Tuesday 21 November 2017

Emmaus Hertfordshire’s Calais Aid Run - October 2017

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On Sunday 29 October, companions, staff and volunteers travelled to Calais and Dunkirk in support of Care4Calais. Laura Smith provides her account of the day…

We travelled over on a chilly Sunday morning, catching the 09:25 ferry from Dover, arriving in Calais around 11:00. We drove in convoy to the Care4Calais warehouse, where we reconnected with Clare Moseley and her current volunteers. We brought with us fruit and vegetables, tents, sleeping bags and shoes.

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Calais
Previously Care4Calais had two warehouses facing each other, which meant deliveries and donations had to be transported to-and-fro across the yard. Now they use two warehouses, which connect to each other, and this made offloading the Emmaus vans much easier. The warehouses remain the HQ and hub of operations. This is where long-term volunteers sort, pack and prepare supplies, where they eat, where they rest and where they plan their trips to find the current refugees camped out around the outskirts of the town.

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Dunkirk
We packed up the vans with shoes and fruit and Clare gathered us together to brief us on the situation in Dunkirk, where we were going to do a shoe distribution. We brought an old generator with us in the hopes of providing people with electricity. We practiced our distribution technique with some new volunteers, and then climbed into the vans, minibus and set off on the 45-minute journey up the motorway. We parked up in a retail park, and set off on foot because the local police will frequently stop a mini-bus for hours checking passports. We passed a few young men coming in the opposite direction; their mismatched clothing and dishevelled appearance made it clear we had arrived.

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Among our large team of volunteers, some of us were responsible for locating people who had poor footwear and supplying them with a ticket, which they would later be able to exchange for a pair of shoes. This was a Care4Calais approach to make sure we accessed those who really needed proper footwear, rather than supplying shoes to people who didn’t seem to need them, and perhaps used them as a form of currency between themselves. We also set up the generator to act as a make-shift phone charging station for those who needed it.

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The Dunkirk camp was very different to the Calais Jungle, and different from the previous Dunkirk camp that Emmaus had visited before. Both were demolished last year, as was widely reported by the media, as the French authorities moved to clear the area from settlers. We were told this is still a police tactic - if they see a tent they remove it - and therefore people hide their tents in the trees and hedges in the hope this will protect them for a while.

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We walked around a strange stretch of flat woodlands and came across some volunteers from a different charity, swinging a skipping rope for two young boys. There are children living in the Dunkirk woodlands, young boys and girls, the youngest we saw possibly around 5 years old. We saw a father pushing a trolley of plastic bottles, helped by two small girls who ran alongside him, and someone told us with a sad sigh that it was a family of five, living somewhere in the distance.

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Distribution time
Finally, it was distribution time, and a queue formed immediately as one of our Emmaus vans drove up, with Becky and Kieran in the back, briefed and ready to start handing out shoes. Some people had tickets, some didn’t, but for a while we were able to get shoes to those that needed it most. After a while, tempers flared. Frustrated people became upset and offended, accusing Care4Calais volunteers of favouritism and racism in their allocation of shoes. It’s clear that emotional and psychological support is just as urgent as shoes and blankets. But we could only do what we could, and hopefully a few people had drier feet that night.

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The days on these trips go so fast, and it was already time to go before we knew it. We closed the phone charging station, with shouts of “Thank you!” from our customers, and carried it away, until next time. Electricity is just as vital as food and shelter. For the refugees their phones are their only link to their loved ones. There are no plug sockets in trees.

Homeward bound
We headed home, how lucky we were to go back to warm houses and comfortable beds. It is saddening and sobering knowing how people continue to live in northern France, and knowing that this is happening across the world. But we will do our bit, and we will bear witness.