What it’s like to volunteer at Dunkirk refugee camp

“Children and babies were given sleeping tablets to ensure they were quiet when on the lorries. The children were also given Red bull… to keep them awake during the gruelling nights.” Cordelia Fellowes on what she learnt while volunteering at Dunkirk refugee camp…

In the weeks approaching our departure to Dunkirk, I was growing increasingly nervous. The stories coming out of the Calais camp read like horror: murder, rape, disease, chaos. Although I knew that Dunkirk was being run efficiently by Utopia 56, I had no idea what the atmosphere would be like amongst the migrants. Would they be hostile? Or aggressive? I hadn’t been anywhere near a third world country in over ten years and from what I understood, the camps resembled a community on the brink of poverty. Every day was a battle to stay alive and warm and safe. How on earth would I fit in?

Despite having a sense of compassion that drove us to fundraise, my partner Paul and I were aware of a slow but definite sense of apathy taking us over. After all, it had been nearly a year since the photo of Aylan Kurdi – the three year old who was found dead, washed up on the shores of Turkey – had been released. The image that shook the world and ignited all our hearts was now old news and the media was already focusing its fickle attention on other, more exciting topics. We left for France in mid-July 2016 with muddled expectations…

It was a warm and overcast Thursday morning when Paul and I turned a corner to a spot behind a shopping complex in Grande-Synthe. Ahead of us were six men, waiting as we would be for a vehicle to take us to the newly relocated Dunkirk refugee camp. We gestured to ask if this was the right place and several of the men nodded. While we waited, a man who introduced himself as ‘Max’ approached us speaking in good English, asking if we were volunteers. He seemed to know a lot about the camp and we chatted idly to him for a few minutes, before we were interrupted by a second man, who demanded to know; ‘You’re from England?’ Yes we replied. Immediately he launched in to a tirade of words, spoken with an anger that was not aimed at us, but rather towards the English authorities. ‘Stopping us’, ‘making difficult for me’, ‘guns have been put at me, you don’t believe’ – he described his story in this broken way, which we understood to be that he had fled his native Iraq and had subsequently been trying to get to England ever since. We would hear this same story, time and time again.

There was laughter and playfulness from the children, but the women were solemn, often looking despondent and lost. One woman I saw was heavily pregnant and I found her anxiety permeating

It was a strange beginning that unsettled us both but at that moment an old and slightly battered mini bus drove up with a smiling and welcoming volunteer at the wheel. Seven minutes later we pulled up at an entrance guarded by an official looking man in a uniform, who duly turned the key to raise the barrier whilst waving formally. Later I would learn that those in uniform (of which there were very few, almost all of them residing at the entrance) were there representing the State.

Despite earlier reservations, out initial impressions of the camp were that it looked tidy and organised, with a converted shipping container signposted ‘Volunteers Welcome!’.We were greeted by Judy, a French volunteer with Utopia 56 who had been at the camp off and on for several months. She was incredibly warm and friendly and obviously knew her job very well. Over the coming days I would witness her often playing with many of the small boys in the camp. They liked to ride bikes near the entrance where lots of volunteers could be found, waiting for new jobs to be assigned to them. Plenty of teasing and chasing went on between the two groups and Judy was obviously popular with volunteers and migrants alike and I took an immediate shine to her.

My partner Paul – being a lighting specialist – was immediately sent to the Workshop building, where he reported every morning for the duration of our stay. He went on to fix bikes, repair solar panels and lights in the individual wooden cabins that had them, and generally be on hand to help with the electrical and carpentry side of things. On that first day, I was sent to the laundry and clothing donations building.

At this time the camp was home to roughly 900 migrants, approximately 90 of whom were women and 200 children. I believe that the intention was to hold up to 1500 migrants in the coming months and the amount of clothing and bedding in the donations building certainly attested to these figures. Bags and bags of clothes lined floor to ceiling shelves in a large room. In the centre was a long table with which to sort through any new donations. I worked here for five hours with two French volunteers and a lady from Canada. The atmosphere was relaxed but focused – nobody really chatted as we were all too occupied with arranging all of the various items in to the right bags. I was grateful to be given such a mediative job as my mind was all over the place with what I was going to experience in the coming days.

