Thursday, 11 February 2016

On Official Business

By request of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Humanitarian Department, and Kent Social Services, Marisa Rickard (Now Stake Welfare Specialist), Naomi Potter (Stake welfare assistant) and myself (Happy helper Danielle Vernes) returned to Calais to discuss the needs of the refugees and how the said organisations could be of help. This proved to be a very educational and productive trip even though we were perhaps not of much physical use. We were able to learn first hand of the current  needs of both the build warehouse, and the kitchen at L'auberge des migrants international. But most interestingly we were able to spend some time with the volunteers running the "unofficial women and children's centre" in the Jungle. We stood bewildered and shocked at the desperate need for assistance in taking care of and teaching the unaccompanied children aged 12-16. These children, mostly young boys have developed hard shells as they have learnt to fend for themselves under the worst of circumstances and as a result have some deeply routed emotional, mental and behavioural issues. Though tough on the outside, these boys are broken and hurting underneath, and are in dire need of love, care and most of all understanding. The "unofficial women and children centre" is doing all that they can with minimal support and resources to help integrate these young lads into their communities and prepare them for a future that we all pray they will have. 

Marisa, Naomi and Danielle enjoying some of the lovely food prepared by the Kitchens at L'auberge warehouse. Thanks to the generous donations of many, L'auberge kitchens are able to provide 6000 people in the camps with warm food ever day.

Donations the Build warehouse are always grateful for. 

Monday, 8 February 2016

To Build Or Not To Build?

Visiting the jungle and L’Auberge for the first time is, for most people a culture shock. The shelters are rudimentary, but provide some degree of protection. I have the sort of mind that says “what if?”; this time “what if” became “what if IKEA produced shelters?” (in fact they do, in conjunction with UNHCR, and very nice they are too). But IKEA – and UNHCR – are not in Calais. So it’s very much down to the volunteers to set the benchmark for shelters.
My biggest driver was that so much labour-intensive work was being done in Calais that could possibly be done in the UK prior to assembly in Calais. And this is where IKEA comes in. They are masters of flat pack – we build it, you assemble it. So I thought about their construction techniques: how they use strength only where necessary, to reduce weight, cost and materials. An IKEA side table is two sheets of hardboard over a wooden frame, with an egg box in the middle. Rigid, strong, cheap, light, simple, quick. Shelters need to be all of those, so an idea was born. Turn that side table through 90 degrees, chop the legs off, bolt a few together, and wrap in plastic. Voila! (as they say in Calais). A shelter.
Which is all very well until you have to work out the details, at which point joined-up maths rears its ugly head. The devil really was in the detail – allowing for this, anticipating that. Expecting sub-optimal. 
What you don’t anticipate is your freakin’ car breaking down on the way to the second build day, when only you have the revised plans, and they’re on the passenger seat, while the build team is in the barn ready to go. So what do you do, sit by the road and cry? No! You pick your sorry butt up, have faith, and find a way round the mountain. By this time in the project we’d overcome lack of build space, lack of build money, lack of manpower …. We were used to obstacles, and this one wasn’t going to beat us. (Please note, I’m using the word ‘we’ advisedly; while I had the original idea and took on planning and construction, communications and all the other logistics were thankfully removed from my shoulders by capable others, who turned out to be incredible, shoulder-to-shoulder allies in the Calais mud, when we battled to the last second to get this thing finished.)
Midnight oil well and truly incinerated, we loaded the ‘shelter’ on the van, ready for the trip. Throwing in spare bits turned out to be wise………

A Few Personal Accounts

To me, the most memorable and significant part of the weekend was going into the camp at various times on Saturday, both to distribute food and to help construct the shelter. Seeing the situation and meeting the people there gave me a greater love for those people. I loved that so many came to help build the shelter in the afternoon. We arrived and started working and the first person to show up was the man who would be getting the shelter. He jumped right in without hesitation. Many others arrived and pitched in. When we were finished, it was amazing to see their appreciation for the help we offered. At one point while we were building, I was invited over to warm my hands over a fire. While talking with the young men there, they commented that I would be going to a warm home, but they were going to still be in the cold. One of them immediately commented though to the other than what we were doing for them was much needed. And later another man said that the shelter he had was warm. It is difficult to be limited in the ways we can help, but I have no doubt that the refugees are grateful for the things we do and you could see it in the face of Asad (I believe that's how you spell his name, correct me if I'm wrong!!) as we left him there with his newly constructed shelter. We only spent a few hours there with them, but I truly feel like they are my friends and I wish them the best of luck in the future!

