When I went to the Jungle refugee camp in Calais

It’s easy to comment on something like the refugee crisis, particularly when it feels like the news is dominated with stories about refugees. About how their tragic journeys ended at the bottom of the sea, or those being forced to live in squalor whilst they seek asylum or how refugees are the cause of terrorist attacks, raped and disorder. It’s less easy to get off my fat ass and do something about it.

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Actually, that’s a lie. You just need a little time to spare and be prepared to slum it a little. There are so many different organisations calling for volunteers that all you need to do is drop them a line on Facebook and you’ll have a meeting point and a contact. I got in touch with Tunbridge Wells based Wonderwoman, Val Osborne, the brains behind the charity RefugEase, and volunteered in the Jungle camp in Calais.

Aside from my own personal adventure (sorting through the warehouse, piling into a van with eight strangers, being locked out of a crappy hotel room, sleeping eight in two beds, getting a flat tyre on a Sunday in France etc.) I really think it’s something everyone should experience. You can’t truly understand something until you’ve experienced it yourself. Of course, I’m not comparing my weekend volunteering in a refugee camp to the plight of families fleeing war-torn countries but going to hear their stories first hand is the closest I can get right now.

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Most of those living in the camp are men and teenage boys from all over the world, particularly Eritrea and Afghanistan. The reality is that boys and men are more likely to be fleeing because they are a) prime targets for conscription and because b) men earn more money. As a white, blonde girl from Kent, I’ll admit that at first I felt a bit intimidated. Another reason that I needed to go and see the camp for myself – to get over those occasional irrational presumptions.

The camp reminded me of a music festival, with it’s quirky, makeshift tuck shops and restaurants lining the main street. A bit like Glastonbury but at the end of the weekend when the stench from the overflowing toilets clings to the inside of your nostrils and bits of people’s beddings are strewn across the pathway and the see of damaged tents are a sorry sight. But the people were friendly enough.

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You’d be naive to think that every person living in the camp are refugees and this is another reason I wanted to go. I met people with stories of war torn hometowns, tales of young boys fleeing conscription, older brothers who feared for their gun wielding siblings. People recalled their fond memories of affluent homes in the up and coming areas of town, about the cars they have at home and about the families they left behind.

But I also heard stories of people who were offered asylum in Italy and Germany but had run away for a life in the UK. One man even told me about how he was already granted asylum in the UK and was given a British passport, until it was held by police when he was granted parole after being arrested for drunkenly assaulting a police officer. He then smuggled himself out of the UK to visit his mother in Afghanistan. It’s hard to sympathise when someone’s story starts like that.

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But then you remember where you are: in a stinking squalor. People don’t chose that for themselves. Refugees and economic migrants alike tell stories about sinking lifeboats, drowning friends, being smuggled across borders, walking across countries on foot, being rejected by the inhabitants of every city you travel through, leaving behind family and friends.

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And then it doesn’t really matter what their backstory is because at the end of the day these people are here and they need help. And if that help means a warm blanket to sleep under, sufficient food to keep them alive and a game of cricket to keep their spirits up them so be it.

<The problem is here, right now and it’s on our doorstep, so stop closing your door.

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La Romieu, shoes and au revior

Packing again, but you’ll be pleased to know that it was a lot less traumatic this time round, partly because it was just a case of repacking. Although I did pack all my underwear and spent 10 mins unpacking it all to retrieve a pair to wear today. My bad.

I offer an explanation to the word ‘shoes’ in the heading of this post. Since being here, Chloë and myself have lived by the ethos ‘do we really need to buy this? or is a night in a hostel more worth our money?’ So far, it’s worked out well, until the other day when I sacrificed a night in a hostel for a pair of shoes. They’re the kind of shoes that every girl needs to take travelling: a pair of bright orange wedges. I jest, I’m not actually taking them, but seriously they’re gorgeous. Only I would purchase a pair of massively impractical shoes before I go backpacking.

Another thing I forgot to mention before was the ‘travelling God bracelet’. It’s a wooden bracelet I purchased in Chile in 2010 and Max, Clo and myself have tried to take it to as many interesting places as possible. It’s been to Chile, Swaziland, Lanzarote, Paris, Glastonbury Fest etc. So you might see it in the pictures!

I’ve spent the last 9 days here in the small village I feel like I’ve spent half of my childhood in. I have been coming to Le Camp de Florence since I can remember – 10 years? Maybe a bit more, a bit less – and it’s a place where I grew up. Here, age is regardless, as is nationality. We all just ‘hang out’ in the same ways we did when we were eight years old. Siblings from the Netherlands, France, Ireland, Belgium and the UK come together to form a very sociable group of friends, considering La Romieu is in the middle of nowhere. It’s safe. It’s a second home.

But now it’s time to pack up and leave. We’ve got our backpacks on (after another packing session. My mother has always referred to me as messy. I’ve always believed that my ability to convert a respectable room into my own personal wardrobe is a gift rather than a nuisance. But seriously, I’ve noticed how annoying it is when it comes to rounding up the troops into one backpack. It turns out, I am, as my mother has always said, annoying.)

I write to you from Toulouse airport. It’s the airport I have always flown to or from when journeying from one home to another, to-and-froing from France to England, trying to make use of my opportunities both in the UK and in France. But today I fly to Rome. Today I fly to the unknown.

I am so excited.

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These are the shoes every girl needs to take travelling…

Chantilly

Chantilly – pronounced Shont-y-ee. I found that out when I asked for a train ticket from Paris to Chantilly in French, but with the most English accent ever. Needless to say, I sounded like a boob.

I made my way from Tours (where my mum dropped me off at the station) to Paris and then Paris to Chantilly. Word of advice, print off a metro map before you start your journey because they don’t have maps in abundance at the stations. The metro is dead easy to use. My direct line was closed but it was simple enough to jump on another line and change elsewhere.

I stayed in Chantilly avec my pal who is au pairing there. We chilled for the few days I was there as she still had to work, but we visited the Château which was stunning. However, it did rain and was quite chilly.

Making my way from Chantilly to Agen (to meet the rest of my family who are holidaying near there) was a little bit trickier. No, not trickier, more expensive… French trains don’t run as frequently as they do in England, so always look up your journey beforehand. Where the train may run every hour at home, here they run when they are most needed. Another word of advice: book your long trains in advance. I wasn’t entirely sure which train I needed to get but I thought I was guaranteed a ticket even if I turned up on the day. Thankfully, I was able to get on the train I was aiming for, but the lady behind the desk did tell me that all the seats were booked, but I could get on the train if I didn’t mind the seats in the area where the doors are. Of course I didn’t mind. Travelling on trains in the UK doesn’t guarantee a seat on the journey.

Well I made the five hour train journey and am now bronzing up in my favourite holiday place in La Romieu.

Speak laters.

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