As part of our #HuffPostListens week in Birmingham, we are publishing a series of Life Less Ordinary stories from extraordinary Birmingham residents. Today, Meena Centre founder Liz Clegg tells her story of working and living in the Calais Jungle, and fostering one of the many children she helped find a new life in Britain. To illustrate the series we have commissioned the respected photographer Vanley Burke to do a series of portraits, which will be on show in Birmingham this week.
I first arrived in the Calais Jungle in summer 2015 with a truckload of tents which had been left behind at Glastonbury Festival. I never thought I’d stay for long but I was there until the demolition in October the following year.
I guess I had expected the bigger organisations to rock up and take over, but I stayed because I couldn’t walk away. I had the perfect storm of life experience to help in the camp – I’d worked in the fire service, had trauma care experience and knew about crowd management. If you’re presented with a need and if you’ve got the skills to carry out that role, how can you walk away from it?
Having lived as a traveller since the age of 15, I was also used to the living with no facilities – in the Jungle there was no electricity and very limited access to water. At first I slept in the back of my truck, then in a caravan, then in a shack made of palettes and tarpaulin, and eventually a double decker bus. Nothing was permanent, that was how the camp was. A lot of people couldn’t give the commitment I did, obviously, but I had no responsibilities in the UK – no house, no rent – and to be fair it made no difference whether I was living in a caravan in the UK or in Calais.
Before long, we set up an unofficial women and children’s centre almost by accident. It wasn’t planned. We organised a women’s day and set up a free shop, like a glorified jumble sale, in one of the structures. It started out as one day per week, but then we got a more permanent space and we ended up setting up a dedicated and secure area for women. We wanted to make sure women and children had access to basic needs – we had nappies, clothes, everything they needed on a functional level. We made it a safe space, with women-only toilets and somewhere women could come if there were any problems in middle of the night. During the day it was kind of a community centre, there was a burner so women could dry clothes in winter. People could come together, the kids could play with friends.
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We see a lot of children fall apart on arrival – it’s overwhelming for them. Some of them were in Calais for a year, relentlessly trying to get to the UK. They weren’t eating or drinking properly - they’re just desperately trying to get to the UK. It’s heartbreaking to see. In Calais they’re fighting for it, they’re driven, they have adrenaline - then when they arrive in Britain it hits them like a ton of bricks. We talk about children separated from parents but all these children have been travelling in groups, building relationships with their peers and community members - then they get to the UK and then they are truly on their own, truly separated and truly unaccompanied.
Looking back at my time in Calais - if I’m honest, it was fucking exhausting. I didn’t get a night sleep for two years, it was not physically sustainable. You can see why NGOs run a rota system, why people take days off. Because it’s just like ‘wow that is not sustainable’. Fair play for volunteers who stick it out for so long. It was exhausting - on a level we’re all still recovering.
We know it’s a difficult time for any refugee arriving in the UK, that’s why we set up the Meena Centre in Birmingham. The asylum process is complicated, so we work as a collective with lots of small organisations to offer holistic approach. Women can hang out here, they can get advocacy and solicitors, we work with rape and sexual violence projects, such as Women’s Aid. With children, we work with specialists. It’s kind of like a hub – a safe and welcoming space for women and children.
We have to support people and their emotional and psychological welfare. People must understand the only way that people are going to be able to move on in their lives and integrate and process and become part of our society is if we support and welcome people into this country and lay that foundation for their recovery – to demand integration but treat people with hostility, that formula just doesn’t work.
I wasn’t planning on becoming a foster parent. I thought my parenting days were over.
He was very young when I first met him. He had behavioural issues and wasn’t coping well. His whole journey was very difficult, he was not with parents or family - and that’s very difficult for children. A lot of children were sent away by family for a chance at a better life away from danger, but as with most things children internalise this. They feel a sense of abandonment, especially the younger ones.
He had spent quite a significant amount of time in the camp with me, and he wasn’t settling or coping in his foster placement. We stayed in contact and I thought he’d eventually settle as most of the children do. But he never did. He was distraught. I saw him once a week, each time he’d say: “Don’t leave. Liz family, Liz family.”
I thought about it for a long time. Fostering is a big commitment but I thought I haven’t got a career ahead of me and I haven’t got any big plans ahead of me and I thought: ‘Oh bloody hell, alright’.
He’s fourteen now. In two years he’s gone from small boy to enormous teenager. Our relationship is built on friendship and respect - he isn’t my son, he doesn’t see me as a mother but he knows I’m the adult in the house. I’m starting to establish boundaries, such as a 9.30pm curfew, which he moans about. At the beginning, when he was settling we didn’t have boundaries because it would trigger his trauma but as he settles, he just wants to be a normal teenager. His transformation has been phenomenal.
I’ve never been career-driven person, I’ve never been into owning stuff, I’ve never had those motivations. For me life is literally experiences, a series of experiences and I want to be able to say: ‘wow, that was an experience and a half’.
If you want to get philosophical about it - you’ve got one short, fairly meaningless life. I don’t get off owning things, I’ve never been able to pull of a 9-5 job or be consistent about much in my life - but fostering has been amazing. It can be tricky, but it’s worth it.
As told to Brogan Driscoll
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