Unaccompanied Refugee Children In Calais See Liz Clegg As A Surrogate Mother

'What bit of this would you not give up your entire life for?'
Inca Sorrell and her mother Liz Clegg in the Calais camp
Inca Sorrell and her mother Liz Clegg in the Calais camp
Thibault Camus/AP

Kids gather around as I talk to the British woman who has become a surrogate mother to so many refugee children. She holds one little boy close. He is excited about having gone on a bowling trip. He has an uncle in Britain he is trying to reach. Another man stands with him, making notes about shoe sizes. He tells me matter-of-factly he goes with the boy when he tries to stow away on a truck into Britain, honouring a promise he made to the boy's uncle to look after him.

The boy is one of the nearly 300 unaccompanied children in Calais' Jungle camp and Liz Clegg has become the nearest thing any has to a parent to many. After working at Glastonbury last year, she drove a truck full of wellington boots and camping equipment here, inspired to do so by the sheer "fuck load" of things people abandoned there. "I'd heard of [Calais]. Obviously you just go 'it'd be a crime not to put it in the back of the truck and come'." She planned to drop it off and go. Seven months later, she is still there. She helped distribute donations, watched the tents be gradually replaced by more permanent wooden and tarp structures and now runs the camp's women's and children's centre, looking after some of the most vulnerable people here.

Many who volunteer here live in the town but Clegg, 50, lives in the camp itself alongside those she helps. Her daughter Inca Sorrell, 23, works alongside her mum. Most of the unaccompanied children are teenagers, Clegg says but are handful are younger. The youngest she has known is eight. Looking after so many children in such a chaotic place has meant moments of anguish.

The pair flew to New York earlier this month for the Women Of The World conference where Clegg sat on a panel debate about refugees. Over breakfast one day, she contemplated a long to-do list that included chasing social services to re-establish contact with a 12-year-old Afghan boy who made it to the UK and training herself not to "swear, get hysterical and or be confrontational".

Suddenly Inca's phone went off. It was a text from a seven-year-old boy Ahmed from the camp. He said in broken English he was in the UK but running out of "oksijan". The text triggered a trans-atlantic search that ended when the boy and 14 others were rescued from a truck in Leicestershire. The boy survived because he was given a phone and Inca, who had grown close to him, put her number on it. In her diary, Clegg described the agonising wait for 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."

Near the end of March, an 11-year-old Afghan boy Kareem, who actually lived with Clegg, made it on to a truck. He was last seen hanging off the back of it. For five days, Clegg had no idea what became of him and was rebuffed by authorities on both sides of the Channel, she says. She was finally told he had made and been fostered in the UK. Clegg says she may have to go to court to be able to speak to him again.

These are two children whose fate is known. The charity Help Refugees conducted a census of the camp that failed to account for 129 children who were counted by a previous census weeks earlier. They may simply have not been in on the day of the census, Clegg says, but when they are living unaccompanied in an open camp, people fear the worst.

On Monday, the House of Commons will vote on the Dubs amendment that calls for Britain to take 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children who have reached Europe. On Thursday - five days after I meet Clegg and her daughter - the government was accused of trying to "muddy the debate" by announcing it would take 3,000 children but only from the camps in the Middle East. Around 95,000 unaccompanied children travelled to Europe alone or lost their families on the journey last year. There are 157 unaccompanied children in the camp with close family in Britain. This entitles them to apply for asylum in the UK but many have not and the process remains agonisingly slow. The number of children living in Calais but who should, by rights, be with family in Britain has been called a "national embarrassment".

(L-R) Lynsey Addario, Liz Clegg, Zainab Salbi, Becca Heller, and Tina Brown speak during the Women In The World Event In New York about refugees on April 6
(L-R) Lynsey Addario, Liz Clegg, Zainab Salbi, Becca Heller, and Tina Brown speak during the Women In The World Event In New York about refugees on April 6
Desiree Navarro via Getty Images

David Cameron has said children who have reached Europe are already safe. The chaos of the camp leaves me sceptical. I sit with Clegg, Inca and the children in a communal tent that seems to serve as a town hall and restaurant in one. There is a television on a wall in the far end and a collection of shisha pipes. It is busy and I lost count of how many children play near Clegg. Early in our conversation a man apologises for interrupting but says he wants to shake Clegg's hand, calling it an "honour". As she discusses life in the camp, it is strange to think she was on a glamorous Manhattan stage just a week ago.

Clegg is still furious about being kept in the dark about Kareem. She claims a volunteer rang the Police Nationale to report his disappearance but dealt with a police officer who was "racist and abusive". According to Clegg, the officer said words to the affect of "well, they're illegal anyway". Police in Britain would not accept a missing person's report until the French authorities did so. She has sent a recording of the conversation with the Police Nationale officer to Anne Longfield, Britain's Children's Commissioner and her French counterpart. "We were not able to alert authorities that an 11-year-old child was possibly hanging off the bottom of a lorry [because of] a system that does not fucking work," Clegg fumes.

When she arrived seven months ago, she found no system for distributing what she had brought. She did several runs but there were "literally six people here" to hand things out. Her story is familiar among the longer-serving volunteers here, they came, they found hardly anyone was helping, they ended up staying. She would arrive in her truck and line distribute. This was before an army of volunteers built better shelters and set up a system for distributing food and supplies. After noticing women in the lines but seeing the donations were "blokey stuff", she started distributing more women's goods and arranged to use an informal club for Eritrean refugees as a space for a boutique that woman and children could visit during the day to choose clothes and spend more time deciding what they wanted.