-       Tiffany Michelle Rae

As the day passed by cold winds brought a bitting chill to the air. Our team had faced various challenges throughout the construction of the shelter, with uneven ground formed of rubble, litter and mud; and a lack of appropriate equipment. However pressing forward the team attempted to get the shelter up as quickly and efficiently as possible before the evening was upon us. A young man desperately trying to keep warm wrapped up in his duvet came to sit behind the van to take shelter from the wind. He relayed the story of his perilous journey from Iran to Calais to one of our team mates Reg. Mostly on foot this young man travelled half way across the world to escape oppression and persecution in his own country. Hitching rides, begging for food and hiding in vans this young man travelled for 18 months seeking a better life than the one he had previously known. Now he sits, hungry, cold and of poor health in an overcrowded camp in Calais clinging on to the little hope he has, that one day he might not hunger, that one day he might not thirst, that one day he might live rather than survive. What a powerful story he has. No doubt similar to many of the people sharing these miserable conditions in Calais. Meeting these people and hearing their stories has been truly life changing. Leaving them however, upon completion of the shelter, is entirely heart wrenching. 

- Danielle Vernes

Sunday, 7 February 2016

The Back Of A Small Van

Crammed in the back of a small van, perched awkwardly amongst bags and bags of donated food, we wait. The road surface changes and we lurch side to side, aware that we are now in the ‘’Jungle’’. A feeling of trepidation pervades. This is our first trip to Calais to distribute aid. Despite other volunteers’ stories, we have popular media images and clichés running through our minds. Most volunteer are young students, hoping to change the world, or at least give one hungry person the chance for one meal, for one day. We want to help; to bring hope. The doors open. A makeshift stone covered “road” opens out into a space surrounded by plastic covered “huts” or tents. There are no desperate crowds thronging the van. There is no fevered pawing at us. No emotional pleas. Instead, an orderly que quickly forms. Quiet, humbled people file forward to accept a supermarket carrier bag of foreign food to them. Some smile and some practise their few words of English. Most exclude a grim determination to survive, to keep intact their dignity. A few months ago perhaps, If we had been strangers in their country we would have been greeted with their legendary eastern hospitality, made to talk over endless tea, shared their meals. We try to smile. They try to smile. The last bag is passed out. “finished”. One English word that is definitely understood. Resigned, weary, they slide away empty handed, absorbed by the sea of rough dwellings. The space is easily empty again - as if we had never been there. There is a feeling of anti-climax as we pile back into the van, desperately hoping that our tiny contribution has meant something. Eager to do it again. And again.

It is hard to make sense of coming back. Hours earlier we had been surrounded by some of the most desperately poor and grimly determined people currently on the planet. “Displaced”, ”migrants”, ”refugees’ - words used to describe these people are not adequate. Clichés tumble through my mind as I try to make any kind of sense of it all. There is no precedent in my experience; only historical images and faded and 2nd hand accounts of oppression begin to suffice. Can this be the same world I live in? A few kilometres out of the camp, in the centre of Calais we are in a typical out of season seaside town. It is empty, wet, bleak but familiar. A few locals and tourists brave the high winds and constant rain to venture into the town square where a handful of pubs and restaurants totter through the winter season. Was it like this in the town next to Sobibor? Treblinka? Did people have to shut down their conscience in order to survive that knowledge? The knowledge that in your town, your backyard, other people - people just like you - were surviving. Not living, barely existing but consciously surviving. Hanging onto whatever tiny thread of dignity and endurance they could muster? Yes, we still have to eat, sleep, to work. But somewhere in the back of our minds is the awareness that but for the unearned good fortune of being born here, we would be in their ill fitting, donated, leaking, shoes.

- Account written by Alison Hunt