Mitch Mitchell continues his report from the convoy to Calais, bringing food, clothes and solidarity to the migrants camped there.
So, on the evening of Friday, August 14, several of us set out in various cars to rendezvous in Dover to make the crossing. It had been planned to go to Dover in convoy, but due to people’s work commitments, etc. we didn’t all catch the same boat.
On the morning of Saturday, 15, we went to Secours Catholic Church in Calais which has been acting as a distribution centre for clothing , blankets and similar items. There we met the incredible Pascal Froehly. Pascal has been coordinating operations there and opened the place up especially so that we could deposit the stuff we had brought.
He also let us use his facilities in order to make up the bags of food which we were to distribute at the refugee camp. We later discovered that he had missed a funeral of a friend in order to open up and make us welcome, which is a tribute to his dedication to the cause.
I had several long chats with him and he told me that he felt ashamed to be French. When I asked why, he said that there have been many more volunteers coming from the UK than from France and he felt bad about the way the French people had, in the main, perceived the situation.
Pascal also said that there were never enough shoes to meet demand and that the most popular were trainers. Even though the camp gets very muddy, wellingtons and leather shoes were not often taken up by residents. There is also a desperate shortage of blankets, sleeping bags, tents etc. and this will become more pressing as we move into autumn with more rain and colder nights.
After we had sorted the food items we went off to the camp. It has been unfairly (in my view) named “The Jungle”. It is nothing of the sort. Desperate people have used their ingenuity to fashion makeshift shelters out of anything that was available. One guy, who is an artist has even managed to create a thatched roof on his dwelling.
When we arrived at the camp to start the food distribution, there was already a long and for the most part very orderly queue of the residents. It was there that we met the wonderful Maya who has set up the distribution process. Maya is an absolute rock. She is not very big physically, but she commands a presence which is respected by residents and volunteers alike.
One thing which we hadn’t realised, and which will be rectified next time, is that cooking oils are a very big part of their cooking requirements. We will ensure adequate supplies next trip.
We pulled our cars, one at a time, next to a Transit van which was laden with bread and the idea was to give bread and one bag from our vehicles to as many people as possible. We had roughly sorted men’s bags from women’s (the women’s bags contained sanitary products), but in the rush to serve people, we may have got a few the wrong way round!
The thing that I was struck by was the dignity shown by camp residents. And their friendliness. I had a lump in my throat on several occasions, especially when giving out items to children.
Acts of kindness between residents were also evident. One man, who saw that his friend didn’t receive so much bread, gave him a loaf from his supply.
One of our major donations was a generator purchased for the school which has been set up. Local French teachers have been helping to run this, the main aim being to teach folk French and English and also to help the children with their education.
On our way out of the camp, the many of the residents waved to us and called out “Thank you for helping us”. We have all resolved to return as regularly as we can.
The whole operation passed off like clockwork. The team were all brilliant and we all worked together well with no slackers or any signs of contretemps! This is in no small way due to the amazing efforts of Syed and Mona who turned their home into a warehouse and organised the thing from the UK. Also, the aforementioned Pascal and Maya were incredible.
On my way back home, I pondered several things. The people we saw and met were the survivors. They had endured real hardship to be there. Many of their friends and family members have died en route. They have been forced to deal with criminals in many cases, often charging extortionate amounts of money to get them onto dangerous modes of transport, and all to try and give themselves and their families a better life.
It can be seen from the ingenuity and resourcefulness shown in constructing the camp that they are hard working people who would be an asset to any society in which they lived.
For me, personally, this has been one of those defining moments in my life ( I have had others) and I shall be devoting myself to further aiding and assisting. I am hoping (finances permitting!) to go out again on August 29 when Pascal has set a date for clothing distribution and he said that he would be grateful for help with that.