Actress Juliet Stevenson (pictured with a Syrian refugee in London) bought Clegg the double decker bus that now serves as the centre
Actress Juliet Stevenson (pictured with a Syrian refugee in London) bought Clegg the double decker bus that now serves as the centre
Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

The boutique burned down. "There's a lot burning down randomly, there's lots of fires here," she says. Having worked with the fire service for eight years, Clegg helped train a fire brigade. A fire truck was donated after one fire destroyed some of the children's homes. She says there are fewer fires now before adding there was one "yesterday" and refugee firefighters did as she has trained them. She adds: "They are on it now. They are all over it. You get a fire, spread is massive. It's just so close together, you're gonna lose the lot. So we trained them not to focus on the fire but to focus on making the firebreak." They initially thought she was "mad" for telling them to cut down perfectly good houses but gradually learned it is the best way to contain a blaze. "Yesterday, they went straight for it. They ripped out the house two doors down. People were fighting the fire as well. Stop the spread. They're amazing," she adds.

After Clegg lost the boutique, she managed to get a dedicated space for her work, which became the centre. She slept in the back of her truck, the centre, sometimes a caravan and then had a shack where she lived with some of the boys. "It was nice. It was cold. It was definitely cold," she says of the shack.

The centre serves as a warm, dry space for women and their children. For Muslim women, it isn't "the done thing" to freely associate with men, Clegg says but she adds that having small children limits the movements of all women here because the burden of care tends to fall on them. "You try camping with toddlers in the best of circumstances it's not fun," she says.

"All these people have come from terrible backgrounds, terrible journeys and now they're trapped here. You've got little kids. It's nerve-wracking to be mixing with so many people you've never met before in your life," Clegg adds. "People seem to think refugees are all mates. 'Oh yeah, it's another refugee' ... They are as freaked out as the visitors. You've got to remember these are people who've come individually and they're like 'fucking hell, where am I?'"

French riot police walk past a burning dwelling as authorities dismantle part of the camp
French riot police walk past a burning dwelling as authorities dismantle part of the camp

In February, the French authorities demolished most of the Calais camp, including where her centre was. Celebrities worked to raise awareness of what was happening. Actress Juliet Stevenson bought a sky blue double decker bus to serve as the replacement centre and Help Refugees crowd-funded to cover the cost of it. If authorities try to demolish its area of the camp, it can just drive off. The bus serves as a space for women and children up to the age of 16. When I see it, a volunteer stands at the entrance, explaining to approaching men they cannot enter. Today is Saturday - beauty day. This weekly session means women can have massages, their nails done and their eyebrows threaded. "If women can look in the mirror, feel a little bit more normal, a little bit more presentable, it has a massive effect on their psychological wellbeing and if they are supported, children are supported," she says.

A two-year-old Afghan boy plays outside the women and children's centre
A two-year-old Afghan boy plays outside the women and children's centre
HuffPost UK/Jack Sommers

The pressure on the volunteers to protect those who are often traumatised can be relentless and they have to be careful not to burn out, Clegg says. "Most organisations, you run it as a business. You go to work. You go home. You have your holidays. You have a life outside of here. We've come and we've stayed literally. There's no one here providing anything official ... So five of us have kind of kept it together 24/7." When I ask how much sleep Clegg gets, Inca says her mother used to share the shack with a group of unaccompanied boys who were "asleep all day and up all night". Inca adds fires are often at night and there is a lot of "night action" that prompts someone to wake Clegg up at 3am saying "problem, problem, problem".

When asked whether she was surprised her mother chose to stay here, Inca says simply: "Not surprised at all." Clegg jokes she had "just got rid of" her own children and, with retirement looming, "that light at the end of the tunnel was shining". She was looking forward to sitting on a beach before she came here. I asked what she has left behind. "Nothing important," is her initial short response. She adds: "What bit of this would you not give up your entire life for?"

It sounds as if she's staying indefinitely. But Clegg says the situation has become "complicated" as she now visits some of the children who used to be here but are now in the UK. She and Inca are committed to the children they've built relationships with. She warns volunteers who come and go not to become too attached for fear of "re-traumatising" them when they inevitably leave. "They've been either abandoned or separated or they've lost close people. [Volunteers] rock up. We watch volunteers go 'oh it's a baby, it's a child' and they're really engaging. You musn't do that. These kids get re-traumatised every time a volunteer goes ... It's fucking horrendous."

Her level of commitment gives her no option but to stay, she says, adding: "I am 100% committed with these children, because of that." The 12-year-old boy now in Britain kept calling her "Mor" - "mother" in Pashto - as he cried down the phone to her. She wrote in her diary she "cannot bear" the thought of him being fostered by people who do not understand what he has been through.

She thinks the camp itself will be evicted by authorities eventually. "We're not saying we're committed to the jungle for the rest of our lives. We are committed to fighting the cause for the people here," she tells me. "We're not trying to sustain this place. We don't agree with it. Nobody should be living like this."

HuffPost UK travelled to Calais with Help Refugees.

The charity is fundraising to protect children in the refugee camps in Calais and Dunkirk. You can donate by clicking here.


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