Exploring "The Jungle"
When my sister first mentioned that she was going to Calais I was confused. Initially I thought she was going to the sleepy, uncharismatic port town, but then it dawned on me that she meant ‘the jungle’. This term is widely used amongst the volunteers and refugees that inhabit the place. In fact, the emphasis on ‘jungle’ is there to remind people that this is not a place fit for human civilization, regardless of their background. I would argue that it isn’t even fit for the animals they are compared to. To paint a picture, the camp looks like Glasto on day 5. Weathered tents are scattered everywhere in between mounds of rubbish. Unhygienic portaloos have been provided in an attempt to improve sanitation, but only seem to make it worse as few volunteers dare to clean them. Puddles of god knows what form outside the loos and as we walk around we see poor souls tip toeing over the mess in order to pay them a visit.
But back to the beginning…Feeling a little protective my boyfriend and I decide to keep my little sister company. We miserably climb out of bed at 5am on Saturday morning and make our dishevelled way to our carpool . It takes 3 hours to get there, which is nothing when you associate ‘there’ with the distant war-torn camps you read about in the papers. On arrival we are sent to a warehouse to meet our charity contact. The warehouse is a massive space with mountains of clothes, sleeping bags, blankets and donations. People climb these mounds in an attempt to create order out of junk. Donations are only useful if they are sorted into clear distinct categories, otherwise they become messy damp mountains. It’s hard for volunteers like ourselves to understand the concept that not all charity is charitable. People like to get rid of their clothes and donate, however a lot of the time it creates more work for the poor vonlunteers who have to sort them. That’s the biggest issue in the volunteer hub down in Calais. They have donations but they don’t have the man-power to usefully distribute them. It seems like such a shame when there are so many people in desperate need of waterproof lining for tents, shoes, coats and hygiene products. I soon learn that brushing your teeth is a privilege every man in the camp desires!
When we eventually get around to helping, we distribute food, toothbrushes and toothpaste. Men form an orderly queue behind vans that hand out distributions. Toothbrushes and paste are equally as popular as food, which makes me realise how much I can relate to the men on a personal level. These are men who come from middle class backgrounds and are used to getting up every morning, going to work, and starting the day by brushing their teeth. It’s so simple yet so effective. Sara and I stand there watching all these men queue up, some with their heads in shame, others with bright wide eyes dying to make contact. We banter with a few which doesn’t seem to go down well with the French volunteers that have taken us in under their wing, but our reasoning is everyone deserves to laugh, especially in times of extreme hardship. We get a few stories out of young men from Sudan. Many walked through the desert to get here. And for what? To live in a jungle where their survival is resting on the generosity of volunteers that come from the countries that won’t accept them in the first place? It’s all so strange. We see young boys with scars on their faces after suffering police brutality for attempting to cross the border. Everyone wants to go to the UK because it symbolises a chance to start over. Everyone wants to build a life for themselves, but for now they must do it in the jungle.
For a place that has 90% men there’s an uncharacteristically low level of violence. We see nothing of the sort on our visit. After our distributions we take a couple of hours to walk around the camp and absorb the situation. I’m a little nervous first, and worried that the inhabitants will think we’re there to stare and gawk at their situation, but within the first few minutes of being inside we already make a connection with a London Theatre group who have raised funds to come down and build a theatre centre…a place for people of all ages to hang out, play music, or mess around. We also meet a carpenter from England who had planned on coming down for a few days to help, but is still there building things all over the camp. We decide to help him build a fire pit for people to sit around, get warm, and share stories.
And then it dawns on me that this is so important for boosting morale. These people don’t only need sad plastic bags of bananas and bread, they need people to take the time to build and create something within the camp. It doesn’t appear that they’re going anywhere any time soon, so why not create a community? As we walk deeper into the jungle we realise that this is already happening. We see people building schools, hospitals, shops and mosques. In this picture we're ordering food from a small shop with a restaurant attached.
But as you can see, when I say building I mean constructing shelters out of sticks and tarpaulins...but it’s a start! It makes me want to come back and help build and create something useful in the jungle. I don’t want people to think we’re happy now that we’ve done our part and handed out some food. This is an on-going process that needs on-going help!
So now that I'm back in London, sheltered and safe, I ask you to come join us for a lovely dinner in honour of the Calais refugees. We want to return in a few weeks and use our resources to help give these people a better existence in this no man's land, or at least make the cold winter months a little more manageable
I hope you can join us in Clapton to dine, dance and donate on the 13th November. It should be a great night in honour of great people! Buy tickets here