Nine Things I Learned Volunteering in a Refugee Camp

I am not a political person, nor am I activist. I work three jobs in the fashion industry. I love makeup and fashion and I am obsessed with all things celebrity. I am 26 years old and I have never been outside of Europe, except for a brief trip to the States a few years ago. I’m still not sure why I decided to go to Calais to volunteer. I saw the photos, like most people, of little Aylan’s body washed up on the beach, and as I had some free time I just thought ‘why not go over and help?’. At the time, I had no idea that the camp was predominately men, and by the time I found this out it was too late to back out. I had seen photos from other volunteers online, of them doing art workshops and watching movies with the kids, just making them smile in general – I wanted to do that! I racked my brains as to how I could get out of going, but in the end decided to just do it. I kept telling myself, and other people, that it would be an ‘adventure’ and ‘an experience’.

What followed was the most eye-opening experience I have ever had the privilege to be part of. As someone who doesn’t know my Iran from their Iraq, my Fianna Fail from my Fianna Gael or my Democratic from my Republican, I am still literally in shock at how wrong I was in my perception what a refugee is and what the camp would be like.

Most of my 53 fellow volunteers have political, activist, or charity-work backgrounds, so it is quite conceivable that I was one of the few who walked in to the camp with literally no idea of what to expect. Besides all of the human rights issues, the asylum laws, and the fact that the UK government gave France €18Million to build a fence around a camp that has no sanitation or hot water, there is one fact that has remained with me. These people are human beings, just like us.

I wanted to write a very simple and basic guide as to what I experienced while there, in the hope that I might persuade even one person reconsider their media-influenced views of what a refugee is, and what the camp is like.

It’s not a jungle.

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It might be called ‘The Jungle’, but it certainly doesn’t look like one. By its very definition, a jungle is ‘an area overgrown with dense forest and tangled vegetation, typically in the tropics’. What we’re talking about here is a small corner of France, inhabited by approximately 4,000 people. There are no monkeys swinging from the trees, or coconuts landing in the sand. It’s basically a highly populated piece of land, surrounded by 20 foot high barbed wire fences. It may be in Calais, but it definitely doesn’t feel like it. Playing football with some Sudanese guys in the camp, I felt like I could have been in a shanty town in Mumbai. In case you didn’t know, the UK and France are two of the richest countries in the world, and as I mentioned above, spent €18 million on a fence around the camp. The few toilets that are in there are left un- emptied and over following and there are shower facilities for a 1/7th of the camp a day that they are made run for like cattle.The conditions are absolutely appalling

There’s nothing to be afraid of.

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As we drove from the ferry to our hostel on the night we arrived, we had witnessed hundreds of men walking through Calais, headed for those tunnels of hope. I was almost in tears with fear, and upon discovering the wine in the hostel was only €1.20 glass, proceeded to drink myself into a coma to help me sleep that night. On our first day on the camp, I drove in with one of the builders. Men and women were shouting at us from outside the car. At this stage I was shaking. I got out of the car, and realised they were shouting ‘Welcome! Welcome!’. Then they asked if they could help us build. Who knew? Refugees offering help, as opposed to looking for it. Every single perspn I encountered smiled and said hello, and the manners of the men in the camp were impeccable.

It was actually quite safe.

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Considering I read a lot of papers and online publications, I spent the first day in camp with my iPhone practically padlocked to my knickers. I’d read about people being mugged for their phones in the camp, and about how if you were seen with one in your hand you’d be subject to several violent men fighting over it to make a call. Within three hours I knew I had nothing to worry about. In fact, most of the camp residents had better phones than me anyway. I dropped a €10 note on the ground at one stage and there was a stampede of guys fighting over who would hand it back. To be fair, we were only in the camp till 6pm, so I have no idea what it’s like at night. I’m sure, like any town or city, it can be fine in most places and rough in others. But that’s just life, isn’t it?

Refugees are really generous!

