In the 1880s young people, including my great grandparents, escaping from war-torn Eastern Europe, reached the ports of Britain, safety and the start of a new life.
Puythouck Park, just a few miles from the Eurotunnel terminal, is now home to around 50 people, mainly young men, with no running water, a few tents and tarpaulins, some smoky open fires and a great deal of rubbish, mud and damp, and all desperate to follow that very same path.
This week I joined a group of 10 remarkable women from three faith groups, with box-loads of tents, socks, gloves, underwear and face paint in five cars, and set off to consider if and how we could help these people seeking a better and safer life in the UK.
I was there along with Julie Siddiqi, my co-founder of Nisa-Nashim – the Muslim-Jewish women’s network – and the uniting of our two faiths was a key aspect of the trip, given both the mirroring of the crisis 120 years on, but also just how much mistrust currently exists between these two communities.
Together, we spent time recognising our shared ways of life, scripture, endemic patriarchy and histories of expulsion and exclusion.
It was these similarities which characterised the trip, which we undertook with our Christian sisters including Methodist minister The Revd Michaela Youngson.
Our group of 10 diverse women were united by shared respect for the other faith groups, shared feminism, physical endeavour – our work included trying to sort out a warehouse full of donations – meals including navigating the different eating rituals of three Abrahamic faiths, cars, laughs, tears and fears and even, for the one night, shared bedrooms.
The impetus for the trip was Sadaqa Day, a Muslim-led day of hands-on social action, and our journey focused on humanitarian support and kindness, particularly for the (relatively few) women and girls amongst these abandoned people.
Together we met Marwa, aged five, with long, beautifully brushed hair, well dressed and managing a just a little English. Like many of the 15 children of families temporarily housed for winter on the floor of a gym, she is Kurdish and believes that she and her family are on their way to England. We made some glittery butterflies, decorated the children’s faces with face paint, and distributed backpacks with colouring books, crayons, bubbles and sweets.
During our walk through Puythouck Park, which was literally moments from a hypermarket and shopping centre, we met only one woman, Laura, and around 25 of the estimated 50 men camping out in the shrubs, who spend their nights trying to find ways onto boats, lorries or trains en route to England.
Laura was with her husband, Ridwan, who had apparently reached England for £8,000 but had returned to France to find his wife and try their luck a second time. We gave them breakfast packs, chatted, handed out footballs to relive the boredom, a big issue for the refugees, and moved on, impotent to do more.
The Women’s Refugee Centre (WRC), made up of six young women and one room in a warehouse, do their best to ensure that people receive tents, waterproof ponchos, shoes and a hot meal, but the task is endless. The sympathetic mayor of Grande Synthe has provided the gym for the winter, but it closes later this month and the 150 residents will be back in the park.
As our group, led by the unstoppable Onjali Rauf, drove back onto the Eurotunnel train, I reflected on two days in a France I did not recognise.
We had plugged one small section of the ‘dike’ with sticky tape; we had brought some essential supplies, encouraged the WRC volunteers, played with some weary, disorientated and frightened children and fed some hungry men. However, the issues we confronted are entrenched and systemic, needing a policy led solution both long and short term.
But on reflection, maybe we had actually done more. By travelling as women, by bridging the divide between the faith groups who take caring seriously, by building solid new friendships and relationships between the women and their organisations, we demonstrated that together we can, and must, pull together.
I have three children in their early 20s and I would do anything to save them from following the path of their great-great grandparents.
The current crisis, just across the channel, to which we are becoming ever-more desensitised, reminds us that history repeats itself.
Let’s not stand by.