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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.