Astan… calmly told me that Isis had beheaded his brother. He was without anger or resentment and spoke only of his desire to get to England

The next morning Paul dutifully went off to the Workshop and I was asked to drive the mini bus. The way the volunteers were assigned jobs was incredibly efficient and democratic. There were numerous positions – kitchen, chopping wood, laundry etc. – and of course, driving the mini bus to and from the camp. Ideally jobs were switched over every four to five hours, though this wasn’t always possible. The bus was driven back and forth constantly from 9am until the camp ‘closed’ (the time when all volunteers minus the skeleton night staff had to be off the premises) at 7pm, to allow migrants to visit the local supermarket and also to collect and drop off volunteers.

I was nervous about this job mainly because the mini bus was a left hand drive, but also because I had seen first hand how hard it was to get the migrants to observe the rule of no more than seven people in the back. This was because there were only seven seats in the mini bus (and two up front by the driver) and having people sat on the floor gave the police grounds to question and generally hassle the migrants (something I was told they did frequently). I was warned to take my driver’s license and my passport with me as we would almost certainly be stopped by the police at least once. However, in the end this didn’t happen.

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As I suspected, when I arrived at the collection point behind the supermarket and saw a crowd of over fifteen people – including five small children – they all tried to board the bus. By this point I was the only volunteer onboard, my handover having lasted long enough for me to gauge some spacial awareness and stick to my side of the road without driving on the kerb. After explaining the rule and asking the extra people to get off, my next action was to turn off the engine. It was a stubborn approach that resulted in me being shouted at a fair bit, but it worked and I would resort to it many more times over the coming hours. I didn’t know it at the time, but a big number of the migrants I was collecting had been awake all night and so their curt attitudes were as a result of extreme tiredness. These night activities were explained to me by a volunteer the next day.

Every night, I was told, many families and young men would leave the camp and attempt to smuggle themselves on to lorries heading to England. This would often result in getting on the wrong lorries, arriving in random destinations all over France, and then having to find their way back to the camp, walking for miles or having to navigate trains and buses, without speaking the language. I was also told that the children and babies were given sleeping tablets, to ensure they were quiet when on the lorries. The children were also given Red bull – something we saw being sold at all the makeshift shops around the camp – to keep them awake during the gruelling nights spent walking along the highways. All in all these activities painted a dismal picture, rarely alleviated by a successful arrival in England.

Just because they’re down and out, doesn’t mean they don’t want to continue to look good or be fashionable

Driving the bus – which I did that afternoon and for the afternoon on the Sunday – proved to be the most eventful of all my various jobs. As I had two seats next to me at the front, I was able to chat to many different men (very few women got on the bus and they never sat at the front) and so I heard several stories.

The most horrifying had to be from Astan*, who calmly told me that Isis had beheaded his brother. He was without anger or resentment and spoke only of his desire to get to England, to find work and eventually send for his wife and children. Many of the men I spoke to over the coming days had left behind their wife and children and most had been away for years. Sosin*, who had actually been living in Leeds for a time before being deported and who spoke almost perfect English, had been away from his family for nine years. When he left Iraq his second son had been a baby, he worried that now he would not know his personality…

The dream of coming to England was seemingly universal amongst all the men I spoke to. I never discussed Brexit with any of them (I didn’t have the heart to say that their chances of getting to England had been significantly reduced by our decision to leave Europe, though I believe some of the more fluent men understood this), but I did ask why they were so intent on coming to my country. ‘Because the police do not beat people up and different religions and races live side by side’ was the most common answer. They said that France was intolerant and the police aggressive; many of them had been detained and badly beaten in the past. The law banning Burqas, something several of the men discussed with me, further enforced this perception of religious intolerance.

