of desperately not wanting to admit defeat and return to the life I had so desperately fought to leave behind.
All I wanted to do was have a shower, unwind and try to come up with a new game plan. I turned on the shower and after about five minutes of waiting, I realised that the water wasn't getting hot. I remember feeling angry because at this moment, it was the last thing I needed. I made my way into my flatmate's bedroom where the boiler was situated, noticing that the pressure valve was below one.
I thought this is an easy fix, all I need to do is turn the valve, the pressure will rise and I will be able to have my shower. As I turned the valve, I felt a rumble in the pipe and the next thing I knew the valve had shot off and the room was filling up with water. For the next 15 minutes I sat on the floor trying to hold the pipe together, waiting for my flatmate to return from the shop, while the room filled up with water.
After what felt like a lifetime, we managed to get the water turned off at the mains supply underneath the building. Virtually everything in the room was ruined and I was in a total state of disbelief and shock. I remember lying in bed that night pondering the question many of us have at some point or another: Why do things have to be so difficult?
I had been following the events of the unfolding refugee crisis quite closely and it suddenly dawned on me that here I was worrying about how bad things were for me when I had warmth, food, a roof over my head and a small amount of savings for the eventuality of needing to support myself while seeking longer term employment options. I could not help but remember that many people were fleeing their countries as a result of war and persecution, in search of a better life for themselves and their children.
I began to feel better about the circumstances currently unfolding in my own life but also inspired to do more for those less fortunate than I was. Sometimes we don't realise how lucky we are and I was certainly in a place where I had taken the luxuries afforded to me for granted.
Although I have not had the experience of fleeing a country in fear for my life, I do understand the desperation people feel when they want to find new beginnings and better way of living. Having grown up in Northern Ireland, I remember what it was like to have the army patrolling the streets, to hear the noise of gunfire at night and also the terrifying sounds of explosions going off in the distance, an experience no child should ever have to go through.
I was a member of an on-line group called Scottish Association for Refugees and decided to contact its founder Claire Macaulay and after a few brief messages between us I had agreed to leave in a week for Calais.
I will never forget my first day in camp, the smell of untreated waste mixed with the smell of people cooking meals on little gas stoves, the sight of the tents people were living in and more importantly the sheer number of women and children living in the camp, a fact that had been overlooked by the British media. Over the next few days I could not shake the contempt I felt for the life I was fortunate to be living, while others were expected to live in mud and filth without any support to better their circumstances.
After day three in the camp I knew I was not going to be able to leave, there was much work to do and not enough people to complete it. The first task I undertook in camp, was the building of shelters for women and children alongside Pete and Jack, who still build here in Calais. I remember feeling mixed emotions in those first few days, knowing that I was doing something to make a difference to the lives of venerable people while also realising that the team was a group of ordinary people with little or no building experiencing and frightened by the realisation that volunteers had become the only beacon of hope for residents living in desperate and inhumane conditions. As a group of individuals coming from many different walks of life, we have built community with each other, with the residents in the camp and continue to work hard to achieve what sometimes feels like the impossible.
I am now four months into my time in Calais and while here I have been part of the build team, the distribution team and now I coordinate volunteers alongside Emma, our new short term volunteer coordinator. Over the months I have seen so many things, some truly inspiring and others heart wrenching.
An example of this is the fire we had a few months back when an estimated 250 refugees lost everything they had, which at this point wasn't much and had been provided by the goodwill of others. Standing on the site, watching as the fire ripped through the camp tore me up inside and affected many members of the team in such a devastating way. The sheer velocity of the flames and also the feeling of hopelessness in that moment when I was absolutely powerless to change what was unfolding will stay with me forever.
The other side of this is how quickly the team of volunteers assembled and spent the next 36 hours, making emergency aid packs, clearing the land that had been ravaged by the fire and rebuilding. It really helped me to see the humanity in others and the need to pull together to make a difference within the fragile world we live in.
I've never regretted giving up my life in Glasgow to work long hours in stressful situations. Like many, I balance the needs of the residents in the camp with ways to support myself so that I can remain there.
I'm not sure where this journey will end but one thing I am sure of is, I want to ensure that I am on the right side of history. In years to come children will ask, what did you do to help in the refugee crisis? I know that I will be able to say that I was part of a team of dedicated people who saw the inequalities currently being experienced by refugees. We stood together to show our solidarity with our fellow humans in the hope that one day everyone displaced by war and persecution will have a safe place to call their own. A virtue many of us take for granted.
Since writing this, the French authorities have announced another eviction in the camp, with around half the inhabited areas being bulldozed along with key services such as medical clinics, places of worship, the women and children's centre, the youth centre, food and aid distribution points.
It saddens me that I must now prepare myself to see the sudden loss and destruction of so many months of hard work put in by many volunteers and refugees who have come together to create a vibrant community providing essential services to those most in need. The consequences of the removal of such services are going to be highly detrimental to camp residents who have come to rely on them. The uncertainty of the proposed expulsion of many residents brings great anxiety but none the less we will pull together and strive to ensure that as one community we will do everything in our power to provide for each other and retain our dignity.