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………

And that’s where what most people call problems, but in the church we call “opportunities to grow”, really started. Howling gales and rain lashed the channel, and the jungle. First day wash out, van unloaded – and gone. A pile of wood under a tarpaulin, a box of screws, and a dream coming apart at the soggy seams. So we talk to people. An talk some more. And those people are Calais volunteers too. And they – we – don’t do ‘impossible’. We just do. Workforce finally rounded up (sorry…), we got a space on site, and transport. Except the site was in two places, and the shelter was in one piece. Frantic phone calls. Two hours to catch the ferry. Road to new location blocked by car. Van unloaded after one of those navigation efforts you see on ‘World’s most dangerous roads’. Start construction, while van returns for more of the pieces of this jigshelter. 
THEN! Oh, my friends, then!
Ants. Swarming, like David Cameron accused the refugees of doing. Over the materials. Over each other. Instructions, screws and drills flying, buzzing. Refugees, our new friends, the owners-to-be, pitching in. A multinational, multidenominational, multilingual melee of positivity and enterprise, from the midst of which sprang in the wooden flesh, what I had only seen in my head – our shelter, soon to be theirs.
The ferry departures came and went. The pressure; oh, the pressure to MAKE THIS HAPPEN. All self-inflicted; all accepted. All shouldered. By all. As darkness fell, and the last chance saloon was kicking out its drunks, the last necessary screw screeched home to signal the triumph of optimism and energy over opposition. We cheered! Hip – Hip, and no time for hooray. Load up tools! In the cars! Here is your home and your padlock keys, my new friends. WHERE ARE MY CAR KEYS!!??
Back to L’Auberge. It’s all locked up. Round up the stragglers from the shop round the corner. Then round up Naomi from rounding up the stragglers. Then Eurotunnel, and a chance to stop , relax, contemplate, and talk with the most amazing 21 year olds you’ll ever meet, about farts. Apparently, girls do it too….
My dear friends, remove your bibs, this battle is over. We won. We won big time. One day this will be history, and we will have written it. And no one can ever, ever take that from us. For even though the cold hand of government may smash our shelter, we have built something indestructible – character, faith, and humanity. 
I salute you all.

- An Account written by Dan Shillabeer

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