Whether you have entered into debates about refugees versus migrants and the role of European countries to welcome or bar the movement of people from areas of war, persecution and extreme poverty, we are all now aware that we are living in a time of huge upheaval, with desperate men, women and children living in squalor only a few miles away on the French coast. The closure of the infamous Calais jungle by the French government has not made these people magically disappear or stemmed the flow.
Many of us in the UK have been sending donations to the camps in France and Greece over the past two years, old clothes, shoes, nappies, milk, medicines and vitamins via grassroots organisations and committed individuals who have stored, packaged and sent our offerings. In the town where I live in Kent, the people I know who put out the call for donations all happen to be mothers with young children, travelling to the camps on a regular basis, volunteering their time, money and energy to go and be with people in need.
My youngest now being 16 months, I realised that it no longer felt OK to just pack up my family's cast offs and pop to Boots for some Calpol sachets and multivitamins to drop off at another mother's house. A mother who was co-ordinating donations on top of juggling work and family life like everyone else. I wanted to help my friends in their amazing work and I realised that actually going is about showing solidarity with the refugee women who are just like us. Being there, chatting, directly helping. While we have a strong tradition of volunteering in the UK, we have lost the ability to give directly. The ins and outs, the ethics etc are all too complicated. Easier to pass our donations to someone else to do it for us or just fill in a direct debit, £3 a month to any of the myriad of causes that float your boat.
Last Sunday, I prepared myself for my first trip to volunteer at a refugee camp only 100 miles from my home. I was more than a little nervous at the prospect of entering a completely unknown situation. A place with 1500 traumatised and desperate people, only 30 volunteers, minimal security and the potential for small incidents to escalate very quickly into violent ones. Stories about flooding, toddlers stumbling into open fires, women losing it over there being not enough torches to go around did not reassure me. However, I was lucky enough to be going with a fellow mum who had been several times already and was familiar with the set up, even if we wouldn't be able to predict how the atmosphere in the camp would be on the day of our arrival.
On a request from current volunteers, we packed 150 pampering packages (hand cream, lipsticks and chocolate) for distribution at the women's centre. We also packed 150 bags of chocolate, raisins and bouncy balls for the kids. All kindly donated by friends, family and local people. While the car was full of essentials, these treats were about giving brand new gifts from women to women, not simply distributing cast offs to second class citizens.
It was a bright, beautiful sunny morning when we arrived at the camp and made it through security with our permit. Cold and fresh, the sun shone down on pale grey gravel, a long high fence hiding the camp from the view of the road. I saw men milling about, one holding a baby. Children with big brown eyes and long dark lashes playing in the playground. Rows of sheds, a few painted with incredible murals. It felt like we had been transported to a refugee camp in Iraq, not only a few miles from home in Western Europe. Only minutes from a French retail park.
The women's centre, brightly painted on the outside, was dingy and smoky from the fires inside. We were told builders were supposed to be in to repair the holes in the ceiling but the local council had blocked the work. Women were sitting quietly, drying their hair, holding their babies wrapped in blankets or trying to nap. In a hugely male dominated camp, the women's centre provided a vital warm, safe space for women and also their children as the children's centre was closed on weekends. We got to work sorting donations, coughing the whole time from the smoke from the fires.
While an impressive lunch of salads and bread was laid out, we hung out in the centre doing our best to chat despite the language barrier. We brought out embroidery silks, beads and wool, braiding bracelets with the girls and talking crochet with an older woman. While one women had her beautiful long dark hair done with hair straighteners, our crocheting friend tutted and gestured that it damages your hair and we all nodded in agreement. We tried to come up with key English words with a volunteer who needed to teach a woman English for her asylum application. We were addressed as "My friend, my friend" by women and children alike.
Later we opened the "clothes shop", welcoming four women in at a time to browse the shelves. New families had priority to kit themselves out, filling bin bags with clothes. We held babies so women could try on outfits, and brought out the warmest, prettiest items for their inspection and often rejection. There was usually a shortfall in what people really wanted. Leggings, tracksuits, and rucksacks being top of the list but also larger sizes, these women are not scruffy waifs but women of all shapes and sizes doing their best to keep up normality. There was lots of banter and laughter, especially as one woman had missed her place in the queue as she was getting her eyebrows done!
Of course, this was all very jolly for us with our warm beds to return to that night. One of the new women to the camp was trying to hold a wailing toddler and several bin bags, so along with another refugee woman I helped carry everything round to her allocated shed. It was bitterly cold so I gave her my gloves as we waited to collect bags of nappies. As we got to her shelter, I saw the bare wood, the piles of bin bags, no light, no heating. The other children looking out. She had three kids just like me. I handed her a bag of sweets out my rucksack as the baby carried on screaming. She looked exhausted and overwhelmed.
On my return to the women's centre a few of the kids popped in wanting clothes. One little girl wanted pyjamas. But then said she would probably be on a lorry that night. Another boy chose a whole new outfit, we found him matching gloves, he swapped his jacket for a different colour. I asked the boy to come and help me hand out glow sticks I'd brought for the kids (he had done everything he could to get as many as possible earlier in the day, imploring me endlessly and then stealing them off the little ones, much to my outrage). Out in the dark, freezing playground he took his role seriously though and explained the snap and shake to his comrades. Of course, everyone wanted more for their sister and brother, who soon became "ten sisters". I retreated back into the centre before the good humoured crowd turned into a glow stick obsessed mob. There I found a cheerful little two year old playing with his three glow stick bracelets, delighted.
As the evening drew in women started cooking on the hot stoves and the centre was due to close. We helped the long term volunteers lock away various items as things do just disappear. The first aid kit I'd brought had vanished but I'm sure whoever has it will put it to good use. We said our farewells to the amazing volunteers who are there, day in day out, tirelessly dashing about to keep the camp going, supporting new families, negotiating with the endlessly transient population, all trying to get somewhere else.
As we walked away from the centre with its acrid smoke, out into the freezing night, a rat ran across our path. I couldn't help hoping that some of the families we had met would make it across on the lorries that night, instead of being caught in a cycle of camp, lorry, detention as many of them were. Instead of freezing to death in the camp huts this winter. The lack of legal options for desperate families fleeing war, rape and torture is an outrage in modern day Europe and we wondered if in the UK we would allow people to live like this.
If you would like to get more involved, you can look up Dunkirk Refugee Women's Centre or Care4Humanity on Facebook for ways to help.