It’s -3C at dawn in Calais and I’m waving at the van that’s brought me all the way from Leitrim. I can just about see the fog lights. I watch it disappear around a corner and when the familiar van and the friend driving it have vanished, I feel a little excited. My adventure starts now. Everything is new. Everything is waiting to be discovered.
When Donnacha and I arrived in Calais late last Friday night, we were pretty exhausted. It was a long trip and with a worsening tummy bug to deal with, stops were more frequent than either of us would have liked. I needed bed. Determined to not be put off by a night of vomiting, I carried on as usual in the morning and we arrived at the Care4Calais warehouse with a van bulging with donations for the refugees of France. We couldn’t have been made more welcome.
The volunteers immediately got to work with unpacking the van and Leitrim was suddenly put on their virtual maps. The Carrick Community School jackets donated by The Magnet and the many Leitrim GAA jackets and bags meant that people further afield in France will most likely be hearing of Leitrim for quite a while to come. Most of all, though, the volunteers here who tirelessly sort and box mountains of clothes on a daily basis were excited to find that the sorting had been so well done by all of the people who had volunteered at our clothing drive before we packed up and came to France. There were cups of tea raised in honour of Leitrim and the people who made it happen. Not for the first time, I was proud of my friends and my community.
The work that the charity do here is pretty varied. I spent that first day sorting and packing clothes coming from elsewhere, that is until about 3pm when I had to admit defeat and get back to bed. I was delighted to see Donnacha getting stuck in and taking food and supplies to the people on the streets and helping the young and vulnerable refugees find a warm place to sleep for the night.
When I watched him leave in the van early on Sunday morning, I was sorry to see him go, but I was also excited. I like the Unknown.
Thankfully, the tummy bug has finally settled. Yesterday, for the first time, I ate properly. And the work here is interesting. I’m meeting people I would never meet in my normal life; refugees, other volunteers, French officials. Everybody has a story to tell. Luckily, stories are my thing, so if they want to tell it, I want to hear it.
Today, I met Tareq. He’s an Iraqi Kurd and a detainee in the ‘Hotel de Police’ (I’m not even joking, that’s the name of the detention centre). He ‘lost’ his papers proving his permanent residency in Norway. It’s unclear how he came to be detained in Calais but he insists the paperwork is coming through and he’ll be back in Norway by next week. I offered to bring him some clothes, just to be safe but he was more concerned about some new arrivals from Iraq. The can’t speak English, he told me, but if he’s going to be stuck there for a few more days, he’s happy to translate while we help out the new guys.
“They’ve been travelling a long time,” he told me, turning up his nose, “bring some soap.”
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived in Calais. I had followed the news and updates on social media following the closing of ‘the jungle’, the unofficial camp that was razed last October. The French authorities had placed thousands of refugees in welcome centres, known as CAOs throughout the country. They had paid for flights for many others back to their own countries.
So, problem fixed, right?
People still arrive in Calais every day, still hoping to get to the UK. Some have family or friends there. They speak some English. Others have nothing to go to, but for them, the UK seems to hold some inexplicable promise. It’s a promised land. They try to keep their heads low and avoid detection by French police for fear they will be registered and forced to seek asylum in France. Or worse. One of the detainees we planned to visit at the Hotel de Police yesterday was a refugee from Tunisia who was being threatened with deportation back to his home country. We were too late. By the time we reached the detention centre, his plane had already taken off.
There are many who never left. When the jungle’s inhabitants were dispersed all over France, there were many who didn’t go. I don’t blame them. When the buses arrived to take them to these centres, they didn’t know where they were being taken. It sounds a bit familiar. A group of people united by a common religion, vilified and marginalised by Western Europe, frogmarched onto trains to take them to special ‘camps’. I would have run too. I would have taken my chances.
Calais’ history with refugees is long and tumultuous. I’m still learning, but even I can see that this crisis isn’t going to go away by packing people into buses or bribing them to leave the country. As long as the UK is seen as the land of opportunity, people will come to Calais in hope. Where that hope may lead them, though, is anybody’s guess.