“To love, to be loved, and to be useful: these are the most important elements in a happy, meaningful life, and they can be achieved anywhere.”― Syrie James, The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen
It was mid-2015, I was completing the final semester of my Bachelor’s degree in International Development. The detention centre that I used to visit regularly had closed down and, though I still engaged in activities such as fundraising, sourcing household goods and furniture for refugees living in Adelaide and political activism, I felt useless. I felt as though my letters to politicians were going un-answered (and likely un-read), my advocacy efforts were tantamount to sticking bandaids over gaping wounds and the Australian government’s immigration policies were becoming evermore ruthless and cruel.
It was during this period that I started paying close attention to the European refugee crisis. Like so many others, when the body of little Aylan Kurdi washed up on the beach in Turkey, I felt the need to do something. By September, I had decided that as soon as I finished my studies I would go to Europe and see if I could make myself useful; ideally more useful than in Australia.
The choice to go to ‘The Jungle’ refugee camp in Calais, France was not made from a depth of knowledge about the camp. It was made purely on the basis of what I felt comfortable with. I had lived in the UK before and knew I could confidently make my way to Calais from there. I don’t speak any language other than English and knew that Calais was assisted by predominantly British volunteers. I have friends in London that could provide me with emergency accommodation and assistance should I need to leave quickly for any reason. At the time that I made my decision I had no idea of just how dire the situation in Calais was. I was about to find out.
The Jungle is a former landfill site flanked by factories of a nearby industrial estate. It is a short distance from the ferry terminal that connects France and the UK via the Channel Tunnel, and is the temporary home to roughly 6,000 people seeking refuge. The Jungle has been compared to the slums of Mumbai, earning it the unflattering label of “the biggest slum in Europe”. In The Jungle, refugees shelter in donated tents and rudimentary shelters made from wooden pallets and tarpaulins. Occasionally parents with children are “lucky” enough to secure a donated caravan, but they are few and far between.
Regularly, asylum seekers die or are seriously injured during their attempts to cross The Channel from France to the UK by jumping on lorries or trains. Most residents of The Jungle wish to seek asylum in the UK and have complex and varied reasons for attempting to get to the UK rather than staying in France. Many have every legal right to do so; however they are being denied this right because of the absence of any legitimate UK processing avenues on French soil. As a result, men, women and children are left in limbo as the UK and French governments bicker over who should assume responsibility for them, using ever-increasing force to deter them from being there. The UK government uses British taxpayer money to erect longer and higher fences around the Calais Ferry Terminal, while French law enforcement units regularly make use of batons, tear gas, rubber bullets and concussion grenades against Jungle residents who attempt to resist intimidation by the right-wing French nationalist groups that often visit the camp. In the absence of any major NGO support, volunteers from around the world work with grassroots organisations to ensure that the basic human needs (food, clothing, and shelter) are met for those living within the camp.
The reality of volunteering in The Jungle is that if you need clarity, structure or certainty in order to get things done, you simply won’t cope. You just need to involve yourself: see a need, assess if you have the ability to fix or improve it, and muck in. The needs are so great, so incessant, that you can work all day, every day and never keep up.
During my three weeks in the Jungle I threw myself into tasks on that basis. I spent days sorting donated clothes and shoes by gender, size and category so that people could be clothed. I packed bags of clothes for children, knowing that they would only wear them for a day – because they had scabies, and the only way to treat it is to discard and burn used clothes daily to kill the mites. I filled bin bag after bin bag, up to my waist in rubbish in the mud, sleet, howling wind and driving rain to help reduce the never ending rubbish accumulation. I helped women choose shoes in the women’s centre that was set up in such a way that they felt like they were able to “shop” for items (even though they were donated and free). I chopped tomatoes, onions, radishes and garlic for hours in a rudimentary volunteer- and refugee-run kitchen so that we could feed 1,000 people a free evening meal. I sorted medical supplies in donated caravans to support the volunteer doctors and nurses who would turn up and tend to the queues of sick people. I built a typical “Jungle shelter” (made of ply-wood, tarpaulins and wooden pallets) for Syrian refugees, to get them out of their rain-soaked tent that was sinking in to the mud, with the help of British charity Care4Calais and a humble Pakistani refugee who had the building know how.
The Jungle is a strangely magnetic place. For all of its misery and inhospitality – the biting cold, the mud, the barren landscape (save for some prickly dune shrubs) and the smell of the nearby factories that I will never forget – it is also a place that I yearn to return to. The residents fall all over themselves to greet you and share a chai tea with you. They have worked alongside volunteers to build schools, shops, churches, mosques, kitchens, restaurants, hotels, libraries, even a “theatre” all from donated supplies to bring hope in to a hopeless place. They laugh, they love, they cry, but most of all, despite all the odds, they keep on living and hoping.
In the Jungle, I too laughed, cried and loved. Most of all, I felt useful again. As it turns out, that’s all they want too.
*For more information about my experiences in Calais, my artwork and further information about how you can support the aid delivery efforts there, please refer to the following links:
Ali Reid is a current student of Honours level Anthropology and a tutor to Indigenous university students. In any spare time she is fortunate enough to earn, she enjoys painting pieces of artwork that she then sells to raise money for charity. She has also been a South Australian based volunteer refugee rights activist for roughly 6 years.