Day 3 refugee camp, France

Guest Post from Colette Ní Eachtarn (a friend who doesn’t have a blog… yet. Her words need to be heard)
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Day 3 on the ground in ‘The Jungle‘, Calais, France.

An emotional day today for the whole team. From the minute we stepped into the camp it seems.

Again the medical team were out in force – their team split into two parts a group out and about and the rest based in the three caravans kindly donated to us for the few days. One we’ve stocked completely with medical supplies, the other two as exam rooms – I passed a number of times through the day and they were up the walls each time – doing amazing work. I also got a chance this evening to tag along for awhile with two of the ‘out and about’ team members. People were coming up to them with different problems – our ladies treated each person with smiles, respect, patience and care and everyone they interacted with really appreciated it. This was one of the many times I was close to tears today.

I visited our building team several times today in passing. All still full to the brim with enthusiasm and great energy. They certainly draw a crowd – every time I passed there were new groups of residents standing around watching the awesome structure being assembled – no one left disappointed, every step of the way on this structure has been exciting – the cover went up and over today which brought added excitement. Great guys – great structure!

Equally our ‘bender structure’ team did amazing work – part of the roof cover also went up today and it’s looking really well! This was such a labour of love for everyone involved and I love it! It’s also situated in amongst a number of families who have beautiful children playing all around – gorgeous, gorgeous children!

The Communications team who I’ve hardly mentioned are doing excellent work all over the camp – they’ve had people approach them wanting to tell their story, wanting the world to hear them, wanting the world to witness them as humans and as equals. The comms team have been unbelievably sensitive and respectful towards the residents, they’re documenting the everyday reality of this camp, the reality of it all – this is invaluable work considering we don’t get to see any of this on our national or local media anywhere in Europe.

The world needs to see exactly how these men, women and children are living and how their basic Human rights are being denied, ignored & violated day by day with no one batting an eyelid – this is NORTHERN FRANCE – not some eastern country miles away that’s easy to forget the name of!!

This is NORTHERN FRANCE – one of the richest and most powerful countries in the EU!! This is NORTHERN FRANCE – where the government have spent millions on fencing the port but nothing on helping these people!! This is NORTHERN FRANCE where the police pepper spray refugee women walking on streets for absolutely no reason!! – THIS IS NORTHERN FRANCE!!

The rest of our team split up for the morning – some going to the warehouse to do more sorting and others going shopping or to camp for different jobs.

I went to camp buddied up with Róisín. Our job was to assist the bender and building teams with food and water, distribute some items and the biggest job clear out and tidy the caravan of love.

We arrived at the camp with the medical team, and helped them carry their stock to their new site – the caravans way down the other end of camp at the Syrian end. I’d visited it briefly yesterday. It’s the newest part of the jungle with a lot of open spaces – I did notice today that a lot more people had arrived there were tents going up or already up that hadn’t been there yesterday.

We dropped the medical bags off and were about to move off when I noticed a young man standing by us. I said hello and asked him if he was ok – he needed a dentist, there are no dentists practicing in The Jungle. He told us his name is Akmed and he’s a mechanical engineer from Syria, he has been living in the jungle for a month. He said what they all really need is a psychologist, someone professional to talk to. There are no practising psychologists in The Jungle. Akmed is tall and dressed well, he spoke with perfect English and intelligence but his eyes were so sad, I found it really hard to look into his eyes, I had to force myself but I felt the pain and suffering seeping out through them.

I asked him about his journey, and what he relayed has stayed with me since. He told me the boat from Turkey to Greece was ‘Death’, he said what he meant was it must be exactly what death feels like – hours and hours on a treacherous sea on an over crowded dingy thinking that every second was your last. He said ‘honestly you can not imagine living only second by second of every minute afraid it would be you’re last, I know you cannot imagine because I too lived a normal life never having to ever imagine such horrors, but now I’ve lived it and I continue to live it every single day’. Akmed told me how he doesn’t sleep well that he keeps feeling like he’s floating on a sinking dingy and can’t move or save himself. He also explained how not only does he have to live with this horror by night but that he has other fears by day, the biggest being losing his mind. Ahmed’s words ‘the biggest challenge for me by day is to keep my mind busy but it’s almost impossible here on camp, there’s nothing to do.

“I watch people I know get caught up in the madness and craziness of our reality here and I’m busy everyday remembering to separate myself from it, but it’s getting harder. I see what this has done to my friends they are turning crazy and angry in front of my eyes and I feel it’s just a matter of time before the craziness gets me too, that’s why I need to busy my mind. That’s why I need a psychologist and my friends need a psychologist, none of us ever dreamed this would be our lives at any point”.

I asked about his family, he said ‘my sister and two brothers are dead but my parents are still alive, my phone is broken so I speak to them on friends phones when I can, it’s been over 10 days since we’ve spoken, it’s hard they are there in horrific conditions and I am here in horrific conditions, it’s easier sometimes not to talk to them.

