Calais – an improbable destination for annual leave

I intended this blog to be about The Cycle, which it will be again soon, but first if you’ll permit it, I’m going to take a short detour to write about a trip I took last week to Calais – no bikes involved. And really, even if you won’t permit it, it’s my blog anyway so I’ll do what I want. I spent a couple of days helping out in Calais, and according to one of the longer-term volunteers, one of the very best ways to help is to tell people about the situation – so here goes!

It’s pretty unthinkable to have such a major humanitarian crisis so close to home –geographically even closer than Manchester or Leeds (not, of course implying that these are sites of humanitarian crises. Hull, on the other hand, maybe).  Earlier last year I’d joined a few Facebook groups to understand how I might donate some of my excessive sportswear collection to Calais, but more recently I spotted that there were opportunities to help out on the ground.

Never one to turn down a jaunt abroad, I somehow found myself in touch with a couple of guys who were friends of friends of a random contact I made in a Facebook group, and were heading out to Calais. After a brief exchange of messages and phone calls, I decided that while getting into a car with 2 strange men may be ill-advised, I would take a calculated risk and just go for it. Had I checked out James’s Whatsapp photo first, however, it may have been a different story:

James’s Whatsapp photo

As I stuffed donations into James’s car at 7.30am (at Bluewater, our nominated meeting point), I had a sudden pang of responsibility, and text my sister his name, phone number and numberplate ‘just in case’ with the explicit instructions not to tell either parent. While Dad probably would have just asked me to pick him up a reblochon while I was on the Continent, my mother, I’m sure, would have immediately raised the alarm at Interpol.

Meeting James and Simon, it was soon apparent that they were both great guys – an Events Manager and Sound Technician respectively. Once in France, we found that we shared a mutual love of foreign retail, which manifested itself in an overzealous supermarché sweep with far more than we could possibly consume in one hour in the gîte between work and dinner, and for breakfast.

Then, hidden amongst the wine warehouses of Calais’ zone industrielle, we headed to L’Auberge des Migrants around 11am. The exact location is supposedly confidential (because ‘we don’t want the fascists to find us,’ said one wide-eyed volunteer theatrically), although I’d say a pretty badly kept secret to be honest. The place itself is an awesome operation – a giant warehouse of food supplies and clothing run by an industrious group of volunteers. On the same site is the ‘Workshop Without Walls’, a fairly dilapidated warehouse which does have some walls, just not a full complement. Volunteers here are fairly exposed to the elements as they help to assemble temporary shelters for the residents of The Jungle.

The volunteers themselves were a real mixed bag – lots of crusty hippy types, but we also met young fathers taking a week away from their families to help out, a Professor of Urban Geography, joiners, carpenters, engineers – so many different backgrounds, but with one common trait – a real compassion and desire to help. Cheesy, yes – but we were in France, and they like a bit of cheese.

In the workshop, the boys and I helped to sort hundreds of pallets by size (these are joined together to form the flooring of the shelters), wired a charging cupboard for the workshop tools, helped assemble some walls for the shelters, and cut up some old marquees to be used as waterproof coverings for the shelters (in tasteful British racing green and white stripe).

We had actually only intended on helping out at the Warehouse, but talking to other volunteers in a pub that evening, were encouraged to visit the Jungle to see what it was like for ourselves the next day. Concerned that visiting with no real purpose might be intrusive or prying, we were reassured that if we wandered around with powertools, we would be in high demand to help out with general maintenance, which would make it a really worthwhile visit. Most valuable, they said, for both you and the migrants would be to develop your understanding by seeing it first hand, and telling people about it.

Le Jungle

And so, to The Jungle – situated (I believe) on a former rubbish dump near the port, the first thing to strike me about The Jungle was that it’s one of the windiest places imaginable! You can hear canvas and anything not battened down flapping and snapping even before you can see it. In fact, most of the DIY tasks we were asked to do involved ‘windproofing’ shelters in some way, by drilling, securing bolts to doors to stop them banging, or gaffer-taping or stapling things down.

I had read reports about ‘sewage flowing through the streets’, but to describe the place in such a way does the people there a massive disservice. There are toilets, and while they may not smell nice, they are used. It’s no picnic living in temporary accommodation, but it is ‘civilised’ and organised. It’s reminiscent of a township or a slum in a developing country, with restaurants, shops, a hairdresser, and each community has a nominated leader. The people are mainly great, and so friendly – they are in many cases educated, graduates, former professionals and even some former ‘elites’ looking for a better life away from warzones and oppressive regimes. Of course, bad stuff does happen here – some of the volunteers have been threatened at knifepoint, and things have been stolen from vans they left unlocked – but on the whole, it doesn’t really feel dangerous.

As we wandered around with power tools, we met some really lovely people. 3 young Afghan boys were our first ‘customers’, who wanted help insulating their shelter. The youngest, who was a kid of about 14, grabbed my jacket sleeve with one hand and a staple gun with the other, and pretended to staple me to the wall along with the insulation, amusing his friends greatly. I also met Bilal, a smiley Afghani guy who was very proud of his shelter, and did a very neat job of gaffer-taping the leaking parts. Ultimately, he wants to come to ‘Good England’ to join his wife, who is in Wandsworth.

Bilal wants to come to ‘Good England’

A group of teenage girls from Eritrea had had their place broken into, and wanted me to attach a new bolt mechanism for them. I then sat down around a fire with a very hospitable group of Afghans, who offered me tea while James and Simon were helping fix their door. Later, Majnoon also wanted help securing his shelter – this guy had walked all the way from Afghan, and had been in Calais for 18 months already. As a show of his appreciation, Majnoon offered me a homemade snack. I was moved by his hospitality, as were my innards a few hours later – a gastronomic misadventure that I slightly regretted the next day.

Majnoon fixing his door

The answer?

I’ve no idea what the answer to this situation is – do ‘we’ as European nations open our doors to the refugees en masse, or will that just send a signal to thousands more to come too? If not, how long can we just leave them living in purgatory in Calais, Dunkirk, Greece and elsewhere? Where do they go next? Mercifully, I’m a Project Manager, not a world leader, so I don’t really need to know what the answer is.

However, what we can do is try to help make their short-term situation a tiny bit more tolerable – by donating money, time, clothing or materials. I’m well aware that over the years I’ve nagged for sponsorship lots, so there is of course no obligation to sponsor me AGAIN – but I’ve already been asked by a few people if my cycling trip will be a sponsored thing. So in case anyone’s feeling particularly benevolent, I’ll be setting up a page soon!


One thought on “Calais – an improbable destination for annual leave

  1. Thanks Becsters for translating some of your experience into this informative but light blog. The photos were the most telling part, especially having driven past le jungle on Saturday night with 40 year 8s on our annual Christmas market trip to Arras (yes, terrorism has caused school trips to postpone even Christmas)! I look forward to reading where your cycling takes you.

    Liked by 1 person

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