It’s been an eventful few weeks here volunteering with refugees in France, with the work of the charity spreading across the country. I was part of a team of three who left Calais last week for a road trip through France to visit CAOs (the welcome centres that the refugees in Calais have been placed in while awaiting asylum claims to be processed).
Our first stop, 650km later, was Clermont-Ferrand, a town that had previously only been on my radar because of its prestigious short film festival. I don’t know what it is about film festival towns that make me expect sunshine. I envisage Cannes or Los Angeles, which is hilarious given how many of these festivals I have attended in cold and grey cities like Berlin, Chicago – even Dublin. But still, I expect the sun to come out in celebration of the glitz and glamour.
Clermont-Ferrand is not so glitzy. Or sunny. It was -6ºC and icy. Strangely enough, though, it was still beautiful.
I pulled our van up outside the CAO and we started to unload. We must have looked an unlikely team, three fair haired, fair skinned girls rocking jeans and boots and layer upon layer of outdoor clothing, lifting and carrying box after box of supplies for the 51 men calling this CAO their temporary home.
As I’ve now come to expect in France, things did not run entirely smoothly. Due to authorisation problems between the charity and the CAO management and lots of red tape, we were told to wait until the following day to complete our delivery.
It was the first of many complications that were to decide the course of the rest of our trip, but like the superstars that we are, we joked about the extra date added to our tour.
The following morning, authorisation now granted, we returned to the CAO and brought blankets, jackets, clothing, toiletries and food to the community living there. I was really excited to see so many familiar items that had been donated in Leitrim make it into the hands of individuals in need. One of the men, Ahmed, an Afghani Kurd, told me he was seeking asylum in Dublin. Can you imagine his excitement to find out there was a large Kurdish community in Carrick on Shannon? He’d never heard of it, but now his mission is to visit when he finally gets to Ireland. I gave him a Carrick on Shannon Community School jacket and I’m not sure who was more proud of it, but from the beaming grin on his face, I think he may have just about beaten me.
And so we moved on to Figeac, another 300km further from Calais. Crossing the Auvergne mountains in the snow was stunningly beautiful and spirits were high. Until, surprise, surprise we ran in to more red tape issues in Figeac. It was getting a bit tiresome.
We were just getting the bureaucracy sorted out and had finished with as much as our work as we were going to get through for the day when our van (which we had nicknamed Coco ‘Kidney Beans’ Chanel in reference to her fickleness and the amount of Kidney Beans she was carrying around France) decided in true French fashion that she just couldn’t be bothered.
She wasn’t alone.
Mild hysteria set in, though, and, forced to spend the night in Figeac, there was nothing for it but to sample the regional wine and to celebrate. It was my birthday after all!
After another long, disappointing morning, we’d had more than enough of our Tour de France. Coco’s prognosis was not good and she was not going to be ready for almost a week. We showed her the same loyalty she had shown us and we ditched her. We embraced our inner French motorists and hired a nippy little car to get out of dodge. It was very late the next night when we got back to Calais. I’ll be honest, I breathed a big sigh of relief after the long journey.
Note to holidaymakers: If faced with the prospect of a week in Figeac, RUN! (or hire a car and drive as fast as you can).
Despite the slightly disastrous trip, though, I keep thinking of Ahmed in Clermont-Ferrand and imagining all the different possibilities his future holds. I hope he gets to Dublin. I hope he visits Carrick on Shannon. I can’t even begin to imagine the kind of journey he’s already been on but I hope that whatever red-tape lies ahead of him, he gets to sigh in relief at the end of it too.