STaR and Herts Ad reporters visit the ‘Calais Jungle’ to deliver YOUR donations to Syrian refugees
- Credit: Archant
StAlbansForRefugees began life at the beginning of September as an almost-direct reaction to the images of a three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach.
With a something-needs-to-be-done attitude, 15 volunteers gathered around a table in the Farmer’s Boy on London Road on September 7 and drafted a mission statement: “Gather equipment and resources to bring assistance, comfort, support and relief to the refugees in Calais.”
A district councillor delved into his locality budget to pay for a garage in which to store donations and an appeal in the Herts Advertiser called on its readers to start donating whatever they could – clothes, camping equipment, blankets, shoes.
Within days the garage was filled. The people of St Albans gave generously and frequently and more garages were later sought and filled.
Within a month, StAlbansForRefugees (which now goes by the acronym STaR) had acquired warehouse space, such was the supply of donations.
Liz Needham, the fledgling charity’s nominal leader, told me at the time: “It’s as if people were literally waiting for something like this in St Albans.”
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Last weekend, after hundreds of donations, hours of sorting and the logistical challenge that comes with delivering a van-load of clothes to an unofficial refugee camp on the French coast, Liz, two volunteers and a driver made their first trip to the so-called Calais Jungle.
And with fellow Herts Advertiser reporter, Sophie Crockett, I was lucky enough to accompany them.
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GETTING TO CALAIS
We left London’s empty streets just after 5am on Saturday (28) and made our way to Folkestone. We met briefly with Liz before disappearing into the Channel Tunnel and emerging 35 minutes later into a bright and crisp morning in Calais.
Yarecks, the van driver (van courtesy of Uni Snacks), and I followed Liz as she was guided by her sat-nav to the site of the refugee help centre, a few miles from the tunnel.
I’m not sure what I had expected but it wasn’t what we found. We arrived at a huge warehouse which looked formerly derelict, as if it had been empty just a fortnight ago. The car park was half full of cars bearing English number-plates.
Dozens of people, maybe a hundred, were busily marching about wearing high-vis vests and coats, giving orders, taking instruction, unloading vehicles and sorting through bags of clothes and food.
“We’ve got a van full of donations – where do you want us?” Liz asked. “Okay,” came the reply, “we’re just unloading this one and then we’ll bring you in and unload yours.”
Almost immediately I found myself in the back of a truck shifting hundreds of boxes of food which had come all the way from Cumbria.
When that truck was empty, another backed in, then another. A queue had formed. Teams of volunteers streamed in – some stayed, some unloaded their vehicles and left but the sense of positivity was infectious. We caught the bug as soon as we arrived and passed it on to those who arrived later.
Sophie and I soon found ourselves in the food section. “We want this to look like a supermarket,” a lady called Ash explained to us. She told me that she had been at the warehouse for months, having put her life in England “on ice”. “Two months ago I was marching up and down Knightsbridge,” she said.
The food section was chaotic. Hand-drawn labels for anything and everything hung over empty pallets. ‘Pulses’, ‘canned fruit’ and ‘beans’ were among the well-stocked sections (I have never seen so many tins of beans in my life; did you know HP made beans?)
A sorry looking pile of thoughtless donations - pork products, microwavable rice, Angel Delight, fresh fruit - had been pushed to one side.
At one stage someone pointed out that we needed more space and so we began building more shelving. A pile of old metal and timber from outside the warehouse was transformed into a unit of purpose-built shelves before the day was out.
For lunch (we had not expected to be fed) we were treated to a steaming polystyrene cup of the most delicious dhall. “Who made this?” I asked a Croatian volunteer called Inya. “The refugees made it,” she said. “They make us lunch everyday.”
Inya, Tao and Daniella were PHD students at Cambridge. They told me that they had been compelled to join the aid effort in Calais after seeing the French government’s lack of action and had been “roped in” to working in the kitchen all day. “It’s our own fault,” Inya said, “because they said they needed someone with OCD and all three of us put our hands up.”
After lunch, with a belly full of bread and dhall and with the cold rain audible on the warehouse roof, we had the chance to go into the camp. We were accompanying a group from Slough which had 50 or so food parcels to distribute.
Eamon, an Irish chap who seemed to have done a thousand of these ‘distributions’, briefed us on the procedure.
We were to remove our high-vis jackets (“it creates an ‘us and them’,” Eamon said. “We don’t want that. We’re all in this together.”). There would be one person in the back of the van, two on the doors and as many as possible keeping the line in order.
Eamon said: “If you hear someone shout ‘line, line, line’, then you need to find out where it’s coming from, find out who is pushing in, and remove them from the line.
“Women will find this easier than the men because they are less likely to be pushed back,” he said.
If it ‘kicked off’ (as Eamon put it) we were supposed to just walk away. “They’re not interested in you,” he said. “They just want what is in the van. When you’ve finished, open the back doors to show you’ve got nothing left, and they will disperse.”
Suitably prepped and slightly apprehensive, we headed over to The Jungle. The rain was falling hard by this point and was, at times, coming in sideways, such was the strength of the wind.
The main roads bordering the camp were lined with armed police; every 100 metres or so, a fluorescent Frenchman with an automatic rifle monitored the perimeter.
In Liz’s car, we followed the van into the camp. The refugees, some barefoot, followed the van through the mud while we looked for a suitable place to stop – they knew the procedure.
But we didn’t. We couldn’t control the situation. We struggled to form any sort of line and could not create enough space to open the doors. The refugees, mostly men, were not aggressive but they were desperate and desperately trying to reserve a place in the line.
Eventually we managed to stop and began distributing the food parcels. I was in the back of the van and in less than 10 minutes we had given out every single parcel. I hopped out and felt a twang of guilt as I saw another hundred or so people in the line – they would lose out this time.
The day was a long one and in the tunnel on the way home, we could not help but feel frustrated that we had only scratched the surface of what needed to be done. But there were tangible examples of progress: the shelves we helped construct did not exist when we arrived, that day’s influx of food donations had been categorised and labelled and another van-load of supplies had been delivered and distributed.
Liz is already planning the next trip. The refugees are not going anywhere (after all, they have nowhere to go) and are relying on communities like ours to support them through winter. Soon enough those cold puddles of mud will turn to ice and the conditions for the 6,000 or so refugees will become even more unbearable.