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Volunteers at work in The Jungle, Calais

Ali Reid has been an advocate for refugees in Australia for the past 5 years, but in December 2015, she travelled to the refugee camp in Calais known as ‘The Jungle’ to volunteer for three weeks. She was curious to find out for herself what was happening in Europe as a result of the global refugee crisis, and how it compares to Australia. The following is an excerpt from her journal on her tenth day in The Jungle.

I awoke on Sunday sick and exhausted from the previous week’s work. I went downstairs for breakfast in the bustling hostel dining room and, as is the morning ritual, I asked around to find a ride to The Jungle. Volunteers who have vehicles taxi service other volunteers to either The Jungle or one of the Calais-based warehouses that accept donations for the camp. The trick is to find a space in a vehicle each morning. I had previously sorted donations in the warehouse of the French NGO, L’Auberge Des Migrants, but today I wanted to go to The Jungle itself. That was when I met Louise, a Danish social worker who had extensive experience working in disaster response. A volunteer was kind enough to offer us a ride to the highway exit ramp that provides vehicle access to the industrial estate flanking the camp. From there, we hiked to the Jungle. Louise was carrying a pack of supplies on her back and heading to the “Kitchen in Calais”, a volunteer- and refugee-run kitchen that feeds hundreds of hungry mouths each day.

Louise took me on a tour of the camp. We stopped at the Eritrean church where Eritrean refugees were holding a service. This is a lovingly-crafted church with a simple wooden frame, covered in tarpaulins with a corrugated-iron roof. We didn’t go inside but stood in the small yard outside and listened to the beautiful, distinctly-African music coming from a donated stereo. Women said prayers at a mural painted on the wall, before removing their shoes and going inside.

The few camp residents who were out and about seemed in good spirits despite the gale-force winds that seem to be a permanent part of life in Calais. I was offered fruit, custard cream biscuits, and chai tea. At this point a huge storm swept through the camp, so we joined some volunteers who were delivering a large donation of food to the kitchen .

The “Kitchen in Calais” is a sturdy wooden hut near to the back of the camp where it is quiet. The kitchen doubles as a safe, dry place for people to sleep but the volunteers also ensure that the much sought after supplies like gas bottles and fresh food are kept secure. Louise asked a refugee volunteer, Omar from Kuwait, if I could stay, and I was quickly assigned a pile of tomatoes to “chop-chop.” One thing led to another and I “chop-chopped” for some 5 or 6 hours. Together, Louise and I “chop-chopped” tomatoes, garlic, ginger, green beans, radishes and pineapple, whilst Omar and his small team of fellow refugees from Iraq, Kuwait and Syria cooked meals in huge vats over gas stoves.

The Kitchen in Calais is a small space and it was crammed with donated supplies – pots, pans, stoves and vats – which we constantly had to rearrange in order to move on to the next stage of the preparation and cooking process. But this multicultural team worked with endless laughter, smiles and fun. Somehow we found our way through the language barriers. They taught Louise and I words and laughed at us when we got them wrong. The guys had a great time talking about my nickname, Ali, which is a boy’s name in their culture.

Meals were served through a small delivery hutch. The kitchen only provides one meal per day but there are other kitchens so I cannot say for sure if it was the only meal for everyone. The camp residents started queuing well before we opened the hutch. The weather outside was diabolical. With winds of more than 100 kilometres per hour, many meals were blown out of people’s hands before they could even take a mouthful. We fast ran out of disposable serving trays and had to resort to our limited supply of non-disposable plates and cutlery. We asked for the plates and cutlery to be returned so that the team could started washing them up, allowing us to keep serving.

A young, 19-year-old Syrian man, Anas, who speaks English and Arabic, worked on the delivery hutch, translating for people as I passed him meals of rice and dahl with a side serve of pineapple or radishes (we used whatever donated items we could to get fresh, nutritious food into people). Though I met many refugees in Calais, none had captured my heart in the way that this young man did. He is kind and gentle; a softly-spoken, beautiful soul. He is from Aleppo and has family in the UK. He is very bright and dreams of being a biomedical engineer. Many times he has tried to get to his family in the UK. He got on one lorry and ended up spending 30 hours locked in there with no food or water. When the French police found him they dumped him and told him to walk back to the Jungle. He’s been here five and a half months.

The residents of The Jungle come from the same conflict-ridden countries as people seeking asylum in the officially-recognised camps in Europe. However, because The Jungle is not officially recognised, those temporarily residing there will not be considered for any of the humanitarian asylum quotas currently offered by other countries.

There is a popular misconception that residents of The Jungle are all economic migrants because they are residing in an unofficial camp in Calais. Though the reasons that people end up in Calais are complex and varied, my experience in The Jungle suggests strongly that there are other, more nuanced reasons for them being there. Firstly, many young single males end up in Calais because they believe they have no chance at being selected for resettlement from official camps as part of the humanitarian asylum quotas because the selection process favours families, women and children. Secondly, many asylum seekers are in France because it is the closest place they can get to their families already residing in the UK. A processing centre should be re-established in Calais so that those with legitimate claims for asylum both in France and in the UK (particularly for family reunion under the Dublin Convention) can be properly assessed.

The camp also needs to be officially recognised by the French and UK authorities so that international organisations like UNHCR and Red Cross can be allowed to provide support to the small, grass-roots organisations currently struggling to provide for The Jungle. Without approval from the French authorities they are currently unable to assist in Calais. This would not only alleviate the dreadful conditions in the camp, but also help prevent people from trying to make the crossing from France to the UK, which is dangerous for both them and other users of the Channel Tunnel. There are reports that up to as many as 24 people died as a result of attempted crossings in 2015 alone. Unfortunately it is unlikely that such measures will be implemented, meaning that people from around the world will continue to help support the ad-hoc aid efforts in Calais.

As we had a lull in the line before the next wave of people came, my new Syrian friend, Anas, asked me: “Do you have refugees in Australia?”

I said, “yes”, and he seemed surprised.

“Where from?” he asked, and I reeled off a list of countries. He seemed more surprised.

He asked: “You have a camp?”

To which I replied: “No, we have detention centres.”

He seemed confused, so I explained: “Like a prison.”

From there ensued a conversation where I explained to him the route people travel from the Middle-East to Australia, and how they get here, why they are in detention, and what will happen to them. I told him about our government and their attitude to boat arrivals.

He asked me: “Do you have Syrian people in these prisons?”

I told him, sadly: “Yes.”

Something happened in that moment. Everything stopped. I didn’t hear the bustling kitchen or the line outside. A tremendous sadness welled up in both of us. We just stared at each other for what felt like minutes, but was only seconds. It was like we saw each other’s shared humanity and we were bonded in this unfair, unjust, screwed-up situation.

At the end of the evening, the rag-tag team of people at Kitchen in Calais managed to feed 1,000 or so mouths. The experience left me devastated and heartbroken, happy and hopeful all at the same time. I went to bed worrying about my new friends, knowing that they will keep trying to jump on trains and lorries, risking their lives in order to piece them back together. I will never be the same.

Should you wish to find out more about The Jungle in Calais, including ways that you can help, please visit http://www.calaidipedia.co.uk/how-to-help

Ali Reid (right) in the Kitchen in Calais
The Kitchen in Calais
Volunteers at work in The Jungle, Calais




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