We had to leave him at that point. I know he could have and probably needed to talk for another hour or two but we, unfortunately, had to move on. I don’t think I’ll ever forget Akmed, that heavy sadness and beautiful humanity, he’s just the one that’s standing out to me more on this trip, something about him seems familiar to me. I’m honoured to have been told his story – what a beautiful soul!

Continuing on through the day I went to deliver a gas stove with some gas bottles and two pots to my gorgeous friend Anna from Eritrea and her two equally gorgeous sisters who I had met for the first time two days ago. They were thrilled – and Ana (20 years old) insisted we have the first cup of tea off their stove – she had to run around to neighbouring tents to borrow cups, sugar and teabags and eventually we were all sitting drinking tea and chatting. They, all three of them, had tried again to get to the channel tunnel – their nightly vigil – leaving the camp at 4am making the 2 and a half hour walk only to turn around again after they see the security is way too tight to attempt it anywhere along the 20ft high fence – so they return taking another 2 and a half hours and then sleep all huddled up in their 3 man tent.

Hamie the eldest sister was sprayed with pepper spray by police yesterday but today the swelling had gone down and she looked much better. Her swollen ankle is much worse where she is now constantly limping, she explained she developed this because of the thousands of miles they walked from Eritrea and because she wasn’t resting it it wasn’t healing – I asked her to think about resting it for a day or two but she said then they miss an opportunity to get into the channel tunnel – she had to go nightly it was essential if they are to change their lives. This same lady has an unmerciful cough. It sounds like it’s coming from the depths of her soul and it’s ripping it’s way up through her chest – I arranged for our medics to look at her tomorrow.

While I was there Ana wanted to do something nice for me, she asked if she could braid my hair – lots of Eritrean women came over for a look and told me it was beautiful – I’m constantly blown away by their beauty and openness, I was happy to have this moment with them, such lovely lovely young ladies, each with their life’s journey stories and each just as gorgeous as the next. It was great sitting just being one of them!

While waiting for our 10 take away meals (for the Bender Building team) from an Afghan restaurant two Iraqi men arrived onto the camp. They seemed like a father and son maybe? One about 50 the other 25 maybe. They arrived with just their small backpacks but as they had travelled through camp they were given a few essentials by the residents and volunteers in the camp. Both were wide eyed and watching everything, they were greeted warmly and given seats and tea and some food. The other residents although different nationalities spoke comfortably with them- I greeted them but they had no English or French, I couldn’t help wonder what it must be like to be arriving here hoping for the best and realising the worst – blessings to these two gentle souls – I hope they sleep well tonight.

During our wait for our lunches a patrol of 8 police passed, fully dressed in armoured gear and pacing their way slowly up the road. Residents disappeared or stood back, everyone wondering what was going on. News came up behind us that 6 vehicles with each having 6 police officers had pulled up and emptied out onto camp speeding out in different directions. Roisin and I followed with our cameras filming them – Roisin asked in English what the story was with no answer – I asked in French still no reaction. We fell back when we realised they were just walking through exhibiting their power.

In one way it’s good to have a police presence which can often make people feel safer and help keep the peace but as this is an illegal refugee camp it only distils fear and often panic – the residents have witnessed quite a lot of uncalled for police harassment over the years here and also just recently some of the camp was bulldozed with no notice, residents lost their passports and papers etc which are their only way out of this situation, they’re well aware not to mess with the police. I have to admit I felt completely intimidated by them, with their riot gear and poker faces – it was yet another strange experience here The Jungle.

Much of the day was spent talking to people, you can’t walk two steps without being stopped and hearing another amazing story being told by another amazing brave soul.

All in all a busy day, a lovely day, an interesting day, an emotional day and finally a very wet day! The rains came flooding. The camp went from bustling and chattering to quiet and dismal in only a few short hours! Things look much more rough during and after a downpour. In that short space of time tents flooded or fell over, paths flooded, people had to move from where they were to higher ground or just another patch less soggy. I noticed how unprepared these people are with regards to there shoes even – most are wearing sandals, flip-flops or plastic Croc-like slip ons – shoes will be in strong demand and jackets from tomorrow on I’ve no doubt – it’s still raining outside now but I’m praying it will stop soon. These people are not prepared!

The mood on the bus home was different this evening – our evening meeting was quite emotional – we’re all exhausted and all struggling just a little with it being the last full day tomorrow on camp. The time has flown and there’s still so much we could all do but I think it’s true what Rachel said this evening ‘no matter if it was one week or ten weeks, it would still be only a drop in the ocean and we would still be apprehensive leaving‘. She’s right of course but that doesn’t stop the ‘what ifs’ floating around in my head.

These people need our help ALL of our help, they simply cannot do this alone. Winter is steadily approaching and I dread what it will bring with it for the refugees of The Jungle, now my friend, my brothers, my sisters – people with the most beautiful open hearts!

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Colette Ní Eachtarn visited The Jungle In France with the Ireland Calais Refugee Solidarity

If you wish to help this effort please do so by:

  • sending whatever you can to their fund raising site GoFundMe
  • sharing widely on your social media streams
  • talking with your friends about the needs of the people who live at these camps, we all need to change how we think about this situation

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