The following day I worked in the Women’s Centre, which was a large building where men were strictly forbidden. There the women could look through clothes; have a massage; dry their hair (the hair dryer and straighteners were in almost constant use, mainly by teenage girls) and receive any limited goods, such as sanitary products; shampoo and loo paper. These were distributed according to family size and each woman carried a card with them that identified whether they had children and/or any other dependants and how many. I worked for some hours in a confined booth, distributing these goods. It felt so strange, having to deny an elderly woman the extra bananas or bottles of hand gel that she asked for, but there were so little of these items and so many women who wanted them… I was warned to be strict and to check their identity cards carefully.

These people had done nothing to deserve the unbearable hardships that had been put upon them

I was in the Centre the whole day and it was busy non-stop. Children ran around, occasionally stopping to draw or nibble at the bread and chocolate sauce that was laid out on the tables. The women chatted and played with their children and eagerly looked through the ‘new’ donations. The other volunteers told me that ‘new’ shoes, ‘new’ clothes and the acquisition of the ‘best’ brands of shampoo and other beauty products, were a source of fascination to the women. One volunteer gave me her theory regarding this.

“They’ve had everything for free for so long, now they want the best of the free stuff. It’s not natural, to be given all your food and toiletries and what not, for so long. Some of these women have been here a year. Finding new items is a welcoming challenge and something that gives them a sense of prestige. Just because they’re down and out, doesn’t mean they don’t want to continue to look good or be fashionable.”

There was laughter and playfulness from the children, but the women were solemn, often looking despondent and lost. One woman I saw was heavily pregnant and I found her anxiety permeating. I tried to talk to her about her life in the camp but she didn’t speak any English – this was the case with the majority of the women there. Overall the men and the children seemed to be more fluent.

Utopia 56 went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that these men and women and children maintained their dignity, their privacy and, where possible, their independence

Over the next two days I would work at preparing food in the main camp kitchen (hectic but fun, there was always loud music playing); as a monitor in the communal kitchens (mainly ensuring that nobody put oil directly on to the gas hobs, or used up too much of the wood); chopping wood (my arms ached within minutes, but the rhythm of it made the time pass very quickly); driving the mini-bus and doing some general tidying up in the communal areas (the tea tent was my favourite place to do this, as the atmosphere was the most laid back and happy of all the places in the camp). I met many, many men from Kurdistan in Iraq, mostly in the their late twenties or early thirties. I found them to be open and friendly, always offering their food and cigarettes, always wanting to talk about England. Perhaps if I had stayed longer I would’ve made some real friends. But it’s hard to form a strong bonds in only five days…

On the whole our experience was overwhelmingly positive. The volunteers we met, some of whom had been at the camp for months, were inspiring. They cared passionately about the migrant’s fate. Utopia 56 ran the camp efficiently whilst allowing the migrants as much freedom as they could, without compromising their safety. Their strict rules about hygiene for example (all new entries had to have all clothing and bedding washed at high temperatures – the same was done with any items left behind by families, before they were used again) meant that there was little to no contagious disease in the camp.

Before going to Dunkirk, I was beginning to feel removed from the refugee crisis. The endless images of blurry faced people crowded in to boats didn’t tug at my conscience the way it first had. Politically, these individuals fleeing war and famine were reduced to figures and statistics, numbers that had to be kept down. There was no intimacy, no personalisation of these ‘facts’. But witnessing so many men and women going about their normal routines – cooking, cleaning, chatting, playing with their children, making phone calls –  brought home to me the realisation that it could so easily be me and my family in the camp. These people had done nothing to deserve the unbearable hardships that had been put upon them.

Utopia 56 went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that these men and women and children maintained their dignity, their privacy and, where possible, their independence. As an humanitarian organisation I think they have surpassed the work of many others in this respect.

Paul and I are keen to return to France and work with Utopia 56 again. Sadly they are no longer working at the Dunkirk camp (which is being slowly dismantled) but they have now opened La Chapelle humanitarian centre in Paris. If you are interested in learning more about Utopia 56 and want to help, please visit: www.utopia56.com.

Cordelia Fellowes also interviewed Gaedig Bonabesse – one of the founding member of Utopia 56 – for The Early Hour.