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Yep. As stated before, these guys wanted nothing from me. In fact, having sat down for teas and coffees with some of the guys I met there, it would be considered rude to offer to pay. In their eyes, we were guests and it was their responsibility to look after us. I had my first EVER cup of tea in the camp, which I probably won’t be repeating, but sat under a tarpaulin, shielded from the rain and sat around a fire with some of my fellow  volunteers and two guys from the camp, it was a really nice memory that I’ll keep forever.

There are children there.

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As I said I was kind of heartbroken when I heard the camp was all men. This however, is not true. More and more women and children are arriving by day, mainly from Syria, Sudan and Eritrea (a country I’d never even heard of until last week) I was taken at how little some of the children smiled, but I guess they’re used to volunteers coming in and out of their lives on a daily basis. By day three, they practically knew the Irish crew by name so it was smiles all round. One moment that really struck me, was when I was called into a tent that housed a family of three. The son, who was no more than one year old, was sick. He just lay there, on the damp floor of the tent, staring into my eyes. I really hope he gets out of there, and gets to experience even 10 %of the amazing childhood I had.

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The food was delicious

I definitely did not think it would be safe to eat in the Afghani Restaurant, which is run by a few guys in the camp. With no basic sanitation on the grounds, or hot water, I was almost 100% sure I’d be vomiting for a week.

How wrong was I? Completely.  We ended up eating there every day, the food was ridiculously good. I actually really miss the rice and beans now that I am home. Besides the restaurant, there was a barbers, a few shops selling basics like water, cigarettes and chocolate, and of course, the famous nightclub which is used as a place to let off steam.

Living conditions are atrocious in the camp, so they’re making the most of what they have.

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No one knows the difference between Ireland and The UK!

This is something that I was originally livid about, but when it dawned on me that I too haven’t a breeze where Iraq or Iran are, nor could I find Sudan on a map, I got over it. Listening to the many stories from those living in the camp, it seems there are three main reasons that they’re going to the UK. Number one being that English is most of their second language. Imagine being a Syrian with OK English, looking for work in a small town in France or Germany? Good luck. Secondly, a lot of the men in the camp either have families in the UK already, or they have families at home. The family reunification period in UK is relatively short when compared to other European countries. The third reason is that the UK is considered a place of ‘hope’. It’s somewhere people from all over the world have been able to go, created lives for themselves and safely raised their families. Kind of like how we all went to America that time, during the famine.  People ask why they don’t stay in France? They’re in France now and they’re been treated like shit. I certainly wouldn’t stay – would you?

There are some seriously educated people there.

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I met some guys from Syria who told me that they had two choices at home. They would either be enlisted in to the military to fight against ISIS, or they would be enlisted in to ISIS. Now, if that was me, I would leg it. Most of the people I spoke to in the camp were highly educated (hence the perfect English that meant I could converse with them) and the literally just wanted to get to UK in order to get some decent jobs. Now, don’t get me wrong, I most certainly didn’t speak to everyone in the camp, and I’m sure, like in most societies, there are people with less skills to offer than others. I met one guy, a dentist, who promised to fix my teeth if he ever gets to Ireland! Fingers crossed. We also met construction workers, translators, doctors and engineers – seriously skilled people who just want to work and raise their families in a safe country.

You can make a difference.

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It’s pretty easy to live with idea that it’s impossible for one person to make any sort of important change in the world, or for one person to make a difference, especially in a crisis that’s of such magnitude. I can’t say for sure that I made a huge difference by myself, but I know that collectively our convoy made a massive impact on the camp and we were all basically strangers beforehand. The residents of the camp may not have known where Ireland was before, but they certainly do now! A lot of my friends have messaged upon my return from Calais, saying things like ‘the world needs more people like you’, and while I’m not exactly Mother Theresa, I see no reason why they can’t be those people themselves. As the famous saying goes, ‘be the change you wish to see in the world’. The more you lead, the more people will follow. No matter what you believe in, stand up.

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