|Loading the van at PGS (image: Joe McAuley)|
Like most people, I had been moved by recent events across the Middle East & Europe and decided to do something practical to help. It was my first visit to a refugee camp and so I was trepidatious but emboldened. I had been in contact with two charities established specifically for the camps in Calais & Dunkirk, and worked with them to ensure that the supplies taken were the most appropriate for that time. The needs are changing rapidly due to new arrivals, weather and other anticipated donations.
As planned, Kyrie, Clive & I arrived at a warehouse organised by volunteers, full of bags & boxes of mainly clothing donations, and were given superb guidance for our food distribution, after which we headed into ‘The Jungle’. We were stunned not only by the size of the camp but by the environment (the exposure to the elements, the mud & the rubbish) and the sheer number of unsuitable tents (95% of shelter is still tents rather than pallet & tarpaulin structures).
We swiftly parked in the centre of camp and immediately a line formed behind the van and we began the distribution of your food parcels. (After a few minutes we were unable to see the end of the queue and it never really reduced in size, despite passing over 400 people a bag or box of food.) I handed the parcels to each person and on each occasion I was met with warmth, politeness, friendliness, gratitude and sometimes humour. I did find it difficult at times as we had inconsistencies in size of package. We held back some of the larger boxes and gave them to pregnant women, those who were disabled/injured and children. In fact, one of the most uplifting moments was when we gave a group of three young children (probably 7 or 8 years old) two large plastic boxes, which they were unable to carry; the next man in line (who received a much smaller box) helped them so the youngest girl took an item out of her box and gave it to him. My heart melted.
Once we had an empty van and apologised to the rest of those in line that we were ‘finished’, we helped out at a shoe distribution. As well as being helpful, it enabled me to spend a little time talking to the people in the queue; the group of Syrian Physics graduates, the young Sudanese men who hoped to complete their degrees in the UK, the young men stood in mis-matched flip-flops, tracksuit bottoms & a t-shirt while I shivered in boots & a coat and the older men, with wedding rings, possibly fathers who seemed less hopeful.
Throughout the day in camp and the 5-6 hours we spent helping to unpack & sort in the warehouse, I didn’t feel the surge of sadness that I had expected. The three of us worked extremely hard, but I felt inadequate compared to the backbone of volunteers giving up 2, 4, 6, 12 weeks of their time, of the larger number of 18-25 year olds volunteering as part of their gap year (a large proportion of whom live in the camp as they cannot afford a youth hostel or other accommodation) and the local French & British residents offering huge amounts of their time.
The wave of emotion hit me in the early hours of the following morning when I awoke from sleep as my warm duvet had slipped down & I felt a chill. My thoughts immediately went to those three children, to the pregnant women, to the very young men just wearing t-shirts and I broke down. I knew that at least you all had provided some of them with a meal that day.
With that mind, I would very much like to return with another van loaded with much-needed food parcels from you wonderful people and I hope you will support me once plans have been established.
Thank you. Thank you.